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Ai WeiweiAlison Klayman, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (documentary trailer)

Ai Weiwei’s TED Talk

Jeffrey Brown, PBS Newshour, “Art, China and Censorship According to Ai Weiwei”

Foreign Policy, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

Ai Weiwei, Newsweek, “The City: Beijing”

Jonathan Landreth, Foreign Policy, “Interview with Ai Weiwei”

On the modern global economic and political landscape, few countries loom larger or cast a darker shadow than China. In the United States, China is perceived to be the country’s chief economic rival – despite the powerhouses’ overt interdependence – and is often the subject of fierce scrutiny.

There are many conscious and unconscious elements that combine to generate this climate of distrust, but principal among them is the political structure of the country. The People’s Republic of China, as it is officially known, is governed by a single Communist party. For U.S. citizens, the concept of communism carries residual historical weight that most people reading this are probably familiar with and which informs popular perceptions of labor conditions. In other words, many in the U.S. believe (perhaps correctly) China is potentially responsible for a great many economic woes.

That debate aside, a perhaps more significant and alarming issue dominates the social reality of the country: despite the internet-facilitated modern age of nearly-universal freedom of speech, Chinese authorities impose extreme restrictions on personal liberty and expression as a means of maintaining control of the populace. The power of this government is so absolute that protestors are known to disappear – abducted and interrogated – sometimes never to be seen again.

In response to these conditions, China has a long history of dissident activity among the small and besieged intellectual and artistic community. There are many famous examples of this struggle, including “Tank Man,” the Tiananmen Square protester, who would not budge in spite of an oncoming column of tanks. Two years ago, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a writer and human rights activist who is currently incarcerated for inciting calls for political and civil reform in the country. And this year civil unrest began to spread among disenfranchised and impoverished rural communities.

Enter into the fray Ai Weiwei, the 55-year-old, epic-bearded, notorious Chinese conceptual artist, persistent dissident, and good friend of the aforementioned Liu Xiaobo. He’s a man you may not be familiar with, but as has become my habit with this blog, I want to make you aware of yet another excellent example of inspiring, freedom-seeking humanity.

I recently had the pleasure of watching Alison Klayman’s documentary about Ai Weiwei, Never Sorry, on Netflix (it is currently streaming – go watch it!). To say I was moved by it is an understatement. If you are not already familiar with Ai’s work, I strongly recommend checking out the Foreign Policy photo essay above, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I already had a passing knowledge of Ai’s unique projects and the critical undertones of many of them, but the film provides an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the man’s motivations, including the life experiences that molded his scathing attitude toward the government.

Never Sorry goes on to document the last few years of Ai’s life, during which he has risen to prominence as an international symbol of intellectual curiosity and human rights activism, but also as a repeatedly detained and perpetually monitored enemy of the state. Throughout his growth as a pop culture icon (he has many followers and uses internet services like Twitter to great effect), he has cultivated a philosophy that emphatically asserts that freedom of expression is the stuff of life and that to restrict that freedom is nothing short of evil.

Communication is the means by which humans affirm their existence, and Ai is intent on assuring the lines of communication are open by defying the oppressive will of the government. It sounds overblown and faux-heroic, but the point is that his is a philosophy I agree with.

All of this admiration aside, I was initially hesitant to write about Ai Weiwei. A part of me was skeptical of the man’s rock star status and wondered if he was the real deal. He has lived and worked in China most of his life, but has also lived in New York City for more than a decade, attending school there. Not that that necessarily undermines his credentials as a punk provocateur, but in watching Never Sorry, I wanted to be sure my own personal belief in him was genuine, instead of fueled unconsciously by a like-likes-like satisfaction with his western-style tactics and attitude.

Of course the documentary is sympathetic to Ai, but after watching one particularly emotional and heart-rending sequence, in which he and his team pursue a project to attain the government-concealed names of more than 5,000 children that allegedly died in a recent earthquake as a result of shoddy school construction, my fears were dispelled. And I was elated when he happily celebrated the government’s retaliatory destruction of his newly-constructed studio after denouncing the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics when its construction necessitated the removal of citizens’ homes. Ai has been referred to as China’s modern conscience, and upon listening to him explain how those children no longer have a voice so someone must speak for them, I can truly understand why.

