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Everyone Owns Boston’s New Jazz Cafe

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 02/08/2022 - 6:00pm in

This story was originally published by Next City

So many things could have gone wrong with the vacant storefront at the historic former Ferdinand Furniture store building in Boston’s predominantly-Black Roxbury neighborhood.

Historically, a lot has already gone wrong in the area. Redlining — the pattern of racial discrimination in lending — allowed homes, apartment buildings and commercial buildings in Roxbury to decline. Redlining also means small businesses in the area have long had trouble accessing loans or other investment capital to grow. Racial discrimination in city contracting locked out many Roxbury businesses from the reliable income of a City Hall contract. Racial discrimination in hiring, wage-setting and promotions held back many of the area’s working age adults in the job market — not to mention the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on Black communities.

The historic former Ferdinand Furniture store building. Credit: Maria Finkelmeier. Photo courtesy of Jazz Urbane Cafe

That pattern could have continued within the former Ferdinand Furniture storefront. The surrounding community could have been ignored or brought in to participate in endless community meetings to voice their dreams for the space, only to learn later it was all just for show and they were never taken seriously in the first place. A developer or real estate brokerage with zero ties to the community might have gone behind the community’s back to line up a tenant, based on whatever financial analysis determined to be the “highest and best use” for the space, community voices be damned.

The tenant coming in could have been a national restaurant chain, or a private equity-backed restaurant concept by a celebrity chef who’s never visited Roxbury before. Profits from the restaurant, generated in part out of the cultural cache of the location, might be sent thousands of miles away to a bank account held in an overseas tax haven.

But instead of continuing that pattern, the former Ferdinand Furniture storefront will soon open its doors as the brand new Jazz Urbane Cafe, a sit-down restaurant and performing arts space that will feature local musicians and other artists. It’s the kind of cultural and community gathering space that residents in the area have dreamed of for years. The all-Black Jazz Urbane founders have deep ties to Roxbury.

What makes this project unique is that the community didn’t just say it wants Jazz Urbane; it voted to put some of its own wealth at risk for the business. Through the Boston Ujima Project, members of the surrounding community recently voted to approve a six-figure investment to make the community itself a part-owner of Jazz Urbane Cafe. So the community will also receive a share of the wealth generated if it all works out — on top of gaining a cultural landmark restaurant and performance space to showcase its artists and provide jobs for some of its residents. For Nia Grace, born and raised in Roxbury and part of the Jazz Urbane founding team, it’s a powerful moment.

“I always think about things kind of being full circle,” Grace says. “I did not have the privilege and honor to know what it looked like when the building was active. It was always something I just wondered about. It needed more investment, more love and more care. I love being able to come home and nurture something that was such a big part of my childhood.”

A history of disinvestment

It’s not just about the outcome. The process of how the community got here matters even more.

Too often in neighborhoods like Roxbury, disinvestment goes beyond the mere lack of capital; there’s also a mutual distrust between the neighborhood and mainstream institutions. These neighborhoods don’t trust the public or private sector to work for their benefit. Mainstream public or private sector institutions also often don’t trust members of these communities to provide worthwhile ideas for development projects.

jazz bostonLocal artists on the Jazz Urban Records label, the cafe’s sister company. Credit: Jamie Kahn. Photo courtesy of Jazz Urbane Cafe

Some disinvested communities have turned to making outside developers negotiate community benefit agreements promising jobs, housing or other benefits to communities surrounding major projects. But the track record of those agreements has been spotty at best. One of the most heralded early examples, the Kingsbridge National Ice Center in the Bronx, has yet to produce a single actual benefit and is now hanging in limbo as the project has completely stalled. After 10 years, the developers never successfully raised the needed funds to get started, and the city recently terminated the redevelopment contract with the developer group who signed the community benefit agreement.

Writing in Architects Newspaper about new city-backed development projects in Chicago’s historically disinvested neighborhoods, architectural critic Anjulie Rao says, “After decades of disinvestment instilled a sense of distrust, these neighborhoods don’t just need new developments — they need the city to lead reparative processes.”

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A reparative process starts with recognizing that history of disinvestment, acknowledging it was intentional on the part of the public and private sector players who perpetrated it, that it was tied largely to racism, and that it is a painful history — but also more than a painful history. The people who lived in and still live in these neighborhoods have joyful memories of these places, too, and there are elements that help keep those joyful memories alive — like the former Ferdinand Furniture store facade, which loomed large over the Dudley Square intersection for decades even after the store closed in the 1970s. It was vacant, yes, but it was and remains a beautiful building.

Like many other young Black children growing up in Boston, Grace remembers going shopping with her mother on Saturday mornings in Dudley Square: at department stores, street vendors lining the sidewalks, or A Nubian Notion, a landmark family-owned convenience store and boutique. The area was once known as Boston’s “other downtown.” Dudley Square had an elevated rail station until 1987, and still has one of the largest bus stations in the city where more than a dozen bus routes connect.

“After decades of disinvestment instilled a sense of distrust, these neighborhoods don’t just need new developments — they need the city to lead reparative processes.” Credit: Maria Finkelmeier. Photo courtesy of Jazz Urbane Cafe

“‘Going Down Dudley’ is what we used to call it,” Grace says. “[The Ferdinand Furniture building] was definitely a cornerstone of the neighborhood, but it looked shuttered.”

It hasn’t been a linear process to revitalize the former Ferdinand Furniture storefront, but there has been a common thread tying the pieces together: neighborhood, city and investors learning to trust each other as equal participants in the development process. The neighborhood had ideas and aspirations; the city took them seriously, and they inspired even a few outside investors to invest some of their dollars in line with those ideas.

Keeping the neighborhood involved

The redevelopment moved slowly, and it helped keep the neighborhood involved at every step. All the way back in 2006, then-Mayor Thomas Menino raised the idea of redeveloping Dudley Square, including the former Ferdinand Furniture building, according to Architects Newspaper.

The city already owned much of the property at the site, but the emerging designs led to the city acquiring two additional small buildings via eminent domain in 2011. The handful of small businesses didn’t like being displaced, but, as reported in the Bay State Banner, community-based organizations in the neighborhood supported the move even though they had their own painful memories of eminent domain being used to clear out large swaths of Black neighborhoods to clear a path for highways.

By 2015, the city had completed the new construction and the restoration of the historic facades at the site. According to general contractor Shawmut, 41 percent of construction workers for the project were Boston Residents and 44.9 percent were workers of color. The city moved its education department into the building, bringing hundreds of workers to the neighborhood daily.

The combined new and restored structure was renamed the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, after the city’s first Black City Council president. A smaller cafe and other tenants moved into first-floor spaces, paying below-market rents as required by the building’s federal New Markets Tax Credit financing. But the former Ferdinand Furniture storefront remained vacant.

