Huw Halstead ponders contemporary role models.
We live in a society that loves its role models, almost as much as it loves to argue about them. We talk about how Liverpool Football Club’s captain Steven Gerrard has failed in his duty as a role model when he’ s caught assaulting people in a nightclub. Our role models even argue amongst themselves; Peaches Geldof recently proclaimed herself to be a better role model than the much-idealised Miley Cyrus due to her “real” upbringing. To a degree, all of this makes sense. Why shouldn’t kids try to emulate the successes of footballers and singers? Unfortunately, we have come to expect our role models to serve not merely as exemplars of success and excellence, but also as moral guides for children. Should we really be expecting the celebrities who we endow with great power through our idolisation to fulfil the great responsibility of safeguarding children’s moral development?
Football is a perfect case study for that question, partly because of professional footballers’ status as heroes, but mostly due to their propensity for self-inflicted bouts of stupidity. Obviously the likes of Newcastle’s ask-questions-later midfielder Joey Barton, who would probably be in jail if he wasn’t a professional footballer, make dreadful role models. But even our more ‘respectable’ footballers are incapable of living up to the expectations we place on them. Tottenham’s Ledley King demonstrated that a footballer can be modest as well as pacific when he helpfully informed a night-club bouncer that his £80,000 a week wage made him important enough to get the £10 an hour bouncer fired. And even Steven Gerrard – long regarded to be English football’s nice guy – has demonstrated his penchant for a little fighting recently.
But is this really their fault, or is it ours? Why do we expect someone who is good with a football to be a good person, or a person who makes wise and careful life choices? Liverpool’s reserve goalkeeper Charles Itandje was much maligned in April for seeming to dance during the Hillsborough disaster memorial service, accused of being disrespectful and of setting a bad example. But why do we expect a random man who happens to be good at throwing himself in front of moving objects to also be a bastion of social correctness? And why is no one accusing the presumably well-educated journalists of being poor role models, after they ran a mini-hate campaign against Itandje? In some ways, we can be thankful that kids look up to footballers instead of tabloid journalists – otherwise they’d all end up with a zero-accountability mob mentality. It seems to me that expecting people who have been thrust into the public eye by virtue of a specific skill that society happens to deem worthy of adulation to automatically become faultless role models is reckless.
Some people have, of course, also attempted to actively identify and propagate ‘good’ celebrity role models and to tackle the media’s arbitrarily assigned role models. Website rolemodel.net, for instance, has identified a number of “outstanding role models” to inspire young people. They lavish praise on Brad Pitt for his family values and for listening to the “voice within”, and on Barbara Bush for supporting her husband and campaigning for literacy. This is all fine, I guess. I mean, allegations of adultery aside, Brad Pitt seems like a fairly decent guy, and the patience Barbara Bush must possess to have been able to put up with a Bush for husband and child for so many years is frankly astounding. But – and here we get to what (I think) is my main point – why must our role models be famous people? Why must we subject some poor sod to the task of trawling through the dregs of celebrity culture to identity some scraps of good moral behaviour?
According to the ever-useful Wikipedia, the term ‘role model’ was coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton, to mean the process of identifying with people who share a similar social role to that which the individual aspires. This raises two points. Firstly, we cannot hope to identify ‘good’ role models, when a role model is a subjective concept based on what ‘social role’ an individual wants to fulfil. Even if we made role model assignment a profession, it would take an army of such people to identify role models that would satisfy every parent’s ideological requirements for their children. Secondly, and I know this sounds kind of lame, but it would surely make more sense for people to take role models from their own lives – their teachers, parents, or friends – as opposed to either arbitrarily assigning moral role models based on skill, or tortuously weeding out which celebrities are appropriate to serve as role models to each specific social aspiration.
Of course, all of that is fairly irrelevant really. Most people probably agree that it would be better to have role models from your immediate surroundings than to idolize celebrities, but inevitably, and increasingly as mass media continues to grow, young people will identify with the people they see on TV or in the cinema. So, in light of this depressing inevitability, I propose an ironic solution. Films, video games, and comic books are often blamed by the media, parents, and the government for creating a culture of violence amongst young people. So, if young people really are emulating what they read in comic books, why not have them adopt Spider-Man as a state-sanctioned role model? Really, he’s the perfect candidate: he works hard at school to get good grades, meets a nice girl and settles down with her, works tirelessly to support his aunt after the death of his uncle, saves the innocent from the cruelty of New York’s streets, and is a total badass. Perfect.
Huw Halstead asks: are all female protagonists in video games designed to be hot?
The likes of Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and the school-uniform-clad Dead or Alive girls have seen their sexuality specifically employed to sell video games. Lara Croft has become such a sexual franchise that publisher Eidos employs a full time model, currently British gymnast Alison Carroll, to appear in Lara’s revealing outfits at promotional events. Dead or Alive developers Tecmo are no strangers to such tricks either. Dead or Alive 2 had a bar in the option menu, cleverly disguised as a character age bar, that determined the degree of bounciness in the characters’ breasts, and also boasted a full colour gallery of all the female characters in swimwear. Furthermore, although the Dead or Alive franchise was originally a fighting series only, Tecmo has released two poorly disguised dating-simulations under the guise of beach volleyball games, in which the player plays as the girl of their choosing, and then attempts to flatter the other girls into becoming their volleyball partner, in a quasi-lesbianistic display of game designers’ sexual fantasies.
But it doesn’t stop at these blatant examples of sexual marketing. Even female protagonists whose sexuality is not explicitly used to sell video games are subject to the same archetypal feminine video game characteristics: beauty, curvaceous-ness, some degree of playful or suggestive personality, and (occasionally optional) giant breasts. Take Nintendo’s star Samus Aran as an example. Samus was originally an androgynous bounty hunter concealed by a full-body armour suit and referred to as “him” in the instruction manual, until it was revealed at the end of the NES game Metroid that Samus was in fact a beautiful, young, blonde – and a woman. Clearly, the game developers had clocked onto the selling potential of giving their mysterious character a sex transplant. Even with military female protagonists, who have little or no sexual role in a game, great care has been taken to craft them into archetypes of beauty. French resistance fighters Manon Batiste, from Medal of Honour: Underground, and Isabelle DuFontaine, from Call of Duty 3, seem to operate as the ‘sexual relief’ in the game: their beauty is irrelevant to their characterisations, and operates only as in-game eye candy.
