corin tucker

Society and technology

I posted a reply to a short promotional essay on the Tor website, and I thought, "I'm so bad at updating my livejournal, but this would've made a good lj post."

Here is the essay I was replying to:

Why The Future Never Gets The SF Right, by Michael Flynn.

And my comment/reply:

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Before I say anything, I think the idea of a high-tech society with no belief in science or progress is awesome, and will keep an eye out for your work. I just want to disagree with the particular view of history in your essay, for the sake of intellectual discussion.

I’m surprised to see Engels in the list of philosophers for whom the “endless universe is making a comeback”; Engels was a materialist, a follower of scientific progress (and debunker of mysticism), and (obviously, given his politics) a believer in humanity’s ability to continue technological progress into the future.

As a historical materialist, I think he would have disagreed with the outline you give of the history of technological development. I don’t think that it’s necessarily beliefs that hold back science in a larger sense. We need to remember that the Scientific Revolution came in an age of social revolution, where kings and queens (and the beliefs they fostered to justify themselves) were being swept aside and a more advanced economy based on markets, owners and labourers appeared.

The ancients you list aren’t just distinguished by their beliefs in a cyclical universe, but by just how extremely impoverished their societies were. The Greeks and Romans built amazing feats of architecture and engineering – but they had little in the way of large-scale industrial production, which could maintain some level of technological progress based on science. They supported miniscule populations by modern standards, and their great feats were not those of organised, modern workforces, but of slaves whose replenishment was not a sure thing. It was a society where the idea of working for a boss was obscene. It couldn’t have supported a technological revolution on the scale we’ve experienced over the past few hundred years.

Similarly, to Joseph Needham’s idea of linking scientific progress to the idea of a created universe; most of Christian history is the history of backwards, unscientific feudalism. I think Carl Sagan had a colourful way of putting it, I remember him saying something like “You would have an astronomer sort of like you might have a court jester.” It was a peasant-based economy, again, like the ancients, extremely impoverished. Simply not capable of great leaps of progress (or rather, not capable of translating that progress into ever-increasing technological change).

It’s only after the markets and merchants (that had always been around) suddenly see the monarchies around them losing their economic power, and find themselves and their commercial interests becoming stronger and stronger (in places like Holland and Venice, then England and France), to the point of a wave of revolutions, that scientific and technological progress really starts to take off. Because it suddenly becomes both economically relevant, and economically supportable by society.

Now, I think, we’ve passed the high point of capitalist advancement. Science is increasingly hamstrung by financial and commercial pressures; capitalist innovation is more and more about new kinds of smartphone and less and less about real, fundamental leaps in technology; investors are naturally unwilling to spend huge amounts of cash on high-risk, low-return scientific/technological adventures like space travel, alternative energies, etc – and governments no longer have the political will to fund such projects (to my generation, it seems like that was all really just to out-compete the USSR anyway!), and the economic crisis in Europe is even starting to drive people in some places (such as Greece) out of organised workplaces and big cities, and back toward the peasant countryside – to avoid starvation. Our capitalist world is actually running the tape backwards, in many senses.

I feel like we’re on the verge of the kind of thing you describe for your book, just on a smaller planetary scale with lower tech: a society with lots of high-tech toys, and no real ability to progress in a meaningful way. Instead of citing religious dogma, researchers in universities hear the neo-liberal, bureaucratic-capitalist catechisms, and must bow and make obeisances to the priests in accounting. Global warming is just the icing on the dystopic cake.

If we want to send people to Mars, barring some unforeseen development, I think we need to go to the next stage of society. Not to put too fine a point on it, but thats the stage envisioned by Engels – not as part of any cyclical thinking or mystical utopianism, but actually as an extremely materialist attitude, born of the Enlightenment.
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corin tucker

Long time no post.

Hi all.

A lot has happened in my life since the last time i posted. One of the strangest, hardest-to-comprehend things is that someone I know comitted suicide.

We weren't especially close, but we did work together, and that breeds a certain kind of closeness that you might not really understand is there until something happens. Various thoughts spring up after a thing like this. The first was, no joke, "I had no idea he felt this way - i should make an effort to talk to him about it next time i see him."

Which perhaps speaks a bit towards my inability to comprehend.

I have this hard-to-shake feeling that he has sort-of vanished, and I'm talking about it so frankly here because I don't have any of his mutual friends on my flist, and so I feel i can be frank about my personal feelings without treading on anybody elses.

He jumped from a well-known building where i work and study. Apparently, this happens often at this particular building (a friend that a paramedic spoke with said about a dozen people per year do this), but if you worked or studied here, you would never know it. It's not reported in any way, and it's not encouraged that one speak about it. He has a lot of very good friends, and a small memorial appeared to him shortly afterwards; the university administration quickly suggested that it be removed, as it makes it just "a bit too obvious" where and how it happened (and that it happened at all).

The theory is that reporting on suicide causes a rise in other suicides immediately afterward, i.e. that other people who are in that headspace will more quickly move from thinking about it to doing it. And there may be some merit in this perspective - I haven't seen or examined the data.

But it's also an "excluded middle" sort of perspective. By which i mean that the choices are not between "reporting" and "not reporting"; there are a range of possibilities inbetween these. Instead of quickly offering counselling to those affected and covering it up as far as possible for everybody else, perhaps it could be discussed in an open and meaningful manner? What effect would that have on other people who might already be feeling this way, or might head down that path at some other date?