Another artist interviewed for the documentary goes on to say that in China, a country with a staggering population, individuals who truly care about the people of the country – like Ai – must be treasured and protected. The intelligence with which he uses media to cultivate popularity as his armor and employs his power to wage war on the system from within despite the risk of reprisal is incredible.

There are far too few examples of this kind of bravery on the world stage, but I hope you take the time to acquaint yourself with this one. We may live in a place where personal freedom is sacred, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from those still fighting to build such a place for themselves.

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Malala Yousafzai vigil.Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf, “An Army of One”

BBC News Magazine, “Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the Girl Blogger”

The Christian Science Monitor, Adil Jawad and Sebastian Abbot, “The Malala Moment: Tens of Thousands Rally In Pakistan for Girl Shot by Taliban”

Radio Free Europe, Ron Synovitz, “The Pakistani Taliban’s Rationale for Shooting A Schoolgirl”

A 15-year-old girl by the name of Malala Yousafzai was recently shot in the head during an attempted assassination carried out by members of the Taliban in Pakistan. The offense for which she was targeted? Speaking out to western news outlets – specifically the BBC, for which she wrote a blog as an 11-year-old – about the plight of uneducated girls and women who are prohibited from seeking education in regions of the country controlled by the terrorist organization. If it’s any indication of her prominence in the fight for girls’ rights, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu.

This virulent, horrific, and pathetic action is despicable and reflective of the worst of humanity, but that’s not the reason I wanted to write about it. To focus on the violence itself would do a disservice to Malala’s efforts and the efforts of those who support her and her peers.

The reason I am writing about Malala is because hers is a story worth knowing; a story of the excellence individuals can achieve in spite of daunting ideological and cultural obstacles. To quote her: “All I want is education. And I’m afraid of no one.”

I don’t want to go on about this because the articles listed above do a better job than I could of exploring the various facets and ramifications of her efforts, which even at her young age have had far-reaching, positive effects on the regressive situation imposed on Pakistani women. Thankfully she has been able to receive the best medical care available and it seems she will survive her injuries.

I do want to say that this young girl has stood for something and said “Enough is enough.” Malala and her supporters (her father is also an activist) correctly assert that the only way out of economic and ideological poverty is through education. Her actions are inspiring and refreshing, and I think we could all learn from her heroic example. I recently wrote about Superman and how the character represents a paragon of humanity to which we can all aspire, and from all accounts, Malala’s spirit is reflective of those excellent qualities.

Despite the inevitable dissipation of this event’s ripples, I am ecstatic to be able to count Malala among the living and look forward to her triumphant return to the fight for human decency. There is little doubt that she will go on to achieve great things.

If you would like to take some sort of action in support of Malala, I encourage you to add your voice to those coming from Amnesty International on her behalf, or participate in the UN’s special envoy initiative. I also encourage you to check out an organization I’ve featured beforeThe Girl Effect – which aims to promote awareness of and change the dire, unfortunate circumstances of young women like Malala all over the world.

The New York Times, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, “The Moral Hazard of Drones”

The New York Times, Scott Shane, “The Moral Case for Drones”

Esquire, Tom Junod, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama”

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama”

Oxford Journals, Bradley Jay Strawser, “Walking the Tightrope of Just War” 

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “The Strikes’ Effect on Life in Pakistan”

What follows is a meandering rumination on one of the most contentious issues facing modern political philosophers and anyone interested in discussing global-political ethics: the implementation and expansion of the U.S. military’s drone program in the Middle East. As you can probably tell from the number of links featured above (and the length of this post), the issue is extremely complex and is of great importance to prominently featured thinkers across the internet, despite mass media’s relative indifference.

