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Spirited Away

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/09/2021 - 3:54pm in


culture, Politics

How the counterculture fell prey to the far-right’s conspiracy theories.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 22nd September 2021

It’s an uncomfortable thing to admit, but in the countercultural movements where my sympathies lie, people are dropping like flies. Every few days I hear of another acquaintance who has become seriously ill with Covid, after proudly proclaiming the benefits of “natural immunity”, denouncing vaccines and refusing to take the precautions that apply to lesser mortals. Some have been hospitalised. Within these circles, which have for so long sought to cultivate a good society, there are people actively threatening the lives of others.

It’s not just anti-vax beliefs that have been spreading through these movements. On an almost daily basis I see conspiracy theories travelling smoothly from right to left. I hear right-on people mouthing the claims of white supremacists, apparently in total ignorance of their origins. I encounter hippies who once sought to build communities sharing the memes of extreme individualism. Something has gone badly wrong in parts of the alternative scene.

There has long been an overlap between certain new age and far-right ideas. The Nazis embraced astrology, pagan festivals, organic farming, forest conservation, ecological education and nature worship. They promoted homeopathy and “natural healing”, and tended to resist vaccination. We should be aware of this history, but without indulging what Simon Schama calls the “obscene syllogism”: the idea that because the Nazis promoted new age beliefs, alternative medicine and ecological protection, anyone who does so is a Nazi.

In the 1960s and 70s, European fascists sought to reinvent themselves, using themes developed by revolutionary anarchists. They found fertile ground in parts of the anarcho-primitivist and Deep Ecology movements, which they tried to steer towards notions of “ethnic separatism” and “indigenous” autonomy.

But much of what we are seeing at the moment is new. A few years ago, dreadlocked hippies spreading QAnon lies and muttering about a conspiracy against Donald Trump would have seemed unthinkable. Today, the old boundaries have broken down, and the most unlikely people have become susceptible to rightwing extremism.

The anti-vaccine movement is a highly effective channel for the penetration of far-right ideas into leftwing countercultures. For several years, anti-vax has straddled the green left and the far right. Trump flirted with it, at one point inviting the anti-vaxxer Robert F Kennedy Jr to chair a “commission on vaccination safety and scientific integrity”.

Anti-vax beliefs overlap strongly with a susceptibility to conspiracy theories. This tendency has been reinforced by Facebook algorithms directing vaccine-hesitant people towards far-right conspiracy groups. Ancient links between “wellness” movements and antisemitic paranoia have in some cases been re-established. The notion of the “sovereign body”, untainted by chemical contamination, has begun to fuse with the fear that a shadowy cabal is trying to deprive us of autonomy.

There’s a temptation to overthink this, and we should never discount the role of sheer bloody idiocy. Some anti-vaxxers are now calling themselves “purebloods”, a term that should send a chill through anyone even vaguely acquainted with 20th-century history. In their defence, however, if they can’t even get Harry Potter right (purebloods is what the bad guys call themselves), we can’t expect them to detect an echo of the Nuremberg laws.

I believe this synthesis of left-alternative and rightwing cultures has been accelerated by despondency, confusion and betrayal. After left-ish political parties fell into line with corporate power, the right seized the language they had abandoned. Steve Bannon and Dominic Cummings brilliantly repurposed the leftwing themes of resisting elite power and regaining control of our lives. Now there has been an almost perfect language swap. Parties that once belonged on the left talk about security and stability while those on the right talk of liberation and revolt.

But I suspect it also has something to do with the issues we now face. A justified suspicion about the self-interest of big pharma clashes with the need for mass vaccination. The lockdowns and other measures required to prevent Covid-19 spreading are policies which, in other circumstances, would rightly be seen as coercive political control. Curtailing the pandemic, climate breakdown and the collapse of biodiversity means powerful agreements struck between governments – which can be hard to swallow for movements that have long fought multilateral power while emphasising the local and the homespun.

So how do we navigate this? How do we remain true to our countercultural roots while resisting the counterculture of the right? There’s a sound hippy principle that we should strive to apply: balance.

I don’t mean the compromised, submissive doctrine that calls itself centrism, which leads inexorably towards such extreme outcomes as the Iraq war, endless economic growth and ecological disaster. I mean the balance between competing values in which true radicalism is to be found: reason and warmth, empiricism and empathy, liberty and consideration. It is this balance that defends us from both co-option and extremism.

While we might seek simplicity, we need also to recognise that the human body, human society and the natural world are phenomenally complex, and cannot be easily understood. Life is messy. Bodily and spiritual sovereignty are illusions. There is no pure essence; we are all mudbloods.

