Thursday, 20 December 2007

"Where are all the moderate Muslims?"

Boy,  am I sick and tired of hearing that old line.  I saw it asked most recently by Dan Savage in an op-ed piece in Seattle newspaper The Stranger  (on Dec 7 - yeah,  this has been sitting on the  "to blog"  list for a while).  Savage is more famous for doing what he is good at,  namely giving excellent sex advice.  He's less good whenever he strays beyond that sphere,  usually leading him to mouth all the usual ill-considered and ill-informed opinions typical of mainstream centre-left America.  Such as his wholehearted  "humanitarian"  support for the invasion of Iraq.  Now he thinks it's a  "good question"  when an op-ed in the New York Times asks where are all the voices of Muslims who are "said to be moderates".

Well,  the short answer to that would be – as always – they're in the newspapers you aren't reading.

Mass media organizations generally report news that they believe their readers/listeners/viewers will be interested in hearing.  This is particularly true of commercial media organizations,  which depend for the their livelihood on the level of interest they can raise among their potential audience.  Now,  which of these headlines is going to sell more papers:  "Girl stoned to death by enraged fundamentalist mob"  or  "Moderate cleric calls for restraint"  ?  No prizes for guessing that one.  In the same way,  media organizations also tend to pander to whatever prejudices or stereotypes their customers are predisposed to have,  rather than attempting to challenge those prejudices.

So we begin to see why people like Dan Savage might not be hearing any moderate Muslim voices.  Virtually all major  (and most minor)  media outlets in the USA are commercial.  The situation is fairly similar in most of the Western world,  Australia included.  In the USA,  the band of different political viewpoints catered to by major news providers is also relatively narrow:  the British press offers a considerably broader spectrum,  for example.  Furthermore,  the range of viewpoints in the mainstream American media tends to be more right-wing and more anti-Arab than elsewhere,  reflecting the prevailing political climate.

The New York Times piece which set Savage off was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali,  described at the end of the article as  "a former member of the Dutch Parliament and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute".  Sounds very respectable. But what is the  "American Enterprise Institute",  exactly?  In the unlikely event that any New York Times readers felt the need for critical appraisal of that organization,  they would have had to look outside the mainstream American media to find it.  There are plenty of blogs out there talking about it and even Wikipedia is not too bad, but my favourite source for this kind of thing is the highly regarded,  left-leaning British daily The Guardian.  Articles like this have described the AEI as a neo-conservative thinktank which is fiercely pro-Israel and anti-Arab,  and one which has enjoyed remarkable favour not only with the Bush White House,  but also with a broad cross-section of the Amercian media.  Other pieces like this offer harsh criticism of the quality of its policy advice,  and argue that its  "scholarship"  is hamstrung by its extreme political biases.

Not only does the The Guardian provide information which might lead readers to question the agenda and credibility of the New York Times author,  it is also one of the very few Western media outlets I know of which regularly reports voices of "moderate Islam",  the existence of which Hirsi Ali dismisses as "wishful thinking".  A recent example came in its coverage of the British teacher imprisoned in Sudan for giving a teddy bear the name Mohammed.  One article contained the following paragraphs:

While many in Khartoum thought the arrest was harsh - the Sudanese blogosphere is awash with derision aimed at the authorities - leaflets were distributed at some mosques calling for protests against Gibbons after Friday prayers.
There was little doubt the protest had been carefully orchestrated.  The banners waved by marchers and tied to the front of vehicles had all been pre-printed.
The police did not intervene,  indicating that the protest received the official approval of the authorities.
In other words,  not only do we hear of moderate Muslims condemning the extremists,  we are also given the impression that the enraged mob was the result of a carefully orchestrated action by people with a hidden agenda  (quite possibly an unpopular government seeking to have unrest vented on a convenient foreigner).  Regardless of the ultimate truth of the matter,  The Guardian's piece is valuable for its thought-provoking perspective.

