Stupid White Men
A curse on Michael Moore. He too is an American. If it weren’t for the likes of him, the rest of us could take it easy and blame ‘the Americans’ for everything.
This truly wonderful book occasionally misfires but even then the noise adds to the overall effect of a direct, humane, deeply serious and joyfully hilarious assault on the band of white men and their corporations who rule us all. As if to prove Moore’s point, Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire tried to censor, then shelve, the book. So it’s gratifying to find it hitting the number one spot with internet booksellers.
If the ‘stupid’ in the title is off-putting for those of us who, like Michael Moore himself, are white men, then rest assured that the emphasis is less on flesh tones than on money and power. The fact that white men hoard most of it does not exempt those few others who’ve followed suit from the lash of Moore’s withering scorn. He thinks of slavery as sanitized, not abolished.
Occasionally Moore lets his gaze wander beyond the American horizon. The bulk of the book, however, is a blistering attack on the crude injustice of the education, criminal-justice and political systems in the US. He reserves his deepest contempt not for ‘President’ (he always uses the quote marks) Bush and the Republicans but for Clinton and the Democrats, on the grounds that the two are twins in practice but only the Democrats lie about it.
The book closes with an account of the veteran activist Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. Apparently Nader is now hated by the same Baby Boomers who once venerated him. ‘Nader represents who they [the Boomers] used to be but no longer are,’ says Moore. ‘He never changed. He never lost faith, never compromised, never gave up.’
Anyone who thinks you can’t be angry, hopeful, funny and informative at the same time will be confounded by this book. In a passing aside he comes closer than the CIA or the FBI to foreseeing the events of 11 September. Chances are that he gets the rest of it right as well. Bless him.
A History of Bombing
Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate all the Brutes was a harrowing account of how European colonial acquisitiveness and theories of racial superiority combined to produce genocidal results. This theme is one of the elements in his new work, a detailed examination of the brutal history and indefensible consequences of aerial bombardment.
The book has an unusual structure in which 399 short paragraphs are arranged into 22 parallel and broadly chronological themed sections which the reader follows rather like internet hyperlinks. For example ‘Bombing the Savages’ takes us from Jules Verne’s imagined airship visiting death and destruction on African villages in 1886 to Chinese air attacks on Shanghai civilians in 1932. Lindqvist describes his method as ‘a labyrinth with 22 entrances and no exits’. Although seemingly counterintuitive this is a surprisingly effective method of pointing up comparisons and connections as wherever you are in the book the strand you are following is surrounded by actions and ideas from the same time-frame. Of course, if this is not to your taste the book could simply be read conventionally as a single linear narrative.
However you tackle it, this is a highly topical and sadly necessary book. The author has skilfully blended literary, historical, autobiographical and, above all, moral elements into a learned and moving inquiry into the ideologies and atrocities of aerial warfare. After reading its appalling catalogues of technology in the service of barbarism, it is difficult to argue with Lindqvist’s angry and disturbing conclusion that ‘global violence is the hard core of our existence’.
Brazilian author Milton Hatoum’s brooding and atmospheric second novel is set in the Amazonian port city of Manaus, among the cafés, bars and market stalls of the Lebanese immigrant community.
The book opens in 1945 as the teenager Yaqub returns home from Lebanon. He had been sent there by his family five years previously following a fight with his twin brother Omar. The enmity between the brothers continues unabated and their unceasing competition for the attention and affection of their manipulative mother Zana forms the core of the book. Yaqub is studious and hardworking but nevertheless seems unable to please his mother who lavishes all her devotion on the wilful and capricious Omar, despite his drunken, wastrel lifestyle. Almost a bystander in this destructive embrace is the boys’ father, the amiable trader Halim, longing for the quiet life he is destined never to have.
The brothers’ rivalry stretches over the decades, and reaches an explosive climax which involves brutal murder, a dockworkers’ strike, military occupation and the loss of everything the family hold dear.
The generational saga is somewhat stale and the plot rather threadbare but the book is redeemed by the wonderful, compelling portrait of Manaus, especially the ramshackle ‘floating city’ beside the harbour. Milton Hatoum transports us to a magical boomtown, full of shimmering light, tropical colour and piquant incident. In a dangerous world of shady deals and shifting alliances, the port emerges as not only a character in its own right but by far the most important one.
An Evergreen Island
This independently produced documentary about the South Pacific island of Bougainville tells a rare but hugely encouraging story. For all those who believe that it is impossible to live without the products of transnationals, this film will serve as a challenge. And for all who believe it is possible, it’s an inspiration.