So, does all of this mean that the video games industry is sexist? Or, as my editor rather more eloquently put it, are female protagonists in video games simply “pretend figures of empowerment, and products of male sexual discourse”? Quite possibly. Although there are some exceptions to the rule, none of them do much to dispel the sexism theory. Valve’s surprise 2007 hit Portal starred Chell, a female protagonist who was neither particularly pretty nor particular skinny. Ah, maybe we’re on to something here. Alas, a little digging and we realise that Chell was modelled on voice actress Alésia Glidewell who is particularly pretty and skinny. Poor programming to blame, perhaps. Some people have identified the likes of Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine or Max Payne 2’s Mona Sax as being a better representation of women in gaming, citing, respectively, a modest dress sense and reasonable sized breasts. However, these ‘exceptions’ start to seem questionable when, firstly, Jill Valentine swaps her sensible army camouflage for a mini skirt and tube-top for promotional reasons, and, secondly, when we discover that Max Payne’s developers included a nude version of Mona Sax in the game, that could be unlocked with cheats. So, disappointingly, when looking for genuine exceptions to the rule, we are pretty much limited to child female protagonists, primarily starring in Japanese survival horror games such as Silent Hill 3, protagonists that are partially or wholly animal, or protagonists from an era when there weren’t enough pixels to animate beauty.
However, all of this doesn’t necessarily mean that the video games industry is a sexist machine, exploiting women to sell their product. Let’s take a look, for comparison, at how men are represented in video games. Broadly speaking, they fall into two categories. On the one hand, you have the Western-style male protagonist: a huge, muscle-bound, always-brave, misunderstood anti-hero. This model is exemplified by Gears of War’s Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago, who have enough muscle in their necks alone to power a normal human, approach death and danger with a humorously cavalier attitude, and have tragic back stories involving dead children and missing fathers. On the other hand, there is the Japanese-style protagonist: young, handsomely fresh-faced, and popular with the ladies, such as Devil May Cry’s Dante. It seems to me that such representations are symptomatic of society’s hegemonic concept of masculinity – the strong, heroic, handsome man – in the same way that female protagonists are a product of hegemonic femininity – the curvy, beautiful, fun-loving woman. And such stereotyping is not limited to gender; video games are also rife with racial stereotypes. The stereotype of the hyper-masculine, recklessly courageous, enthusiastic black American G.I. is faithfully brought to gaming by The Thing’s token black G.I., whose only significant line is, “I’m locked, loaded, and ready to make shit dead!” So, I propose that the video game industry is more shallow and prone to stereotyping than it is sexist. Whether this is something we should be concerned about, or whether it’s just a predictable product of an industry so rooted in fantasy as the gaming industry, is a much trickier question.
Prompting public sector strikes in France, Emily Labram investigates Sarkozy’s difficult relationship with La Princess de Cleves.
If Gordon Brown scorned Milton’s Paradise Lost, how indignant would you feel? Would you take to the streets, banners waving, and blockade Heslington Hall? Call it classic French over-reaction if you will, but this was exactly the response of Parisian students when President Sarkozy expressed his dislike of one of France’s earliest novels.
The book in question was La Princesse de Cleves by Madame de la Fayette – a seventeenth-century tale of thwarted love that has featured on French syllabuses since the days of Sarkozy’s boyhood. Evidently, the novel caused the president untold pain, because he now seems to take every opportunity to dismiss it as irrelevant and risible.
It was back in February 2006 when Sarkozy first derided the hapless novel. What “sadist or idiot”, he asked, would include questions on Renaissance literature in an exam for public sector workers? “When was the last time you asked a counter clerk what she thought of The Princess of Cleves?” the president humorously enquired. The comment, although intended as an appeal to common sense, instead smacked of blinkered philistinism. Yes, clearly, neither counter clerks, nor presidents for that matter, draw from the fountain of the classics when performing day-to-day tasks. But surely education has always been more than simply equipping youths with the practical skills for labour. And shouldn’t both presidents and blue-collar workers be taught – or force-fed, in the case of young Nicolas – edifying literature, especially in a country like France which prides herself on “Égalité”?
The French public might have pardoned one disparaging comment from a president who prefers Céline Dion to Chopin. Earlier this year, however, Sarkozy ruffled the feathers of the intellectual elite once again. When discussing on what grounds civil servants should be considered for promotion, he declared that voluntary service should be prioritised. And then, inevitably, he added: “this is just as important as knowing La Princesse de Cleves by heart”. The president then admitted wryly that he had “suffered greatly” at school at the hands of the dreaded novel; one imagines little Nicolas cowering in front of his mother, having presented his latest essay, which is marked with a glaring “ZÉRO”.
The president’s aversion to La Princesse extends to a general disdain for cultural pursuits, in favour of such horrors as physical exercise. Remember the photos of ‘Sporty Sarko’ jogging down the Seine – oh la la! – often clad in his favourite NYPD t-shirt? Such incendiary behaviour caused Alain Finkelkraut, a celebrated philosopher, to beg Mr Sarkozy on television to abandon his “undignified” hobby, and to take up walking instead – the pursuit of Socrates, Arthur Rimbaud, and other great men. While the jogging furore subsided, the Princesse de Cleves scandal sparked nationwide protest. Comparisons were made between the “president of bling” and Lafayette’s depiction of the lavish Henry II. Book sales of the novel escalated, and students orchestrated marathon public readings. Two thousand badges branded with the slogan “I’m reading La Princesse de Cleves” sold out in record time. Protesters demonstrated waving placards that read “Free the Princesse of Cleves!” The novelist Régis Jauffret even urged French citizens to send copies of the novel to Sarkozy as a gesture of defiance against the “glorification of ignorance”.
