Archive for August, 2007

Iggy puffy

Michael Ignatieff wants the Liberal party to adopt the puffin as the party’s symbol. His reasoning?

They put their excrement in one place. They hide their excrement.

This strikes me as an apt choice. After all, no party is better at — and more prone to — hiding its shit than the Liberals. And no person is better at hiding his shit than Ignatieff.

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Land and landless in Hyderabad

The day after I left Hyderabad, a couple of bombs were set off in the city, killing over forty and injuring several more. Predictably, the governments of the state of Andhra Pradesh and of India are pointing fingers “outside.” The first culprit is always Pakistan’s ISI, or, on better days, rogue elements in Pakistani power circles. These, of course, work through radical Islamist groups. Links — however unlikely — to the earlier bombing of Makkah Masjid are made. Well and good.

But when something happens on such a scale in India (and, indeed, in just about any part of the world), there’s a cloud of uncertainty — the government, it’s well known, can’t be trusted. For instance, everyone knows that the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 were incited and orchestrated by the BJP government to polarize communal feelings and thereby win the state elections. Everyone knows it, but no one admits it officially, and many — including the BJP — vociferously deny it.

With these bombings in Hyderabad several theories have popped up. Some claim that anti-Congress elements (i.e., the Telugu Desam Party) are militating against the state government of YSR Reddy. Yet others are suggesting that the attacks were orchestrated by the Maharashtra government, or the Mumbai municipality, to scare investors away from Hyderabad — let there be no competition to Mumbai’s status as the financial hub and capital of India. I’m sure there are other theories floating around, and it’s hard to say what the truth is, because the truth is never simple.

Now I have no idea what happened, and I’m not knowledgeable enough about the politics of India to posit any conspiracy theory of my own. But there was something else going on in Hyderabad that starkly reveals the polarization of worldviews between the haves and the have nots. And it was all about land.

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Damn those progressive conservatives

Just now I got a phone call. This is how it went down:

Caller: Hi, I’m calling on behalf of the Conservative candidate for Markham-Unionville, K.K. Li. You do know there’s a provincial election coming up?

Me: I’ve heard of it.

C: We’re calling to see if there’s Conservative support in the household.

Me: I’ll support the Conservatives if … well I have some conditions.

C: Well go on the Internet — you do have the Internet right?

Me: I’ve heard of it.

C: Well go on kkli.com and you can tell us about your conditions.

Me: Wait, the Conservative party is the communist one right?

C: No, we’re the opposi–

Me: Well, I’m against communism.

C: No, sir, listen–

Me: In case you people haven’t heard, the Soviet Union collapsed in the … 1990s

C: No, sir, can you hear me?

Me: I don’t have time for commies. (Hang up.)

Cruel? Yes… Funny? Yes. To me, at least…

You had to be there.

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Hyderabad

The paint job is sloppy. Blotches of paint invade the boundaries of the hand-made signs, creating ruins of rectangles. And then there’s that distinctive smell, a smell unlike any other, the smell of Hyderabad’s airport — distant relative of the smell of the airport in Bombay.

We’re out and about. I look outside of the window of the ambassador, and see the driver of an autorickshaw looking pensively at his handle-bars and I wish I had my camera with me. But I don’t like taking photographs of random people engaged in their daily activities. Makes me feel like I’m intruding. I’ll have to figure that one out.

Later, I’m reading a newspaper and on the business page there’s a tiny little ad with the photograph of a young but obese woman. She has kidney disease and needs a transplant. It costs Rs. 5,00,000 and her father simply can’t afford the sum. He takes out an ad in the paper — on the business page — asking for donations from kind-hearted individuals. And most people in India still live on less than a dollar a day. Beneath the fold in another daily, there is an advertisement from the Ministry of Chemicals & Fertilizers* — fertilizers are in abundance in India. I wonder who the ad is supposed to be reassuring. Every month, dozens of farmers commit suicide in Andhra Pradesh because they’re unable to support themselves and their families. Dozens more all over India.

Here, in Hyderabad’s Old City, beggars make housecalls every afternoon, standing outside the gate of the house until someone gives them money or shoos them away.