The majority of writers talking about drones tend to come down definitively on one side or another, either for or against them, but I find myself wavering among the arguments and honestly unsure of where I stand. Not that I need definitive certainty, but I thought writing a bit about it and offering some resources would prove beneficial for anyone else grappling with this conundrum like I am. If you have any interest in this debate – one which I think will only become more prevalent in the future – I strongly recommend any of the pieces above.

So, where do you start with such a factually and philosophically challenging problem? I guess I would begin by asking “Why is this issue so complex?” followed quickly by “What are your reservations?”

As many people are aware, the U.S. government has deployed unmanned, remote-controlled planes commonly referred to as “drones” to the Pakistan/Afghanistan/Yemen region to conduct reconnaissance missions and often kill suspected terrorists. These actions are carried out in the name of defense of the U.S. citizenry.

Perhaps the most sensational and widely-known drone incident was the targeting and killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen who defected to Yemen, joined Al-Qeada, and was suspected of having a hand in planning the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. This event is of particular note because it “was believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was tracked and killed based on secret intelligence and the president’s say-so,” according to Huffington Post.

The drone program was started during President Bush’s time in the White House after 9/11 at the outset of the “war on terror,” but of particular concern to observers is the way in which President Obama has expanded the program, even as U.S. ground forces are in the process of exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. The practical causes for concern are many and mounting: the CIA has never openly acknowledged the program’s existence, the U.S. Congress has never officially supported the program, there have been an unrecorded number of civilian casualties, the program reportedly inspires more terrorists than it kills, and the President seems to operate with unilateral, unchallenged authority. And to further complicate things, questions abound about the ethics of the program, which is where I am with regards to the issue: many questions, few answers.

I have to admit that this technology is obviously a phenomenal development in the prevention of soldier casualties, and it allows us to stop our enemies in remote, difficult-to-access regions of the world. I am not naive and don’t think every enemy can be dealt with through diplomacy or sanctions. But the increasingly remote nature of our armed conflicts and the resultant detachment of the citizens in whose name those actions are taken is worrying. As far as I can tell, there are four troubling questions at the heart of this matter:

  • Is the drone program more or less ethically acceptable than larger armed conflicts, and to what extent does the remote nature of the devices influence our conception of war?
  • Does the unilateral expansion and implementation of the drone program constitute an express overstepping of the President’s military authority and violation of the law?
  • Are the supposed benefits of the drone program justification enough, despite ethical misgivings, to engage in the remote execution of even a suspected terrorist?
  • Do technological developments that remove the risk of soldiers’ lives from the battlefield render armed conflict meaningless and is that a good or bad thing?

These are the questions I find myself debating internally and with friends whenever this issue comes up, and no matter how many times I try to wrap my head around them, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to any of them. I think part of the difficulty is the fact that we live in a time when traditional definitions of terms such as “war” are evolving at such a rapid pace that our linguistic and philosophical vocabularies are struggling to catch up. Many contend that drone strikes constitute acts of war or even war crimes, but when the strikes kill a relative few compared to a traditional war, do those accusations hold merit? Are they even relevant?

And when we discuss the validity of unilateral military actions taken by our leaders, it’s growing increasingly difficult – especially where the Middle Eastern region is concerned – to see any instance in any shade but gray. President Obama’s decision to use the U.S. military in Libya without congressional support (as the law traditionally requires) was more humanitarian mission than war, and although his means were questionable, I ultimately support the ends given the rapidity with which circumstances were developing and the potentially devastating result of inaction. Further, he acted as part of a coalition, but without abiding by our laws – is that acceptable?

Many people I speak with about the subject contend that the drone program is without doubt ethically-bankrupt because of the suspect results, and I both agree and disagree. I think it depends on your perception of the persistence of our enemies. The most unfortunate aspect of the debate about military action is that the circumstances being discussed are often relative and subjective. I think most would agree that the U.S. has enemies that wish to do it harm. In organizations like Al-Qaeda, though, we find an enemy unwilling to negotiate or relent.

