Saturday, December 27, 2008

Blogging in a World without Peace

I’ve been frittering away my time finding creative ways to do nothing the last few days; I don’t know-- it seems a suitable way to wind an old year down. Frustrating though because I really wanted to write this blog a day or two ago. Actually the day Harold Pinter died. His death reminded me of a speech Gunter Grass made in Berlin at the PEN International Congress there in May 2006.

It was a mere few weeks before the World Cup was to begin in Berlin when I had the good fortune to be sent to that city with Niki Johnson to represent Jamaica in its bid for membership of this august body. The keynote address was by the celebrated German author and Berlin resident, Gunter Grass. In keeping with the theme of the Congress Grass called his talk “Writing in an unpeaceful World.” Grass's speech was an eloquent disquisition on war and the lack of peace through the centuries; he quoted Pinter’s scathing critique of the United States only recently delivered during his Nobel address the previous year. Pinter's sentiments were so strongly expressed, so uncompromisingly critical that the American and British media had panned it and if Grass had not lingered on his words i would have been unaware that the Nobel Laureate had been so outspoken.

The Israeli strike on Gaza today makes it a particularly apt occasion to recall Grass’s heartfelt rumination on war and the role of writers in times of war. His speech pointed the finger at the United States and the unjust and protracted war it was conducting in Iraq. Within the year Grass found himself accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. Coincidence? Who knows?



While Grass did not explicitly mention bloggers (perhaps in 2006 they were not as omnipresent as they are today) everything he had to say about the responsibility of writers can and should be applied to us. Here are some excerpts from what he said:
There has always been war. And even peace agreements, intentionally or unintentionally, contained the germs of future wars, whether the treaty was concluded in M√ľnster in Westphalia, or in Versailles. Furthermore, preparations for war do not solely depend on weapon systems that have to be continually modernized and replaced: making people dependent and acquiescent by controlled shortages has been a proven method, from biblical times to the globalised present. In his inaugural speech at the United Nations Willy Brandt referred to it in no uncertain terms: ‘Hunger is also war!’ he shouted more than three decades ago, at the time of the Cold War. Patterns of mortality as well as hunger statistics confirm his dictum to this day. Those who are in control of the market for basic foodstuffs and therefore able to manipulate surpluses as well as shortages by price policies have no need to fight conventional wars.

But what about writing in a world permanently without peace? The literati, i.e. all those scribblers and wordsmiths and sound acrobats and tracers of suppressed screams, the poets constraining themselves by rhymes and those using free verse, all of them, the men and women of verbal activity, they carried on, from Troy to Baghdad: lamenting in metre, soberly reporting, pleading for peace here, greedy for heroism there. The platitude ‘Where weapons speak, the muses remain silent’ is easily disproved.

. . . Today we find ourselves at the mercy of the hubris of only one superpower – a fact that has not proved beneficial – whose search for a new enemy has been successful. Armed force is used by this superpower to defeat the terrorism which, as it helped – take Bin Laden – to bring it forth, it is responsible for. Yet the war deliberately started in blatant disdain of the laws of civilized societies produces still more terror and will not end.

This is not only true of the war in Iraq, now in its third year. Dictatorships – and there are plenty to choose from – are referred to, in turn or simultaneously, as rogue states and threatened vociferously with military strikes, the only effect being to stabilize the fundamentalist power systems in those countries. Whether or not the term ‘Axis of Evil’ is used to refer to Iran or North Korea or Syria, the politics could not be more stupid and hence more dangerous. Even the repeat of a war crime, the deployment of nuclear weapons, is threatened.

Meanwhile the world is watching and pretending to be powerless. At most, participation in foreseeable new wars is refused. Three years ago the French and the German governments took an exemplary stand and said ‘No’, and later the Spanish government joined them when they withdrew from their complicity with the United States and engagement in the inevitably criminal activities of the superpower. yet despite lies having been exposed and the disgrace of torture being all-apparent, the British government continues to feign deafness and to act as if the tradition of the British Empire, the merciless colonial rule, has to be adhered to – even under the leadership of a Labour government.

Such submissive loyalty cannot but provoke dissent: in December of last year Harold Pinter’s speech as Nobel Laureate was published. In his admirably straightforward text the dramatist spoke first as a writer, then as a British citizen. When his bitter speech, sparing no one and exposing all our failures and our considerate hushing-up, was made available it gave rise to vehement attacks, originating in this country even in the arts section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Mr Stadelmaier, a renowned theatre critic, tried to ridicule and dismiss Pinter as an old leftie whose plays were a thing of the past. The disclosure of truths that had lain hidden behind mollifications and a web of lies caused serious resentment. Someone, a writer, one of us, had made use, in our unpeaceful world, of the right to accuse.