“We’re not waiting for permission from traditional capital to do the things we’ve long wanted to do.” Credit: Maria Finkelmeier. Photo courtesy of Jazz Urbane Cafe

In the meantime, a group of residents from Roxbury and Boston’s other predominantly-Black neighborhoods Dorchester, Mattapan and Jamaica Plain began meeting regularly to talk about how to model a democratic economy, one that would respond to their needs. It came to be called the Boston Ujima Project — “ujima” being a Swahili word and one of the seven Kwanzaa principles, understood to mean “collective work and responsibility.”

Since its first general assembly in 2017, which Next City covered at the time, the Boston Ujima Project has spent much of its energy coming up with ways to telegraph to neighbors and to those outside their communities what they like in their neighborhoods, finding out what investments might be needed to maintain those things, and also determining what they would like to have in their neighborhoods in the future.

Privileged and credentialed technocrats might recognize all that as part of the work of urban planning. Ujima members have held neighborhood assemblies, citywide assemblies, and attended regular convenings held by other community organizing groups across the city to invite more residents of their communities to discuss, and ultimately vote on, investment plans for their neighborhoods.

A rendering of the inside of Jazz Urbane Cafe. Courtesy of Jazz Urbane Cafe

Sit-down restaurants and performing arts spaces have come up frequently on top of the Boston Ujima Project wishlist. Roxbury residents had long been calling for performance spaces and sit-down restaurants in their once-booming Nubian Square. So it was no surprise to anyone when the city finally put out an RFP in 2017 for the 7,800 square-foot former Ferdinand Furniture storefront, calling for “a wide range of businesses including a restaurant, a major performance space or a meeting space.”

Musician turned owner

It was a pleasant surprise that the city’s economic development agency leadership was among the first to reach out to Bill Banfield to encourage him to submit a proposal for the former Ferdinand Furniture storefront.

A Detroit native, Banfield first moved to Boston in the 1980s, landing a job teaching music at Madison Park High School, just a few blocks from Dudley Square. An accomplished jazz producer, composer and guitarist in his own right, Banfield eventually took a page out of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s book and borrowed some cash from his parents to start his own recording label.

Banfield’s work took him away from Boston for a while, but he eventually returned to take a professor position at Boston’s world-famous Berklee College of Music. Around that time, in the late 2000s, he started collaborating with Nia Grace to reinvigorate the local jazz performance scene in Boston. They started at Darryl’s, where Grace was still just a manager. She acquired the restaurant in 2018.

While Darryl’s is technically in Roxbury, it’s at the very northern edge of the neighborhood. Banfield dreamed of something bigger to draw people to the commercial heart of historic Black Boston, now known as Nubian Square. The city officially renamed the square in 2019, a tribute to the broader notion of Nubia, a region of the African continent, being symbolic of the area’s Black heritage.

“Darryl’s had certainly been an important place, and there were other places but we didn’t have the kind of mainstream venue that, say, Scullers represented for Cambridge,” Banfield says. “Boston really needed it.”

The city awarded the space to Banfield and the Jazz Urbane Cafe concept in 2018. It also set up the restaurant venue with a performance-based lease — its rent payments are a percentage of monthly revenue. It’s not uncommon for private landlords with storefront spaces to make such agreements with commercial tenants, but no one had ever heard of the city government doing it.

Credit: Jamie Kahn. Photo courtesy of Jazz Urbane Cafe

“It was really the city thinking innovatively and realizing if you want homegrown businesses to occupy prime commercial space, they would need that kind of assistance, on the lease and in some other regards, as well,” says Turahn Dorsey, the third member of the Jazz Urbane founding team. “They saw the possibilities from the very beginning.”

Another transplant from Detroit and a former student of Banfield, Dorsey is also no stranger to city government, nor to the Bolling Municipal Building. He worked there from 2014 to 2018 during his tenure as chief of education for the City of Boston.

The neighborhood wants in

But even after securing the space, Jazz Urbane still needs to raise startup capital to finance its buildout and working capital to open its doors. In the middle of this process, the pandemic hit in 2020, putting everything on hold temporarily. As they’ve re-started the search for startup capital, the three founders made sure to come back to one of the first places they initially went to find investors — the Boston Ujima Project.

In addition to planning out some of the investments they’d like to see in their neighborhoods, the Boston Ujima Project also manages a small pool of investment capital to actually make some of those investments. Some of the funds come from community members in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, but the bulk of the dollars come from high-net-worth individuals and philanthropic institutions elsewhere in Boston and beyond. The voting members of Ujima, however, have the final say in making investments, and Ujima limits its voting power to members who are Boston residents identifying as working class and/or as a person of color, or a working class and/or person of color who has been displaced from the city. This setup flips the usual dynamic of the folks with the most money having the most power over investment dollars.

In April, after listening to the Jazz Urbane Cafe founders make their pitch, asking questions and reviewing the business plan, Ujima voting members approved a $200,000 investment to take a 3.29 percent ownership stake in the business. Also known as an equity investment, it is riskier than making a loan, but the potential payoff can be much higher. It’s the first equity investment for the Boston Ujima Project, and while it’s just a small ownership stake, there are larger implications.

Usually, this kind of early-stage equity investment is only accessible to people who are already wealthy — for example, the investors on the popular Shark Tank television series. But by pooling investment capital from multiple sources as a fund, Boston Ujima Project found a way to bring working-class communities of color as investors into an early-stage equity investment. And the Jazz Urbane Cafe founders want to provide an example for others from Black communities in Boston to follow, whether it’s through Ujima or other new channels for not-so-wealthy individuals or individuals of color to make early-stage equity investments in local businesses.

“They were among the first we went to – in part because we knew that we wanted strong representation by investors of color in Jazz Urbane Cafe,” Dorsey says. “Certainly other people will be welcome to the house, but we’ve long wanted something for ourselves and we’re not waiting for permission from traditional capital to do the things we’ve long wanted to do.”

The post Everyone Owns Boston’s New Jazz Cafe appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Culture Can Help in the Fight Against Putin – We Must Not Limit It

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 25/07/2022 - 10:09pm in

Katie Dancey-Downs, assistant editor at Index on Censorship, reflects on a decision by the Ukrainian Parliament to ban music created by Russian citizens

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What is at stake, when you cancel the culture of an entire nation? Propaganda is pushed underground, muffled to the rest of the world. But along with this, important work is buried too. The voice of opposition is silenced.

Last month, Ukraine’s Parliament made an extraordinary decision. It voted to ban music created or performed by people who have been Russian citizens since 1991. Books face a similar fate, with works written by Russian citizens no longer allowed across the border, apart from those already available in the country. If an artist condemns the war in Ukraine, however, they can apply for an exemption.

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will still accompany ballerinas and Rachmaninov will still fill concert halls. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin will still line bookshelves. But living and breathing artists are stopped at the gates.