(Perhaps the media is not capable of something like this; journalists flit from topic to topic, generally presenting a disconnected, insane, sociopath's view of the world. People die in large numbers in foreign countries on page 10, and their deaths have no causes, and no effects - they're just "incidents", with no history and no consequence. And when understanding is brought into it, it's always distorted for the benefit of somebody, somewhere, who has money. This is the context in which we beleive that "reporting on" a topic like suicide only increases the chance of somebody else doing the same - because this is what "reporting on" means, in our society: Hollow, dry, ahistorical, meaningless, contextless, useless to everyone who reads it.)

But there are student newspapers, there are unions and organisations beyond the media who can discuss it - who have an interest in discussing this sort of thing, because they are composed of people living their daily lives, not subject to editorial oversight. Maybe something could be made of that. I don't know.

All i'm trying to say is that this is a real problem, that really exists in the world. Denying it makes it seem so abstract and inconsequential, but the consequences are enormous. It's hard to reconcile when the person has simply vanished. I can't fit it in. In my head, he's still alive. Cognitive dissonance.

It probably doesn't help me that I was slightly-outside his real circle of friends, being a co-worker. It certainly doesn't help that his facebook profile vanished as well - and I mean, literally. I mean, i went back to look at a friendly comment he had made on one of my status updates in the last few months, and it wasn't there. The little memorial isn't entirely gone; somebody taped a banksia to the wall, and i find myself stopping everytime i go past the spot.

So, that's that.
corin tucker

Why carbon trading is a waste of time.

Journalists seem to be locked into treating Penny Wong and Kevid Rudd's emissions trading ideas as if they are serious or economically sound concepts, to the extent of ridiculing the criticisms of the Western preoccupation with carbon trading coming from poorer nations. Fact is, carbon trading is not a remotely serious idea, and Westerners are wasting the world's time by supporting these politicians. Here's why.

1. Offsets are unverifiable. It is technically impossible to tell whether "carbon offsets" are true offsets, or imaginary ones (i.e. "you might never have cut down those trees anyway"; "you should have been geosequestering that stuff regardless"). In a way, carbon offsets fall under the reification fallacy - which means that in a technical and philosophical sense, some supposed offsets simply do not exist.

2. Caps are chosen to be meaningless. Caps in carbon trading systems are generally too generous, and seem to have been dictated by industry lobby groups (rather than climatologists) in Australia. This is one of the reasons carbon trading has failed to produce any progress in Europe, where it has been tried already.

3. Markets are inherently undemocratic. Even if caps were appropriate, and offsets were meaningful, carbon trading uses a market mechanism to drive energy efficiency, meaning that those who can afford carbon credits have less incentive to stop polluting, and those who can't afford it are forced into efficiency whether it makes sense for them or not. To put it another way, perhaps we would prefer that a hospital keeps it's energy-inefficient equipment running even when they can't afford the carbon credits (which their electricity provider would charge for). In a market, efficiency is placed outside of democratic control.

4. Markets are inherently innefficient. Related to this point, carbon trading provides no mechanism for actual gains in renewable energy. Solar technology, for example, currently requires research in superconducters and battery storage in order to be viable on massive scales. For this to happen, someone needs to actually roll up their sleeves and DO IT! All that carbon trading can offer is a dubious incentive for a company to one day buy some solar electricity far in the future when the technology magically works itself out.

5. Markets (unless they're 'black markets') require a great deal of legislation and bureacracy to function. Again, even if caps were appropriate (they aren't), and offsets were meaningful (a virtual impossibility), resources are wasted on the bureaucracy needed to make carbon trading 'work'.

6. Markets encourage blind displacement of economic activity. Carbon trading encourages practices that displace more important economic activities in favour of more profitable (under the trading system) ones. (For example, land that might have produced crops for food, or been left as carbon sinks, are given over to sugarcane for "green electricity" production in a gas plant.)

7. Carbon trading sucks political time and media space away from better ideas. We have just wasted ages in the news cycle and in Parliament on a bunch of children (i.e. the Liberal Party) arguing amongst themselves while the other bunch of children (ALP) have been using whatever little political will they have to push a carbon trading scheme both here and at Copenhagen, where yet more time and political willpower is being wasted on an attempt at a more global emissions trading scheme. Carbon trading is a waste of our glorious pseudo-democracy itself.
corin tucker

Obama and Africa

A few days ago, Barack Obama made a speech in Ghana, a West African country. It was well anticipated, as he's the first US president to actually have African ancestry - his father being Kenyan.

Speaking about the problems facing Africans, he said;

"It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants."

Every one of these statements was a lie.

The fact is, the West is largely responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, along with many other African economies, both in the recent past, and right now, as i type. The USA has benefited from proxy armies that use child soldiers, and has been responsible for wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.

The West, and the US, have actively supported dictators, genocidal maniacs, and systems such as South Africa's apartheid. And their role is not limited to the distant past, to some forgotten era of "colonialism". Colonialism exists right now, sponsored by the USA under Barack Obama just as it was under all of his predecessors.

