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From grubstreetproject.net

From grubstreetproject.net

In my absolute favourite Coetzee book, Diary of a Bad Year, the mysterious Señor C has no doubts about calling his collection of fragments an thoughts Strong Opinions. “The book itself is the brainchild of a publisher in Germany,” he explains to Anya, his soon-to-be-typist. “Its title will be Strong Opinions. The plan is for six contributors from various countries to say their say on any subjects they choose, the more contentious the better. Six eminent writers pronounce what is wrong with today’s world.”

But as the book progresses, Señor C finds his hard and firmly-fixed opinions wavering slightly (is it the influence of Anya? A softening ‘woman’s touch’? Does he really believe what he says, does he really have the right to ‘pronounce’ on anything?), and even the editor himself vacillates about the title — “He is still wavering between calling these little excursions Meinungen or AnsichtenMeinungen are opinions, he says, but opinions subject to fluctuations of mood. The Meinungen I held yesterday are not necessarily the Meinungen I hold today. Ansichten, by contrast, are firmer, more thought out. In our last communication he was tending to prefer Meinungen. Six different writers, six different personalities, he says: how can we be sure how firmly wedded each writer is to his opinions? Best to leave the question open.”

Words like Meinungen and Ansichten that trickle down to us English-speakers from other tongues are wonderful, because they’re layered with shades of meaning in a single compressed word — whereas English often tends to need two, three, four words to express the same thing. Strong opinions; soft opinions — in the final analysis, the book does not offer a judgement on which might be preferable from an ethical standpoint. (After all, when did Coetzee’s books ever offer an answer? But there’s a clue in that itself; their very refusal to decide one way or the other seems to me a way of saying that soft opinions are better in a world where nobody can really speak with authority.)

What Coetzee has never shied from saying unequivocally, however, is that strong or soft or hard or weak, opinions have a right to be held and freely expressed. In 1996 a selection of essays and interviews was published called Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, in which Coetzee examined the nature of censorship, the ethics of ‘giving offense’, the effect of censorship on art and writing, and so on and so forth. Growing up in Apartheid-era South Africa meant knowing all too well what it means to live under apparatuses that stifle expression and regulate thought. In the very first essay of the book (‘Taking Offense’), Coetzee romps through the various forms censorship can take (regulation for moral, religious, or political reasons; internalized censorship, institutionalized censorship) and the psychology behind ‘offending’ and ‘censoring’ respectively. Taking offense always has powerlessness at the heart of the matter, because censorship – not believing in the inherent power of certain representations to win out over others – springs out of the need to limit what is represented — and therein is its de facto admission of doubt. But there is one particularly interesting point at which Coetzee looks at Mill – and draws an important distinction:

To Mill, freedom of speech includes immunity from censorship, specifically from prepublication censorship, but also freedom from societal pressures, “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”. Mill conflates censorship with social pressures (sometimes called censure) in ways I am reluctant to follow. Censure, as Frederick Schauer points out, is not strictly speaking a free-speech issue. Social intolerance is different in kind from official sanctions back by the force of law: people have a choice not to follow orthodoxy. Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, J. M. Coetzee

He does not pursue this line of examination further in his essay; but I think I will, here, because it’s important right now more than ever in the wake of what happened in Paris last week, and in light of the way the world has reacted.

The shootings were rightly met with unequivocal condemnation and horror: to be gunned down like that because you took up a pen, a pencil, to draw some pictures — well, if it was not true and horrible, then it would have been unthinkable and ludicrous. That it was an attempt to silence and censor taken to its very fanatical extreme is also undeniable, and the event has rightly become a reiterated defence of an intrinsic and basic freedom that I believe in, the freedom of speech. I say all this now because words (like any representation) are vulnerable things, perpetually exposed to the possibility of misunderstandings, misreadings, misinterpretations, and can cause a great deal of anger in their own way; it’s important to be absolutely clear that the shootings were terrible, that the shooters were terrible, and that the deaths of 17 people is incredibly tragic (any death is and it’s no different in this case).

But a rejection of censorship does not constitute an inability to censure and question and doubt (I prefer soft opinions myself, both to hold and in others), and this is what interests me now; a society that defends so loudly the right for anybody to hold and express any opinion, any thing, should be the very last to stop thinking about what the opinions themselves really mean.