Enlightenment of any kind is possible only through long and determined engagement with other people’s findings and other people’s ideas. Self-realisation requires constant self-questioning. True freedom emerges from respect for other people.

“Monkey Man”: Book Review

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 19/09/2021 - 3:13am in


articles, culture

Published in Japan Forward 16/9/2021

“I was born in a place absurdly deep in the countryside. It was a tiny settlement inside a mountain.”

“In a mountain?”

“Yeah. For generations my family line were its guardians. It was said the gods lived there because it was a sacred mountain. There was an uncut primeval forest of virgin beech trees that had been growing there continuously for eternity.”

The first speaker above is Monkey Man, one of a group of misfit schoolkids with secret superpowers. Like Spiderman or Batman, he hides his face when righting the world’s wrongs. The mask he uses is the likeness of Son Goku, the Monkey King from the sixteenth century Chinese novel, Journey to the West.

Older readers may remember the Japanese TV series featuring “the magic monkey” which became a cult programme overseas in the 1980s. Younger readers are more likely to know Son Goku from the “Dragon Ball” manga-anime-videogame franchise.

The monkey, with the pig and the water buffalo, protect the priest on the westward journey The Monkey (red tunic) with the Pig and the Water Buffalo, protecting the priest on the westward journey

Red Circle, the innovative British publisher, has come up with a second original novelette from best-selling writer Takuji Ichikawa. Appearing two years after The Refugee’s Daughter, Monkey Man is a “Young Adult”-type fantasy tale, but one clearly grounded in contemporary concerns about environmental degradation, excessive corporate power and alienated youth.

Monkey Man and his pals are “awakened”, meaning that they have a different ethical sense to ordinary people, who suffer from “the misery virus”. The rough kids at school mock and beat them, but they never resist. Instead, they have developed a videogame which rewards altruistic behaviour  –  you win by giving away points to other players. According to one girl, traditional shoot-‘em-up videogames are for “old blokes who live in the world of stone age CPUs. Our generation is cooler and smarter than that.”

Ranged against the awakened youngsters is “The Complex” of mega-corporations, the military and politicians. Its roots “spread out like a sticky, slimy, fungus-like mould and it uses manipulative language to sell completely unnecessary products to consumers that were actually nothing more than poison for the mind.”

Even worse, having engineered an enormous wealth gap, high-ranking members of The Complex are now trying to increase inequality in lifespan. They kidnap one of the Monkey Man’s friends and attempt to use her superpowers to rejuvenate a geriatric CEO of an enormous industrial group.

Ichikawa is a great admirer of teenage activists Greta Thurnberg and Malala Yousafzai, and Extinction Rebellion is explicitly mentioned in Monkey Man as a model to follow. The sometimes naive political message will not suit everyone, but it does reflect some of the unease that many, not just idealistic youngsters, feel about the way the world is going today. An apt symbol of our era was the richest man on earth, tech oligarch Jeff Bezos, taking a space journey for sightseeing purposes, while multitudes of ordinary workers were stuck in cramped accommodation suffering the stress of Covid lockdowns.

Bezos space oddity Bezos space oddity

In a recent interview, Ichikawa said “I like stories that undo all boundaries. Dream and reality. Past and present. Me and you. And me and the world. As well as life and death.”

That phantasmagorical quality is present in the strange, magical world of  Monkey Man. The references to Son Goku and the Japanese animist tradition connect the story to age-old folk tales. It’s an absorbing read in its own right, with some of the charm of a Hayao Miyazaki anime film, and it also provides an intriguing picture of an ethical outlook that, judging by the author’s commercial success, commands widespread interest.

The crisp translation is by husband-and-wife team, Daniel Lilley and Lisa Lilley.

A compulsive writer who claims to have thousands of unpublished manuscripts in store, Ichikawa sold a million copies of his mega-hit “Be With You”, which went on to become a TV series and then a successful film that was remade for the South Korean and Chinese markets. The book has been translated into several languages, including English. Its success in East Asia may owe something to the themes of karma and rebirth which are also found in Monkey Man. 

From the Korean movie version of "Be With You" From the Korean movie version of “Be With You”

Clearly a writer who understands the zeitgeist, he himself was a misfit at school and was much later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. In his writing, his sympathy for the marginalized and “different” is obvious. Interestingly, he claims to have never indulged in that standard solidifier of group dynamics, karaoke singing. His favourite authors include Kurt Vonnegut, fabulist and poet Kenji Miyazawa and outsider artist Henry Darger who lived and died in total obscurity, leaving behind 20,000 pages of extraordinary fantastical writing.