I quote from Harold Pinter’s speech:

“The United States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

"Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.

"It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. you have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

In the course of his speech Pinter poses the question: ‘How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?’ This question cannot easily be dismissed as merely rhetorical, for it aims at the West’s established practice and hypocritical method of counting, the body count. Although we meticulously keep count of the victims of terror attacks – terrible though their number is – nobody bothers to count the dead caused by American bomb or rocket attacks. Whether the second or the third Gulf War – the first one was fought by Saddam Hussein with support from the United States against Iran – rough estimates put the figure at hundreds of thousands.

Clearly every single one of the carefully accounted-for 2,400 soldiers killed so far in the present Iraq war is one too many, but this list of casualties cannot serve as the retrospective reason for a war that was started illegally and is fought by criminal means, nor can it offset the untold number of women and children killed and maimed, whose deaths are trivialized from a Western perspective as ‘collateral damage’. In Western evaluation there are first-, second- or third-class citizens not only among the living, but also among the dead, and yet they are all of them victims of the mutual terrorism.
Copyright © 2008 Universal Press Syndicate

Today the United States has a second chance with its new President, Barack Obama, to turn away from war and steer the world toward some kind of peace. I’m not taking bets on whether war or peace will prevail although Barack is the one holding out hope as a very slim lifeline. Let's see what 2009 brings.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

That Infernal Online Password

Who hasn't gone through this? i just had to change my NCB passwords yet again a few days ago--and why do you have to start from scratch each time? i mean if you get one letter wrong, it erases all the info entered obliging you to type it in again...and again...and again--

This Indian comic really expresses that exasperated feeling we all know so well.

software, usability, security, registration, password, rules, security vs usability

Fly You Fools - Indian Comics about Life.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dance Lessons Anyone?

The Rickards Brothers Strike Again!

Proverbs 24:10 from firstjamaica on Vimeo.

Monday, December 15, 2008

My Man of the Year...Muntadar al-Zaidi


Muntadar al-Zaidi
A shoe in the hand is worth two in the Bush! Congrats my yute! The most inspired (and inspiring) act of the last few years...al-Zaidi shoes Bush on behalf of "the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq". What an eloquent protest! Bush must also be congratulated for his restrained response...if only he had been as restrained about 'the war on terror' and invading Iraq--


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Locating Blagojevich: A Nation of Shopkeepers?

image by Zina Saunders

Prices Slashed!
"To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers."--Adam Smith
Well, Adam did try and warn them but who was listening? They took on board his free market theories and jettisoned the cautions he issued. Blagojevich was the eventuality. Zina Saunders captures the moment brilliantly in this irreverend cartoon.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Making sense of the Mayhem in Mumbai


Dec 3, Cartoonscape, The Hindu

I was always more of a Dilliwalli (Delhi woman) than a Mumbaikar though Bombay was just an overnight train ride from the city I grew up in—Ahmedabad—and we frequently visited my cousins who lived in that monstrous metropolis. Today all Indian cities seem equally monstrous to me sprawling over the landscape spewing noxious fumes and toxic trash, dwarfing the insect-like citizens who inhabit them.

For the last twenty years I’ve lived in Kingston, Jamaica, another monstrous city, a miniature one in proportion to its Indian counterparts of course. Still there were many things about the mayhem in Mumbai that I could relate to as being part of a common trend we find ourselves in as citizens of postcolonial nations that haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in independence. Where were the safeguards one expects the authorities to put in place in cities threatened by warring gangs or ‘terrorists’?

For instance exactly two weeks ago there were 3-4 attempted break-ins/robberies in my Kingston neighbourhood. Ever since a colleague and resident of the area was murdered in his house last year there’s been an increase in security guards on the compound. Unfortunately this hasn’t significantly deterred robbers and thieves from plaguing the area.

If I hadn’t heard about the incidents via my helper and a passer-by on the evening of the attacks I wouldn’t have known that anything had happened. Neither the security company to whom we pay millions every year nor the University from whom we rent these premises considered it necessary to send out a bulletin informing all residents of what had happened, exactly where and under what circumstances, so the rest of us could take all necessary precautions.

I was glad then to be invited to a ‘security meeting’ on December 2nd where I thought I could express my concern and find out more about what exactly had happened. The session was also to discuss putting together some kind of neighbourhood watch to thwart/repel any further such attempts to part us from our earthly possessions.