To me, Coetzee’s words above on the distinction between ‘censor’ and ‘censure’ echo those of Teju Cole published in the New Yorker just last week, in what I thought was one of the best pieces on the whole Charlie Hebdo situation ever written; Cole writes about ‘Unmournable Bodies‘ in the context of very mournable ones, and in the aftermath of a veritable media frenzy over the attacks; he says,

But it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.

On the one hand, I see the media frenzy as understandable — I can even empathize with it. In an age where the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” has been repeatedly disproven and holds not much currency, the events in Paris came as a stark reminder that pens and pencils – though not, ultimately, any defence against guns – have not lost all their potency. There is a perverse kind of reaffirmation for those who write, draw, create and comment in all this – our words do matter; they do have power; and ideally, let’s use that power to do good and make the world a better place. (Generally this has always been the idea; no writer or artist has ever sat down with pen in hand to consciously try and make the world a worse place, regardless of how divorced the effects may be from the intent.) A slew of cartoons came out after the incident depicting pens and pencils doing all sorts of glorious things — from resisting to tyranny to creating harmony; terrorists cower in fear at the sight of a small pencil. Of course they are meant to highlight the ridiculousness of what happened, and of those who held the guns — how can you possibly kill for something like this? — but at the same time there’s no looking at any of these without remembering the above-mentioned idiom.

Title page of Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'

Title page of Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’

But on the other hand, Cole’s piece was a refreshing and welcome reminder that rejecting censorship and defending free speech does not mean we have to celebrate all that is said and done in the name of free speech. Papers such as the New York Times and the Guardian have taken a beating over the past week for refusing to publish some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons themselves — they have been called ‘cowardly’ and accused of failing to safeguard free speech. But such accusations are mistaken, and stem from that confused idea that we have to echo the views of others in order to defend their right to hold them; this is not true. The NY Times and the Guardian can very well defend the right to free speech while disclaiming their willingness to depict some of the things Charlie Hebdo did. In doing so they’re simply reiterating that they do not hold such views; not that others should not. This is a point everyone should be questioning: of course anybody can hold and express whatever they want, but can’t we query and critique those views too?

Although Charlie Hebdo calls itself a ‘satirical’ magazine, I saw some of the ‘contentious’ cartoons they had published and saw nothing satirical about them; they are acts of defiance plain and simple – we will draw this in defiance of your injunction not to draw this. That is worthy of defending in itself, of course, in the name of free speech; but it is not tantamount to constituting a constructive social critique of anything. If reading piles of 18th century satirical fiction and treatises on the nature and purpose of satire has taught me anything, then that is what satire does — and the 18th century is not a bad place to look to if we want to remind ourselves of satire’s function in society and the media; Swift and Pope are not bad masters to learn from. “Satire is a sort of glass…” Swift began once — and it is crucial to remember this. Satire deals with the real and the current; it magnifies real absurdities and so of course there is mockery — but there is also an urging towards some sort of political or social change. Without this key ingredient, what intends to be ‘satire’ becomes simply mockery, and while we can defend anyone’s right to mock in a free society, I would value the two things somewhat different. It is important to remember the distinction between the two (satire and mockery) for this reason alone.

Am I Charlie? No — for one, the battle for free speech – though it seems axiomatic in most developed Western societies — is actually very far from won, either in those places very explicit about their control of the press and media or not (and this is true even of the ‘developed Western societies’; I can say there might certainly be degrees of freedom around speech, but is it absolute anywhere? I’m not sure!). For another, I don’t know if I’d particularly like to be — satire I can get behind; but mockery? It’s not for me. It can be for others; mockery is certainly not to be censored (as nothing should be), but it’s not beyond censure in its own way.

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The New Yorker is my daily exercise reading these days, because there’s nothing quite like pretending to work out when you’re actually sitting down with a magazine and pedaling very, very slowly. It’s interesting, and it makes New York sound like even more of a dream than it already did (a good 5-6 pages of ‘What’s On’ before the articles start and I start swooning; are there really that many bands and theatre shows and amazing restaurants and artsy events there?!).

I was reading it today and came across this article, by one James Surowiecki, on immigration. Now of course he’s talking primarily about the States, but many of the things this article discusses are incredibly relevant (indeed, on a much wider and prominent scale) to the UK, and Europe as a whole. Now of course, I’m incredibly biased; I have an Indian passport but have never lived there; I live in Malaysia and have done for almost 17 years (18?). I yearn for adventure, dream of the exciting cosmopolis (which KL emphatically is not); I am too scared to venture India alone, because as much as I love the place, it is manic and it is simply not what I’m used to. But the world is effectively (o! very effectively!) closing its doors to me. The UK (for e.g.) has now closed 8 out of 13 of its previous Tier 1 work visa categories, which was by and large for highly skilled workers or graduates/people with university degrees (I think people who qualify as potentially skilled workers yet again?). The number of skilled workers (Tier 2 visas) has been capped.

