Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy 2011: A New Year Of Awakenings

“To live is to be slowly born.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
2010 was a great year - India, Russia, Vietnam, poetry, friends...lots of events and awakenings. I even got glasses. The future looks bright - we're planning some big changes in 2011...stay tuned! Happy New Year everyone!!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas! Moscow Festivities

We made it to Moscow this past summer for our second time this decade (our first time was in 2001). It was inspiring to see all the elves working so hard in the middle of a hot summer...we couldn't help but get into the spirit. Merry Christmas everyone!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

WikiLeaks: Bigger Than Julian Assange

The figure of Julian Assange is overshadowing the work of WikiLeaks. If Assange has any professional integrity his first loyalty should be to WikiLeaks and its work, not to himself. He needs to pass all responsibilities over to other capable colleagues, get himself out of the headlines and off the WikiLeaks masthead. He's become a hindrance, a distraction.

A cult of personality has been developing around Assange, one that's sickening in its narcissism. Respected supporters of human rights and some of the world's greatest investigative journalists such as John Pilger, are now accusing alleged rape victims of base motives and suggesting that Assange, their alleged rapist, "deserves all our support." What? Is this about WikiLeaks or Julian Assange? Assange is one person; WikiLeaks and the work it has done (and will hopefully continue to do), is much more important than he could ever be. In other words, the messenger hasn't been shot - but Assange has.

Assange may very well be innocent - I hope so - but he and his supporters have been put in the impossible position of defending him against accusations of rape. He needs to address the allegations and quit claiming to be a victim of a smear campaign. Yes, he's been smeared, but so too have these women, who according to Swedish police reports published by the Guardian, have allegations that deserve investigating. There were four accusations outlined at the hearing last week in London:
• That Assange "unlawfully coerced" Miss A by using his body weight to hold her down in a sexual manner.

• That he "sexually molested" Miss A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her "express wish" one should be used.

• That he "deliberately molested" Miss A "in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity".

• That he had sex with a second woman, Miss W, without a condom while she was asleep.
The Guardian article, "10 Days in Sweden: the Full Allegations Against Julian Assange", was published in the name of transparency. If Assange is pissed off with them as has been reported, there's a name for that - hypocrisy.

A spokesman for the Guardian said: "Julian is not a confidential source. The argument that the papers involved with the WikiLeaks cables should not report criticism of him is one all journalists would find ridiculous."

The same is true of WikiLeaks, but Assange needs to "recuse" himself until this crap blows over. Private Bradley Manning, the alleged source for the WikiLeaks material, has also not been convicted of any crime, yet he's reportedly been suffering extremely harsh and unusual treatment while languishing in solitary confinement. Surely, he's just as deserving of our support and of searing Op-Eds by the likes of John Pilger.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

U2: The Thin Line Between Rapture & Corn

No band in the universe is as big as U2. U2 is so big -- the joke goes -- that when Bono wants to change a light bulb all he has to do is hold it and the world revolves around him. At their bombastic worst, few bands blur the line between rapture and corn quite as effectively as the Sonic Leprechaun and his Irish Soul Men.

But at their best, U2 achieves what very few artists in any genre can: they create work with a sustained intensity that transforms the particular into the universal. U2 has that rare ability to communicate what Federico Garcia Lorca called "duende"; that "mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains."

Popularly associated with flamenco, the concept of duende was imported into the south of Spain centuries ago by the Roma people, and has since migrated over to English. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as "the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm," but it's much more than that. In 1933, Lorca gave his famous lecture, "La Teoria y Juego del Duende" ("The Play and Theory of the Duende") in Buenos Aires detailing his notion of duende:
"I have heard an old master guitarist say: 'Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.' Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action."
My own relationship to music is based on this concept. It has to move me on some level, be alive, visceral and not about what's cool or popular.

This has led to some bruising clashes with certain aficionados when I proclaim, for example, that Bob Dylan's so-called "gospel" period beginning in the late 70s cuts far deeper than his fabled mid-60s output. The "Bobbynazis" roil and flail, but I refuse to surrender. That's the beauty of art -- its impact lies in the heart of the beholder.