The meeting turned out to be a farce; apparently I knew more (via the yamvine) about the various attempted burglaries than most people there, including the President of our Association. When people started turning to me for information and the campus police started giving us inane advice on keeping our handbags and jewellery out of sight of windows and doors I suddenly found myself thinking: I wonder if this is how and why the terror attacks in Mumbai happened?

I mean here we are living in Kingston (not Lausanne or Dubai), with an escalating crime rate and Christmas approaching and no one seems seized with a sense of urgency about how to organize and protect ourselves in the face of utter apathy and inertia on the part of the authorities concerned.

Officials in Mumbai it turns out were warned of impending attacks and suspicious activities by everyone from local fishermen to the US government. In spite of this security measures at both hotels and the main train station in Mumbai were downgraded the week before the attacks. Three very senior police officers were killed in the first few hours of what turned out to be an almost three-day siege. According to news reports corruption in the tendering process for police equipment resulted in faulty and substandard ‘bullet-proof’ vests being issued to police personnel; the vests were incapable of repelling bullets even from a hand gun much less an automatic weapon like an AK 47.

‘Mumbaikars’, or residents of Mumbai, reacted with anger and disbelief in the wake of the attacks. Politicians have come in for heavy criticism especially after the Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, toured the Taj in the company of prominent Bollywood director, Ram Gopal Verma. A number of political leaders including Deshmukh, his Deputy, the Home Minister and the Head of Security have since been forced to resign.

An SMS text addressed to film directors made the rounds saying “A humble appeal to Mahesh Bhatt, Ram Gopal Verma, Sanjay Gupta, Rahul Dholakia and Apoorva Lakhia, Sirs, what's happening in our beloved Bombay is terrifying and sad. Don't insult us by thinking of making a 'realistic' film glorifying or capitalising on this situation. God please save our country from such terrorism and such filmmakers."

Further South the Chief Minister of Kerala, V S Achutanandan, belatedly tried to pay a condolence call on the Bangalore home of the parents of one of the heroes of the Mumbai attacks, slain National Security Guard (NSG) commando Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan. The Major’s grief-stricken father refused to let the CM enter his residence prompting the Minister to make the gratuitously callous comment that had it not been the home of Major Unnikrishnan not even a dog would have wanted to enter it. Public outrage was so great that after initially refusing to apologize the Chief Minister lost face when he was forced to do so to pacify the citizenry.

The Mumbai siege uncovered unexpected heroes such as the seven South African bodyguards who were at the Taj providing protection for cricketers playing in the Indian Premier League tournament. They helped lead 120 hostages to safety armed only with knives and meat cleavers, even carrying a traumatised 80-year-old woman in a chair down 25 flights of stairs.

As Shobha De, Mumbai’s celebrity writer and blogger commented:

“The grand, old Taj could not provide the Marcos (’Marcos’ is short for "Marine Commandos, an elite special operations unit of the Indian Navy,) with a map of the premises – they were sent in cold – while the terrorists possessed a detailed floor plan all along…There was also a spectacular lack of co- ordination during the entire operation, especially during the first few crucial hours, when all the people involved seemed to be bumbling along without clear directions from one central body. We still don’t know whose orders were being followed, nor who was in command throughout. It became equally obvious that neither the city, nor the hotels have a crisis management programme in place that provides an immediate plan of action in an emergency. Look at how efficiently and swiftly the South African body guards swung into action … and saved so many lives. There was discipline and arduous training behind the drill they followed. Our brave men used their hearts, when minds were needed far more.”

Meanwhile the Hindustan Times reported that the government had “threatened action against television channels repeatedly broadcasting scenes of the Mumbai terror attack saying it may evoke strong sentiments among those affected by it.” The directive ordered that ‘Gory scenes should not shown, tragedy should not be replayed’ for fear of “the terrorists feeling that their operation was successful”.

According to the Hindustan Times the advisory stipulated that “News coverage pertaining to the event should project that India is not demoralised and has risen despite all terrorist attacks as normalcy has been restored. News coverage should project that India is a global power which has full support of the international community”.

Why is it that nations always try to save face before saving lives? Why do politicians instinctively do the wrong thing in the face of disaster, trying to maximize photo ops and free publicity rather than provide meaningful intervention? Why do the authorities always wait for disaster to strike before putting in place the necessary safeguards? These questions are as relevant in Kingston as they were in Mumbai…