17 December 2005

Life is Fragile

Non-political post

Life is fragile. I am moved by any reminder that the "affairs of men" will eventually wash away and all that will be left is what there was before us (caveat: unless we destroy it all first. I hang on to the vaguely comforting notion that we are the fragile ones and Gaia will eventually generate new life everywhere we've left a niche.)

Our sense of self-importance is always over-estimated (although that's to be expected, since we're the ones doing the reporting).

I was reminded of Shelley's Ozymandias. I'm copying it below, in the event you haven't read it recently:


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

A second poem (ok, song lyrics) that never fails to move me is the final verse of Sting's All This Time:

The teachers told us, the Romans built this place
They built a wall and a temple, an edge of the empire
Garrison town,
They lived and they died, they prayed to their gods
But the stone gods did not make a sound
And their empire crumbled, 'til all that was left
Were the stones the workmen found

I imagine that we won't leave much behind. We've already used most of our resources up, and so our civilisation will likely not double in age. That is, if we've been keeping oral and written histories for 5000 years, we'll probably will be back to stone age technology in another 5000, if we survive at all. Depending on your personal makeup, that might be depressing or it might simply be humbling.

I hope it's the latter, because we have a lot of work to do.

14 December 2005


(This is my response to some of the comments on my friend Chris Clarke's blog, where Chris published a poem and people debated the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the former Crip game leader cum Nobel peace Prize nominee.)

I've noticed this before with executions: the media will show "both sides" of the debate and invariably include relatives of the victim(s) expressing their belief that "justice" demands retribution. And I've seen a number of interviews where the same relative will protest that "I feel good" when the deed has been done. They sound as if they are trying hard to convince us. Actually, if they really did feel good we would hear it in their voices. Usually, they sound worried or defensive. I know that if it were me, I wouldn't feel good: I'd probably still be royally pissed off that I'd lost a loved one and I'd still have a lot of mourning to do.

The hardest thing for people to do is to "move on". It is hard to forgive and it is hard to forget. It is hard to get beyond our emotional hurts. If it were easy, capital punishment would be a thing of the past. Because the only way to move past those hurts is to actually forgive and "let it go". And once we do that, there is no need for retribution.

It's in this spirit that capital punishment really doesn't work. It doesn't work for the victims' families and it certainly is too late for the victim. It's also debated whether capital punishment actually works as a deterrent.

The only possible benefit to capital punishment is that it may save the state money compared to the cost of incarceration, but then we get into dangerous ground. Using that criteria, why wouldn't we kill anyone whose cost/benefit ratio drops below a certain point? And if money is the issue, why don't we favour treatment over incarceration for drug-related crime? For that matter, why do we go to war these days, when war has a very nasty cost/benefit ratio? It's not like we're allowed to keep those places we've invaded (which might, at least, pay the bills). Of course I'm being facetious here. It's not nice to invade neighbouring countries and steal them!

I know that I'm not the same person I was 26 years ago. How could Tookie be? A lot of people were convinced that Tookie had turned around his life. Last night in California, took place the execution of a man who was a murderer a lifetime ago.

I choose to believe that people can be redeemed. And so I am unhappy over the loss.

13 December 2005

When you invite the wrong people to your BBQ

Another day, another race-related incident in Sydney's Cronulla beach community.

On Sunday, locals, fed up with gangs of young Lebanese men ("Lebs") invading their beaches, insulting their girls and omigod beating up their lifeguards, fought back. They took to the beach, cooked up some snags, opened some bottles of brew, waved the flag and had a party. The skinheads showed up. And violence ensued.

A lot of people either blamed the violence on the small group of nationalists or even denied that incident was about race. Rather, it was about manners. Or mate-hood. Or perhaps it was just about turf. Of course, Australia would deny that Australia is racist. After all, racism is bad, and they are good people. Clearly, they are not racist. At least not according to leaders like Prime Minister John Howard and Labor leader Kim Beazley.

When we moved to Canberra, I got a job working for an IT company that delivered medical information applications. One day in mid-2001, about a third of the employees were called in to a room. It turned out that the company had been bought out and all the employees were being made redundant (with generous packages). We were simply the first group to be let go, and others would be following over the course of the next several months. When I first entered the room, before the briefing started, my first thought was, "Wow. We're all the immigrants." Later I mentioned the unevenness of the layoffs to my friend (I think about 85% of the non-white and immigrant population was let go in the first round along with a handful of others, making up 1/3 of the workforce). My comment somehow worked its way up to management and I was called into a conference and assured in all seriousness that it had nothing to do with race or immigrant status. The makeup of the groups who were let go / remained was 100% based on the various projects we'd been working on, the companies needs and the workers' skillsets, and so on.