So it is with U2. Sometimes the band's earnest intentions can seem as uncool as Napoleon Dynamite's retro-geek is cool. But as Miles Davis once so elegantly riffed, "So what?" -- my gut tells me a different story.In the wasted aftermath of the late 70s punk and post-punk explosions, U2 shifted the paradigm; it was cool enough to care, to believe that music could do more than just inspire gobs of hot neon or tinted highlights and actually change the world. My interest was sparked when I walked into A&B Sound on Seymour Street in Vancouver and caught a glimpse of their first video for War. As I watched the peculiar spectacle of four figures galloping on horseback across the frozen tundra of the Arctic Circle, the ricocheting chords and slithering bass of "New Years Day" filled the store:
And so we are told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
It was the antithesis of the times. Boy George, Madonna, and Michael Jackson all exemplified glossy pop; Duran Duran the pursuit of glamour, singing "Rio" in pastel suits aboard a yacht in the sun-kissed tropics. But here was something different -- a band confronting harsher elements, brilliantly fusing bombast with conviction in a song inspired, we were told, in part by the Polish independent union Solidarity.

Throughout 1982 when much of War was written, Solidarity and its leader, Lech Walesa, were in headlines around the world challenging the communist authorities in both Warsaw and Moscow. For a pubescent kid looking for something to believe in, this was a group that inspired faith. I didn't know it at the time, but I was responding to the exuberance of what could be, the limitless possibilities inherent in what Lorca called "newly created things."

Fast forward to 2004 and "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" from How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. The band connects with an emotional power, one that "surges up from the soles of the feet" with the velocity of an accelerating rocket. Written for Bono's late father Bob Hewson, (the "atomic bomb" of the album's title) who died in 2001, the song manages to uncover a condensed kernel of human pathos recognizable to anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one:
And it's you when I look in the mirror
And it's you that makes it hard to let go
Sometimes you can't make it on your own
A few years ago, while I was trying to make sense of the song's emotional impact, a student of mine was suddenly murdered by a triad gang in Hong Kong. His father, a police officer, was beginning to cause some very dangerous people enough anxiety for them to unleash their wrath on his one and only son. That loss was devastating and it opened me up to the song's raw power. As Bono says on the album's accompanying DVD, "a song can change the world...it can change the temperature in the room." I kept listening to it again and again, feeling my heart leap into my throat with the force of a Molotov cocktail. I was overtaken with rapture, a caesura captured in time.

As with other U2 songs like "Bad," "Without Or Without You," or "One," "Sometimes" is a smoldering ballad that gradually intensifies until finally breaking into a transcendent crescendo:
You're the reason I sing
You're the reason why
The opera is in me
It's an explosive confession that raises the room temperature and for Bono's father who apparently loved opera, it's a fitting tribute.

U2 - Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own

Producer Chris Thomas, who has worked with everyone from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, doesn't intrude or impose any formulas on what is essentially the song's mournful tone. But it's not a tome of despair. As with gospel-blues, the raw passion of Bono's voice elevates the music above grief and into the realm of catharsis. "Keening" is how the Irish dramatist J.M. Synge once referred to it, and Lorca identified it in the "deep song" of his country's folk music:
"It is truly deep, deeper than all the wells and seas in the world, much deeper than the present heart that creates it or the voice that sings it, because it is almost infinite...It comes from the first sob and the first kiss."
Few other bands come close to these dizzy heights. "Sometimes" is pure duende. Music of this caliber and class feels as primal as shelter and food. It's in this realization that "Sometimes" crosses from the particular to the universal, cutting deep into the heart's core to pull out an emotional response that has nothing to do with Bono's father, but everything to do with our shared vulnerability as fragile living beings.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Liu Xiaobo: A True "Chairman"

"Lui Xiaobo today has become a true 'chairman'" - anonymous internet post
Attempts by China to demonize and discredit the Nobel Peace Prize and its committee have backfired gloriously, reaching absurd levels of guano. Not only has a simple image of an empty chair aroused fear and panic in the authorities, but television screens turn black whenever the name everyone knows is mentioned. As the New Yorker's Evan Osnos writes, "The Black screen is reserved for a specific kind of unknowing: the denial of something everyone knows."