In 1972 Australian mining company Conzinc Rio Tinto (CRA) began commercial production from a huge copper-ore deposit it had located in Bougainville’s Panguna valley. After 17 years of petitions and lobbying for a fair deal from CRA, the people of Bougainville forced the mine to close. To pressure the people into reopening the mine, Bougainville was blockaded by Papua New Guinea. The nine-year blockade – ultimately unsuccessful – kept away food, medical supplies, fuel and humanitarian assistance from the island.
An Evergreen Island shows how Bougainvilleans used ingenious alternatives to survive without these essentials and rebuild their communities. For instance, we see fermented coconut oil being used to run generators and vehicles. A salvaged truck gearbox helps create hydroelectric power from a river. Nails are made from cyclone fences. Without medical supplies and health professionals, traditional bush medicine undergoes a revival. It’s ‘mekim na savvy’ – learning by doing.
There are no blueprints for building alternatives to the global free market based on community values and self-determination. But this documentary suggests that community values and self-determination are vital components of the process. If we could harness just some of the Bougainvilleans’ courage, resourcefulness and vision we would be well on the way to a brighter future.
This film clearly demonstrates how neo-liberal free-market economics has destroyed the Zambian economy, putting disabling debt repayment to the IMF in the place of social spending on education, health and welfare. Squeezed by a colonial legacy of resource extraction, Cold War politics and free-market rhetoric, Zambia has ended up as the world’s largest US flea market.
Although the idea is novel in terms of filmic expression, Bloemen takes a fairly generic approach, combining interviews with experts – members of the Zambian Government, as well as historians and economists – with more ethnographic footage of ordinary people’s lives and her own explanatory voice-over. The strength of the film is the way in which it traces the transatlantic journey of huge quantities of used clothing from the US to Africa as a way of visualizing and understanding unequal and unjust global economic relations. At just under an hour, T-Shirt Travels would be eminently suited to educational settings.
Not in my Name
Even though the media glare has moved elsewhere, the war in Afghanistan continues and – according to George Bush – is ‘only just beginning’. This professionally produced independent video combines comment from leading figures of the Left such as John Pilger and Tony Benn, along with interviews with anti-war demonstrators and activists, TV news footage and a script by writer Tariq Ali. It takes a critical look at media coverage and overturns the war’s principal myths.
Essentially the film shows that rather than dealing with the root causes of terror by addressing the genuine grievances of Muslim peoples, the US undertook an indiscriminate bombing campaign that has very likely killed more civilians than were killed in the US on 11 September, inflaming anti-American feeling across the Muslim world and making the possibility of future terrorist attacks against the US and Britain more likely. It was the US which helped develop the Islamic fundamentalist movement as a proxy army against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the Cold War in the 1980s (and also earlier as a counterweight to Nasser and Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s). The ‘War On Terror’ is actually more likely to be about securing US ‘national interests’ – the massive oil reserves opening up in the ex-Soviet countries surrounding Afghanistan.
Whilst this analysis will be familiar to those who have been following the post-11 September events closely, for a low-budget indie this makes a useful educational tool that should help inspire action in the anti-war movement.
Years ago, when the Gypsy Kings got big on the international circuit, there was a rumour that the mainly Spanish flamenco band had gone out and spent their royalty cheques on up-to-the-minute synthesizers. Whether or not this little tale is true, it does pack an admonitory sting in its tale. Which is why it’s refreshing to get a band like Nabarlek plugging in and going for the rock route.
Which isn’t to say that Bininj Manborlh, their début album, is divorced from their indigenous culture. The CD (it translates as ‘Blackfella Road’) is every bit as connected to traditional roots as, say, Yothu Yindi are in their music. Rather, the six-piece mix up a riot of ska, reggae and the best of bar-room rock with tribal songlines and song themes that honour ancient wisdom and stories with modern advice. It’s a refreshing approach, as innovative even as Archie Roach, and presents Nabarlek as a blistering live band. The blend of electronic beats and spirited vocals on ‘Najorrkon’ (Rock Possum) lines up a set that takes strength from well-crafted melodies and a harmonic base that’s sweetly airy.
The most powerful song isn’t to be found in the exuberant images of a small boy playing in the rain or two old ladies watching two sisters dance, but the choral valedictory that closes the album. ‘Bobo’ (Good-bye) is a complicated leave-taking that’s considered and delicate. Bininj Manborlh may be a party album but it’s got serious intent.
Consisting of 11 tracks and a video file, the array of musicians, singers and story-tellers who contribute to The Dreaming offer a very different approach to Australian aboriginal culture. Made in partnership between a small ethically based label in Britain and Australian didgeridoo player Phillip Jackson, The Dreaming aims to raise funds for aboriginal support and cultural projects, while also providing the opportunity for each of an eclectic range of participants to make their own contribution to the dreamtime.