Takuji Ichikawa Takuji Ichikawa

Red Circle’s mission is to publish original contemporary Japanese literature in English. Like all their previous books, Monkey Man has not previously appeared in any language, Japanese included.  Other Red Circle publications include works by well-known writers such as mystery doyen Soji Shimada, Naoki Prize winner Kazufumi Shiraishi and the late Kanji Hanawa, a scholar of French literature and prolific short story writer. All are well worth exploring. “Monkey Man” is a welcome addition to the Red Circle roster.


Why #FreeBritney is an #Exvangelical Cause

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/09/2021 - 3:47am in

Everyone knows Britney Spears. Her talent, popularity, and struggles with mental illness are ubiquitous. A...

Dancing Cats and White Saviours: Johnny Depp in “Minamata”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 11/09/2021 - 6:03pm in


articles, culture

Published in Nikkei Asia 10/09/2021

Hollywood has a Japan problem. Even when a film is nominally “about” Japan, such as The Last Samurai (2003), the drama is in the character development of the main — inevitably Western — protagonist. Thanks to his Japan experiences, the drunken American mercenary, played by Tom Cruise, recovers his self-respect – and gives Emperor Meiji some sound advice on how he should rule the country.

Minamata which was commercially released in August, is a much better and more serious film, and Johnny Depp is a far superior actor to Tom Cruise. Furthermore, W. Eugene Smith, the character that Depp plays with such remarkable skill, was a real person.

He lived in the pollution-stricken town of Minamata for three years, got badly beaten by company toughs and produced one of the most famous images in the history of photojournalism, capturing a severely disabled victim of mercury poisoning being lovingly bathed by her mother in the family home.

The real Eugene Smith The real Eugene Smith

The cinematography is excellent, as is the supporting cast. Minami, who plays Smith’s assistant and later wife, gives the relationship an asexual aspect that is unusual and touching. Yet precisely because the film claims to be “based on real events,”, it also needs to be judged with a critical eye.

There are two flaws that serve to flatten and simplify the story. The first is the unnecessary exaggeration of Smith’s role. He is portrayed as a “white saviour” who wins the battle for the community, while the role of local Japanese activists is downplayed.

Environmental activism has a long tradition in Japan, stretching back to protests over the country’s first major pollution disaster at the Ashio copper mine in the late 19th century.

The second is the facile parallel with other corporate disasters, listed at the film’s close. These include the appalling thalidomide scandal of the early 1960s and India’s Bhopal gas leak of 1984 in which many thousands died. Conflated with these horrors are the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater oil spills which devastated coastlines but caused no deaths amongst the affected communities.

More controversial is the mention of “Fukushima.” On that terrible day in March 2011, an earthquake and resulting tsunami killed some 20,000 people along Japan’s north-eastern coast, mainly by drowning.  The related meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power station caused by the tsunami led to one death and 16 injuries.

For anti-nuclear activists to make that the main event is to disrespect the memory of the victims of Japan’s worst natural disaster in living memory.

From Fish to Cats to People

Minamata disease is the best known of the four major illnesses caused by industrial pollution during Japan’s turbo-charged recovery from the smoking ruins of World War 2II. It is named after the small town on the west coast of Kyushu where the outbreak took place.

Chisso, a chemical company which was Minamata’s major employer, had been discharging methylmercury into the sea since the 1930s.The first sign of the poison seeping through the food chain was the behaviour of cats, which suddenly began “dancing” spasmodically and then died. Humans suffered neurological damage and many died horrible deaths too. Women who remained healthy bore babies with severe birth defects. Unusually, the placenta did not protect the unborn child from toxins, but absorbed the mercury.

From Sean Michael Wilson's excellent Minamata manga From Sean Michael Wilson’s excellent Minamata manga

Shamefully, Chisso stalled for many years and refused to accept liability. Matters were complicated by different factions amongst the townspeople, some of whom were dependent on the company for their livelihoods. There were also unfounded concerns that the disease could be contagious, which led to the social ostracization of sufferers.

The company stopped dumping the methylmercury several years before Smith arrived in Japan in 1971. By then, the struggle was about the level of compensation and who was qualified to receive it, with the company attempting to reduce its liability to the bare minimum.