The decision is designed to "minimise the risks of possible hostile propaganda through music in Ukraine and increase the volume of national music products in the cultural space”. 

Ukrainian voices have been silenced throughout history and are still being silenced today, through another invasion. More space for them is desperately needed. But cancelling Russian culture also silences Russians who stand against Vladimir Putin’s war. 

Since the invasion of Ukraine, many other countries have engaged in their own boycotts of Russian culture.

The Royal Opera House pulled a tour by the Bolshoi Ballet, the European Film Awards banned Russian entries, and so too did the Eurovision Song Contest. Some might remember how the 2021 Russian Eurovision entry by Manizha, 'Russian Woman', challenged gender stereotypes in the country.

The global show of solidarity with Ukraine makes a clear stand against Russia’s invasion, but what is the cost?

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Putting together the latest issue of Index on Censorship's magazine, the topic of Russian culture has been at the forefront of our minds. The special report in this issue gives space to artists, dissidents and journalists to respond to the war in Ukraine.

We hear from Alla Gutnikova, a Russian journalist who was sentenced to correctional labour for her role in the student publication, Doxa. She used her court statement to speak out, no matter the cost to her personal safety. “Even if you are silenced by your government, you still have to write,” she said.

We revisit the words of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who warned the world about Putin. And we hear from Russophone poets speaking out against the war.

The incredible Kopilka Project brings together work from more than 100 poets around the world, standing against the war and brandishing their pens as weapons. Their work, including the poem by Yulia Fridman published in Index on Censorship, is extraordinary, important and necessary.

These voices are part of the resistance against the war. We must not silence them.

The difficult issue of cancelling Russian culture, too, is addressed by the writers Marina Pesenti and Maria Sorenson.

“Russia has used culture for the purposes of aggressive political propaganda internationally," Pesenti observes. "Culture is a broad reflection of the society it represents and currently Russian society stands largely united behind an ideology promoting violence and blatant untruths.” Amid this, Ukraine is denied agency.

“Does Russia and Russian culture mean Putin?” Sorenson asks. She poses an important question: should artists only be allowed to perform if they vocalise their opposition to Putin and the war? And what of those who cannot speak freely? Those who are dead or at risk of reprisal? Can we really judge people by their passports alone?

The pages in our magazine, both in this issue and countless pieces in our archive, show that culture flourishes in times of censorship. One example is the Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon’s short story, The Ampitheatre, an exclusive for the latest edition. After being threatened, he left his home country and writes from outside it. Writing fiction, Halfon says, allows him to speak the truth.

Culture can play an integral role in challenging authority.

Take the idea of samizdat – secretly published literature banned by the USSR, often highly critical of the state. Readers passed these underground publications between each other, made copies, and snuck them across borders. Works were hidden and shared in ingenious ways.

The collaboration of networks like these, as in the Kopilka Project, strengthens dissident voices. Their influential ideas are given oxygen in both the places in which they face censorship and the rest of the world.

There are yet more lessons from history.

Vaclav Havel, a dissident and playwright, became the first President of the Czech Republic following the collapse of Soviet rule. By allowing culture to flourish, real change can happen.

Vladimir Putin may use culture to extend his reach, but if we silence Russian voices indiscriminately, what important works and ideas are we suppressing? There is some expectation that artists should use their platforms to speak out against injustices. But with those platforms removed, the opportunity is snatched away.

One thing is clear: culture is a weapon of war. And censorship cannot be fought with censorship.

The latest edition of Index on Censorship, ‘The Battle for Ukraine: Artists, Journalists and Dissidents Respond’, is available to buy now

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Ousmane Sembène, Les Bouts de bois de Dieu

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 01/07/2022 - 11:11pm in

More than forty years ago, before I went to university, I was living in Paris and became an “organized sympathiser”, a candidate for membership, of the Trotskyist sect Lutte Ouvrière. The training for people like me consisted, of course, of reading some Marxist classics, but also of making one’s way through a list of novels that included, as I recall, Zola’s Germinal, Christiane Rochefort’s Les Stances à Sophie, Malraux’s Les Conquérants and La Condition Humaine, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, London’s The Iron Heel and certainly some others that I forget. One of the books that I never got round to was Ousmane Sembène’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, and I had more or less forgotten about it until a contact on social media with whom I share many mutual friends reported reading it after a trip to Senegal. So I thought I would give it a go.

It is one of the most remarkable novels I have read in the past several years and deserves to be widely knows as a classic. It is an epic constructed somewhat in the manner of a great Russian novel (think of Grossman’s Life and Fate, for example) and centres on a strike of African railway workers, against the French rail company and the colonial administration in 1947-8. The strikers are poor, many of them are illiterate, they are Muslims, many are in polygamous families and they are regarded by the French as savages and by their religious leaders as people who ought to be grateful and know their place. Yet they have their dignity and cannot accept that they are worth less than the whites who work on the railway, that they should have no entitlement to family support, or to a pension in their old age. So they strike, heedless of the advice of their elders who had done the same ten years before.

The hero, if there is one is Ibrahima Bakayoko, a charismatic leader with a complicated domestic and love life. Yet for a good half of the novel he does not feature, we are waiting for him. Instead, after the initial decision and some ensuing violence and death, most of the action focuses on three groups of households, in Bamako, Thiès and Dakar and on the struggle of the women to survive in the absence of wages. Sembène is a master of description and of set-piece scenes that capture the essence of the conflict: the killing of a ram belonging to a quisling character, the trial of a strikebreaker, raids by teenage apprentices armed with slingshots, the death of a grouchy old caretaker who is trying to catch rats to eat, the raids by colonial authorities and the resulting death and destruction, a march by the women of Thiès to Dakar to demand justice, the embittered ranting of the old colonials, the prison and the torture of detainees. He also conjures wonderful characters: Penda “the whore” who hates men but fights alongside them, N’Deye Touti who wishes she was white and suffers that harsh lesson that she is not, Maïmouna the blind woman with her twin babies that nobody knows the paternity of, Fa Keïta the elderly and devout railworker who preaches forgiveness and humanity in the face of colonial cruelty. In many ways the women, often the polygamous wives of the striking men, are the central characters: depicted with dignity, agency and not at all as they might feature in the white liberal imagination.

In brief, I cannot recommend it highly enough. There is an English edition in the Heinemann African Writer’s series (where the author’s name is given as Sembene Ousmane) but I haven’t checked the translation which seems to have many fewer pages than the original (but maybe the print is small). It would make a great movie on the scale of Dr Zhivago, but they don’t make them like that any more.

Perceptions and Appetitions: New Music About Philosophy (guest post)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/06/2022 - 11:09pm in

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Arts, Music, philosophy

“To refute a theory, but it’s my life that’s on the line…”

The following is a guest post* by Kris McDaniel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, about the release of a new album, Perceptions and Appetitions, by The 21st Century Monads. It’s a bonus Friday addition to the series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.