Clearly, the French ‘élite’ objects to a president who displays the slightest buffoonery. In fact, it is ironic that the politicians France usually elects as president tend to resemble Obama far more than Sarkozy, whose predecessors – Chirac, Giscard d’Estaing, Pompidou, – were typically academic high-fliers, educated at the prestigious ‘Grandes Écoles’. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, who abandoned him in his childhood, Sarkozy is reported to have been an average student, whose style of politics has been described as hyperactive rather than sophisticated. French left-wingers cringe at his enthusiasm for America, which has most recently culminated in bull-in-a-china-shop preparations for D-Day. After snubbing the Queen in the hope of liaising with Obama, Sarkozy’s dinner invitation to the American President has just been answered by an embarrassing refusal.
Thankfully, the French head of state has been saved from the opinion polls by a combination of factors, which must, without a doubt, include his elegant wife, Carla Bruni. Her immaculate presence at state functions, attired in demure shades of plum and navy, cast waves of refinement over her more diminutive husband. France’s emergence (relatively unscathed) from the economic downturn is a factor of more obvious significance. Sarkozy’s tremendous success in the European Parliamentary elections proves that his electorate still respect and support him. French citizens may be prepared to overlook ‘Sporty Sarko’s’ lowbrow taste in music, his jogging, and his NYPD t-shirt, but he’d better watch his step where La Princesse de Cleves is concerned. One more slip of the tongue, and he’ll have a host of counter-clerks racing after him brandishing placards, and his vengeful mother too, I wouldn’t doubt.
Can we elect Obama? Yes we can! – Aside from the declining faith in Dick Cheney’s hand-eye coordination, the U.S. has fallen apart almost completely during the Bush regime. Liz Omberg investigates
Economically there is in the greatest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, petrol prices are soaring and workers are being laid off from even the largest of corporations. In terms of foreign policy, its citizens are mocked and abhorred, something that I have personally experienced as an American studying in England. Being from Washington D.C., escaping the political sphere is impossible and the general feelings were that my country would get worse before it gets better. But there was also a hope that a new America was lost. Thankfully that hope was regained when on November 4th 2008 Barack Hussein Obama II was elected to become the forty-fourth President of the United States.
The U.S. has a newfound obsession with Obama and his promise of the new hope that his four (or eight) years in the White House will bring. Personally, as you may have noticed, I am on the Obama bandwagon. Posters of him are plastered on my walls, and interviews on news programs leave me in tears without fail. Even though Obama won the election in a landslide against Republican Senator John McCain his win was not guaranteed. There was fear that the ‘Bradley effect’ would occur. This is the phenomenon of voters, when asked which candidate one would vote for, would say Obama and that race is not an issue. However, once in the privacy of the voting booth their true feelings would come out and they would vote for the other (and whiter) option.
Being the fifth youngest President appointed into office (Obama is 47), and with the state of the country being what it is, he not only h as a lot of work ahead of him but also the general public watching eagerly as well. During an interview with Steve Kroft on the news program 60 Minutes, Obama admitted, “I feel right now that I’m doing what I should be doing.” His plans include closing Guantánamo Bay detention camp along with ending the torture that takes place there, as well as signing legislation to get troops out of Iraq as soon as his first week in office. A key issue is healthcare, something for which the candidates’ opinions held no common thread. Obama wishes for methods of contraception to be covered under insurance policies, while McCain, perhaps opposing this with a degree of self interest, wants Viagra to be covered. In addition, during the interview Obama applauded “the core decency and generosity of the American people.” Despite his large following, being the first African-American President comes with danger as well as what Obama describes as, “a sense of loneliness with the job.” Fears of an assassination have been kept under the rug but the chance is always there. If Bush’s combination of abysmal approval ratings and good health are anything to go by Obama should, in my opinion, be safe.
In his acceptance speech held at Grant Park in Chicago he proudly proclaimed, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Watching the new first family elect walk on stage to thousands cheering evoked a new pride in America that I have never felt before. Obama’s mother-in-law grew up during the 1950’s in a segregated Chicago and to watch her daughter become the next First Lady demonstrates the change that Obama can bring to the country for all races, not only African-Americans.
Unfortunately, with the hype comes pressure and with pressure comes the increased risk of letting down the American public. Obama has stated that he is confident in the American people understanding that he cannot snap his fingers and fix the country’s problems. Obviously that is true but the problem is that Americans are expecting a sudden change based on the thrust of the Democratic campaign.
Obama’s message has always been one of hope and now that he will be the next American president on January 20th 2009, the world will get to see how much America and its people can change. Bush has led America backwards in not only the American citizen’s eye but in that of the world. So to all other Americans and Obama supporters I look at the future with hope and to the troubles along the way I will always chant with pride, “yes we can!”
Greek film Politiki Kouzina, which translates into English as ‘Cuisine of the City’, the City being Constantinople, seems a fitting point of departure for looking at the political function of food. As we learn through the protagonist’s grandfather, grocer Vassilis, spices played a huge part in the culinary lives of the Greek community that lived in Istanbul, being used to add personal identity, and achieve specific effects, with otherwise identical staple foods. Cumin, for instance, is a strong spice, that “turns people inwards”, whereas cinnamon is a liberating spice, that makes people more accepting and amiable. So, when local lady Dorothea visits Vassilis’s shop to purchase some cumin to season meatballs for a tense meeting with her fiancé’s family, he instead sends her away with cinnamon, wistfully remarking “if you want someone to say yes, use cinnamon!” Fanis, nephew of Vassilis and now a forcibly ‘repatriated’ chef in Greece, preserves a sense of Constantinopolitan identity in his new environment by using his grandfather’s knowledge of spices to distinguish his food from that of his fellow cooks. This use of spice to socially distance oneself from others is a common device. In 14th century France, aristocratic families took to importing desirable and costly dry spices, such as melegueta pepper and ginger, to emphasise their economic and cultural superiority over the masses, who would be forced to eat food seasoned with moist local ingredients, such as parsley. Such culinary social distinctions are, however, not simply limited to seasonings.