So, realistically, what can you do? If the U.S. government desires a proactive approach to negating the potential effects of its enemies, it realistically has only a few options, all of which have been used over the course of the last decade: a remote targeting program, a full-scale invasion, and a small-scale infiltration.

The questions I listed above are unfortunately predicated on my pessimistic understanding that the U.S. President will, for the foreseeable future, be required (by ideology or public account) to eschew a more ethically sound defensive posture for an ethically questionable offensive one. In other words, I consider this issue from the perspective that the U.S. will always want to attack its allies instead of defend against them.

Many would argue “the best defense is a good offense,” and that the potential benefits of the program far outweigh the cost or ethical agony. But I struggle with my confident belief that that’s not always true and that such a self-assured attitude toward an institution implemented with the sole purpose of killing individuals we deem enemies is cavalier and wrong. And with that I can’t help adding to my list of questions and asking myself “At what point is one forced to accept that the animal fear of pragmatism trumps the human hope of idealism?”

Save the Arctic, “A Homeless Polar Bear in London”

Save the Arctic

World Wildlife Fund

Defender of Wildlife

It’s one of the great shames we, as humans, have perpetrated in our time on this earth: in our tunnel-vision preoccupation with our own survival, we’ve invaded and destroyed the natural environments of our fellow animal astronauts. There are many realities that make me sad on a daily basis, but few get to me the way the plight of animals like the polar bear do. Here are creatures that live in harmony with the planet and their peers, according to a natural balance, and we bring them to ruin by accelerating the decline of their habitat, because we desire more of things we don’t really need. Is there anything more despicable?

And the most frustrating part is my willing, characteristically human hypocritical involvement in this crime. Well, I’m trying to help combat the unfortunate state of affairs here and now.

Please take a moment to check out the links above. They are all extremely informative and inspiring with regards to the state of our relationship with animals like the polar bear. I know this kind of promotion seems corny and disingenuine to many, but understanding and being aware of this situation is a responsibility we all have as denizens of this planet. I encourage you to donate to or take action on behalf of the organizations.

Everything is connected. Though animals’ plight may seem distant and disconnected from your life right now, consider that the horrible negative circumstances we impose and they suffer may one day expand to influence the lives of your children, their children, and so on.

Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf, “The Enemy Within”

Besides the hilariously appropriate metaphor Rothkopf uses to frame his editorial (the U.S. as burger-guzzling ground-pounder on the fast-track to the cemetery), he makes excellent points as he runs down the list of perceived foreign threats politicians routinely use as bogey-men and swiftly dismisses them all. This is one of the most succinct write-ups I’ve come across that explores why the U.S. needs to stop worrying ad nauseum about external enemies and focus on its domestic issues. This attitude of fear-mongering has been present in politics for as long as I’ve been aware of politics as a thing people care about (admittedly, not long), but given the economic instability of recent years and the advent of terrorism as a front-and-center FEAR in the popular consciousness, people seem to be in overdrive.

That’s not to say there aren’t domestic “terrors” that inspire ridiculous amounts of mental exhaustion among some people (tax laws, abortion rights, gay marriage/civil unions), but it’s so much easier and more common for politicians to point in fear out over the oceans at something that simply is not there or so far over the horizon as to be irrelevant. It sounds like a tired old complaint, but it would be great if those who claim to want to lead us actually did some, you know, leading.

David Rothkopf: “If America stopped searching for goblins under the bed, it might actually be able to reset its economic priorities and start investing in the things that would make the country stronger, more prosperous, and safer again, from infrastructure to energy security to better schools. What’s more, Americans might find that a foreign policy that identified real risks but kept them in perspective and was more about deepening ties, finding common ground, and avoiding unnecessary conflict would work better than the tired us vs. them formulations of the recent past.”

Note: This started off as a simple response to an interesting New York Times article, but quickly took on a life of its own as a full review.