Obama says "the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner". He invokes the idea of our attempts to dictate African progress. "Patron" hardly captures it. "Bloodthirsty murderer" might be more apt. As others are pointing out (e.g.: "Acknowledge America's Role in African Affairs", "Taking Responsibility Begins At Home", "Obama in Ghana: The Speech He Might Have Made"), Obama's language, and the pathetically inadequate grasp of African history that he endorsed in his Ghana speech amount to a whitewashing of history - and worse, a whitewashing of the present.

What Obama is really invoking is a racist myth that Africans have been the cause of their own troubles through their failures to realise their own potential. He reminds one of the black American stereotype of a welfare-dependant people blaming whites for supposedly self-inflicted failures to 'pull themselves up by their bootstraps.'

In Africa, as in America, this is a racist lie. Africans have tried time and time again to improve their conditions, and every single time they get slapped down by men like Barack Obama. Sometimes they succeed, only to be confronted with relentless campaigns - from men exactly like Barack Obama - to turn their successes into Pyrrhic victories.

Obama's lies do illuminate one thing; they prove to us once again that his skin colour is the only thing that differentiates him from past US presidents, and perhaps it's the only good thing about him at all, in what it (supposedly) says about race in America. As John Pilger said in Melbourne a couple of months ago, he may be black, but he's just an American president.

Zimbabwe
"[T]he West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade"

Since Obama lied so explicitly about Zimbabwe, let's begin there.

At the moment, Zimbabweans are running a shared parliament, which includes both Robert Mugabe and his political opponent Morgan Tsvangirai. For a long time, right-wing ruler Robert Mugabe held onto power there, and in recent years we've come to know him as the brutal man that he is, responsible for the torture and persecution of political dissidents. But the West didn't make any noises about Mugabe until he began a program of nationalisation of industry and land redistribution - taking land from settler descendants and giving it to the landless black Zimbabweans who their ancestors stole it from. These programs made him immensely popular in Zimbabwe, but these are the reasons he has come to be known as a "dictator" in the West.

Nationalisation, in particular, is an economic policy that places industries into public hands, ensuring that the profit from certain industries goes directly into the countries budget. In Africa, much of the profit from industries such as mining flows into transnational corporations (like DeBeers - who still control most of the diamond trade, and are wholly responsible for more death and misery than a person can reasonably contemplate). Some countries, such as Namibia (where i'll be going in a few months!), have been able to wrest some control back from these industries -diamond mines there are part-owned by the state, part by DeBeers, but the transnationals still control the decision-making regarding such resources, and still extract profits that, by all rights, belong to Africans.

So nationalisation is a pretty clear policy of taking Africa's wealth and channeling it toward the people, rather than continuing to let it bleed-out overseas to rich Westerners - exactly what Obama claims to advocate. Land seizures were badly handled in Zimbabwe - they were characterised by unnecessary violence and a lack of compensation for the displaced land-holders, but the fact is, they involve a redistribution of wealth to black Africans that, again, is exactly what Obama claims to call for. Exactly what he claims is missing in Africa. And exactly why so many Zimbabweans support Mugabe despite his brutality.

For the crime of nationalisation and land redistribution, the USA and Britain led the call from the West - which Obama claims "is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade" - for sanctions against Mugabe. Sanctions deliberately designed to "destroy the Zimbabwean economy" (much like the assault on Iraq's economy, ten years earlier). Mugabe went, in Western newspapers, from being a tolerable and fairly right-minded African leader to a being a hideous dictator (much like Saddam Hussein, twenty years earlier).

Coupled with a drought and the mismanagement of seized farms (although there is some disagreement on the degree to which farm mismanagement affected the problem), these sanctions had exactly the desired effect - mass starvation leading to political instability.

And now, Western comedians routinely poke fun at the ridiculous "One Hundred Trillion Dollar Notes" printed by the Zimbabwean government as their economy slid into hyper-inflation and a massive food crisis. Pretty funny!

(Further reading: "Why I Refuse To Condemn Mugabe" by Adolf Mkenda.)


Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R. Congo)
"[A] colonial map that made little sense bred conflict".

Sure, to some extent.

But for the most part, Obama, men like you knowingly bred conflict. Sorry, not just "bred" conflict, breed conflict. Present tense. Not just in some distant, dusty past, involving poorly drawn territorial maps and inappropriate tribal resettlement.

While sanctions are fine against leaders who try to redirect Africa's wealth through land redistribution and nationalisation, Western countries (and transnational companies) are perfectly happy trading with corrupt administrators who redirect wealth from their people, and funding violent militias, and systematically fuelling pre-existing ethnic conflicts, to keep the average African person from trying to seize any part of that wealth.

2008-12-12-Picture0011
(Congolese activists at Federation Square, in Melbourne)

The standard myth about the Congo is that it's an inherently unstable nation. That ethnic violence and inappropriate borders are solely responsible for 'breeding conflict'. This is a lie, as explained by Ali M. Malau in "Congo: We Should Be Africa's Brazil". Western companies extract resources from the Congo - using local proxy armies to police these operations and smack down any discontent. They then reap the mass of the profits from those resources, paying off corrupt governments to keep them on the West's side. The people of the Congo see almost none of this incredible wealth. Even the people actually carrying out the extraction - the miners - don't get much benefit from it. They work under hideous conditions, and virtually nothing is reinvested in local communities. The wealth travels overseas. To us.