This is to a large extent seems completely understandable. The world is going through a terrible economic time – the recession affects everybody, and even if it didn’t, Europe would still in the economic doldrums what with the EU and the PIGS etc. There are not many jobs. Especially in Europe. A look at job vacancies on Linkedin.com can throw up something like 157 vacancies in the States, and 7 in the UK (I know: I’ve looked). The masses consequently employ their flawed economics to say, “Well, more workers from outside means less jobs for us,” or, “The job market is bad enough already without extra competitiveness!” (To some extent these ideas are wrong, wrong, wrong – I’m not an economist, but even I can see some glaring problems with statements like this; for one example, isn’t competitiveness largely what drives innovation, industry, and consequently, economic growth?)

There is no doubt (in my possibly ill-informed mind, anyways – but whatever: you are reading a laywoman’s blog!) that immigration has become something of a scapegoat in many political discussions. What makes James Surowiecki’s article so very interesting is the fact that he effectively knocks down so many of the usual ‘reasons’ (if you will) against immigrants (and note: I am talking about skilled workers when I use the term ‘immigrants’. I am talking about people who are academically qualified, who are capable of getting good jobs and consequently of contributing to the economy with their taxes and whatnot. This is precisely the category of workers that countries like the UK, for example, are trying to ‘cap’ and cut the numbers of; the other big  and ‘easy-target’ demographic seems to be foreign students, as evinced by the recent appalling events at London Met. University). He points out that immigration drives competitiveness and that this is a good thing for technology, industries, and general job-creating innovation (he uses start-ups in Silicon Valley as his example); and most importantly, he knocks down the idea that there is a ‘fixed number of jobs’ in countries and for people. There are not. It’s called the ‘lump of labour fallacy’, and these ideas are almost universally acknowledged to be — well, just that: a fallacy.

Economies are not static, with a limited set of resources to go around. As the work of the economist Paul Romer has shown, economies grow faster when there is more innovation, and having more smart people in the workforce is a key driver of economies.

Admittedly, the dismissal of ‘a limited set of resources to go around’ seems like less of a problem for the States, which after all, doesn’t have a welfare state support system, which subsidizes everything from education to healthcare. Er, right? But these support systems are so gravely under duress and threat in the UK, as the increase of fees last year or those ambiguous ‘NHS cuts’ that surface in the papers every now and then. Actually, immigrants who pay a lot of tax are probably exactly what the UK needs – they have no recourse to state benefits or public funds, as the UKBA website so clearly states, which means they don’t (as is commonly said) put a ‘strain’ on the NHS or on the wider welfare system. What you seem to have, in effect and a nutshell, is a demographic that pays fairly high taxes (on a globally-comparative scale) and gets none of what they’re paying towards (the welfare state). I just don’t get why anyone would be complaining about that. Equally needed are the international students who pay almost triple the amount in fees that UK/EU students do. This is how institutions make their money, and it’s odd that this very mode of income is coming under fire when it’s needed so badly. It’s really odd, because it’s just not — economics. It’s not even common sense, as far as I can see.  People might say, idealistically or otherwise, that such institutions ought not be profit-making or make such decisions based on money, but the fact of the matter is – the government has cut its funding. These institutions do exist in a wider context, right now of the global recession and Europe’s particularly dire economic situation. And logically it follows that they do need the money, from somewhere!

I like the metaphor Surowiecki uses in his article, expressing the idea that the “presence [of skilled immigrants] makes the pie bigger for everyone“. I don’t think it’s a question of somebody’s piece of the pie being eaten; I really do agree with this statement – it’s about expanding the pie, so that everyone can eat it, and more of it.

Edit: If there are any glaring flaws in my argument/reasonings, and I’m sure there will be since I am no specialist, nor do I know much about economics and even its base principles, please do let me know. I’m curious to hear, and I’d be equally interested to hear different perspectives on the issue (which seems to be quite a polarizing one).

Tower Bridge proclaiming London’s Olympic-ness, loud & proud!