“When a man’s stomach is full,” Euripides mused, “it makes no difference whether he is rich or poor.” Ah yes, but what is his stomach full with? Hunger abated or not, the peasant’s stomach in Medieval England is no more likely to be filled with white bread and fresh fish than his Lord’s is to be filled with vegetable stew and rye bread. Naturally, the rich tend to display their wealth by acquiring more expensive cuisine than their poorer counterparts can afford, although the types of foods that are considered desirable by the well-off vary over time. What is curious, and perhaps a little ironic, is that many foods enjoy a cyclical rotation between the staple of the masses and the indulgence of the few. Salted and smoked meats, once nothing more than a necessary way for the peasantry to preserve precious meat, can now be found in delicatessens and gourmet restaurants. Bulgar wheat, considered by elderly Greek villagers to be a sign of desperate poverty, is now sold by the bagful to middle-class customers in health food shops. White bread, the medieval luxury loaf, has now been mass produced to be cheaper than brown bread, which is now considered to be healthier, and thus more desirable.
So it is for European and Asian societies, but, mysteriously, Professor Jack Goody informs us that such socially-differentiated cuisine is not characteristic of African culture, where the rich, if anything, just eat more of the same things that the poor eat. The equivalent of the better-off student eschewing Tesco Finest meats then marching into another student’s flat and eating ten packets of super noodles at once. Genghis Khan certainly followed this principle, and is renowned for throwing huge victory feasts for his army generals as a testament to his power and importance. Fascinatingly, some have even attributed the infamous Five-Second Rule (which states that any food that touches the floor may be safely consumed within five seconds) to the ferocious warlord, who allegedly boasted that any food to fall on the floor during a feast would be safe to eat for twelve hours; time, it would seem, and the discovery of germs, have moderated his original claim.
Food is of such political importance that it even invades our socio-political discourse. A typical American is as American as apple-pie, whilst someone devouring mountains of melegueta pepper is likely to have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth (and iron taste buds). A hypocritically well-off socialist is a champagne socialist in England, a gauche caviar in France and a smoked-salmon socialist in Ireland. Speaking of which, and by way of wrapping up, always remember that misjudging your culinary clientele can have disastrous consequences. Tony Benn (as Minister in a Labour government), assuming working men shared his puritanical distaste for fine food, served tea and sandwiches at a meeting for Trade Union leaders. Unfortunately, knowing Mr Benn to be a particularly well-smoked salmon socialist, they had been expecting him to provide something altogether rather more lavish, and left feeling thoroughly disgruntled and vaguely insulted.
All alone right out on the far left – Will Wraxall explores the shift to the right in contemporary British politics
The British social ideology has publicly shifted to the right through the opinions of some media outlets and the actions of government. First, a quick trip in a journalistic TARDIS to May 16th and an article on the website of Thatcherite fanzine the Daily Mail: ‘No child is safe from the sinister cult of emo’ scuzzed the Mail’s Tom Rawstone. Rawstone then proceeds to blame the suicide of teenager Hannah Bond on the emergence of the emo, and the music of My Chemical Romance.
Granted, this is nothing new; nine years ago Marilyn Manson was blamed for the bloodshed at Columbine High School in America and Government Minister Kim Howells was widely lampooned a few years ago for blaming gun violence on So Solid Crew. But the point to be understood is that Howells was laughed at quite rightly. Listening to music of a certain type is a symptom of what a person feels, not a cause, if it even means anything at all. These days, however, it doesn’t seem like so many people would laugh at the Mail. In fact, it isn’t hard to reconcile this kind of reporting with that which currently inhabits The Sun, especially that of columnist Jon Gaunt. Gaunt, who likes to posit himself as the voice of the people, famously called political campaigner Shami Chakrabarti the most dangerous woman in Britain because she is opposed to overly Draconian anti-terrorist legislation. And yet he is taken to be a serious political commentator, not a pompous, right wing crackpot.
So much for the press and its right wing persuasions; next up there’s the militarism and free market ethos of New Labour. Britain has consistently delayed and blocked efforts for an international ban on cluster bombs, and has ignored the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by renewing Trident. Why is this necessary? Ah, of course, to fight Terrorism. The war against an anti-freedom idea, a perverse twisting of basic human fears and the bastion of right-wing militarism. The war’s main short coming, of course, to quote V For Vendetta, is that ideas are bulletproof, resulting in an endless fear to which free societies will gradually submit their civil rights. It is, essentially, no different or less ridiculous than the Mail’s scaremongering, but for the fact that we’re talking about our own impenetrable rights as humans and, in terms of nuclear weapons, the well being of our very planet.
However, putting aside our better judgment for a moment to assume that even George Bush isn’t quite stupid enough to start a nuclear war, what does anyone stand to gain by this right wing popularity in Britain? That’ s where the economics comes in. The Private Finance Initiative, which requires that government sponsored projects receive some private financing, is stealthily invading every arm of the public sector. This is supposed to bring market efficiency to public expenditure and give better value for citizens, the only problem being that, in most cases, it doesn’t. Hospitals get moved out of town centres, making them harder to get to for the majority of people who need them the most. Toll bridges with high charges emerge from which the proceeds go to American banks open in Scotland. University research loses its impartiality because is swayed by what the business sponsoring it wants it to discover (George Monbiot Captive State).