This isn't "historical colonialism". This is modern transnational colonialism, and it is happening right now.

Contrary to many of Obama's public statements on Africa to date, the USA plays a key role, leading other Western nations in a systematic effort to keep the Congolese government as weak as possible, to head off attempts at nationalising the Congo's resources for the good of its people. Ken Anderson wrote in Imperial Clash on the Congo Front that Laurent Nkunda, a Rwandan army officer who had ties to the US-backed regime in Rwanda, was embarking on yet another proxy war in the east of D.R. Congo which, according to the Wall Street Journal, was leaving Congolese politicians "preoccupied by the recent fighting and humanitarian crisis ... near Congo's eastern border with Rwanda."

Since then, the Rwandan government has joined forces with the Congolese government in taking the unprecedented move of pursuing the homicidal Nkunda and placing him under arrest. This comes as a direct result of unwanted attention being paid to Rwanda's support for Nkunda, and, particularly, Britain's ongoing support for the authoritarian regime in Rwanda (see DRC: The Future Has Come And Gone by Lansana Gberie). Why? Read on...


Rwanda and Uganda
"...or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants"

The Third World Traveler website, in Rwanda's Secret War: US-backed destabilization of Central Africa, describes a history of political and military manipulations of Rwanda. The United Nations Security Council recognized in December last year (a month before Nkunda's fresh assault on D.R. Congo) that Rwanda was responsible for Nkunda's destabilization efforts in D.R. Congo - Final Report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What it doesn't clarify is what many have known for a long time (see Friends of the Congo blogpost "U.S.-British Ally Fuels Conflict in Congo", and other links provided above) - Rwanda's authoritarian military regime, led by U.S. ally Paul Kagame, is backed by the United States, among other Western countries. And it is backed in its pillaging of the neighbouring Congo, under the cover of the same 'ethnic tensions' that leaders like Obama continually trot out as explanations for central Africa's conflicts. Britain's threat to withdraw support from Kagame's regime forced Kagame to go after Nkunda; this could have happened at any time in the past decade, and saved the Congolese a lot of grief. It didn't until now, because D.R. Congo's grief leads to a great deal of benefit for the West.

Another violent African ruler supported by the US is Museveni in Uganda. One of the reasons the international community pays any attention at all to child soldiers in Uganda is that they are employed by the Lords Resistance Army, an anti-government militia opposing Museveni. Similar outrage accompanies news of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka employing child soldiers - they are an official Western enemy; atrocities by the Sri Lankan government don't get the same coverage - just meek comments from the West which the genocidal Sri Lankan government knows it can safely ignore. Similarly in Africa, as soon as you look at child soldiers in non-dissident forces, leaders like Obama start to get bored.

Both Kagame's Rwanda and Museveni's Uganda have recruited child soldiers. Many of the factions in the region - some say all of them - use child soldiers. When Obama stated that the West was not responsible for child soldiers, or the "wars in which" they are used, he was outright lying. The U.S. is both responsible for fueling the conflict and creating the wars in the first place, and for funding and supporting the proxy armies that have fought on their behalf - who have used child soldiers.


Modern Colonialism
"[T]the change which can unlock African potential [...] is a responsibility which must be met by Africans. ... Africa's future is up to Africa."

Obama's entire speech was geared toward the concept of African responsibility for African problems. But no U.S. administration - not even Obama's - has ever shown any interest in Africa's future being "up to Africa".

This is perhaps one of the most offensive, degrading aspects of Obama's 'pull yourselves up by your bootstraps' speech.

Contrary to the mythology that Obama invokes, Africans are not intellectually or spiritually inferior to Westerners. Their leaders are no more inherently corrupt than Western leaders (though Western leaders can be awesomely corrupt). They are quite capable of fighting for their rights. They are quite capable of attempting to seize their own future, their own destiny. They have fought for such things over, and over, and over, and over again throughout their history. The only reason they don't control their own future right now is the massive firepower arrayed against them - often literally. Surely we all remember that the ANC - Nelson Mandela's revolutionary group in apartheid South Africa - was classified as a terrorist organisation by the USA, and treated accordingly?

Even when Western powers accepted black rulers in African countries, only a certain kind of black ruler - right-wing, capitalist, and corrupt - would do. Patrice Lumumba was a Congolese leader in the early 60s, who spoke about using his countries wealth to create social programs for Congolese. He was assassinated. The US was jubilant. D.R. Congo was quickly placed under the control of Mobutu Sese Seko, a dictator who ruled the country for three decades and oversaw mass impoverishment and the development of countless unnecessary conflicts. And I've already mentioned what happened to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe when he tried to "unlock African potential".

Black access to democracy in South Africa was eventually tolerated by Western countries - so long as those blacks in power bought in (and sold out) to a right-wing, poverty-generating economic system. Even something as radical as land reform was incorporated into a conservative economic structure: the World Bank fought for a "willing buyer, willing seller" model of land redistribution, the effect being that more than two decades after apartheid, almost none of South Africa's land (5%) has been redistributed to black South African interests.

