Monthly Archives: November 2009

You stay classy, Switzerland

Swiss Ban Building of Minarets on Mosques

How fucking neutral of you.

Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets, and only 2 more minarets are planned. None conduct the call to prayer. There are about 400,000 Muslims in a population of some 7.5 million people. Close to 90 percent of Muslims in Switzerland are from Kosovo and Turkey, and most do not adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia

So this is completely pre-emptive. Or, to put it another way, paranoid and racist. If radical Islam is a problem in your country, how is banning minarets gonna solve it? Would banning steeples have prevented the Oklahoma City bombing? Should Belfast have outlawed four-leaf clovers in the '80s?

You gotta love this part:

The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., and a small religious party had proposed inserting a single sentence banning the construction of minarets, leading to the referendum.

In other words, we recognize the principle of non-discrimination, just not when it applies to actual people living in our country.

Denmark pulls this shit all the time. This year, right-wing parties have proposed banning the niqab (the only-the-eyes-showing burqa) in public, which would apply to less than 100 people in Denmark, and banning judges from wearing the Muslim headscarf, even though there aren't any Muslim judges in Denmark.

There's a difference between a problem and an issue. Integration of immigrant populations, for example, is a genuine, complicated problem that needs to be addressed by adults. The kind with ideas, and expertise. Radical Islam, on the other hand, is an issue. We only talk about it in hyperboly and hypotheticals. We ban shit that no one is even doing. We legislate on our worst Chimpanzee instincts. We make posters like this:

Swiss People's Party

The people who made this poster, and this ban, aren't interested in integration, or constructive solutions to the problems they actually have. They just want to complain that the world isn't the same as the one they grew up in, and punish their minorities for being in their streets and in their shops. 

I mean, how else do you explain a law that, even its most strident supporters have to admit, will only radicalize Muslims further? You've only got four minarets in your whole country. Sheesh. 

The fact that 60 percent of Swiss voters approved this is Freedom Fries-caliber embarassing. I hope the left wing politicians in Switzerland are working on some sort of collective Cringe Sorry Our Bad proposition for the next election cycle. 

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I’ve been in Sydney for the past five weeks

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The ‘Precious’ problem

I just came back from seeing 'Precious':

‘Precious’ trailer

There's been an interesting debate over the film since it was released last month.

Not since ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as ‘Precious [..] Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show.

Black pathology sells. It’s an over-the-top political fantasy that works only because it demeans blacks, women and poor people.

That's Armond White, a (black) movie reviewer for the New York Press, who seems to think that all movies about black people should have an immaculate protagonist, an unthreatening premise and a triumphant denouement.

I usually roll my eyes at this shit. Armand White is a known cinematic asshole, always the first to jump on a contrarian bandwagon. He spends most of his review attacking Oprah, Tyler Perry and the movie's director, Lee Daniels, as 'media titans' and 'a pathology pimp'. I've been reading his reviews for years, and he always pulls this shit where he judges every movie primarily on its political message. Its actual content and quality– how honest it is, how compelling it is — always come second. 

Then I saw 'Precious'.

Fuck. Did it have to be a bucket of friend chicken that Precious steals and binges on? Did her mother have to have lines like 'I only leave the house when I'm playing my numbers?' There are scenes, especially in the first half and particularly the one where her mother scams a social worker for a welfare check, that feel like they were written by an Appalachian militia.

'Precious and her mother share a Harlem hovel so stereotypical it could be a Klansman’s fantasy,' White writes. 'Fuck!' I thought, watching Precious's mother force-feed her a plate of pig's feet as retribution for forgetting the collard greens, 'he's right!'

Imagine watching a movie with an all-Native American cast, where the first 45 minutes were just characters sitting around an evergreen-wooded trailer saying things like 'I sure do love this firewater!' 'Let's make money selling roman candles!' and 'Let's scam the white man by opening a casino!' As much as I hate to admit it, that's the sort of cringe I got watching 'Precious'.

Look, I'm a left-wing, overthinky homosexual living in Denmark, for pagan-ritual's sake. I don't know any more about the black experience in Harlem in the 1980s than I do about the Welsh experience in Australia in the 1870s. I do know  stereotypes, however, and the way they get used as ammunition. It's genuinely unsettling to see them in life size, at 24 frames per second.

I fully admit that cringeyness, and Armond White's anger, come not from the movie itself, but from its failure to fulfill its obligation as Blackness Ambassador or whatever to the rest of the country. It is essentially us going, 'Egads, what will the white people think?!'

This reaction is incontrovertibly bullshit, I know. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be taken seriously. Majorities do form their opinions of minorities based on culture. Depictions do matter, regardless of who's doing the depicting.

Minority groups spent the better part of last century fighting over the quantity of representation in mainstream culture. Now they're fighting over the quality of that representation. And that's OK.

I would be pissed if a mainstream, critically acclaimed movie depicted gays as meth-fueled promiscu-yuppies (and pissed-er, if I'm honest, if it was written or directed by heterosexuals). But at the same time, I get frustrated when the gay experience isn't depicted in all its complication and ugliness. We deserve to be just as nuanced as any other decadent, unbreeding population group.

In my mind, minority representation on film needs to be judged only on its verisimilitude. I can take welfare queens and teen pregnancy when they're in the service of something that, overall, feels true. As far as I'm concerned, 'Precious' fails not because it makes black people look bad, but because it's two dimensional and Paul Haggis-y.

Armond White sees the mother character — an almost unadulterated cinematic monster — as a blow against black people. I see it as a blow against art. Any character who literally throws a baby on the ground is no more representative of black people than Freddy Krueger is representative of Dutch-Americans.

Neither 'Precious', nor any other minority-themed film, is going to be the inspirational squeegee that finally wipes the last scum of bigotry from American society. It will be a great thing for America, and the movies, if we stop expecting them to be. 

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Hong Kong: The Peak

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Hong Kong: Dragon’s Back

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Hong Kong: No one ever writes children’s books about big cities

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Hong Kong: Ma On Shan

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I love countries with a surplus of used bookstores

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Yesterday I bought a collection of Bernard Shaw one-act plays (fuck Dan Brown, plays are the best things to read on airplanes) and something called 'The Jewish Century'. Together they cost 8 Aus-bucks.

The Jewish Century starts out like this:

Modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible. It is about learning how to cultivate people and symbols, not fields or herds. It is about pursuing wealth for the sake of learning, learning for the sake of wealth, and both wealth and learning for their own sake It is about transforming peasants and princes into merchants and priests, replacing inherited privilege with acquired prestige, and dismantling social estates for the benefits of individuals, nuclear families and book-reading tribes (nations). Modernization, in other words, is about everyone becoming Jewish.

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The Jewish part I'm not so sure about, or at least I haven't read up to the author's justification of it, but the rest of that is a great description of the social history of this century. Eight Aussie bucks, man.

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Security theater

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A more profane, less articulate version of this paragraph occurs to me whenever I find myself untying my shoes in front of a conveyor belt:

Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders. When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn't make any sense.

Often, this "something" is directly related to the details of a recent event: we confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on airplanes. But it's not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. These measures are only effective if we happen to guess what the next terrorists are planning. If we spend billions defending our rail systems, and the terrorists bomb a shopping mall instead, we've wasted our money. If we concentrate airport security on screening shoes and confiscating liquids, and the terrorists hide explosives in their brassieres and use solids, we've wasted our money. Terrorists don't care what they blow up and it shouldn't be our goal merely to force the terrorists to make a minor change in their tactics or targets.

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Biking up a mountain

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