The political shift rightwards is usually seen as government reaction to 9/11, and most of the developments have indeed occurred post-bin Laden. But to attribute everything to terrorism does New Labour a disservice; they were at it long before that. Moving to the right is exactly how Blair won the 1997 election and, going back some decades, how Thatcher won a third term. As such, it is arguable there is a long term social shift underpinning all of this machinating, 9/11 has merely accelerated it. A quick look at recent British Social Attitudes surveys throws up the statistic that those believing the death penalty the most appropriate penalty for some crimes has been steadily rising for a good few years, well before 9/11, and has now reached a comfortable majority of those surveyed. This statistic is morally troubling but also the most revealing piece of evidence for the reasons behind the shift to the right in opinion.
The death penalty was, in all practicality if not formality, abolished in 1965 following the suspension of capital punishment for murder. Death sentences have been given since then, but never fulfilled, and the last actual execution in the United Kingdom happened in 1964. Forty-four years without an execution. An impressive length of time, but also one which has allowed the reasons why this is the case to be forgotten. The case of Craig and Bentley is worth going into: during an attempted warehouse break in, Christopher Craig shot and killed a police officer; he was imprisoned, being too young to be handed a death sentence, while Bentley, despite not having injured or killed anyone, hung. This injustice, along with others such as Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, swayed opinion against the death sentence.
Indeed the experience of the Second World War had softened attitudes in general; but modern society has nothing of the sort. The horrors which brought about left wing attitudes of the Atlee government and post war optimism are forgotten and public opinion careers towards the right ignorant of the consequences. Too often our mentality is hard and unforgiving. It’s time we remembered why we abolished the death sentence, why we have civil rights, why we should not reject ‘woolly’ leftist ideals.
Freedom, Money, China and Tibet – Rocco Sulkin argues that Western intellectual thought is moving to agree with China over its stance on Tibet. But should it be so hasty?
In his article No Shangri-La (London Review of Books 24 April 2008), Slavoj Žižek argues that the western media has imposed a romanticised and rose-tinted view of Tibet on us, emphasising its spirituality and geographic beauty. In Žižek’s view, we are seldom exposed to the facts about Chinese investment in Tibet’s economic development, infrastructure, education and health services. It is very tempting to agree with him. However, as I shall argue, he is wrong to draw the conclusion from this investment that China’s annexation of Tibet is in some way legitimate. It does not necessarily follow that because the western media is bias that the Chinese are in the right.
The Chinese attempt to justify the invasion of Tibet in many deplorably inadequate ways. Firstly they argue that since Tibet was never internationally recognised as a separate country China in 1949 breached no international law by sending in her armies to gain control of the territory. If Tibet were simply a mark on a map there might not be too much wrong with this claim but it does not account for the reality of the bloody invasion and occupation: killing humans and destroying freedom.
Secondly they claim that continued Chinese control of Tibet is simply the same relationship as Britain’s control over her empire and that Chinese forces will leave Tibet when there is a French exodus of Canada and every Dutch citizen leaves South Africa. But here they miss the progress of the last century. Britain and o ther European powers no longer keep territories against their will or inhibit the freedom of action or speech in their colonies. Thanks to a development of ideas and an open international discourse we have realised that occupations, like the Chinese occupation of Tibet, are illegal. This is something the Chinese must recognise too.
Philosophically the Chinese justify the rape of Tibetan culture during the cultural revolution of the 1960s as part of a communist resistance against religion as an opiate that stifles the true way of life. But this is to misinterpret the communist resistance of religion in two ways. When Marx declared that religion was the ‘opium of the people’ he was not speaking of Tibetan Buddhism, he was speaking of Christianity. Furthermore he wanted to make religion less powerful because he believed that it was stifling freedom of speech and opinion. What he hoped by minimising the control of state religion was to increase an independence of thought that would ultimately lead to better ideas and a better way of governing. To destroy a religious culture and then to maintain strict rules on freedom of speech (to speak the name of the Dalai Lama in Tibet is a public offence) is to work counter to Marx’s proposal to a gross extent.
Even if the Chinese have interpreted Marx correctly that does not mean that Marx is right. Materialistic development of intellectual ends does not necessarily correlate with human happiness. To remove the spiritual side of life is to deny much of what makes us human and to violently deny a rich Tibetan culture its rights of religious satisfaction is plainly wrong.
Finally, the Chinese argue, as Žižek does, that they have massively improved the quality of life in Tibet since it came under Chinese state control. It is true that much of Tibetan industry has been mechanised but this is often at the expense of traditional jobs and social roles. It is also the case that the Chinese have built hospitals and schools, but often these improvements are made in predominantly Chinese areas and are there to make the lives of Chinese immigrants more comfortable. China has also, at great cost, built the highest railway in the world into Tibet but it has never fully shaken off claims that this is not to aid Tibetans but mainly for Chinese tourists interested in poking their noses into the remains of a once proud culture.
Even if the Chinese have created a better quality of life for some Tibetans, does this mean that China should have, in some sense, the right to control the province, dehumanising Tibetans by destroying their culture in the process? I think it is obvious that they should not.
I believe it is clear, then, that the Chinese cannot justify their invasion of Tibet in any way. However, if Žižek is right and we have been fed a bias story about Tibet by the western media then it is nothing to the story the Chinese have been made to swallow. From the cultural elite to the working classes, Chinese citizens have been warped entirely into the view that Tibet is a petulant and backward child, ungrateful for the help that gracious China has given it in advancing its own fiscal station in the world. Portrayal in China of the recent Tibetan demonstrations has been of heavily armed Chinese troops heroically quelling riots of anti-Chinese ethnic violence. The Chinese media have called the eloquent and mild Dalai Lama everything from ‘a beast with a black heart,’ to ‘pure evil.’ Ask the average Chinese on the street what he thinks about the Olympic protests and he’ll answer that he doesn’t know anything about them; either because he is kept in genuine ignorance by a virtually omnipotent state media or because he doesn’t want to refer to events, the very mention of which, might incriminate him in some subversive thought.