And there is a debt burden placed on African nations, where the debt is often one incurred by former governments that the people living there never wanted. This helps to maintain poverty in Africa no matter who is in charge. Black South Africans, for example, are expected to bear some of the burden for paying off loans incurred by the racist, apartheid South African government. Just contemplate the absurdity of this situation for a moment. Such debts are illegal. They are known as 'odious debts', and Western powers such as the USA still demand that nations pay them off, law be damned. Add to the equation the fact that most of these nations have been bleeding wealth (often via precious minerals) overseas to the West, and the entire situation becomes even more ludicrous.

Local control and sovereignty in Africa is only tolerated when African leaders do what the West tells them to do. Nowadays, an international system exists specifically to advise governments to follow right-wing policies beneficial to the West, geared towards the continued extraction of resources from Africa, and the continued denial of the proceeds from those resources to the people who live there.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a Western-backed fund that grants money to countries that need it. But those seeking loans from the IMF are forced to accept their policy prescriptions as well, by the conditions of the loan. It's not enough to pay the loans off over time, like a loan you might get from a bank: loan-seekers at the IMF have to swallow their conservative ideology too (see the article Structural Adjustment Programs at http://www.whirledbank.org). They demand strict adherence to an economic "structural adjustment program", which seeks to eliminate socialistic policies from a nation's economy. This means cutting back social programs, lowering taxes, removing protections for workers and freezing wage rises, privatising public assets, and 'opening up' a country's economy to 'globalisation' (making it easier for transnational corporations to set up sweatshops and avoid genuine investment in any country in which they operate). These are generally unpopular policies, difficult for democratic governments to enforce without some degree of conflict - and for good reason. Many have documented the fact that these economic constraints work against the interests of a country's people, especially it's poorer people (e.g.// Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein)**.

Initiatives such as the IMF's are decided on by the leaders of the wealthiest nations in the world, the G8. They meet every now and then, and dictate - without even a pretense of democracy - what should happen to the world's economy. Invariably, they decide on policies that benefit transnational corporations and their own countries economies, at the expense of everybody else. Obama attended the most recent G8 meeting, and should know as well as anyone else there that Africa's future was most certainly not "up to Africa."

And there are other ways in which international law has been dominated by un-elected Western officials who propose and then manipulate international agreements for the benefit of Western corporations (for example, see the book Where Is Uhuru? by Issa G. Shivji). Third World Countries are expected to simply fall into line with these developments, or they face "the sanction of retaliatory measures which, needless to say, only the strong can take against the weak." (Shivji)


Obama
"Yes we can!"

But he won't.

Barack Obama gave a speech in Africa that was very carefully worded, very carefully designed to spread borderline-racist myths about Africans - that they have failed to properly take control of their own destiny, that their complaints against the West are somehow outdated.

His line did not deviate from the rhetoric of George W. Bush, and, like everything that came out of that racist old bastard's mouth, Obama's comments were mostly lies. But he slipped them in there, and he presumably expected people to swallow it.

What does it mean that he feels he can lie so blatantly, so openly, so obviously about Africa? Is it simply that he is black, and expects to get away with it for that alone - expecting Americans to shy away from arguing with the son of a Kenyan about Africa?

Whatever it was that made him think he could stand up in Ghana and insult an entire continent, he's done it. The coup in Honduras, the ongoing US-supported dictatorship in Haiti, the G8 meeting decisions, the US public healthcare backflip, the war being waged against Pakistani civilians, and now the whitewashing of history and the obscuring of the present facts around Africa: this is turning out to be Obama's legacy.

Turns out "change" is just a word.




**In brief: fewer social programs and lower taxes are supposed to cut down government spending, while placing less of a 'tax burden' to discourage industrialists - but they also mean that less of the wealth harvested from working South Africans by the upper class is redistributed among lower classes. Fewer wages and work rights are supposed to make a country more attractive for businesses - but they really mean that the harvest is more effective, concentrating wealth among the already wealthy (even while that wealth is entirely generated by employees in the first place). Privatisation of assets is supposed to make them more 'efficient' - in reality, it sets up parasites on public industry to siphon money off as profit, and cuts away at services that necessarily must be run at a loss (such as public transport in Melbourne). The opening up of an economy is supposed to encourage investment - it means that money can move more easily offshore, via transnational corporations, making the wealth forever inaccessible to a government that might be inclined to redistribute it fairly. It also means that wealth-generating labour can be more easily harvested - if the unions are too strong in one country, just move your sweatshops to the next one.
corin tucker

Connex dumped, Victoria's trains sold out to somebody else.

For those not in Victoria, Connex is the unpopular train operator who has had control over Melbourne's privatised train network for the last few years. Until now, Connex has enjoyed a "culture of self-defense of incompetence" with the Department of Transport in Victoria, which has, until now, simply closed ranks with Connex to shield them from criticism.

A few months ago, Dr Paul Mees (RMIT lecturer in social science & urban planning) mentioned in an interview that Connex was being dumped by the State Government as a scapegoat for the problems plaguing the public transport system. Mees has argued that the people running the Department of Transport are basically pro-privatisation nutjobs. They have an ideology that they're obsessed with sticking to, and this is just another way to deflect criticism of that ideology itself.

If you ask members of the public, the problems with Melbourne's public transport can include:

* Insufficient rail coverage - despite ancient plans to put new tracks out to places like Melbourne Airport and Monash University (which would become a stop on a Rowville line) - successive statement governments have done nothing to expand the train network,

* Long wait times between trains at Flinders Street and in the city loop (which Paul Mees has accused the government and Connex of running at 40% efficiency - i.e. they could double train services, if they wanted to expend the effort), and frequently late trains.