Is this how a great power acts? It's more like the tantrums of a spoiled brat who expects the world to revolve around his own swollen head. China makes a fool of itself whenever it tries to employ the same tactics it uses domestically on the international community. Fellow citizens may kowtow to Beijing out of fear, but for the rest of the world China is anything but the so-called "Middle Kingdom" it views itself as.
As Lui Xiaobo wrote, "To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth." When China's rulers try to do this on an international level they distort the true nature of their country, so much so that China will now forever linger alongside Nazi Germany in the annals of Nobel lore. And for anyone who knows China and its people, that's just one more tragedy - albeit a self-inflicted one - caused by the true enemies of the people - unelected thugs like Hu Jintao.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

China's Shame: The Nobel Boycott

"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness"- Chinese proverb
On December 10th, International Human Rights Day, China will have made every effort to snuff out the light of our collective humanity. Rather than permit the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, to attend the award ceremony in Oslo, authorities in Beijing have been pressuring countries to join them in a boycott. As of today, 18 have agreed - Russia, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Serbia, Iraq , Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, the Philippines, Egypt, Sudan, Ukraine, Cuba and Morocco. Add to that list of shame the U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay.

Outside The Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong
No one from Liu's family is expected to be on hand to accept the award. His wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest since he was named the winner in October and other family members are under pressure not to speak publicly. The last time no one was present to accept the peace medal was in 1936 when the German journalist and pacifist, Carl von Ossietzky, wasn't allowed to leave Nazi Germany. China now joins the odious ranks of the Nazis in attempting to snuff out human rights.

Many of Liu’s fellow dissidents and supporters have been warned not to attend or, as in the case of Ai Weiwei, have been physically prevented from leaving China. That hasn't stopped more than 40 exiled Chinese dissidents from traveling to the Norwegian capital in what will be an unprecedented reunion since many of them fled China 20 years ago. According to the South China Morning Post;
"Among the participants will be former Tiananmen pro-democracy activists now living in the United States, such as former student leaders Chai Ling and Feng Congde , as well as Fang Zheng , a former student whose legs were crushed by a tank as he fled Tiananmen Square in 1989. US-based astrophysicist Professor Fang Lizhi and Taiwan-based Wuer Kaixi will also attend.

Feng said the event would be the largest gathering of dissidents since the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and the honouring of Liu would be "extremely meaningful" for the Chinese democracy movement."
In response, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said;
“We are not changing because of interference by a few clowns and we will not change our path."
Indeed, clowns come in many different shapes and sizes....

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Social Network: Vapor Status

So that's it? According to The Social Network a vindictive wannabe started it all. Facebook is the revenge of a nerd - a cyber-Attila - and we have his ex to thank for it cuz behind every billionaire you know there's some biotch who dumped him. I think I liked the fashion best - call it "pajama-chic" or "slacker-prep"...

I did enjoy the film, but was disappointed there weren't fewer high-school hi-jinx and more juice about the wider Internet context that spawned Facebook. I mean, we were there too, if not at Harvard at least hanging out at BBSes, in chatrooms or clustering around "likes" whether they were your favourite band's website or a particular type of software. It seems that all along we were just hungering for the type of juvenilia that Facebook delivers - the "status", the "friending" and the endless digital flâneurism of surfing other people's profiles that can be so addicting. Don't we know better or is there something about being alone behind a screen that inflames those desires?
I thought Jesse Eisenberg was great in Adventureland, but he was even better this time - something about the "berg" must have given him some voodoo insight. His Mark Zuckerberg was as anti-social as he was awkwardly brilliant. The thing about "the smartest guy in the room," is he knows it and it drives him crazy because with that impatient arrogance comes the gnawing feeling of what he lacks - humility. And without that you have a jerk-off, a smart one, but one who's a mess of insecurities in desperate need of self-awareness, the kind that's able to reject egoism and the vapors that inflate it. Or to put it another way - those little red bubbles at the top of the page.