After school, children play cricket or football in the street outside the house making a lot of noise. I’m trying to take a nap and their ruckus wakes me up. I look outside, see them playing in their blue uniforms, and I go back to sleep. The next day my grandfather tells them to go play elsewhere, this isn’t a playground.

The media is all over the Left’s opposition to Congress’s increasing ties with the U.S. The Left is rejecting a new nuclear cooperation deal that requires India to buy into the Washington consensus on Iran in return of recognition (of India being a stable and responsible nuclear power) and other benefits. Congress needs the Left’s support in parliament.

Most signs are still hand-painted. But the Telugu Desam Party and the BJP have sharp, shiny signs printed out and placed outside their offices in various parts of the Old City. The BJP, tellingly, has no Urdu on its signs — just Telugu and English. The TDP has all three. There’s a CPI(M) office (or something) somewhere near Charminar but I saw that two years ago and don’t know where it is now.

But I’m here for a couple of weddings. The last two out of the ten of my mother’s siblings to get married. Not my turn, not yet. I realize that I inhabit a completely different moral universe. More on that later, perhaps.

* Earlier I wrote that the ad was provided by the Ministry of Agriculture. That’s not correct. Apparently, India has an entire ministry dedicated to chemicals and fertilizers.

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Yellow Peril?

China’s cheap exports have come under increasing scrutiny recently, particularly in the Canadian press, after a string of dangerous products were recalled. First, there was the case of the tainted toothpaste, sold in low-cost stores (like dollar stores) as reputable brands like Colgate. Then, there was a case of tainted pet food (and soon enough, people food). And, most recently, a case of excessive lead paint in several toys — this is something that effects my family personally, as I’m sure it does millions across the world.

There’s a lot of obfuscation going on in what, exactly, the Canadian media is saying and how it’s saying it. Let’s peek through this using one of Linwood Barclay’s pieces in The Star, “Quality control that’s made in China.” (Barclay is supposed to be a humourist, but I’ve never found any of his columns to be even remotely funny. They’re not intelligent enough to be scathing pieces of satire, either. Ultimately they’re just sophomoric attempts at humour.) The article takes the form of a multiple choice test those applying to become Quality Control Inspectors have to take.

Obfuscation One: Intellectual Property

4. What should China do about the fact that Canada’s Customs Act does not make it illegal to import or distribute goods known to be counterfeit?

a) as sign of gratitude, put “highly flammable” stickers on substandard extension cords.

b) give Canada a cut-rate on shrimps left out in the sun too long.

c) is this a trick question?

Barclay conflates counterfeiting with safety. Let’s be clear about this, just because something is counterfeit does not mean it’s unsafe. As a matter of fact, the tainted toys I mentioned above are produced by Mattel (and its Fisher-Price line) — Poison Me Elmo. It’s also known that Bayer, the big pharmaceutical corporation, exported HIV-tainted medicine to Latin America and Asia with full knowledge in the mid-1980s. Other pharmaceutical companies, like Eli Lilly, suppressed data that indicated that drugs, like Prozac, can cause adverse side effects. The CEOs aren’t executed or even jailed — most cases aren’t even brought to trial because this big pharmaceutical companies either settle out of court or buy members of the legal profession.

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English GURU

I’m watching an infomercial on an Indian satellite channel for “English GURU” — some kind of program that teaches you English. The ad is kind of surreal. The ‘master-ji’ (with flat cap, spectacles, Marx-like beard and tweed suit) says that English is not just a desirable language, but a desirable lifestyle. It dictates (positively, I reckon) how you walk, talk, sit, get up, eat, etc. In fact, he stresses that one should think in English. The narrator then says that, in an age of globalization, multinationals, call-centres, etc. are hiring solely on the basis of whether or not one speaks English. Master-ji keeps reappearing, and later he speaks in thick Hindi (which I can’t understand) expounding on the virtues of learning English.

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On the Holocaust, world wars and the hypocrisy of Eurocentrism

Adorno once wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This statement is part of a broader focus of Adorno’s, and that of other social theorists and artists, to come to grips with the sheer horror of the Holocaust and modern suffering. Is it right, is it meaningful for art to exist after humanity’s witnessed such massive suffering? Recently, I came across a paper where the author wonders how we can make sense of reality itself after the cruelty of the Holocaust/Auschwitz. Adorno later said that suffering has a right to be expressed, and to be expressed through art.