* Constantly rising fare prices, which rise above inflation.

* Constant extortion of public money by private operators, who can demand large payments from the government (and have cost us something like $2 billion dollars above and beyond what would have been spent on the Public Transport Corporation since privatisation).

* Roving bands of ticket inspectors with sometimes thuggish attitudes.

* A generally disdainful attitude toward the general public, exemplified in those "Ticket inspectors have the power to..." adverts, that fail to mention what passengers own legal rights are, and that, in fact, lie about ticket inspectors having "rights" to detain you after you've left a vehicle (they don't).

* Complete lack of consideration of popular calls to reduce fares to token amounts, to extend concession cards to international and post-graduate students, and even to abolish fares entirely (which The Age newspaper editorials campaigned for a while back).

None of these problems are being addressed by the change in operator. What they're basically doing is selling the problems to somebody else. And, like Connex, they're putting them on an eight-year contract, which can only discourage any political will to end privatisation.

The eight-years figure seems significant; it's the length of two terms in state government. It's two elections. This is almost symbolic of the the core problem with privatisation - there is no democratic, public control over a public asset/resource!

Do they deliberately choose 7 and 8 year contracts, to span two election campaigns, to head off any possibility of the major parties treating municipalisation (the opposite of privatisation) as a serious election issue? I wouldn't be surprised.
corin tucker

Transformers and pop culture

Am just reading through this: More Than Meets Few Eyes At All by Micheal Peterson.

This isn't about his column itself (i'm reading it at the moment, and it's exactly what i'm arguing for below), just a couple of things referenced within it inspired me to post. From the blurb for "The Philosophy of Transformers":

"Transformers began with toys and a cartoon series in 1984 and has since grown to include comic books, movies, and video games"

This is kind of an odd sentence, considering that the recent spate of comic books, movies, and video games are all basically marketing tools for each other, released in a deliberately co-ordinated way (the earlier Marvel comics and full-length cartoon movies have a similar pedigree, just in an earlier era). And this has implications, for the wider culture, for the fan response, and for the interpretation of these things (in some cases - e.g. the prematurely released sixth Tomb Raider game (which was notoriously un-finished, because it had to coincide with the marketing for the second movie), it has direct effects on the nature and quality of the piece of pop culture that is produced).

"X began with doodles and flim flams back in nineteen dickety-two, and has since expanded to include flobsops, bangs, and didlywonts." Usually, sentences of this format are intended to make you think, "Wow, this thing started as some piece of art, and then was so inspiring to other artistic creators, that it led to a diaspora of other interpretations!"

But this wasn't inspiring to artistic creators! It might have inspired somebody, if we abolished corporate control over copyright and intellectual property law. But we haven't. So nobody sat down and said, "Oh, wow, i am really compelled to use my video game talents to produce my own interpretation of this world!" They sat down, and said, "Oh wow, my boss just negotiated for the rights to produce something to tie-in with this movie release to push up box office sales - i'd better make-up some crap quick-smart to meet that deadline! And be sure that the characters match the toys Hasbro are producing!" The computer games weren't made by amateur fans! The comic books weren't released by slash authors! Everything was licensed, timed, and controlled by a stultifying commercial attitude to what ought to be public domain fantasy.

A guy called David Willis observes: "perhaps being a marketing gimmick is part of Transformers' longevity. It's free to reinvent itself whenever it feels like it so as to keep itself viable..."

This is another use of language you often see in reference to pop culture: "The text reinvents itself." I'm sure this one sentence doesn't completely sum up the guy's opinions, but the passive-voice language used to describe "cultural texts" nowadays has me a little bit worried. Willis is just providing a convenient example.

My problem with this phrasing is that Transformers didn't "reinvent itself". It was "reinvented"; it is not a subjective actor, it is an object, it is made by subjective actors. Texts have an author, and those authors have motives and influence over the things they create, and a role in the culture that reacts to them. In some cases, texts have authors who have been hired to produce something slick on the whim of some higher up with no particular creative talent (but a lot of monetary talent). These factors have real world effects, and they tell you something about your society, and the people around you! You've got to at least acknowledge this, to be at all capable of comprehending "pop culture." You can't just claim "death of the author" and ignore them (and i have seen/read this being done). Derrida would be spinning in his grave!

What is interesting is that these facts mean that Willis is precisely wrong - Transformers is emphatically not "free to reinvent itself" over time; it's only "reinventable" if you hire a lawyer, talk to the right people, and have the right investors with enough cash.

I'm sure there are some philosophies discernable within Transformers, and they are worth talking about. Or, in that other CRIME AGAINST ENGLISH so often committed in reference to pop culture, there are things there that are worth "engaging with" (i should add: i still tend to to commit this linguistic crime on a regular basis in casual conversation, and i'm sure i've used it in livejournal posts in the past). But you need to have some awareness of the world around "the text" to do that - and, happily, Peterson's article appears to be doing exactly that (read it!). I just don't like the context-free, "post-modern" way that "texts" tend to be advertised, introduced and spoken about; Transformers was just unlucky enough to have given me a couple of superficial examples today while i had my livejournal page open.
corin tucker

Race in Star Trek, Part 2

From an interview with George Takei.