I understood their need to justify themselves (although at the time, I suspected they didn't want a lawsuit added to their troubles.) I also liked each of them personally. I even worked with several of them in future engagements, but I still don't think they recognised their unconscious biases.

Anyhow, here is my unasked for advice to the residents of Cronulla: the next time you have a group of people visting your community who you don't feel fit in, invite them to the Barbie. Invite their parents, their community leaders, their friends. Get to know them, their names, their dreams, their aspirations. Find the common ground. Celebrate your common humanity. Next time - don't invite the skinheads.

10 December 2005

I'll Compromise

You know those people who blame mass media for our cultural ills? I'm referring to those who blame drug abuse, teen murder sprees, etc etc on today's movies, music or video games. I'm willing to compromise: I won't blame these important issues on anyone's vision or artistic expression (meaning: music, movies, even video games). However, I'm more than happy to blame advertisement:

I've just read a thought-provoking argument (in the form of a book, Can't Buy My Love, by Jeanne Kilbourne) that advertisement creates a toxic cultural atmosphere in which we are effectively conditioned to think of products as the means to our personal satisfaction. Kilbourne shows how advertisement (using hundreds and hundreds of examples drawn from alcohol, tobacco, food, and miscellaneous product advertisement) promises that our relationship to the products we consume will transform, satisfy, make us feel happy and deeply connected. Furthermore, advertisement normalises disconnection from other people, denial and escapism. Kilbourne further shows how our personal images are distorted by advertisement and she makes the case that advertising's basic message creates a nation(s) of addicts. Rather than draw our lives' meaning from fulfilling work, rewarding relationships, connections with community, nature, and so on, we turn to products (food, drugs, tobacco, alcohol) for our satisfaction.

As an aside, and in contradiction to my first paragraph, I do agree that art affects us, but presumably art does this best when it makes us think or feel. And clearly, popular media does reflect (and steer) our culture, including the worst of the worst of it. However, advertisements are insidious because we don't actually believe they work on us. Furthermore, their effect is more than any one individual act of encouraging us to purchase a product. The effect is the overall enculturation.

It's a good book. Kilbourne was the pioneer in deconstructing gender representation in advertising in the '70s. This book draws upon her earlier work and supplies an excellent taste of that as well.

08 December 2005

Nguyen, and Life, Revisited

By this point in time, some of my friends have expressed their ambivalence about Singapore's hanging of Ngyuen tuong Van last week (he was convicted of heroin smuggling). Their argument is sound: they personally don't feel one way or the other about Nguyen himself, and they don't necessarily agree that Australia should interfere with Singapore's handling of the crime committed on their turf.

And look, I feel really bad for his family's suffering, but I'm not really attached to this specific incident one way or the other. However, I do want to kick off a conversation about life and how we respect it (or don't) in general. Here is my argument:

First, I do know that we're all well-meaning people (I will also extend this assumption to everyone reading this), and as such, we don't want to see reckless mistreatment of life. We generally don't support wars (or violence in general) except as a last resort.

Second, had the punishment not "fit" the crime, for instance, if Nguyen had been hung for littering or chewing gum (both are crimes in Singapore), everyone would have been outraged.

However, I think it's a matter of degree. Hear me out:

I didn't support the war in Iraq. I didn't buy the White House's arguments that Saddam was still much of a threat: I was up-to-date on all the arguments and I knew that the U.N. had largely disarmed him. I also knew that the U.N. required that Iraq report on its weapons programs and I knew that the White House heavily edited this report before releasing it to the rest of the U.N. council. (The White House used the report's "incompleteness" at the time as justification for the attack, so I really didn't trust Bush and pals. They appeared to be lying, and history has now shown that they were.)

But the primary reason I did not support the war in Iraq was that I have two nephews of miltary age whom I love dearly. I could not sacrifice either of them to stop Saddam. Given my refusal to send my loved ones to war, I had no right to sacrifice other people's loved ones.

And this is the crux of my position on Nguyen: there is no one I would punish by capital punishment, so I cannot support it. And if it were someone I loved, I would want everyone to help me stand up against it, since I could not do it alone.

And that is why I stood up for Nguyen.

02 December 2005

I don't have a thing to add.

From Mike Niman's Republican Thanksgiving:
[Republicans] in the Senate voting themselves, and the other 14 million people comprising America’s richest classes, a fat new $60 billion tax cut. This on top of the previous Bush tax cuts that, along with the astronomical costs of the Iraq war, have plunged the federal government into virtual bankruptcy.

As has been the case since 1980 when George Bush Senior labeled Ronald Reagan’s fiscal policies “voodoo economics,” the math simply doesn’t add up. This was apparent even to the Congressional Republicans who, as a last-minute Thanksgiving gesture of “fiscal responsibility,” voted to slash Medicaid, food stamps, college loans, foster care, and a host of other programs comprising some of the last vestiges of our disappearing social safety net.