Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bill Keller on Civil War

“I bristle at the way a low-grade semantic argument has become — at least among the partisan cud-chewers — a substitute for serious discussion of what’s happening in Iraq and what to do about it. ... Maybe this argument is a symptom of intellectual fatigue in the punditocracy.”

from William Safire's ON LANGUAGE "First Civil - War"

Sunday, November 26, 2006

There's nothing 'Gay' about being Gay in the Army

I recently read an article in Newsweek about the reclassification of homosexuality in the armed forces. According to the article, while being a fag is no longer considered a mental disorder, “it has been grouped with other ‘conditions, circumstances and defects’ like bed-wetting, repeated venereal-disease infections and obesity” that often bar military service.

Honestly, I think the US military is missing a page in its history books when they still label homosexuality as a hindrance to service. The Spartans openly embraced homosexuality amongst its warrior class and history gave them a place on the mantel.

Spartan warriors were known not just for their valor as legendary descendants of Hercules, but their honor and fidelity on the battlefield. Like Marine Corps training today, the rigorous development of a Spartan warrior brought about close bonds between fellow soldiers. However, unlike today’s “Band of Brothers”, the brotherhood of Sparta was one that reflected the open bisexuality of Ancient Greece. Homosexual relationships were not only condoned, but encouraged between Spartan warriors in the interest of preserving life on the battlefield.

Marines often state that the heartfelt concern they develop for their fellow brothers runs so deep that they will never leave a fellow marine behind. In Sparta, that conviction was taken one step further. Spartan's believed that if the care a warrior felt for his fellow soldier ran as deep as love, nothing would get in the way of his fight for that fellow Spartan’s life.

Now, I am clearly not calling on the forced induction of homosexuality in Marine Corps training. But I would be remised if I did not question the Department of Defense’s judgment in denying the rights of homosexuals to serve in our armed forces. If one of history’s greatest warrior states thrived on the open gayety of its soldiers, why can’t the Armed Forces do the same? So lighten up General Pace and allow a little fondling in the bunkers of boot camp, it might just save a soldier’s life

Friday, November 24, 2006

Where Are They Now? Relocating Hong Kong's poor

If you climb off the MTR in Tsuen Wan (荃灣) you'll find yourself initially surrounded by a giant shopping mall, rising skyscrapers and the bustle of shoppers. A typical representation of Hong Kong’s fast paced development blunts up against your face; an urban landscape prodded by the uninhibited movement of capital, goods and services. But Hong Kong's image of a mega city awash in wealth is marred by something less glamorous.

Look up while wandering the busy streets of Tsuen Wan and you'll notice something completely different: dilapidated tin roofs just barely visible over the tops of buildings. If you take a moment to climb to the roofs of one of these buildings and you’ll find yourself face to face with the remnants of a population explosion fifty years in the making. Half abandoned tin and concrete structures surrounded by a sea of TV antennas sit juxtaposed against a backdrop of newly risen high rises.

As a half century of Hong Kong life is being coarsely removed in the interest of pricy real estate development, it is clear that the Hong Kong government, who once turned a blind eye to squatters it could not find housing for, is now finding these rooftop dwellings an ugly stain upon Tsuen Wan’s mounting skyline. God forbid having to look out your 39th floor office window every morning to see the poor hang their laundry out to dry; they were only once the backbone of Hong Kong’s raising economy.

The Hong Kong we see today can very much be viewed as a half century reaction to mainland China. Soon after the communist takeover in 1949, Hong Kong's population exploded with migrants. Caused by such socially disruptive events as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square incident (or massacre, depending on which side on the globe you stand), wave after wave of refugees flooded into Hong Kong. The combination of cheap labour and capital was a major boon to Hong Kong’s budding economy and established the city as a center for textile manufacturing during the 1950s and 60s. Without the cheap migrant labour that emigrated from China, Hong Kong would not be the financial center it is today.

But the growing number of squatter camps posed a major problem for the Hong Kong government. A 1953 fire in the shanty towns of Shek Kip Mei force the government to take action. In places like Tsuen Wan, most of the refugees who filled the hillside and laboured in the factories below were quickly provided with public housing. But the government often turned a blind eye to rooftop dwellers that settled into their new homes and integrated into the community. Doing so was both cheaper for the refugees and the government who wouldn’t have to subsidize their housing.