These are Takei's words:

"[J.J. Abrams] asked me if I'd have breakfast with him. He told me he'd been interviewing many actors for the part. He tried as hard as he could to find an actor of Japanese ancestry, which is what I am, but he found another actor who he thought would be wonderful. So he wanted to get my reaction to that.

[...]

I asked Gene [Roddenberry] how he came up with the name of Sulu. He said he wanted the Starship Enterprise to be a metaphor for Earth. So he wanted the people to represent regions of this planet. So Uhura was African and her name was based on a Swahili word.

So he was looking for an Asian name for what would be my character. Now Asian names are very nationality specific; Tanaka is Japanese, Wong is Chinese, Kim is Korean. Now Asia also has a reputation for warfare and colonization. Roddenberry didn't want to bring that into that character. So he was looking at a map of Asia and trying to solve that dilemma. He saw there was a sea called the Sulu. It's in the South China Sea area. He thought, ‘the waters of the sea touch all shores.' So that's how he came up with the name Sulu.

So I told this story to JJ. I said it would be entirely in keeping with Gene Roddenberry's vision. I told him not to confine himself to one particular cultural group. If he felt that actor could bring that kind of talent, he should go for it. So, assured by that, he told me he was looking at John Cho."


Takei's story makes sense, and the comment he makes toward the end of that quote, "I told him not to confine himself to one particular cultural group. If he felt that actor could bring that kind of talent, he should go for it.", is exactly how things should be.

But i would point out that John Cho would never have been cast as Kirk (even though i'm sure there are people with Korean ancestry in Iowa in the 23rd century); so it seems that, rather than being an expression of an unprecedented-ly egalitarian attitude towards acting, it's more likely that there's this idea that it's okay to fudge the race of a non-Westerner (hell, historically, it's been okay to fudge the race of a Westerner who looks a little bit brown (i.e. using South Italians to portray American Indians)).

And i would highlight this line;

He told me he'd been interviewing many actors for the part. He tried as hard as he could to find an actor of Japanese ancestry, which is what I am, but he found another actor who he thought would be wonderful.

Still find that hard to believe. John Cho has a lot of pop-culture cred at the moment. Star Trek was billed as aiming for a pop-culture-y audience of 15-25 year olds. I just find it difficult to beleive, firstly, that it was SO DIFFICULT to find talented Japanese actors going for the role of Sulu (they must have been flooded with people of Japanese, Scottish, African heritages as soon as the movie was announced!), and secondly, that this had nothing to do with John Cho's status, popularity, fame relative to any Japanese actor you could name (excepting women, and men who would be too old for the part).

Which is not to discount Takei's comments, or his interpretation of the character's significance as someone who was literally always intended to be "specifically Asian, but not specifically Japanese", to paraphrase my earlier post. There you go.

That ought to be the way Cho's Korean-ness relative to Takei's Japanese-ness, if it is an issue at all, is seen. I like it. It's completely in keeping with Roddenberryism.

But you still maybe get a story about the way actors are chosen in Hollywood, and the way less well-known actors could be locked out; it's just that race happens to be the factor that highlights it. Having said that, i've never heard of Zachary Quinto or Christopher Pine before.

Discuss.


Edited to add:

This is beside the point (or IS IT?), but look at this line: "[Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto] are both talented actors. Their personalities are alike, too. You know, Leonard and I used to talk a lot about political events. I'm a political activist, and so is he. We used to talk about the headlines all the time." Need time machine and tape recorder. Oh, i have a tape recorder (from mistersteve)! Halfway there.
corin tucker

Race in Star Trek (part 1)

"It's difficult having to hustle for jobs. Not knowing when the next job is coming in. It's hard. There are not enough roles out there. I try not to get wrapped up in it or I'll get depressed." - John Cho, an American of Korean descent (born in Seoul), on being an Asian-American actor.

Cho plays Hikaru Sulu, a Japanese member of the Enterprise crew, in the recent "rebooted" Star Trek movie.

Race shouldn't matter. James Doohan wasn't actually Scottish. Maybe in the rebooted Trek universe, Sulu's from Japan, but has alternate-universe Korean blood. Or maybe a wizard did it. For all i know, John Cho has Japanese blood (and the question as to whether this would be a good or a bad thing for Star Trek seems inherently wrong-headed). Such a discussion is beside the point (though it does highlight the inanity of "race" as a way to classify people), and please don't mistake this for a fannish whinge at an "incorrect" race for a particular character. I want to make this abundantly clear: John Cho deserves parts; He deserves this part, specifically. I am glad he played Sulu. And if they had given him more screen time, he could have delivered an excellent performance of the character. The lack of screen time would be my main complaint about Sulu, along with other of the less central characters.

So that's not were i'm going with this. I have only love for John-Cho-as-Sulu. I'm speculating about what his choice says about the people who chose him.

This only disturbed me when i wondered about the dynamics behind the casting.

So without beating around the race bush any further, this is my problem: Was there an assumption that an average American movie-goer can't tell the difference between a Korean person and a Japanese person, and therefore, it doesn't matter who you cast - as long as they look Asian-y? It seems likely to me, and maybe this says a lot about my perception of the way white Americans think (i think it says more about the way i think American casting directors and producers think).