My previous post here cited the headline of an article in Australian paper The Age covering the same story.  That article in The Age was in fact lifted directly from the article quoted above,  citing  "The Guardian"  as its source.  In a graphic example of just how blatantly media outlets will manipulate information to cater to their reader's preferences,  The Age dropped all the passages just quoted,  along with any other "shades of grey",  turning it into yet another story bound to make its readers to ask where all the moderate Muslims are.  And given the source citation,  few readers would expect those moderates to be found in The Guardian either!

So Dan Savage's simplistic perspective is not surprising.  His support for the Iraq war stemmed from the same lack of access to decent information,  the same deplorable and deliberate failure of the mass media to provide vital facts.  Stephen Colbert got it exactly right with his satirical praise of the White House Press Corps back in 2006:  "We Americans didn't want to know,  and you had the courtesy not to try to find out".

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Papa, non predicare

The World section of today's online edition of The Age has these two items cheek by jowl:

- Kill 'teddy bear' teacher,  says crowd
- Pope blames atheism for injustice and cruelty

Enough said, really.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Victory on all fronts – ?

I'd been reluctant to make this claim up till now.  John Howard's defeat in his own electorate of Bennelong at the hands of charming ex-telejournalist Maxine McKew has not quite been officially confirmed yet.  More importantly,  his party looks like it will retain control of the upper house of Parliament until July 2008,  with an uncomfortable trio of minor parties holding the balance of power after that.

However:  since their defeat,  power within Howard's  (right-of-centre)  Liberal party has shifted dramatically towards the party's progressive,  truly liberal wing  (or as Australians say,  the  "small-l liberal"  wing),  and away from Howard's own far-right wing of the party  (appropriately known as  "the uglies").  Senior Liberal figures have been jettisoning core Howard policies with almost unseemly haste.  Suddenly we're hearing statements like this:  "you can see that Kyoto and the apology to indigenous people are obstacles that were peculiar to Howard.  He's gone,  story over."  Senior Liberals are even in favour of getting rid of Howard's cherished  (and deeply unpopular)  industrial relations reforms.  Could this be the fastest political revolution this country has ever seen??  It looks like the numbers in the upper house will be no hindrance to Labor's programme at all.

Ironically,  new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spent much of the past year moving the Labor party to the right,  trying to project an image of dependable stability to match Howard's own.  Now some Liberals are adopting positions more progressive than those of the new Blairite-style Labor.  For example,  Malcolm Turnbull,  now the second most powerful Liberal politician,  is an ardent republican.  Rudd,  on the other hand,  has ruled out a referendum on the republic issue any time soon.

Hopefully the Rudd camp will redress the situation soon.  Otherwise right will be left,  left will be right,  and the result will be embarrassment,  confusion,  and chaos on the nation's roads.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Islamic Revolutionary Guards CORR!!!

Some go on about the US Marines.  Others enthuse about the SAS.  But when it comes to elite fighting units,  Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would have to be,  without a doubt,  the hottest.

The uniforms!  Those firm,  steady gazes!  Those big,  big guns!
And oh,  above all,  the carefully tended stubble,  the closely trimmed beards!!  The Americans can keep their Marines,  with their ruthlessly cleanshaven chins - I've got an itch and it needs SCRATCHIN'!!

One look into those dark smouldering eyes and I'll bet the enemy just surrenders straight away!  I know I sure would!!

The IRGC - putting the "war" back into PHWARR!!!

Sunday, 4 November 2007

French Word of the Day

... for today is:


meaning  "incredible,  fantastical,  over-the-top".  As in:  "Richard Curtis,  un élu du Parti républicain à la Chambre des représentants [..],  a présenté sa démission après un rocambolesque feuilleton impliquant un prostitué" (from Têtu).

What an absolutely brilliant word!  And it gets better:  the word is derived from "rocambole":

roc·am·bole –noun
a European plant,  Allium scorodoprasum,  of the amaryllis family,  used like garlic.
Also called giant garlic.
(From the Random House Unabridged Dictionary,  via

Isn't that lovely?  But what is so incredibly fantastical about a big shallot,  I hear you ask?  It can't be so big as to inspire dumbfoundment and disbelief,  surely?