[Renee Jorgensen, detail of cover of “Perceptions and Appetitions” from The 21st Century Monads]

Perceptions and Appetitions: New Music About Philosophy
by Kris McDaniel

After an almost eight year long hiatus since our previous album, the 21st Century Monads return with 17 original songs spanning 55 minutes of music.

The 21st Century Monads consist of Ben Bradley (Syracuse), Carrie Jenkins (U. Vancouver), Kris McDaniel (Notre Dame), and Hille Paakkunainen (Syracuse). We all teach philosophy and the songs are all about philosophy or aspects of the philosophical profession.  This will be our sixth album—our first album was released in 2009! Recording for Perceptions and Appetitions began in May 2020.

The first single for the new album was already released on Wednesday. It’s called The Cabinet, and you can watch the music video for it here:

Our webpage lists all the information about the songs (lyrics, who played what instrument, etc); this information can also be found in the YouTube video descriptions.

Also, we are on Facebook and Twitter—if you are on these things, please follow us there.

If you like what we are doing and you want to hear more, here’s how to “purchase” the entire album:

  • First, make a donation to the charity of your choice. There is no minimum amount you need to donate. Even a dollar can make a difference, and we will happily send you the album.
  • Second, email us the receipt (with any credit card or bank information blanked out) so we can keep track of how much we’ve raised. Email us at: 21stcenturymonads@gmail.com

Once these two steps are completed, we’ll send you an email with a secret link to donate the album. It’s that easy.

There are hundreds of charities to choose from, but here are two charities of personal importance to me that I donate to and recommend considering:

First, Neighbor to Neighbor South Bend. This is a local (South Bend, Indiana) charity that focuses on aiding refugees that have recently relocated to the South Bend area. The direct link to their donation page is here.

Second,  We Rise Above The Streets Recovery Outreach Inc. This is a Syracuse, NY based charity focused on helping the homeless population of Syracuse, NY. It’s a very low-infrastructure boots-on-the-ground kind of charity. You can help out with their “Sandwich Saturdays”, a weekly event where community members come together to make and then distribute food and other necessities for those in need by purchasing food directly for them via this link here.

This album has been at least two years in the making, and I think it is our best stuff to date.  I hope you enjoy it.

And now, without further ado, here’s the next single from Perceptions and Appetitions, called A Halting Problem:

Lyrics and Liner Notes 

“The Cabinet”

Going in, going in, going in
Will I survive?
What is life, what is life, what is life?
This cruel, cruel test that PvI designed
To refute a theory, but it’s my life that’s on the line

He closes the door, do I look outside one last time?
Will my body start to fade away or my mind?
How can a thought be indeterminately mine?
When the door opens, it will be vague whether it’s I

What do we fear … in The Cabinet
It’s so unclear … in The Cabinet
What will befall … in The Cabinet
But aren’t we all … in The Cabinet

We’re not fully here … in The Cabinet
Do we lose what’s dear … in The Cabinet
You won’t be spared … in The Cabinet
So are you scared … of The Cabinet? 

Music copyright 2022@The 21st Century Monads
Lyrics: Kris McDaniel, Carrie Jenkins
Kris McDaniel: vocals, edrums, keyboards, electric guitar, melodica, bass melodica
Ben Bradley: bass guitar, electric guitar
Hille Paakkunainen: vocals
Will Bradley: trumpet 

“A Halting Problem”

I got a halting problem baby
Must this go on forever baby? 

It’s the not knowing that’s killing me
Will this program ever let me be?
I feel like such a fool
Is this undecidable?

I’ve got a halting problem, baby

They say there’s just no algorithm, baby
Will I ever rest again, oh baby?

Ooooooh I’m a machine
And that’s what’s killing me
Will this program ever let me be
A turing machine
Is this undecidable?

I’ve got a halting problem, baby

Well you know I’m just a machine
So you’d hope one day I’d learn
Well you know I’m just I’m just a machine
But still it burns 

I’ve got a halting problem, baby

Music copyright 2022@The 21st Century Monads
Lyrics: Carrie Jenkins, Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel: vocals, edrums, electric guitar, 8-string ukulele, keyboards
Carrie Jenkins: vocals
Ben Bradley: bass guitar, cello, electric guitar, acoustic guitar  

‘Mr Jones’ Review: A Timely If Flawed Watch on the Ukrainian Holodomor

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/06/2022 - 6:45pm in

Tags 

Arts, Film, history

As another Russian dictator uses Ukrainian grain as a weapon of war, this 2020 historical thriller is worth a watch, writes Ellin Stein

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Timing is all. You would have thought a film based on the true story of a ruthless Russian dictator’s attempts to subdue the population of Ukraine, seize their land and commandeer the country’s grain reserves for political purposes with devastating results would have attracted a certain amount of comment.

Especially since it stars James Norton as the crusading reporter who fought to bring the full horror unfolding in Ukraine to the West’s attention. And because it portrays Western client journalists who soft-pedalled the tragic consequences at best and actively spread disinformation at worst, all for career advantage.

And yet, when Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s Mr Jones was released in 2020, it created only a moderate buzz in the English-speaking world.

But, had it come out in 2022, when the world’s attention was on Ukraine, things might have been so different – if only because of the light it sheds on the roots of Ukrainians’ ferocious determination to resist Russian aggression. 

These lie in the Holodomor, the Kremlin-engineered famine arising out of the relentless collectivisation of farming in the early 1930s that killed at least four million people – a historical episode as freighted with sorrow and rage in Ukraine as the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide are in other central European communities.

The audience discovers the truth through the eyes of Gareth Jones (Norton), an idealistic, academically-gifted but somewhat unworldly Cambridge graduate from the Valleys. After being laid-off as Lloyd George’s foreign policy advisor, Jones applies for a visa to visit Russia as a journalist although he doesn’t know what story he’s looking for beyond an explanation of how Russia is able to go on a weapons and industrialisation spending spree in the middle of the Great Depression.

When he asks his Moscow-based journalist friend Paul Kleb to help him get an interview with Stalin, he is advised to contact Walter Duranty, The New York Times’ powerful Moscow bureau chief. The smooth, well-connected Duranty (Peter Skarsgard, oozing urbane reptilian charm) takes Jones under his wing, confiding the source of Russia’s wealth is grain – “Stalin’s gold” – the production of which has doubled, he says, thanks to the USSR’s five-year plan.

Jones strikes up a friendship with Duranty’s assistant Ada Brooks, who tells him that Klebs was killed as he was about to leave for Ukraine. Jones manoeuvres his way into getting permission to go to the region and manages to lose his Kremlin minder by getting off the train 40 miles before their destination, walking the rest of the way through a snowy hellscape of people fighting over a crust of bread, bodies lying in the road where they fell, and live babies being tossed onto carts of corpses along with their dead mothers. Meanwhile, sacks of grain are loaded onto trucks for transport to Moscow

(In real life, Jones visited 22 villages, interviewing farmers who were starving and dying and talked to hundreds of peasants in Russian, carefully recording their conversations).