Or, on a less race-y topic, was there an assumption that you needed to have a "familiar" face, and there aren't any familiar, young, Japanese-American male actors to fit the part? There is a racial dimension to that, too, but the disturbingness of that possibility lies more in the cynical exploitation of familiar actors that will draw attention for fame's sake. I'm sure there are plenty of young male Japanese-American actors that could have used the career boost (and the money) from this role.

Then there's the comment John Cho made above; it seems to come from this article: http://goldsea.com/Personalities/Choj/choj2.html

Here is the fullest context for the comment i could find:

With a total of about three dozen film and TV jobs to date, John Cho has worked more than most Asian American actors. Still, he sees being an Asian American actor as a chancy life. "It's difficult having to hustle for jobs," he said. "Not knowing when the next job is coming in. It's hard. There are not enough roles out there. I try not to get wrapped up in it or I'll get depressed."

What this highlights is that Asian-American actors are chosen for "Asian" roles; it implies that the default is White, and that a character needs to be specifically Asian in order to compel a casting person to cast an Asian actor.

If these dynamics were at play here, does that imply that Sulu is "specifically Asian" in the casting director's eyes - but not specifically enough to be Japanese?

So what does this mean?

Discuss.

(Edited to add: But see this later post)
corin tucker

The Chaser's War On Everything

From Lateline: "ABC management has pulled the comedy program The Chaser's War on Everything off the air for two weeks over a skit which satirised a well-known charity for dying children. [The Make-A-Wish Foundation] [...] The Prime Minister joined public criticism of this week's program which carried the controversial 'Make a Realistic Wish Foundation' sketch."

- http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2008/s2591144.htm

* First of all, from memory, the skit doesn't actually "satirise" The Make-A-Wish Foundation; a satire involves something "in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule", "that has the effect of making some person or thing ridiculous." - Oxford English Dictionary.

Now, i think the Make-A-Wish Foundation is a dubious organisation, completely open to some decent satire. (I worked for one of their call centres; their organisation's description of operations raises questions that i never found satifactory answers for; like, if almost half of your donation goes to the outsourced call centre (DTS), how is it "non-profit"? And, what happens if they're low on cash and they're asked to do something for a kid with ultra-rich parents, seeing as they don't distinguish based on income?). But they weren't making the Make-A-Wish Foundation seem "ridiculous" - they were satirising a culture of thriftyness and 'economic rationalism' - look at the title of the segment: it's the "Make-A-Realistic-Wish Foundation".

So the premise of this "outrage" (assuming any actually exists) is illogical in the first place.

* Secondly, pulled it off the air for two weeks? Wtf is that meant to achieve?

* Thirdly, whose complaint, exactly? I find it difficult to believe that it was viewers of The Chaser's War On EVERYTHING who made any sort of complaint; i wouldn't be surprised if this had more to do with the complaints of a few morons somehow associated with ABC management. I suspect there is no public outrage at all - or if there is, it doesn't involve much of the public.

* Fourthly, our idiot prime minister apparently made a comment about it. Exsqueeze me? Didn't we just get rid of a dickhead prime minister who thought his job description somehow involved making commentary on television shows? (I hate Big Brother as much as the next person, but i don't need to know John Howard's stupid opinion about it.)

Julian Morrow is quoted saying: "We don't agree with the decision, but we do want to apologise anyway. The sketch was a very dark sketch - clearly too dark - and we acknowledge the pain and the hurt that it's caused to a lot of people and we're really sorry for that."

* It was a little dark, and i can see how somebody who actually was dying, or had a kid dying, might have been disturbed - not by the nonexistent satirisation of Make-A-Wish, but just by the flippant references being made to the kid's deaths. I'd say this was a staple of "black humour" though, and something that people are normally happy to take-in-stride.

I don't expect everyone to be a Taoist when they have (or know someone who has) a terminal disease, but i don't think it's an unreasonable joke (nor do i think "laughing at death" is an unreasonable attitude to promote).

Still, it's interesting to read this from Julian Morrow; most of the time, Morrow is unapologetic for 'making the fun'. He described the APEC conference skit - in which the Chaser team were accused of breaking an idiotic anti-protestor law by entering the "green zone" surrounding the APEC conference - as "The stunt that went horribly right."

If this does show where the limits of his humour might lie, i'm glad he sees 'potentially upsetting sick people' as being more regrettable thing than breaking an evil law.

* What i was shocked about was that the Make-A-Realistic-Wish sketch attracted outrage (or, we are told that it attracted outrage, anyway), but on the same program, the sketch about the impoverished community in Africa being asked to donate to a Sydney private school's rowing club didn't.

I didn't think that should have been outrageous either - i'm sure they didn't actually take the African's money, i'm sure it was staged. But you would think that if ABC management had any moral fortitude (and IIRC it's headed by Keith Windschuttle - a right-wing historian who denies the extent of the Aboriginal genocide - so they quite possibly don't have any moral fortitude), that would be the skit they'd be investigating for possible ethical breaches!

* What's most disturbing is that they apparently clipped the "offending" sketch out of the podcast. They didn't put up a warning, or a disclaimer, they actually censored it, in the most physical way. THAT is pretty offensive.