Well,  no.  The name of the leek-like vege was used as the name of the title character in a series of bestselling stories in the mid-nineteenth century by one Ponson du Terrail.  The stories were,  indeed,  rocambolesque.  More here

The vicomte Ponson du Terrail  (whose own name is quite a gem in itself)  seems to have chosen this name for his character because the word was already being used in a figurative sense.  The nineteenth-century Littré dictionary (available online here) quotes two meanings,  "ce qu'il y a de plus piquant dans quelque chose" and "populairement:  et toute la rocambole,  et tout le reste",  both of which probably contributed to the vicomte's choice.

There.  Isn't language fun?

Saturday, 20 October 2007

The gut feel

And now,  an entirely unimaginative  "me too"  of a post.  I have to add my wholehearted  "amen"  to the following orison,  from Mindless Munkey:

I hate our current Prime Minister so much it's like a physical sensation.  Please please please,  Australia - make the right choice.  The Howard Era should never have happened.  It has most certainly gone on far too long.  It must end now.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Howard rallies the faithful once again

This is possibly the most blatantly repugnant thing that John Howard,  still Prime Minister of Australia,  has ever been quoted as saying.  And that is saying a hell of a lot.

The Labor party spokesman for foreign affairs recently sparked a furore when he dared to suggest that if elected his party would campaign against the death penalty in all cases,  even for the Indonesians convicted of the terrorist attack which killed Australians in Bali in 2002.  Some of the victims' relatives were enraged,  baying for the blood of the perpetrators and more or less also for the blood of the Labor spokesman for foreign affairs.  Howard immediately seized the reins of the bandwagon:

The idea that we would plead for the deferral of executions of people who murdered 88 Australians is distasteful to the entire community ... I find it impossible myself,  as an Australian,  as Prime Minister,  as an individual,  to argue that those executions should not take place when they have murdered my fellow countrymen and women.

The man has an undeniable talent for identifying the worst traits of the Australian people,  and then fuelling and exploiting those traits for political gain.  Is there any other politician in the world today who can do this with such aplomb?  Mugabe has nothing on this guy.  Karl Rove would be taking notes.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd,  probably the next Prime Minister of Australia, was quick to slap down his foreign affairs spokesman and declare that he would only campaign against the death penalty if it was being imposed on Australians,  and certainly not when imposed on the killers of Australians.  I'm sure that will go down just marvellously in the international community.  However, even despite his pathetic pragmatism,  he did not go so far as to utter anything as shameful,  as reprehensible,  as sickening,  as Howard's righteous indigation above.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The hilarity of Thomas Mann

I'm currently making my way through Thomas Mann's
Der Zauberberg.  I never realised before how hilarious Thomas Mann is.  He clearly never ceased to be anything less than urgently aware of the great importance of the task that fate had assigned him,  namely that of being a Great Writer.  Every one of his works creaks at the seams with the weighty burden of his vocation.  They are all so terribly,  terribly serious  (it's evidently people like him who helped give the Germans their famous reputation in this respect).  It's not that his stores are entirely lacking in humour;  there are not infrequent moments of wit,  sometimes even rather crude jokes.  However, it's generally his characters who are laughing;  his omniscient third-person narrator never goes beyond a wry smile.

His portentous approach is perhaps most strongly felt in his digressions on philosophical subjects.  In the Fourth Chapter,  there is an extensive musing on the nature of time,  one of the major themes of the book.  He begins by discussing the pleasantly diverting disorientation of going on holiday,  the way it breaks up the monotony of our regular existence.  He then delves into the nature of this monotony:

Worauf beruht dann aber diese Erschlaffung und Abstumpfung bei zu langer nicht aufgehobener Regel?  Es ist nicht so sehr körperlich-geistige Ermüdung und Abnutzung durch die Anforderungen des Lebens,  worauf sie beruht  (denn für diese wäre ja einfache Ruhe das wiederherstellende Heilmittel);  es ist vielmehr etwas Seelisches,  es ist das Erlebnis der Zeit,  - welches bei ununterbrochenem Gleichmaß abhanden zu kommen droht und mit dem Lebensgefühle selbst so nahe verwandt und verbunden ist,  dass das eine nicht geschwächt werden kann,  ohne dass auch das andere eine kümmerliche Beeinträchtigung erführe.  Über das Wesen der Langenweile sind vielfach irrige Vorstellungen verbreitet.  Man glaubt im ganzen,  dass Interessantheit und Neuheit des Gehaltes die Zeit  „vertreibe“,  das heißt:  verkürze,  während Monotonie und Leere ihren Gang beschwere und hemme.  Das ist nicht unbedingt zutreffend.  Leere und Monotonie mögen zwar den Augenblick und die Stunde dehnen und  „langweilig“  machen,  aber die großen und größten Zeitmassen verkürzen und verflüchtigen sie sogar bis zur Nichtigkeit.  Umgekehrt ist [...]

This goes on for fully 629 words [abridged translation here].  One is reminded of the quip  "art is long and life is short;  here is evidently the explanation of a Brahms symphony"  (attributed to one Edward Lorne,  about whom I know nothing else).  That is unfair:  unlike Brahms,  Mann's work is a pleasure;  his prose may be long-winded but it is always elegantly beautiful.  However,  British humourist Terry Pratchett took just nineteen words to make exactly the same point that Thomas Mann did in his 629,  and he managed to be light-hearted at the same time.  Here's Windle Poons,  the world's oldest wizard,  musing on the nature of time in Reaper Man:

Everything was wrong these days.  More thin.  More fuzzy.  No real life in anything.  And the days were shorter.  Mmm.  Something had gone wrong with the days.  They were shorter days.  Mmm.  Every day took an age to go by,  which was odd,  because days plural went past like a stampede. There weren't many things people wanted a 130-year-old wizard to do,  and Windle had got into the habit of arriving at the dining-table up to two hours before each meal,  simply to pass the time.

Unfortunately for Pratchett,  it's portentousness,  not pithiness,  which tends to win Nobel prizes.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Pimp me, baby

In the tradition of "Pimp My Ride" (MTV America) and the brilliant "Pimp My Fahrrad" (MTV Germany) comes the latest from German lifestyle show Taff,  aimed at beauty-conscious 18-35 year olds: "Pimp My Body".


If I was spending my time here teaching English,  this would possibly depress me.  As a translator,  I can react with equanimity:  despite all the talk about the German language being taken over by  "English words and expressions",  it's pretty clear that there's going to be a need for native English-speaking translators in this country for quite some time to come...

Monday, 6 August 2007

Heaven is a place on earth

At the end of June, I had the good fortune to attend a huge, brilliant party at Köpi, one of the biggest and most active of the Wohnprojekte ("living projects") dotted around the city of Berlin. These Wohnprojekte are communally-run buildings or caravan communities (wagenburgs) drawing together people looking for an alternative to the isolation and consumerism of modern urban living. Many of the buildings began as squats in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Wohnprojekte are usually left-wing, non-commercial and anti-consumerist. Emphasising independence of lifestyle, the term "Freiraum" is often used, meaning free space, space in which to be free. These spaces frequently nurture artists and community groups. Köpi, for example, has an amazing six or seven public spaces in its ground floor and basement areas, which are used for performances, parties, exhibitions, and regular film screenings.

Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit famously described the city a few years ago as "poor but sexy" (arm, aber sexy). The phrase has since become a semi-official slogan for Berlin. What makes Berlin "sexy" (and something Wowereit himself seems to have missed) is the artists, the creative people, out-of-the-ordinary individuals experimenting with new ways of looking at the world. To quote Köpi's own website, "tourists flock to the city in such large numbers precisely because Berlin makes alternative culture possible. The city's charm lies in its diversity, the possibility of experimentation, the opportunity of experiencing something new and different" (my translation).