After more harrowing encounters and being jailed by the Soviet authorities, Jones makes it back to Britain, where he asserts that famine is the result of deliberate state policy.

This call to action brings Jones nothing but trouble. After his mentor Lloyd George disowns him, insisting he retract the story, and Duranty demolishes his credibility in The New York Times, a broken and ostracised Jones returns to Wales, where eventually he tracks down visiting newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and gets Hearst to publish his eye-witness accounts in several US papers.

Duranty, meanwhile, wins a Pulitzer Prize and is lionised as the architect of the US’ belated recognition of the USSR in 1933.

Unfortunately, the power of the true story is not translated into compelling drama.

Debut screenwriter Andrea Chalupa is an excellent journalist of Ukrainian extraction and an expert on authoritarianism who has done sterling work exposing the corruption of the Donald Trump administration and media complicity (as the co-host of the Gaslit Nation podcast) but she approaches the script as a journalist, marshalling compelling evidence to persuade the viewer to her point of view.

As a result, there are too many talky scenes setting out opposing arguments rather than engaging us emotionally in duelling relationship dynamics. Drama works by involving our emotions more than our brains. In this respect, the film only really comes alive during Jones’ virtually wordless trek across the famine-struck wasteland.

The superbly spiky Vanessa Kirby does her best to make Ada believable, but the character is under-written and seems to have been introduced mostly to represent the views of idealistic Western Communist sympathisers who saw Stalin as a counter-weight to Hitler’s power and so didn’t want to believe that he was similarly tyrannical (and to convince us the teetotal Jones is not immune to all urges). 

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The other problem lies in the characterisation of Jones himself. He is entirely admirable – courageous, hard-working, committed to truth and fighting for the underdog, and with no hidden agendas. Such people are wonderful in real life, but narrative fiction needs protagonists who have to struggle to overcome their flaws and are driven by occasionally self-destructive impulses.

As a result, Duranty steals every scene he’s in, especially one reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Show where the newly-arrived Jones, Brad to Duranty’s Frank N Furter, finds himself at a wild polyamorous party complete with scantily-clad ladies injecting heroin, as the host, wearing only a leather G-string (Times bureau chiefs were certainly more colourful in those days) tries to get him to loosen up.

One is left with the feeling that the film would have been so much more compelling had this complicated, morally compromised anti-hero – Duranty spent his 20s organising Satanic orgies in Paris with occultist and libertine Aleister Crowley – been at its centre. Chulapa, in fact, felt the same (it was Holland who insisted on making Jones the centre of the story). “The more I started digging into this guy to get answers,” she said, “the more I was thinking, my God, he would make an incredible film.”

A 1990 New York Times review of a biography of Duranty described him as “a man untainted by so much as the spectre of a belief in any political or humanistic ideal, solely motivated by the goal of his own celebrity” – which makes him sound not unlike another journalist with an elastic approach to the truth and a penchant for accommodating autocrats if it helps his career.

Meanwhile, another Russian dictator is using Ukrainian grain as a weapon of war, condemning thousands to starvation and death. So, whatever its flaws, this warning from history could not be more timely.

Mr Jones’ is available to watch on Amazon Prime and BFI Player

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You’ve Got Mail from Timbuktu

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 13/06/2022 - 6:00pm in

Tags 

culture, Arts, Mali, tourism

From the age of 13, Ali Nialy began working as a tour guide for the reliable stream of international visitors coming to his hometown, Timbuktu. 

Straddling the edge of the desert in central Mali, the UNESCO World Heritage site — dubbed the “Pearl of the Sahara” — is famed for its spectacular mosque made of mud, ancient Islamic manuscripts and key role as a 14th century trading center. As many as 200,000 tourists once visited the West African country each year.

Ali NialyAli Nialy. Credit: Postcards from Timbuktu

Nialy would recount the centuries-old history of his streets, lead camel-riding tours through the mythical landscape, and later branch out to the cliff-hugging villages of the Dogon ethnic group. “People came from everywhere in the world,” he says.

But in 2012, with the emergence of an Islamist jihadi occupation that kickstarted an age of violence and insecurity across the region, Timbuktu’s once-thriving tourist industry disappeared in the blink of an eye. The ongoing armed conflict means the northern half of the country, which includes Timbuktu, is a no-go zone for tourists. The US State Department and many international counterparts advise against travel to Mali, and Timbuktu has been added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger.

“It’s such a horrendous situation,” says Lucy Durán, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “The impact has been devastating on local communities. With the instability and poor governance, a lot of nonprofits have withdrawn. The most peaceful country in the world has turned into a battlefield.”

For years, Nialy and the other residents of Timbuktu saw their livelihoods drain away and slide towards ever-greater desperation. But in 2016, Phil Paoletta, an American owner of a legendary hostel in Mali’s capital Bamako, The Sleeping Camel, and Nialy, now 34, agreed on a plan to deliver the people of Timbuktu a new form of income.

The result was Postcards from Timbuktu, a project that cannily plays on Timbuktu’s image as a faraway land at the edge of the earth. Through it, customers can order a personalized, handwritten postcard sent from Timbuktu to an address of their choice anywhere around the world. The project allows would-be tourists to support these former guides, who remain deeply attached to their hometown despite the conflict.

postcardsPostcards from Timbuktu has sent out more than 7,000 postcards worldwide. Credit: Postcards from Timbuktu

“There’s people who contact the website, who think it’s a joke,” says Paoletta. “They think that Timbuktu is made up. But when these postcards arrive it really brings home that it’s a real place and real people live there.”

The mysterious allure of Timbuktu dates back many centuries, according to Durán. Many European explorers tried to reach the city, she explains, but in 1827 French explorer René Callié was the first to visit and return alive.

“Reaching Timbuktu was this impossible feat, like going to the moon,” says Durán, who first visited Mali in 1986 and has returned almost every year since. 

For Nialy, however, it is the people who make the place special. “Timbuktu is a kind of mixed country — there’s Berber, Arabic, Songhay and Tuareg people,” he says. “But everyone here treats you like brothers and sisters. They share everything.”

The company has sent out more than 7,000 postcards to date to countries in Europe, the United States, Latin America, Asia and neighboring African countries. Each card costs $10, with the guides earning between $2 and $4.50 per card written and sent — the rest goes to printing and postage costs and taxes. With the average monthly salary in Mali around $100, it is a significant amount of income for straightforward work — even if demand is not always reliable and tends to fluctuate over time.