In the film, Smith decides to take on the Minamata project after a young Japanese activist called Aileen shows up at his Manhattan apartment and hands over a wodge of documents about the disaster. At first he is reluctant to visit Japan — flashbacks reveal his traumatic experiences as a war photographer in the Pacific —  but he finally agrees.

In reality, Smith had already spent a year in Japan in 1961-62, working on Colossus of the Orient, a photo essay about Hitachi Corporation, and living in Roppongi with a young American assistant-cum- girlfriend. When he returned nine years later, it was not to lead a crusade, as the film suggests, but to oversee an exhibition of his work.

Aileen, who he brought along with him, was a half-Japanese student at Stanford who was thirty years his junior. It was a Japanese photographer who brought the Minamata story to his attention. The subject had attracted massive media interest domestically, with some photographers staying in the area for years. Smith followed in their trail.

The film has a fictional scene, in which the boss of Chisso is shown gazing at Smith’s just-published Minamata photo essay in Life Magazine. “We have to pay”, he mutters with tears in his eyes. The implication is that Smith’s work was the decisive factor in obtaining justice for the sufferers, not the long and ultimately successful legal battle waged by the activist groups.

Hiroyuki Sanada plays a firebrand activist Hiroyuki Sanada plays a firebrand activist

In another scene Smith and Aileen bluff their way into the Chisso Hospital and find secret files revealing that the company had known about the link between the cat deaths and human Minamata disease for years. That revelation did indeed deliver a crushing blow to Chisso’s credibility, but it had nothing to do with Smith. Rather, the director of the Chisso Hospital, long retired and wracked with cancer, made the sensational admission on his deathbed.

Dying of ‘everything’

The film ends with a neatly packaged resolution, when in fact the reality was as messy as Smith’s famously chaotic living conditions. The fact that he and Aileen married is mentioned, but not that they divorced a few years afterwards. Smith’s death in 1978, it is claimed, was caused indirectly by the injuries that he suffered from the beatings by company goons.

That is not what his biographer thinks. According to Sam Stephenson, he was suffering “from diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, severe hypertension with an enlarged heart”, having been an alcoholic and “amphetamine addict for most of his adult life… As was said of the immortal jazzman Charlie Parker, Smith died of ‘everything’.”

Smith made his name as a combat photographer at Saipan and Iwo Jima and elsewhere. A bullet wound in his mouth troubled him for the rest of his life. From there he went on to become America’s premier photo-essayist, travelling the world to capture images of Albert Schweitzer in Africa, Welsh coal miners, Spanish peasants and a black midwife in Mississippi.

His work was socially conscious and eye-opening at a time when the photographic image, published in large format magazines, was almighty and photographers were stars in their own right.

Television put an end to that era, and Smith saw it coming. As biographer Stephenson notes, he had always been concerned about the tension between photojournalism and art, and greatly admired musicians and writers. In 1957, he left his wife and four children and moved to a loft in Manhattan which became an open house for New York bohemian society.

Jazz greats such as Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea passed through, as did Salvador Dali and Norman Mailer. Another visitor was Toshiko Akiyoshi, one of Japan’s most celebrated jazz artists. In 1976, she recorded a jazz suite called Minamata and won the album of the year award from America’s prestigious Downbeat jazz magazine.

Smith spent most of the 1960s working on projects that never happened. Wired on amphetamines, he stayed in his dark room for days on end without sleep. He also electronically miked the entire building and recorded everything that went on, from jazz jams to intimate conversations to TV shows.  Altogether, there are 4,500 hours of tapes in the archive at the University of Arizona, including several of random street noise recorded in Roppongi in 1962.

Smith appears to have spent long years searching for some sort of artistic breakthrough. He achieved it at Minamata. In particular, his masterpiece, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, transcends the circumstances of the pollution controversy protest to create an image for the ages, one that recalls the greatest works of religious iconography.

Smith was a much stranger and more complex character than the Hemingway-esque boozer of the film, but he was no saviour. He transformed his Minamata experience into superlative art, and surely that is more than enough.

Despite such reservations, it would be a great shame if the film were to be “buried” because of Johnny Depp’s current legal troubles, as the director Andrew Levitas fears. It deserves to be seen widely, as a warning of what can happen when technological advance is not properly monitored.


My farewell to Mikis Theodorakis – Der Freitag

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 09/09/2021 - 5:22pm in

I must have been 6 or 7 years-old when I got whiff of the significance of Theodorakis’ music. It was around 1968 when my parents warned me not to tell anyone at school or in the neighbourhood that they owned records of his – and certainly not to admit that we listened to them. “Even singing one of his tunes can get you arrested”, I recall my mum telling me. Immediately I realised that, for our hated fascist dictators to be so scared of his music, it must have been powerful.