Köpi and places like it are a vital part of what makes Berlin so extraordinary. Yet they are now being progressively destroyed by property speculators, aided and abetted by a city administration blind to the source of the city's greatest strength. In recent years, numerous Wohnprojekte have been closed down, their residents evicted, their buildings converted to expensive apartments and offices. Berlin is in danger of becoming just another boring European capital, or at best a museum to its own history. Compared to what it was throughout the '80s and '90s, it has already gone a terribly long way down that path. Recent forced closures include Yorckstr. 59 and Open Space at Adalbertstr. 32 (both of which are trying to keep going at least in part in some other form), and the following places are currently under threat: the Schwarzer Kanal wagenburg, Rigaer Str. 94, Rigaer Str. 84, Tuntenhaus [link in English! - one year old but current situation similar], Brunnenstr. 183, and Köpi itself. This list is by no means exhaustive. If Berlin allows itself to continue down this road, it'll soon be no longer sexy – just poor.

The threat to Köpi is particularly urgent. The area where it is situated, just off the river, is undergoing frenetic property development. Just a few years ago, Köpi and its neighbouring wagenburg stood alone in the middle of large grassy area. Now they are nearly overshadowed by the fancy new concrete-and-glass monuments to capitalism which have sprung up all around.

[This image of Köpi is a few months out of date - the white graffiti visible on the left ("The border is not between the nations, but between those on top and those below") is now obscured by a huge, still-incomplete office building hard up against that wall, seen here in the first stages of its construction]

Naturally, this has made investors greedier than ever to get their hands on the land on which Köpi stands. On Monday 13 August 2007, the latest in a series of protests in defence of Köpi in Berlin and elsewhere will take place, in front of the Rotes Rathaus (town hall) on Alexanderplatz. The following update is from Köpi's website ("Rock am Rathaus"; my translation):

On 8 May this year, the property at Köpenicker Str. 137 went under the hammer once again. While attempts to auction the property at the end of the 1990s failed or were cancelled due to massive protests in solidarity, this time the sale was finalised before the public auction took place. The special attraction this time was that the neighbouring properties at numbers 133 to 136, with the Köpi wagenburg, were being flogged off as well. Besnik Fichtner, a Kosovan flooring installer and henceforth managing director of "Plutionium 114 Köpenicker Str. 133-138 GmbH", became the new owner, acting in a puppet role. According to newspaper reports, he intends to build luxury apartments and office space, with boat quays. Evidently it has escaped his notice that his newly acquired estate is not on the waterside. Currently the public prosecutor is investigating him, his probable backers and their nebulous corporate construct for a number of reasons including possible fraud. Meanwhile he has still not made contact with the residents and users of the house and wagenburg. We're happy for it to stay that way. Then his investment would count as cultural and social sponsoring of the city of Berlin. […]
Now and in the future, Köpi will remain a hub for all forms of left-wing political resistance and for all kinds of non-commercial "do-it-yourself" culture. To reinforce this demand, we are meeting at 4pm on 13 August in front of the Rotes Rathaus. Four rock groups from Norway, Holland and Brazil will pamper our ears and call attention to the fact that affordable culture needs a place in this city.

If you're in Berlin, get yourself along to that protest. Berlin needs all the help it can get.

Back in June, I made my way homewards from that party an hour or so after dawn. The party was still going strong, and as I walked out into the peaceful early morning, the birdsong mingled with the dwindling sound of jubilant voices singing along to the following lyrics. They seemed to sum up exactly what I was feeling:

Oh, baby, do you know what that's worth ?
Oh heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We'll make heaven a place on earth

(Yes indeed: Belida Carlisle is the voice of today's dispossessed youth. Leave a light on for me, for you, for every one of us.)

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Berlin sunset

From the Oberbaum bridge linking Kreuzberg to Friedrichshain, one of the former crossing points between West and East Berlin

(This should really have been a photo of a dawn,  shouldn't it.  A bright new one.  But dawn is such a difficult time of day:  I'm usually either in no mood to be taking photos, or in no state to.)