“It is big for us, it helps the families survive,” says Nialy, who is now working as part of a team of more than 20 people. And that money trickles down through the local economy in Timbuktu, where he estimates half the population is now unemployed. “Myself, I use the money for my family. It helps me to feed them.”

postcards from timbuktu“There’s people who contact the website, who think it’s a joke,” says Paoletta. “They think that Timbuktu is made-up.” Credit: Postcards from Timbuktu

Likewise, Durán, of SOAS, gives her stamp of approval. “This project could do a lot of good — they are in desperate need,” she says. “But there’s a long, long way to go before the people of Timbuktu can live as they did before.”

The inspiration for the project came after Paoletta, who is based in Bamako, received mail from a friend in the United States, the first delivery he had received in six years. He called Nialy, who he had worked with through previous guide work with shared clients. “Phil called me and said, ‘Why don’t you do this? Maybe you can survive and find work for the rest of the guides,’” recalls Nialy. He then contacted Timbuktu’s post office to see if it was still operating and gave it a test run. When that worked, Nialy began organizing the guides and liaised with Bamako’s post office.

tour guidesGuides in Timbuktu relaxing with some tea. Credit: Postcards from Timbuktu

Senders have a choice between vintage images of Timbuktu, drawings or photos by local artists such as Timbuktu’s last master calligrapher, Boubacar Sadeck, or even a design colored by pupils from the local elementary school. On the back the guides faithfully write the messages — some people write love letters to partners or motivational letters to themselves, and others pretend that they themselves have actually sent the postcard from Timbuktu. Most arrive at their destinations in two or three weeks, but some take much longer, and every now and then, a postcard gets lost. In some cases, that’s even resulted in them being labeled scammers.

“There were some hiccups, and there still are now,” says Paoletta. “We try to convey that to people when they are ordering items. There’s a serious unpredictability to it.”

That unpredictability can be part of the allure. Each postcard goes on an incredible journey: from Timbuktu’s tiny post office, it is usually loaded onto a United Nations flight headed to Bamako, or sometimes it is down the Niger River by boat, or in the back of a 4X4, via the city of Mopti first. From there, the airmail almost always makes its way to France, due to its historic links with Mali, before traveling onward, sometimes with several more stops across the globe, before ultimately landing in the mailbox of its intended recipient.

“Most people aren’t used to getting physical mail anymore,” adds Paoletta. “They send photos on Instagram, Facebook or WhatsApp. But with these postcards, you can order this item, and once you start it’s the beginning of a long process. You can’t track it. You don’t know when or if it will arrive.”

postcards from timbuktuThe sheep market in Timbuktu. Credit: Postcards from Timbuktu

Beyond the promotion of slower living, Postcards from Timbuktu has potentially found a way to circumvent the barriers usually posed by violent conflict: it allows income to flow into local communities, perhaps providing a model for others to follow. A contact in Agadez, Niger — another place that has suffered from the collapse of the tourism sector — has gotten in touch with Paoletta to discuss the launch of something similar. 

“This same project could be done in all sorts of places,” says Paoletta. “Places that have become inaccessible for whatever reasons. It could be a lifeline for them.”

The post You’ve Got Mail from Timbuktu appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

What Depp v Heard Tells Us About Toxic Fandom

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/06/2022 - 7:18pm in

Networked harassment, parasocial relationships and good old fashioned misogyny have all turned a domestic abuse into a spectator sport as part of the #MeToo backlash, says Sian Norris

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It was the TV event of the Christmas season. Stuffed with chocolates and leftover turkey, the nation sat down to enjoy A Very British Scandal, a miniseries packed with period detail and perfectly-applied red lipstick, detailing the scandalous mid-century divorce of the Argylls.

In between envying silk shirts and high-waisted slacks, I sent out a tweet referring to the male lead Paul Bettany’s friendship with actor Johnny Depp – a friendship that involved swapping text messages where they 'joked' about drowning and burning Depp’s ex-wife Amber Heard.

The pair had only been married for 15 months when Heard left Depp and accused him of domestic abuse. The story was picked up by The Sun, where Dan Wootton called Depp a "wife beater". He sued for libel, but in October 2020 Judge Mr Justice Nicol said the newspaper proved its claims against Depp to be "substantially true" and found 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of domestic abuse had occurred.

In the text exchange, Bettany had suggested subjecting Heard to a drowning test – the mediaeval method of determining if a woman was a witch. “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!!” Depp responded. “I will f**k her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.” 

“My thoughts entirely,” replied Bettany. 

An average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the US. The vast majority are women.

What happened next surprised even me, a veteran of Twitter pile-ons. For at least three days, I received tweet after tweet, extolling the virtues of Depp and condemning Heard in the vilest, misogynistic language. My block button went into overdrive as I heard from Depp fans convinced of his innocence and victimisation, of my misandrist ignorance, and of Heard’s evil.

Numerous people informed me rather loftily that the exchange referenced a Monty Python joke. I can’t say I’m an aficionado of Python history, but I don’t think Cleese and Palin ever discussed raping a corpse. 

My experience of the Depp “stans” (a term derived from the Eminem song ‘Stan’ to denote extreme fandom) meant I had tried not to engage with the return of Depp and Heard to the courtroom – this time in the US with a jury and in front of an army of TV cameras. Depp had sued Heard for $50 million for defamation, regarding an op-ed she wrote about being a victim of domestic abuse. Heard countersued for $100 million.

But it didn’t really matter that I had decided not to engage. I couldn’t escape the courtroom that had turned allegations of domestic abuse into a form of grotesque entertainment for the masses. Whenever I checked my Instagram or Facebook feeds, I was met with pro-Depp content… despite my private Instagram account being mostly friends, books and classic movie clips. I wasn’t following the case, but social media made damn sure the case followed me. 

We now know that The Daily Wire, a conservative outlet founded by Ben Shapiro, spent thousands of dollars promoting anti-Heard and pro-Depp messaging on social media. Heard also claims Depp orchestrated a “trolling campaign” against her, with his promises that he would humiliate her leading to some experts suggesting the two court cases are a form of continued abuse.

Bettany’s and Depp’s text messages were beginning to feel accurate – with the peanut munching crowd turning the scene into less of a defamation case and more of a witch trial. 

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Toxic Fandom

The behaviour of Depp fans during the court case demonstrates an intense and often toxic bond between the star and the people who have chosen to make him their cause. 

“In the 1950s, a theory developed called ‘parasocial relationships’”, Dr Kirsty Sedgman of the University of Bristol told Byline Times. Sedgman researches audiences and fan culture. “The theory arose with the advent of TVs in the home, and parasocial interactions describe the intense, personal sense of connections that viewers can have with celebrities”.

Such interactions help to explain the identification of his fans with Depp – a man beamed into their living rooms and fantasies for more than three decades. It's the belief that he is someone they know and who would be their friend or even lover if they met. Women in particular seem to have a vested interest in defending and supporting him in a way that we would normally only expect of people we know ‘in real life’. 