Reading Žižek’s article and watching the tide of liberal academic opinion run against the traditional western position on Tibet is as repugnant as listening to academics claim, in the wake of 9/11, that the Americans had it coming to them. There seems to be some insecurity in liberal, Western thought that triggers a heavy and inappropriate lean towards relativism to the extent that adopting an opposing intellectual position seems as natural as it is, to me, intuitively perverse.
There is nothing in the debate about Tibet which should shake us from our core beliefs about life, freedom and happiness. There is no justification for the annexation of a free province by a superpower no matter how much that superpower improves local quality of life by mechanisation and financial investment. We should never let money buy our freedom and we should never encourage a world where the incentive of financial gain causes others to sell theirs.
The two battle lines that are clearly drawn in this conflict of ideologies penetrate deeper than the flash point of Tibet in which they have been expounded. On one side is a ruthless, material, and brutal march towards a secular but financially successful consumerism. On the other side is a courageous resistance for the freedom and spirituality of the human soul. Of course these battle lines are often shaded in grey and in some instances the margin of ‘right’ must be altered to accommodate for the greater good; but with the case study of Tibet the facts seem clear to me. An old culture with a strong identity of free people is in danger of being completely obliterated in its own homeland by a bullying state who tries to justify its crime with claims of improved quality of life. We must reply that no quality of life can be improved by shackling the minds and souls of a people, and we must encourage western governments to take a stand against ruthless, materialistic imperialism now, when it matters most.
Andrew Feinstein is a former ANC MP whose attempts to investigate a massive, corrupt arms deal are contained in his memoir After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey Inside the ANC, Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2007. The Zahir exclusively presents Feinstein’s unabridged opinions
BAE Systems’ AGM on the 7th May was even more surreal than usual. Abusing the recently released Woolf Report, chairman Dick Olver restated the company’s unimpeachable record and promised that they would soon reach the ethical gold standard that Lord Woolf had outlined, setting the benchmark not just in the arms business but for all industry globally. Barely drawing breath, Olver called for all the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigations into BAE to be reviewed and ended.
Setting aside for the moment the obvious question of whether a company that produces the means of waging war can ever claim to be ethical, Olver’s assertions rang cavernously hollow.
The Woolf Committee was an expensive PR exercise for which the company paid the former Lord Chief Justice £6000 per day. Styled as a review of BAE’s corporate governance practices, the Committee was only allowed to propose improvements to the way the company does business. It was explicitly forbidden from considering any of BAE’s past practices. So, no mention then of Al Yamamah and the allegations of £1 billion of bribes paid to Prince Bandar, the son of the Saudi Defence Minister at the time of the deal; nor of the chronically over-priced sale of technically deficient Hawks to South Africa, allegedly fuelled by £75 million of bribes; or the $45 million flogging of an air traffic control and radar system to Tanzania, which Clare Short, the International Development Minister at the time, described as a corrupt and useless project that stank. And that’s only the recent history. Obviously the Committee gave no thought to the company’s years of arming President Suharto’ s brutal regime in defiance of UN resolutions and at massive expense to the UK taxpayer, amongst other ethical undertakings.
To his credit Lord Woolf at least stated that ‘Both the Chairman and Chief Executive acknowledged that the company did not in the past pay sufficient attention to ethical standards and avoid activities that had the potential to give rise to reputational damage.’ This is not what shareholders have been told year after year at previous AGM’s.
My own experience as an ANC MP attempting to investigate BAE’s arms deal with South Africa’s nascent democracy, revealed a company that was willing to use dubious middlemen to pay off senior officials, politicians and political organisations in order to win a contract for a jet that had been excluded from the shortlist of contenders and cost two and a half times more than the alternative desired by the South African air force that actually met the technical requirements. The deal and its corruption has continued to blight South African politics to this day.
For me, and the millions of South Africans who were told that the country couldn’t afford anti-retroviral drugs for those battling the AIDS pandemic sweeping the country while we were spending £5 billion on arms we didn’t need, BAE’s claims to being an ethical company will remain laughable until such time as its Board acknowledges and apologises for its corrupt past.
So rather than, yet again, steering a compliant British government into closing down the SFO investigations into the company’s activities – which Gordon Brown, through an amendment to constitutional legislation currently before Parliament, will now give his attorney-general the power to do regardless of the bothersome intervention of the High Court – Dick Olver should come clean.
He claims that the SFO’s 4 years of investigations into Al Yamamah have yielded nothing. He must have missed the revelations in the media in early 2007 and the High Court ruling when it declared the Tony Blair inspired closing down of the investigation unlawful and shameful. In addition to the payment of £1 billion to Prince Bandar, BAE also gave him a gift of an Airbus, specially customised and painted in the colours of his favourite American football team. It has been alleged that another £175 million was given to various other Saudi royals.
It is also worth remembering that it took 14 years for the truth of the Swedish company Bofors’ corrupt arms deal with India to be exposed and that the SFO has been investigating BAE’s deals in South Africa, Tanzania, Romania and the Czech Republic for only a couple of years. The company is also facing money laundering investigations in Switzerland and a US Justice Department enquiry into its conduct. In fact, on the 18th of May BAE’s Chief Executive, Mike Turner, was arrested on his arrival in the US and issued with a subpoena in relation to the enquiry.
The stark reality is that to conduct its business to acceptable standards, BAE will have to stop making the facilitation payments (arms industry jargon for bribes) which the company admitted to Woolf it still pays. The company will have to do away with the use of the economically discredited industrial offsets as sweeteners for deals. And, most importantly, it will have to go beyond the Woolf Committee’s recommendations that focus on self regulation, and expose to public scrutiny all its interactions with and payments to agents (or middlemen) and government decision-makers, however circuitous the maze of offshore companies through which much of this activity takes place.
In addition, the UK government, rather than closing down investigations into the company’s activities and acting as its global salesperson and protector, should regulate the arms industry far more vigorously and ensure that when its participants break the law, they face the full force of the judicial process.