Far from the "Cidades de Deus" of today’s global cities, the rooftop dwellers of Tsuen Wan consist of elder residents heavily integrated into the Hong Kong’s social and economic life. But as real estate developers transform an area that once used to define the city’s edge, rooftop dwellers are finding themselves forced out of their homes on unjust terms.

The relocation for rooftop dwellers is a complex web of hypocrisy and embarrassment for the Hong Kong government. While public housing facilities are usually an improvement over the improvised tin roofed shacks that line the street tops of Tsuen Wan, the conditions of the government's evictions are often as poor as the squalor the eviction notices are given for. Since squatting is illegal in Hong Kong, there is no compensation for the eviction; and public housing, although heavily subsidized, is never free.

After years of living in the same home, rooftop dwellers are only now finding themselves separated from their friends and neighbours, pushed into the more expensive life of public housing estates and forced to commute long distances to work each day. How these new tenants are suppose to afford their homes has never been addressed by the Hong Kong government, which only recommends a minimum wage of $17-18 HKD an hour in a city where McDonalds pays $15 HKD an hour. As the cost of real estate climbs, developers and private business are actively seeking to develop areas once reserved for Hong Kong’s poor.

Hong Kong real estate is so profitable that the government acquires the majority of its revenue through land sales. The auction of three residential sites last September fetched a total of $10.15 Billion HKD (around $1.3 Billion US) for the Hong Kong government. A few weeks earlier, the Hong Kong Disneyland resort opened at a cost of $3.5 Billion US with the Hong Kong government footing 90% of the bill.

Parsimony is clearly not in the government’s vocabulary for development; only in the treatment of Hong Kong’s poor. Since the 1997 return, mainland Chinese have continued to migrate into the city. Even as the rate of Hong Kong's population continues to sore, the need for public housing is ignored in the face of more lucrative development. As the remnants of a once vibrant community are being swept from Tsuen Wan, the austere marginalization of Hong Kong’s poor make it clear that a city once born on the backs of these citizens is now throwing them by the wayside.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

An excerpt from Milan Kundera's “The Unbearable Likeness of Being”


Something was in the air. People were slowing down and looking back.

The American actress, who had ended up in the rear, could no longer stand the disgrace of it and, determined to take the offensive, was sprinting to the head of the parade. It was as if a runner in a five-kilometer race, who had been saving his strength by hanging back with the pack, had suddenly sprung forward and started overtaking his opponents one by one.

The men stepped back with embarrassed smiles, not wishing to spoil the famous runner's bid for victory, but the women yelled, “Get back in line! This is no star parade!”

Undaunted, the actress pushed on, a suite of five photographers and two cameramen in tow.

Suddenly a Frenchwoman, a professor of linguistics, grabbed the actress by the wrist and said (in terrible-sounding English), “This is a parade for doctors who have come to care for mortally ill Cambodians, not a publicity stunt for movie stars!”

The actress's wrist was locked in the linguistics professor's grip; she could do nothing to pry it loose. “What the hell do you think you're doing?” she said (in perfect English). “I've been in a hundred parades like this! You won't get anywhere without stars! It's our job! Our moral obligation!”

Merde!” said the linguistics professor (in perfect French).

The American actress understood and burst into tears.

“Hold it, please,” a cameraman called out and knelt at her feet. The actress gave a long look into his lens, the tears flowing down her cheeks.


When at last the linguistics professor let go of the American actress's wrist, the German pop singer with the black beard and white flag called out her name.

The American actress had never heard of him, but after being humiliated she was more receptive to sympathy than usual and ran over to him. The singer switched the pole to his left hand and put his right arm around her shoulder.

They were immediately surrounded by new photographers and cameramen. A well-known American photographer, having trouble squeezing both their faces and the flag into his viewfinder because the pole was so long, moved back a few steps into the ricefield. And so it happened that he stepped on a mine. An explosion ran out, and his body, ripped to pieces, went flying through the air, raining a shower of blood on the European intellectuals.

The singer and the actress were horrified and could not budge. They lifted their eyes to the flag. It was spattered with blood. Once more they were horrified. Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upward and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march.