At first, I was not sure whether I liked Theodorakis’ music because it was illegal or because it was good. It was in 1970 when I knew I loved its musical structure. The realisation hit me when my piano teacher, Jenny Protopapas was her name, wrote up for me the music score of one of his songs, entitled “Mana mou kai Panagia” (Mum and Madonna). As I learned to play it, I felt every note hitting me like an emotional tornado. To this day, when I play that song, I forget who I am, where I am, everything – immersing my being within the universe that these few, brilliantly arranged notes create.

By the time the dictatorship collapsed in 1974 I had a long list of Theodorakis songs that I could play, well before the record shops were, once more, allowed to sell his records. So, when in 1975, I heard that Theodorakis would perform live at a football stadium in Neo Phaliro, near Piraeus, I rushed to buy my ticket – the first ever gig I attended alone. When the performance started, I joined the merger of a crowd starved for democracy and a music made to shake the heavens until tyranny crashed and burned. At some point, his body pulsating with his melodies, Theodorakis changed tack, moving from his Greek songs to Canto General (his orchestral work based on the exquisite poem by Pablo Neruda). Suddenly, the whole stadium was transported to Chile and began to throb with a sense of one-ness with every people in the world that had suffered despotism, fascism, exploitation and dictatorship. Having walked into the stadium a 15 year-old Greek boy, I left it feeling older and at once Latin American, Indian, Jewish, Arab etc.

Soon after, I got into blues-derived music – especially when I moved to Britain in 1978. But, Therodorakis’ music never left me. Every now and then, one of his tunes would pop up in my head and disrupt everything I was up to. It was then, however, I realised I was not the only one. People from all walks of life, from different countries and cultures, would confess to me that Theodorakis had somehow touched them. More recently, my friend – and musical hero – Brian Eno let me into the secret that Theodorakis’ music had inspired in him a sense of courage.

So, why was Mikis so important to people like myself? For a number of intertwined reasons.

His music touched strings in our soul that other tunes did not reach.

He helped re-invent Greek popular music by blending it seamlessly with some of the best modern Greek poetry – thus putting high brow poems, as lyrics, in the mouths and hearts of building site workers, cleaners, taxi drivers etc.

He transcended Greece’s borders with ecumenical orchestral music that touched people far and wide – for example, he composed the best music ever to have been inspired by the Holocaust (the Mauthausen Trilogy), the aforementioned Canto General, the splendid soundtracks to Costa Gavra’s movies Z and State of Siege or Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, featuring a young Al Pacino.

And, above all else, his music made it impossible to listen to it and be, in your soul, right-wing, authoritarian or xenophobic.

Farewell Miki

For the Der Freitag original webpage see here

The post My farewell to Mikis Theodorakis – Der Freitag appeared first on Yanis Varoufakis.

Remembering Mikis Theodorakis – BBC Radio 4, The World Tonight

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/09/2021 - 6:32pm in

My first inkling that his music was significant was when my parents warned me – I must have been 6 or 7 yrs old – that merely whistling a Theodorakis tune was an arrestable offence – such was the fear that his music caused in the minds of our fascist rulers during the awful dictatorship (1967-1974) that was my childhood. My response to the ban was to try to learn on the piano as many of his songs as I could. During that same time, I remember how on returning from London to Athens we smuggled back to Greece some of his records inside Deutsche Grammophon classical music album sleeves.
Why was Mikis so important to people like myself? For two reasons. First, because over a couple of decades he helped re-invent Greek popular music by blending it seamlessly with some of the best  modern Greek poetry – thus putting high brow poems, as lyrics, in the mouths and hearts of everybody. Secondly, because he transcended Greece’s borders with ecumenical orchestral music that touched people far and wide – e.g. probably the best music ever to have been inspired by the Holocaust (the Mauthausen Trilogy), the wonderful music to which he put Pablo Neruda’s CANTO GENERAL, even splendid American movie soundtracks like the one for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant film Serpico featuring a young Al Pacino.
Farewell Miki



The post Remembering Mikis Theodorakis – BBC Radio 4, The World Tonight appeared first on Yanis Varoufakis.