If such transparency is practically unworkable then Dick Olver and his Board should ask themselves whether it is possible to be an ethical company and operate in the arms business which, according to work done by Transparency International, is responsible for 49% of corruption in all world trade. At least then the company’s surreal attempts at PR posturing could come to an end.
For over a year now, George Bush has found himself hovering between 30% and 40% in approval ratings. This makes him one of the most deeply unpopular presidents the United States has ever seen, with the war in Iraq and the potential economic crash key to his downfall. It is no surprise then that the Republicans see a dire need to reshape their party and the Democrats see an opportunity seize the reigns of governmental power.
However, Democratic success is by no means a sure thing. The Republicans are already trying and succeeding in gaining the centre ground. Sound familiar? It should do if we remember the rise of New Labour under Tony Blair and of the Conservatives under David Cameron. When Blair became leader of the Labour party in 1994, John Major was in much the same position as George Bush is now; mired in economic crisis (Black Wednesday), surrounded by party infighting and perceived as incompetent. But serious reforms were still needed to make the Labour party electable. Think of abolishing the heavily socialist Clause 4 and pledging to keep the top rate of income tax unchanged. The resurgence of the Conservative Party today is also driven by a reforming figure who is motivated by electability rather than classic conservative principles. Of course, in American politics, the left and the right do not have nearly as far to move to the centre as in Britain, but it is noticeable that the candidates, particularly Barack Obama and John McCain, have adopted positions that will make them more palatable to the opposition. McCain’s lead over the other Republican candidates is such that he is now the presumed nominee, while the Democratic race is closer but Obama is in the lead. Essentially the Republicans have already chosen their Blair/Cameron figure. He is deviating from the conservative agenda on the environment and foreign policy but, despite arousing anger from the party ideologues, is still leading in the name of electability.
McCain’s signature issue has been his policies on the environment. Both Hillary Clinton and Obama advocate an 80% reduction in greenhouse gasses from their 1990 levels and significant investment in renewable energy. Although McCain only wants a 30% reduction in present day levels by 2050, he is still making a commitment that the other Republican candidates refuse to make. Mitt Romney, one of McCain’s opponents in the race for the nomination who has since dropped out, opposed any specific target arguing that it would be bad for the economy. He found a weak point in McCain’s policies, with support from traditional Republicans who do not want to see any tax increases associated with reducing greenhouse gases. At the same time, while alienating many of these traditional Republicans, he was able to bring in many undecideds and wavering Democrats.
McCain has, in fact, broken away from the Republican mainstream with a whole host of policies. He has opposed waterboarding, explicitly labelling it as torture, co-sponsored a bill to allow the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States a path to citizenship and has even advocated stricter gun control laws (earning an “F” rating from Gun Owners of America). He has also previously opposed many of the Bush tax cuts on the grounds that they promoted inequality. All these things play well on the liberal side of America, convincing those undecideds that a McCain presidency will be nothing like a Bush presidency. Unfortunately for McCain, however, there has been a significant amount of backlash from conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who describe him as a “backstabber” who, if elected, will spell the end of the Republican Party. The reason he has done so well is that many Republican voters believe a McCain presidency is still preferable simply because he is not a Democrat. At the time of writing, polls show that McCain would have a slight lead in a presidential race against either Clinton or Obama.
For the Democr ats, healthcare is a good example of middle ground positioning by Obama. As is widely known, America’s healthcare system currently leaves around 45 million Americans without coverage. It has long been a goal of liberal America to implement some sort of universal system to allow more Americans to receive healthcare. All of the Democrats’ primary candidates advocated healthcare reform but the proposals from Clinton and John Edwards more or less provided universal coverage. Barack Obama, the self-proclaimed “force for change”, on the other hand, has proposed a much weaker version. All plans will provide subsidies for insurance for those who cannot afford them and will require insurance firms to offer insurance to all. Unlike the Clinton and Edwards plans, Obama does not want to mandate insurance for all. Obama’s supporters claim that everyone who wants insurance will have access to it, but then why stop short of mandating it? In the long run, those only signing up for insurance when they get sick simply raise premiums for everyone else. Essentially Obama’s plan has been designed not to alienate the right wing of American politics. This is despite the fact that many of Obama’s supporters stand to benefit greatly from a truly universal health scheme. The problem is universal healthcare is not acceptable to American conservatives. Mitt Romney, who supported a mandate system while governor of Massachusetts, shied away from anything remotely close to this while running as a presidential candidate. He advocated deregulation of the insurance industry to lower costs through competition and, by doing so, hoped to encourage more citizens to become insured. Mandates are demonised by the right wing due to fears of an over encroaching state. This will be a significant issue in the election. Obama has conveniently placed himself closer to the middle ground so as to avoid some of this controversy.
So, surprisingly, Obama can be regarded as less progressive than Clinton despite the media image. Of course healthcare is not the only issue that the candidates should be judged on, but Obama and Clinton also share similar economic views, both advocating fiscal stimulus packages including mortgage aid, while the Republican solution seems to be corporate tax cuts and a reduction of government spending. Neither differs particularly on social issues either and yet Obama still claims the apparent title of being the candidate for real change. While Hillary Clinton is potentially the first female president, she is also part of the establishment, having already been in the White House as first lady. Obama however is a young mixed race man who is relatively new to politics and was lucky enough to still be in the Illinois state senate at the time of the American invasion of Iraq. He is therefore untainted by the last 5 years whereas few established Democrats or Republicans can escape from having supported the war.
Iraq is also a key differentiator between the Democrats and Republicans, not just because of the invasion, but because of the current number of troops there. Clinton and Obama would favour caps on numbers of troops, leading towards phased withdrawal, while McCain supports the recent “surge” and would keep troop levels up in efforts to stabilise the country. More importantly there is a consensus among all candidates that the war was handled badly, especially because of poor planning for the end of the invasion and for the start of rebuilding efforts. This has been a method of distancing themselves from Bush.