This summer I had the pleasure of being in London during the 2012 Olympic period. It wasn’t something I had initially given much thought to – I’m not a sporting enthusiast (or sporty in any sense of the word); I was too busy with work at Oxford most of the time to pay attention to what was happening on the Olympic organisation front; and I wasn’t even expecting to be in London during the Olympics. But as it turned out, I was, for almost the whole two weeks in which they took place. And it was, all of a sudden and unexpectedly, exhilarating!

I can’t decide what I liked best about it: was it the generally happy and enthusiastic vibe throughout London, as people strutted onto Tube trains draped in various flags or wearing their Olympic ‘Games Maker’ uniforms (the London games had about 70,000 of them)? Was it the fact that as I stood drinking outside of bars in little Soho alleyways, little contingents of Americans (still wearing their passes or cards or whatever it was around their neck with the recognisable purple Olympic strap) would run down the streets, asking for directions or wondering which bar to enter? Perhaps it was the fun and joy of live screenings in places like Hyde Park and Potters Field(s?), where people adorned the lawns in great crowds with pints of beer and rolled-up cigarettes regardless of the time of day or day of week, to cheer at (and for) random sports. Or maybe it was the fact that everyone (myself included!) was really, really interested in the games and the events, and that for a while the news decided to highlight something that was happy and exciting and inspirational, as opposed to depressing and saddening (economic troubles; massacres; etc).

There’s also the fact that the Olympics, and the Commonwealth Games to a lesser extent, actually get people interested in things they wouldn’t normally pay attention to – I found myself watching things like boxing, gymnastics, swimming, athletic events (from shot put to pole vaulting), beach volleyball, badminton…. Sports I barely knew anything about, and yet about which I learnt, and which I enjoyed, during this time. I learnt about people who had worked immensely hard to be there, about people who had had to overcome great obstacles to reach the Olympics at all (like Gemma Gibbons, a British judoka, or Gabby Douglas the gymnastics AA individual women’s gold medallist, or Mary Kom, an Indian female boxer who got her first Olympic medal – a bronze – this time), and about the sacrifices they made (training hours and hours a day; no alcohol for 4 years…madness!). It was exciting to see greatness (like a Phelps or a Bolt), and it was exciting to see the underdogs or the unknown win (like Katie Ledecky or Ruta Meilutyte, a Lithuanian 15 year old who won a gold in swimming and shocked everyone – she could barely talk in her post-swim BBC interview, which was incredibly amusing, but also really touching, to watch!). And it was especially amazing to see the kindness and respect with which athletes often treated one another; one of the moments which stood out for me, in particular, was Kirani James’ victory in the Men’s 400m track event: not many people seem to do this, in athletics, but the first thing James did after winning was turn around, and shake hands with every single one of his competitors. He didn’t go straight into the victory run like so many do (hee hee – sorry Bolt!); and I knew I was watching a really nice – indeed, even noble – man, and a great sportsperson.

Celebrity culture is all well and good (sometimes), but as many people have pointed out – the Olympics have been inspirational, particularly for me and particularly this one, for many people in a really different and valuable way. I’m not sure why it was these Olympics more than any other (I watched Beijing 2008 & Athens 2004 with the same avidity); but Michael Johnson’s commentary for the BBC gives a little clue, perhaps – he said that these Olympics were the first to focus on the idea of ‘legacy’, leaving something behind once they were done (besides a big debt and world class stadiums to fall into disuse). The slogan for the Olympics was, among other things, “inspire a generation”, and it sort of showed in everything about these games. And the planners have thought long and hard about what would happen after the Games finished – their Aquatic Centre is architecturally designed to have removable wings, and many of the venues were constructed on a similar temporary basis, with parts to be dismantled etc. So there will be few, if any, ‘white elephants’. Even things like the doping test facilities will be re-used, as a disease research centre (a phenomenal and economic way of re-using something, in my humble opinion!).

‘Inspire a generation’, as seen through a hipster’s phone.

It’s nice to admire people for the hard work they’ve put, or their sheer brilliance and skill at certain things. And the atmosphere in London really redounded with this positivity: there was such a cosmopolitan (yes, even moreso than usual, and perhaps more needed than ever in these economically-troubled times) energy and friendly vibrance throughout the city! The UK did such an amazing job organising it; the Tube wasn’t manic (at least, not moreso than usual, as far as I saw!), and there were so many exciting Olympic-inspired arts events everywhere (one of my friends was performing in such a piece at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and this is still up – people should go see it!). I went to see the Canoe Sprinting at Eton Dorney, which isn’t the easiest place to get to (it seems), but I was so impressed at how quickly, efficiently, smoothly, seamlessly I was taken from Slough to my seat in the stands – within half an hour, without any trouble!