There’s also the common refrain, if it weren’t for intervention in the world wars, “we would all be speaking German right now.” Throughout my pre-university schooling, on every 11th of November (or close to it), the school would organize ceremonies for Remembrance Day. “On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” the first world war ended, and so we commemorate the sacrifices of those who died defending our freedom.

I remember being wholly skeptical of the whole affair. I knew, see, that the British occupied South Asia until 1947. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be remembering, exactly, on Remembrance Day.

Of course, I speak English. India has the world’s largest English-speaking population. There are more Francophones outside of France than inside it, not in Quebec, but in Africa. So what’s German to us? What’s German fascism to us, when, as Césaire forcefully lays out, the techniques and methods of fascism were first practised on those colonized — the wretched of the earth — by those same, self-styled defenders of freedom and democracy?

And what is Adorno’s statement if not hubristic and self-absorbed? Was poetry not barbaric after the Belgians slaughtered up to 10 million people in the Congo at the turn of the century? Was poetry not barbaric after millions were enslaved and transported in great ships like cattle, when millions died at the bayonets of the European colonizers? If poetry is to be barbaric, it was barbaric long before the Holocaust.

The kind of barbarism perfected at Auschwitz, after all, wasn’t invented by German fascists.

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“He got the peace prize, we got the problem.”

In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel peace prize.

In an interview with Claude Lewis, Malcolm said, “He got the peace prize, we got the problem…. If I’m following a general, and he’s leading me into a battle, and the enemy tends to give him rewards, or awards, I get suspicious of him. Especially if he gets a peace award before the war is over.”

Whatever one thinks of MLK, I think it’s important for us to be skeptical of the so-called “peace” prize. If people like Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin — who have done more to entrench the oppression of the Palestinians than most people — can receive the Nobel peace prize then you know it doesn’t mean much. Or, that it rarely means anything. In fact, the peace prize was given to them precisely because it was about “peace” — Oslo was all about “peace” — not about justice. And there can never be any peace until there is first justice, unless that peace is enforced at the barrel of a gun (and, in the case of Israel, with an apartheid wall). If Kofi Annan, that lapdog of imperialism, can win the peace prize, if Bill Clinton can be considered for a peace prize, if Ariel Sharon can be considered a “man of peace” then the word “peace” has no meaning.

Besides, a bunch of rich white guys toasting each other over fine food and fine wine to decide who will be this year’s cause célèbre is not in any way acknowledging the difficult and dangerous work of thousands of activists. “Non-violence” becomes a universal principle rather than a tactical decision. The Nobel committee simply perpetuates structural inequality rather than doing anything to really, actually change anything. Mandela and FW de Clerk (a notorious practitioner of apartheid who decided to ‘end’ it when it suited opportunism) get the peace prize. But we see that little justice, little actual change has taken place in South Africa in terms of the unequal distribution of resources and wealth that still corresponds largely to race.

Here, then, we see that several Nobel prize winners (not just peace prize winners), led by Elie Wiesel, have signed a statement condemning recent moves by British unions to boycott Israel’s apartheid.

They got the prizes, we got the problems.

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Aaina

Sometimes a song you haven’t heard in ages just pops into your head out of nowhere. That’s what happened to me. I could only recall a few lyrics, inaccurately, which made searching for the song a pain. But I finally found it, and have been listening to it nonstop since then:

The lyrics aren’t exactly remarkable, but the song is so melodious and catchy. Also, Jackie Shroff is, as always, so dashing. I like it very much. I recall seeing the film, Aaina (Mirror), when I was younger — but don’t remember much about it. Another one of the songs, Dil ne dil se kya kaha, was also quite popular (perhaps more popular than this one). It’s also a really good song:

Despite being full of the typical running-through-meadows-and-hills, the video stands out for the most hilarious (quasi-sensual) chest thumping I’ve seen outside of basketball games (at 00:25, or -3:12). Definitely not to be missed.

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