It starts off simply enough. In its title-track, Francis Firebrand relates the myth of the dreamtime: the story of how the world was called into being. Respectful didge reverberations contribute to its placid atmosphere and within minutes you’re swept up on the dance beats of Jeremy Cloake’s ‘Bukumakku Yonguwo’.
The presence of the didgeridoo permeates this album but what makes the The Dreaming so enjoyable is the way that a diverse gang of musicians have integrated it into their music. Simon Mullumby’s ‘Stix’ is a well-centred track and on Jambience’s excellent ‘La Coline’, the instrumental also employs tabla, djembe and darabuka, and the resulting shimmer, so reminiscent of sitar music, interacts beautifully. There are huge surprises: Buzby Burchall’s ‘Sónae’ – recorded in a Reykjavik church with a pure Icelandic soprano sending tremors down your spine – isn’t a didge song but its floating overtones pick up the instrument’s theme. The violin lines of Rohan Kriwaczek’s ‘In a Japanese Garden’ achieve a similar effect. These two pieces alone make the The Dreaming something special.
In 1999, immediately after completing the first draft of her novel, Mutiny, reality took over the plot from Lindsey Collen.
The Mauritian prison in which she had set her story was stormed like the Bastille. Protesters, provoked by the death in custody of a much-loved pop musician, seized a forklift truck from a nearby import company and rammed it into the portal of the state-of-the-art US-designed prison, lifting it off its hinges to let all the prisoners out. What happened then had a quality almost as bizarre as Collen’s fiction itself.
As she relates: ‘The prisoners would not leave until the guards had signed them out. Then the guards themselves wanted to leave – but they were afraid to go out in their uniforms. So they put on the prisoners’ uniforms and then left!’
Born in South Africa, Lindsey Collen has lived in Mauritius since 1974, time enough to get to grips with a lively political culture that suited her own inclinations. She had herself been arrested on numerous occasions for her political activities – including anti-apartheid work. In the strangely hypnotic Mutiny she draws on both this personal experience and the current political climate in Mauritius.
The Indian Ocean island is held up by the World Bank and the IMF as a model of the success of its policies. The people beg to differ. IMF conditions, including privatization of public services, have been vigorously resisted. The Government has retaliated with draconian legal measures that abuse human rights – and these in turn have drawn more protest.
The mutinous climate, created both by young people engaged in spontaneous direct action and an organized Left that still has over 300 trade unions and 500 women’s organizations, is reflected in Mutiny through the interchanging monologues of its three main characters. They are three women, of different ages and backgrounds, who are holed up together in a prison cell made for two. Outside a cyclone is building up, cranking up tension and casting an eerie light over the cell and its inhabitants. In a novel that could just as well be a play, the women squabble, feel their way around each other, tell each other recipes for the food they are denied; and gradually confess their different stories.
One character is Juna, based on a trade-union activist friend of Collen’s who was arrested on trumped-up charges. ‘I was so angry, it came out in the book,’ says the author. Juna is in prison for ‘allegation’. This Kafkaesque touch is drawn from reality – the Mauritian authorities do now detain people for long periods of time on suspicion or ‘allegation’ alone. (Collen comments: ‘It’s quite common to hear a woman asking another in the street: “What is your son in for?” “Allegation,” replies the other, as though that were in itself the name of a crime.’)
The second character is Leila. Young, restless, she is accused of causing ‘effusion of blood’ from a police officer – throughout the novel such arcane language of criminal law is richly mixed with local Creole inflections. Leila reflects the rebellious, disenfranchised feelings of many young Mauritians today.
The third woman, Mama Gracienne, is a poor Creole woman from the Chagos islands. These are the islands from which inhabitants were ejected prior to Independence in 1968 so that the British could rent them off to the US for use as an air base. Gracienne’s is the most moving story, unfolding slowly but leading to a powerful emotional crescendo. While on a trip to the mainland she finds she cannot ever go home again because ‘the island is closed’. From then on things go from bad to worse, ending in the tragedy that has led her into prison accused of murdering her own daughter.
The trio’s experiences, emotions and lives weave together to make one yarn of mutiny and, ultimately, a touching solidarity. But the narrative remains strange and poetic enough for it never to appear formulaic or didactic. One feels that Collen has drawn as deeply from her dreams and unconscious as from her more conscious, political awareness.
Mutiny by Lindsey Collen (Bloomsbury ISBN 0 7475 5265 7).
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