 

Tino Sehgal’s piece at the Tate Modern.

Canoe Sprint finals, at Eton Dorney (11th August 2012). Team GB did its fans proud with Ed McKeever’s gold!

I was really sad when they ended, perhaps in part because I was leaving two days later too (Heathrow was also full of Olympic residues, people and signs both!). But  hey — looking forward to Rio 2016! (And missing London, very much, already.)

(Everyone was fearing the ‘English weather’, but even the weather behaved itself beautifully.)

More sprinting, canoe-style. This was one of those sports I knew nothing about (i.e., even of its existence!), and learnt a lot about thanks to the Olympics (it’s basically like sprinting on track, except it’s done on water and in a boat).

 

The death of Kim Jong-Il (the last and grandest of that triad of losses, following Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens) was a great loss to the Internet, whatever else may be said about it. For no more, as so many people aptly noted on Facebook, will Kim Jong-Il look at things. His sweet eyes have closed forever.

On the day the news of his demise broke - aptly looking at a wreath.

 

But the Internet being so vast, so reproductive and so accommodating of everything – from natural disaster to death – I wanted to make this quick post to comfort the many who might be mourning. Images of Kim Jong-Il live on, for your pleasure and mine. Not only will he continue looking at things, even post-mortem, but he will also be dropping the bass (a wonderful Tumblr, testimony to the incomparable powers of Photoshop when used right and well). Likewise, he has left this world and Internet (and poor North Korea) a predecessor, who shows great promise to be as great an onlooker as his dear father/leader was – this has not gone unnoticed, and a few preliminary images of Kim Jong-Un looking at things have begun sprouting. Hungry generations tread thee and thy looks down, dear Kim Jong-Il.

Prena's 'room'. (c) James Mollison. Prena is a 14 year old domestic worker in Nepal. She earns roughly $6.50 a month.

A series of photographs by a man called James Mollison recently came to my attention – they have received a lot of press, in the NYTimes, for example. My first reaction to his photos was one of slight horror (sometimes), awe (because even rubbish dumps in Phnom Penh acquire some sort of aesthetic charisma through his lens) and profound humbling. It’s a strange word to employ, ‘humbling’: Oxford dictionaries define it as a verb – to “cause (someone) to feel less important or proud” – and a noun – “(of a thing ) of modest pretensions or dimensions”.

Of course these photos are all of these things: a stark reminder that even the innocent life of children is sometimes shut in by iron bars, or reduced to a used tyre in a dump. How sometimes it is inflated to excesses of pinks and frills. They tell wider socioeconomic stories: somewhere behind the glitz and glamour of Chinese urbanity are little rooms with faded portraits of Mao Zedong on the wall; somewhere in Kenya, a boy sleeps under the stars. They are poetic and tragic and awesomely inspiring all at once.

Susan Sontag wrote that “photographs cannot create a moral position [although] they can reinforce one—and can help build a nascent one”. This encapsulates precisely the potency of Mollison’s photographs: they appear to be taken first and foremost with an almost Arbus-ian sense of detachment from the political in favour of the aesthetic, with a staunch refusal to tack on any sort of ‘social conscience message’. But they are let loose, nonetheless, as little snippets of other worlds and realities, bare truths offered out to inexperienced eyes. By putting art first, politics second (if anywhere at all), these images make people face up to realities which are otherwise too easy to ignore, too ‘other’ to really care about.

I know Mollison didn’t take these with any specific sociopolitical/charitable agenda (he says on his website that he “didn’t want it just to be about ‘needy children’ in the developing world”, and perhaps that is why they are so extremely powerful in their ability to move the viewer. They are lacking in self-consciousness, without any of the dramatic qualities that underlie appeals, pleas, and the image-heavy social-conscience attacking of people (which by and large people are immune to, now).  They force the observer, firstly, to observe at all, catching the eye with their distinctness, their lack of conversation. And secondly, they make that observer consider those very sociopolitical dimensions and contexts so cleverly left unsaid (but so entirely captured) by these photographs.

I hope everyone takes a look at them if they get the chance (there are many select photos displayed through the links above, and then some!). :) All of them are in this book:

Where Children Sleep, James Mollison (From his website)