New York Times, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, “A Radical Female Hero From Dystopia

I’m pretty sure the film alone does not support the level of critical thought (the reviewers confirm this by referencing the books frequently) given it in this article, but this is an interesting analysis of Katniss Everdeen’s character as a modern, popular heroine. I think it would make the conversation regarding her femininity even more interesting to address that in the books she is largely taught what she knows and how she acts by her father. It really bothered me that there was no explanation for her skills and what she knows in the film – I also thought the fact that the leather jacket she covets was her father’s was a touching scrap of information (among so many others) sadly missing from the adaptation.

While I wasn’t looking for an exact replication of the novel on-screen (and was aware as soon as they announced the adaptation that a first-person narrative was a near-impossibility), I maintain that what was presented in the film was largely a hollowed-out version of an extremely rich and emotional story. We don’t get any exposition or emotionally-relevant content about WHY Katniss, in a world where weapons are outlawed, food is supposedly scarce, and things are so rough that revolution foments, she has preternatural archery abilities, knows how to carve a bow, has a nice leather coat, knows about deadly berries, or looks more vaguely disappointed than HUNGRY. It just doesn’t make any sense in context and unfortunately turns her from a HUMAN character into a SUPER HUMAN character, rendering the dramatic weight of her transformation from “poor, hungry girl” to “symbol of revolution” inert; in the film it is made to seem as though she is already a hero waiting for opportunity, as opposed to a person upon whom the mantle of “hero” is thrust.

Further, key scenes, robbed of emotional context, are cheap and opportunistic. Specifically, I am referring to the much adored Rue death scene. In the book, the scene fills your heart with lead because in her tracker-jacker stupor Katniss mistakes Rue for Primrose, and upon Katniss’s recovery, Rue tells her own tragic tale. These aren’t first-person narration moments, but they are completely missing from the film. We are given ridiculous, unnecessarily shoe-horned exposition about genetically-modified tracker-jackers, but we can’t be given ANYTHING about Rue as a character? They cheaply introduce her in the film as a young lamb sent to slaughter and the emotional weight of her death is cheap, in my opinion. It’s a sucker-punch on film, nothing more.

Back to the main point though, I think Katniss being taught what she knows by her father enriches the complexity of her character as a modern heroine and brings a new facet to the discussion of gender identity. It’s also interesting to note (with regards to the idea of the “gendered hero”) Gale’s role in all of this. Gale (interestingly, often a female’s name) plays essentially the same role within his family as Katniss, is equipped with the same skills, etc., but what if the situation were reversed and HE volunteered for the games and Katniss stayed behind in the district? Would The Hunger Games be as remarkable and appreciated a story by half? Or would it be dismissed out-of-hand as embracing the traditional hero and patriarchy?

All of this is not to say the film adaptation was not a worthwhile attempt. It is extremely interesting for a variety of reasons, but principally because it seems almost impossible to discuss objectively on its own merits. Managed by a mediocre director with the backing of a mediocre studio, with complex, definitely R-rated, subversive material molded into a marketable, PG-13 romp-for-all-ages, it’s easy to come at this film with claws ready and eyes gleaming. All adaptations are, by their nature, altered, but, to elaborate… Fans of the novels see The Hunger Games film and their perspectives and knowledge are informed by what they’ve read, so they may not even realize what’s missing from this adaptation without really stepping back from it and looking at it as a movie unto itself. And non-fans seeing this story for the first time are given a tale so absolute in its moral simplicity and middle-of-the-road in its presentation that it’s difficult to find seriously offensive fault. The onus in the case of the non-initiated isn’t on the new-comers, but given the cultural ubiquity of the books at this point, as I said, I think it’s difficult to address this film in analytic discussion without knowledge of the source material.

So, I guess my problems with the film stems from disappointment in it as an adaptation, and perhaps I’m being too critical, but given the influence the story has garnered in popular culture, I don’t think it’s entirely ridiculous to look at the film with a critical eye. In my opinion, treating adaptations in this manner is the only way to ensure quality from Hollywood, and despite its semi-progressive bones, I don’t think this film should get a free pass.