Celebrities Consumed: How Bono's (PRODUCT) RED is selling Africa short

The past few years have bore witness to a ballyhoo of celebrity philanthropy, from Bob Geldof's Live 8 concert series last year and “Brangelina's” humanitarian work in the Global South, to the more recent work of Bill Clinton's Global Initiative and Modonna's Malawian escapades. And then there's Bono, the crowned prince of celebrity-driven philanthropy. Who’s most recent campaign alongside Bobby Shriver focuses on the consumption of fashionable merchandise in the pursuit of AIDS relief. Because of PRODUCT (RED) you can now use your American Express RED (available only in the UK) to buy that Motorola RAZR and ipod Nano you've been dreaming about while picking out a wardrobe from the Gap and Emporio Armani to match those smashing RED Converse All Stars and walk away proud that you’ve done your thing in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Flipping through a recent Sunday New York Times, I caught glimmer of Oprah dragging Bono, RED shopping bags in hand, out of an undisclosed Gap. The accompanying article by Michael Wine asserted that it wasn't just showmanship, but a virtuous persona that gave a handful of celebrities the ability to garner large public support for philanthropy. While Bono's persona of a debt relief-AIDS fighting-rock star may be a bit much, he brings in the dollars and cents. And while that's usually a good thing, it's exactly where this campaign gets muddled.

Wine's article quoted TidBITS.com's Adam Engst calling (PRODUCT) RED a form of “capitalictivism or activicapitalism:” a new breed of convergence between marketing and activism. Engst's fellow staff member, Mark H. Anbinder, described the campaign thusly, “The consumer wins, companies like Apple and Motorola win, and important charities win.” But I would disagree with both Engst and Anbinder. The type of marketing used in PRODUCT (RED) has been around for decades.

Take the most successful attempt at consumer activism: Fairtrade labeling, whose coffee isn't just sold around college campuses and bobo communities, but in supermarkets and mass-retailers worldwide. And Celebrities haven't been sitting on the sidelines either; the UK's Fairtrade Foundation recently got Trevor Leighton to photograph British celebs revealing their Fairtrade shopping habits. Let’s look at another great example: Adbuster's BlackSpot sneaker. A product that, when debuted, was heavily debated over for its very pursuit of activist ends through capitalist means. Opinions ranged from hypocrisy over the sneaker's anti-brand namesake obfuscating its existence as an actual brand; to acclimation for providing a sneaker that, in its sweatshop free, environmentally friendly, and cruelty free production, espoused social consciousness.

“Capitalictivism or activcapitalism,” as Engst has called it, isn't a new breed of convergence, it just hasn't been done before on a scale like this. Jeff Carlson, another associate from TidBITS.com put it best when he stated, “Of course, you need major brands and major influence (in this case, Apple and Bono) to accomplish this type of deal at such a large level.” And that's exactly what chides me most about PRODUCT (RED): a campaign founded on guiding consumers towards socially conscious goods focuses more on corporate consumption than consumer activism (see this).

As chic as consumer activism may be these days, that new RED iPOD nano or RED Gap t-shirt isn't exactly what the (PRODUCT) RED campaign makes it out to be. Consumers, corporations, charities, and celebrities may all go home and pat themselves on the back, but how much assistance is the campaign actually providing? Unlike Fairtrade coffee, Blackspot shoes, or even American Apparel clothing (with all it's recent criticism), the brand names involved with PRODUCT (RED) aren't founded on socially conscious production. People should not forget that even though the Gap's (PRODUCT) RED line is sweatshop free, the corporation itself, is not.

More deplorable is the campaign's failure to address the issue of illegal Coltan mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mining of Coltan, a vital component in the production of RAZRs, iPods and just about every other electronic device manufactured, has drawn heavy criticism for helping to fuel war in the Congo, degrade the environmental, and kill Eastern Lowland Gorillas. While some manufactures (such as Motorola) have given way to public concern and certified the legality of their Coltan sources, others (such as Apple) have done little in the way of addressing the issue. Albeit the many complexities surrounding Coltan mining in the region, it is clear that the market for prostitution around the mines is a contributing factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS. There’s a sad irony about when purchasing a new RED iPod nano helps perpetuate the very epidemic this campaign is intended to take action against.

Product (RED) may prove to be fabulous at raising money to fight AIDS in Africa and boosting Apple’s fourth quarter earnings, but this campaign is far shy from consumer activism. I must admit however that the formula is brilliant. By keeping social activism at a minimum and celebrity consumption at a maximum, Product (RED) has succeed in selling consumerism off as the guilty free pleasure everyone longs it to be. Bono, you’ve proven once again that celebrities aren't just good philanthropy, they're good business.