At the time of writing it is virtually certain that the race will eventually be between John McCain and either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. From the race so far, however, there has been a noticeable shift to the centre ground with both sides eager to prove that the next presidency will not be like the current one. The last eight years of Bush have produced the conditions for an election where America will most likely have a woman, a mixed race man, or a maverick Republican as President.
Political Apathy – Patrick Sholl examines the democratic crisis in the UK with a fleeting glance at the political philosophies of Locke and Hume
In all walks of life, apathy tends to occur when we feel we have no direction over a situation, when we feel that any attempt to exert our control will be met with defeat. Political apathy is no different. The standard channels of political participation in this country are through general elections and party membership, participation in both having declined sharply in recent years. While most apathetic people claim their apathy is a result of a lack of interest in the subject, on their behalf I believe it stems from a more dangerous source of feeling powerless. Our whole system of politics (that is democracy, or rather, elective aristocracy) is based on the notion that citizens participate and give consent to the regime. Without participation, it has long been thought, a political system is no different from the dictatorships we tend to be so critical of. So why, in our idealised system, where all citizens have free speech and agree to live in society, do we find political participation dropping? The answer to this question, I believe, is contained in the idea of tacit consent. Because society has been the way it has for generations, people feel that they have consented to it. They feel th at any change they can make, if they feel they can make any at all, can only be slight. It is my belief that this illusion is causing our ability to consent to fade.
On the surface, we need only examine our voting system to see how general elections don’t provide the individual with any real control. In the UK we operate a first-past-the-post voting system where a government can be elected with a minority of the votes. In order for your vote to be worth anything, you have to vote for the right party in the right constituency; if you do not, your vote is worthless. Consider anyone who voted Green in the 2005 British general election. Apart from making a statement, their vote was effectively worthless: 1% of the British public voted Green but the party received 0 seats. If the average British voter wants their vote to count they have to be lucky enough to be in a closely contested seat and to want to vote for one of the rival parties. The alternative is to vote for a losing candidate to prove a point or to abstain and risk the possibility of a non-vote being taken as tacit-consent to the society they live in. All options seem bleak, and along with the low level of accountability in politics. it seems that there is little that can be done through the avenues available to the average voter. Nevermind the fact that British voters never explicitly consented to the voting system in the first place; a problem that David Hume raises in his essay “Of the Original Contract”. He states that because “human society is in perpetual flux, in order to preserve stability in government… [people] conform themselves to the established constitution”. Each generation doesn’t die off as the next is born, giving them a chance to all sit down and agree how they want society to be. No one really gets to choose the system they want, let alone how it will turn out. Everyone just has to operate in the narrow confines that British politics present to them, Conservative or Labour, tax cuts or tax increases, private or public schooling, and so forth. It seems no surprise that this powerlessness leads people to apathy.
I now want to examine deeper running issues with the idea of consent and therefore issues with what has been portrayed as our main source of political power, the source of political legitimacy. It is no new idea that consent is a flawed and misunderstood concept. As consent is the foundation of legitimacy, liberty is the foundation of consent. It is understood that the individual has the liberty to consent or not consent as he chooses. But given the practical constraints of reality, which, as explained above, leave the voter with little real choice on issues, we are faced with options which include no real liberty. In other words, it seems a mistake to say any British citizen can truly consent to anything given that consent requires a level of agreement, and all the average British voter can do is choose the lesser evil out of options they had no say in the choosing of. John Locke, whose political philosophy often differs from Hume’s, would argue that while living in a government’s territory, a citizen consents to its rule simply by remaining there. The alternative for a citizen, according to Locke, is to leave the territory and physically display his rejection of the government’s rule. However, were we to study the implications of this claim, Locke seems to imply that a citizen would be consenting to any regime, however objectionable, as long as he stayed under the jurisdiction of that regime. Hume raises a further problem with Locke’s conception of tacit consent by claiming that most people, even if they disagree with a regime, simply do not have the means to leave:
Can we seriously say that a poor peasant or artisan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives from day to day, by the small wages which he acquires?
People are born into circumstances, however seemingly free, which they have no control over. The peasant didn’t choose to be a peasant, he would rather have been a noble; the noble didn’t choose to be a noble, he’d rather have been king. In both cases they were born into it, or a chain of events beyond their choosing led them to that path. Although there is vastly increased social mobility in modern political society we still only have the resources that nature (or in some views God) has given us. Apart from obvious examples of human misery, it seems strange to say anyone chooses or consents to their situation, as everyone would change something with their life if they could.
It seems from this that when we talk of liberty and consent we mean something much weaker than we originally conceived. People, free to act between very narrow choices, are restricted by things outside their control: the very choices given to them are few and not of their choosing. Without careful and sophisticated deliberation on the options presented to citizens, this view has frightening totalitarian conclusions that are discussed in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Hobbes argues that, “Feare, and Liberty are consistent; as when a man throweth his goods into the Sea for feare the ship should sink, he doth it neverthelesse very willingly”. Hobbes claims that, despite being influenced by fear or directly under threat, a man remains perfectly free. It follows that even if his choice is between consent or death, the quality of his consent, should he chose to avoid death, should be as valid as any other. However from this conclusion it follows that a voter is as free in choosing ‘Labour or Conservative’, as he is when confronted with the choice, ‘obey or die’. This means that a citizen in a tyrannical regime is as free as a citizen in a democracy.
It seems there are two potential conclusions to be made from this. Firstly, it seems that British citizens are subject to so many influences and constraints that they never have any true liberty from which they can agree to consent or not. Secondly, if it is agreed that a citizen consents in everything he chooses to do, a democracy in which political participation is plentiful is no more legitimate than a tyrannical dictatorship as consent is the same in both. It seems consent is perhaps just an inherently flawed concept and the real mistake is seeing it as the key to our political power. However, instead of allowing our political system to collapse in a heap of apathy, we should look to other avenues of political participation to take control of our political lives.