While fandom can be a positive force  – creating communities and enriching culture – there is such a thing as toxic fandom. That toxicity has been on full display as Depp enthusiasts use misogynistic language and threats against Heard in the name of defending their fan object. 

“Toxic fandom used to be confined to the margins,” Sedgman explained. “Sub-cultural bickering between niche, highly-invested communities. Now it’s right at the centre of mainstream culture, with fandom being the battleground for playing out broader political conflicts”.

That political conflict is, in this case, domestic abuse and the backlash against the #MeToo movement. It’s a conflict of who gets to be believed, who gets to be a victim, and who has power. And that’s a problem. 

“It’s become a watercooler moment, the reality show we are all talking about,” explained Dr Phoenix Andrews, who is writing a book about political fandom. “People with no interest in celebrity culture previously, they now have an opinion on this case. But this isn’t a reality show, it’s real people in a courtroom, with people out to destroy Amber Heard as a human”. 

Networked Harassment

Many of the Depp fans are legacy fans – people who enjoyed him in his major film roles throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But Andrews has found that the “watercooler moment” effect means people who have never really taken an interest in Depp before have become heavily invested in the case, become entrenched in their positions, and become part of networks and communities that share the same viewpoint on Heard’s status as a victim or villain. 

“Because of the way the case is being shared on mainstream and local media, people make snap judgments and once they have an opinion on Depp or Heard, it’s hard to climb down from it,” Andrews explained. “Then, if they post their view on social media, they will get lovebombed by people who share that position – and likely receive hate from people who think the opposite. They find a community and can easily go down a radicalisation spiral, which is how you end up with someone who was pro-MeToo becoming really misogynistic”. 

When Depp is under attack, the community that identifies with him and is invested in defending him against Heard feels under attack too – and its members believe they have a moral duty to defend one another and, ultimately, their fan object. 

This turns the community aspect of fandom which can be so enriching into something toxic and leads to what academic Dr Alice E Marwick calls “networked harassment”. Rather than the harassment being one-on-one, it becomes a swarm of people who are defending their cause – in this case Depp – with a missionary zeal. 

We now know that The Daily Wire, a conservative outlet founded by Ben Shapiro, spent thousands of dollars promoting anti-Heard and pro-Depp messaging on social media.

“When you become part of a community, if anyone criticises your position it is like they are criticising your country, your family, your first born child,” said Andrews. “It suddenly becomes very important to defend your position, especially in front of your new social network. And if someone spots a person who has transgressed the norms of your community and is disagreeing with a member of your community, it becomes a moral duty to pile in and give back up. People feel they have to defend the honour and legitimacy of their group – where an attack on one member is an attack on all”. 

Harassment then, according to Marwick, becomes a “mechanism to enforce social order” with a networked group escalating the harassment while being fuelled by a moral outrage that their social norms have been violated. 

This is not solely an issue for the Depp versus Heard case. It’s something we have seen with sports teams, sci-fi fandoms, political parties and even Brexit v Remain. 

But this is not a hypothetical debate. It cannot be forgotten, as people declare themselves TeamHeard or TeamDepp and use vile hashtags to proudly display their misogyny, that at the heart of this case is domestic abuse. 

“The scary thing is we are reframing domestic abuse as entertainment,” said Sedgman. “It’s something we are being encouraged to actively invest in, like a sporting match between two equally powerful opponents. But people who have studied the case would agree that the idea the two participants have equal power is nonsensical. As a society, we are very bad about thinking through unequal operations of power”. 

Domestic abuse isn’t a spectacle or a battle of the memes. It’s a crime that impacts 1.2 million people in England and Wales every year, that disproportionately impacts women (83% of victims who experience more than 10 incidents of abuse are women) and where male abusers kill at least 100 women every year.

An average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the US. The vast majority are women.

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Top Gun Maverick: Aerial Warfare, Unmanned

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/05/2022 - 10:13pm in

Tags 

Arts, Film

As fiction, Tom Cruise's sequel to his 80s blockbuster longs for the days of the single warrior in combat, when air-launched explosive violence is all about ground attacks often with civilian casualties

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Captain Pete Mitchel is back. Top Gun: Maverick exploded onto the big screen this week, and as a disarmingly endearing example of absurd triumphalism, it succeeded. In a line that viewers will long  remember, bad-guy and drone-advocate Admiral Cain gazes forcefully into Maverick’s eyes and tells him: 

“The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction”

In true Maverick style, Top Gun’s top gun replies:

“Maybe so, sir. But not today.”

Here is the true warrior, the fighter pilot willing to risk his life and use his exceptional skills to further the interests of his country: a man standing up for his place, and the place of pilots trained in dogfighting rather than air-striking, in the face of modern warfare. 

In a nutshell, this line also sums up the lies the world was sold about modern aerial warfare in the original Top Gun film. Twenty years of the War on Terror have shown that heroic dogfights between skilled warriors are not what it’s about. It’s about airstrikes, from on high, on ground targets that, all too often, include civilians.

When Maverick refers to the missions his new trainees have been running up to now, he remarks that they have been mostly carrying out low-personal risk airstrikes, and are consequently ill-prepared for the hands-on dogfighting they’re likely to encounter as they bomb their target. It’s almost wistful.

The reality, of course, is that modern air warfare is dominated by the very real presence of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). These are the drones the film’s Admiral Cain would like to elevate at the expense of manned fighter jets. And Top Gun: Maverick is the fightback.  It speaks to the innate desire for a return to heroic warfare, where a low chance of success and a high chance of death is central to the hero’s framing. It’s warfare between real pilots because, remember, “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” 

All of this in spite of the fact it would have made more strategic sense to use stealthy fifth-generation aircraft like Navy F-35Cs or USAF F-35As/F-22s or B-2s, or even cruise missiles for this mission. But that’s not the point, is it? After all this is testosterone-fuelled fiction, far from the hard truths of war. 

Dogfights? You Mean Airstrikes

The modern reality of air war lies in the numbers, and it’s a far cry from dogfights.

Since 2010, Action on Armed Violence has recorded 8,222 incidents of air-launched explosive violence, as reported in English-language sources. These have caused a reported 65,009 civilian casualties. Indeed 58% of global casualties of air-launched weapons have been civilians in the last decade. All of these deaths are from airstrikes, none from dogfights. But this framing is totally absent in Top Gun.

What is also absent is the fact that such violence to civilians is entirely the preserve of states. 99% (8,103 incidents) of air-launched explosive violence since 2010 has been attributed to state actors, as well as 99% (64,065) of civilian casualties. Syria is the worst perpetrator of civilian casualties of air-launched explosive weapons (14,339 civilian casualties since 2010), followed by Saudi-led coalitions (9,892), and US-led coalitions (5,432).

Globally, the US is the 8th worst perpetrator of civilian casualties of air-launched explosive violence (1,031 civilian casualties) recorded since 2010. 

But given that – in reality – the majority of those killed or injured from air attacks are civilians, where does this leave societal notions of masculine heroism in air warfare?

Warrior Masculinities

Masculinity has long been associated with dogfighting in the air: from the Red Baron to Tom Cruise’s depiction of the hardened master of the air - the warrior in the cockpit has long been seen as the knight of the 20th Century.

Such a pilot displays all the hallmarks of the warrior archetype. He possesses belligerence and physical prowess; courage, risk-taking, and willingness to defy death; unemotional rationality and logic. But importantly - and seen in Top Gun: Maverick - what is demanded of that warrior is for the risk-taker to come out on top compared to the cautious, calculated warrior. 

This aligns with concepts of the heroic warrior going back to ancient Greece, where the willingness to engage in direct combat with an opponent who had the right and ability to inflict harm was the hallmark of the noble, courageous, fighter.

All of this contrasts sharply with the current realities of much air-launched explosive violence that is unmanned or where risk is minimised.

Killing from a distance has raised debates about martial honour for a long time. Even in the 12th century, the Second Council of the Lateran attempted to outlaw crossbows and this seeps into the film. And in Top Gun: Maverick we see this debate emerge again - a desire for a cleaner, more palatable version of the hero pilot.  

Decades of the ‘War on Terror’ have shown Western pilots and drones conducting an airstrike campaign across the Middle East that has been noted for costing large sums of money, often based on flawed intelligence, and claiming too many civilian lives. The campaign’s success in promoting global security is less well established. And while the film is a far cry from the accountability demanded by sections of the media, it does question the martial honour in the missions that pilots are carrying out, and in the prioritisation of drone warfare over manned aircraft.

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Of course, though, this is Hollywood. The film doesn’t address the issue of civilian casualties of manned and unmanned strikes: in Maverick’s latest mission, the target is isolated from any civilian settlement, and the issue of avoiding civilian casualties is never brought up. The enemy pilots hide behind mirrored helmets; the only casualties of a strike are the pilots of an enemy helicopter, as the last pilot, against whom the film’s showdown takes place, ejects from his craft and presumably lands safely.

In the end, the film reflects the desire for a simpler form of heroism against a clearly defined enemy who threatens something bigger than ourselves; of physical prowess against another warrior in one-on-one, or team-on-team combat. 

The film does not reflect the truth of airstrikes, manned or unmanned, nor does it address the core problematics of air-launched weapons: that warriors are removed from their targets, and from the consequences of their actions on non-combatant victims. What is clear is that the association of masculine heroic warrior ideals with air-launched weapons are fraying around the edges:­ ­­­­­Top Gun 3 might, in the end, be a hard sell. 

Chiara Torelli is a researcher at Action on Armed Violence

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The Upside Down: We Won’t Bow Down – What I Learned in New Orleans

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

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Arts, history, Music, Travel

John Mitchinson reflects on his latest trip to the ‘Big Easy’

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I’ve just spent 10 intensely hot and happy days in the city of New Orleans at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival – known locally as Jazz Fest: a riotous celebration of music and food featuring more than 650 acts across 14 stages. 

I’ve been to many festivals in my time, but none like Jazz Fest. Part of what makes it so special is the extravagant range and quality of the music on offer, but even more important is that so much of the music (and all the food) is produced by people who live in or near the city. 

Jazz Fest is just one important element in an annual calendar of cultural celebration which is unique in the Western world. No city celebrates itself quite as joyously or defiantly as New Orleans.

Some part of that defiance derives from the unique position and history of the city. People who fall in love with it – and I’m one – will tell you it isn’t like the rest of America (Tennessee Williams – another devotee – famously said that it was one of only three cities in America, along with New York and San Francisco. The rest, he said, was Cleveland). 

Founded by the French in 1718 as a port linking the mighty Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, the city of La Nouvelle-Orléans was ceded to the Spanish for the last three decades of the 18th Century, briefly reverting to French control in 1803 whereupon Napoleon sold it to the Anglo-Americans as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The old part of the town – now known as the French Quarter – remained Catholic and Francophone well into the 19th Century. 

By 1812, New Orleans had become ‘the great mart of all the wealth of the Western world’. It was also the world’s biggest market for slaves. Significantly – because the Spanish (unlike the Anglo-Americans) allowed their slaves to own property and purchase their freedom – by the early 19th Century, a fifth of the city’s population were free people of colour, and the area of Tremé, next to the French Quarter, became America’s first black neighbourhood. 

At the entrance to Tremé was the open ground known as Congo Square. It was there, as a visitor to the city observed in 1819, that “the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp and rock the city with their Congo dances”. It is out of this tradition of public performance, of drumming and dancing, of the mix of races, languages and cultures, of music as a simultaneous act of defiance and expression, that the great American art form of jazz would emerge in the New Orleans of the early 20th Century. 

Bar-hopping in the French Quarter or drifting from stage to stage at Jazz Fest, you sense that music in this city has never stood still. Here, the barriers between traditional and modern jazz, funk and R&B, Cajun and zydeco, bounce and hip-hop are porous. Past and present co-exist. Different traditions feed off one another; musicians swap from band to band – what matters is being present and giving your all. Music in New Orleans resists commodification.

Not that it’s an easy city to live in. Crime is a constant problem – so too corruption, incompetent public services (symbolised by the legendary potholes), and the annual threat of devastation by hurricanes and rising sea levels. Yet there is something about the culture which enables a sinking city to float. New Orleans survived two of the worst environmental catastrophes of modern times – Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which left 80% of the city underwater; and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion of 2010, in which 200 million gallons of oil was pumped into the Gulf of Mexico. 

In his glowing portrait of the city, Nine Lives, New Yorker journalist Dan Baum hints at how it manages to face down the worst: “In the context of the techno-driven, profit-crazy, hyper-efficient United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience”. One of the best t-shirts I saw at Jazz Fest bore the line: ‘So far behind we’re ahead’. 

That’s what I love about it. The virus of late capitalism often appears incurable, but New Orleans might just contain an antidote. Life is built around public celebration and ritual – carnival krewes, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, social aid and pleasure clubs, brass bands, crawfish boils and second line parades – not gated communities and pointless wealth.

In 1922, the novelist Sherwood Anderson (another lover of the city) wrote: “When the fact is made secondary to the desire to live, to love, and to understand life, it may be that we will have in more American cities a charm of place such as one finds in the older parts of New Orleans now.”

In short: less Cleveland; more New Orleans!

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s ‘QI

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Podcast: Do we need the arts to change the world?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/04/2022 - 7:55pm in

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Arts

The latest episode episode of the LSE IQ podcast asks: Do we need the arts to change the world? As the UK government looks to recover from the costs of the pandemic its decision to cut funding for creative higher education courses could be seen as a pragmatic response to the changed world or a short-sighted move. … Continued

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