Art and Action: Benjamin Zephaniah in Conversation

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/08/2021 - 4:49pm in

Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, one of the founding stones for the future Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. In his autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah (2018), award-winning poet, lyricist, musician, and activist Benjamin Zephaniah speaks out candidly about the writer’s responsibility to step outside the medium of literature and engage in political activism: “You can’t just be a poet or writer and say your activism is simply writing about these things; you have to do something as well, especially if your public profile can be put to good use.” In conversation with Elleke Boehmer and Malachi McIntosh, he will address the complex relationship of authorship and activism in a celebrity-driven media culture and the ways in which his celebrity persona relates to his activist agenda. The conversation will tie in with contemporary debates about the role of literature and the celebrity author as a social commentator.

Pre-recorded introduction:

Elleke Boehmer is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She is the author and editor of over twenty books, including Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (1995, 2005), Empire, the National and the Postcolonial: Resistance in Interaction (2002), Stories of Women (2005), Indian Arrivals 1870-1915: Networks of British Empire (2015), Postcolonial Poetics: 21st-century critical readings (2018), and a widely translated biography of Nelson Mandela (2008). She is the award-winning author of five novels, including Bloodlines (2000), Nile Baby (2008), and The Shouting in the Dark (2015), and two collections of short stories, most recently To the Volcano, and other stories (2019). Boehmer is the Director of the Oxford Centre for Life Writing and principal investigator of Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds.


Benjamin Zephaniah is one of Britain’s most eminent contemporary poets, best known for his compelling spoken-word and recorded performances. An award-winning playwright, novelist, children’s author, and musician, he is also a committed political activist and outspoken campaigner for human and animal rights. He appears regularly on radio and TV, literary festivals, and has also taken part in plays and films. He continues to record and perform with his reggae band, recently releasing the album Revolutionary Minds. His autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah (2018), was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award.

Malachi McIntosh is editor and publishing director of Wasafiri. He previously co-led the Runnymede Trust’s award-winning Our Migration Story project and spent four years as a lecturer in postcolonial literature at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Emigration and Caribbean Literature (2015) and the editor of Beyond Calypso: Re-Reading Samuel Selvon (2016). His fiction and non-fiction have been published widely, including in the Caribbean Review of Books, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, The Guardian, The Journal of Romance Studies, Research in African Literatures, and The Cambridge Companion to British Black and Asian Literature.

Q and A Chaired by Professor Wes Williams, TORCH Director.

The event is organised in association with the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds project and The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW) and forms part of the webinar series Art and Action: Literary Authorship, Politics, and Celebrity Culture.

Faculty TeeVee

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 21/08/2021 - 1:37am in

Photo credit: Lucas Viccellio/Netflix _____ It’s such a setup, and one of Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim’s colleagues knows it. As Dr....

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South African Women Are Reclaiming Their Voices in the Media

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/08/2021 - 6:00pm in

Two years on, Kathy Magrobi still vividly recalls grimacing at the media coverage leading up to the 2019 South African national and provincial elections. 

“Every time I turned on the radio, every time I opened the newspaper, it was just… the same names,” she remembers. “It had the same key messages and they were quoted, time after time. I just kept hearing these (men’s) voices.” Even on issues that exclusively concerned women and other marginalized groups, men were presented as the experts. 

Over half of South Africa’s population is women, and despite making up 55 percent of registered voters, four out of five people mentioned in election articles by three of the country’s biggest news websites were men, a Media Hack 2019 report found. 

The problem, according to Magrobi, is simple: “When it’s missed in the news, it’s missed in policy.” The fewer women’s voices are heard, the fewer inclusive policies are implemented. 

kathyKathy Magrobi

Deadline pressures and journalists’ lack of contact with marginalized groups help explain why this happens, says Zandile Bangani, a journalist with South African media outfit New Frame

“What then happens,” says Bangani, “[is] we end up circulating a voice, and that’s dangerous because it limits our understanding of an issue to a particular narrative or voice.” 

Four decades ago, American sociologist Gaye Tuchman documented what she dubbed women’s “symbolic annihilation” from the media. She noted that women, when not portrayed in traditional roles as homemakers or mothers, are shown in clerical and other “pink-collar” jobs. 

In 2021, this practice of “erasure” hasn’t changed, says Luthando Ngema, a lecturer at the University of Kwazulu-Natal’s Media and Cultural Studies. Women who were once political activists and played pivotal roles during South Africa’s battle against apartheid “have been put in the shadow of their husbands — or the media portrays them that way,” she says. 

Even when they are contacted by journalists, some women decline to act as sources, held back by “impostor syndrome,” an issue that research shows particularly affects women of color. This idea that women should not present themselves as authorities is deeply rooted in South African families and culture, says Cheryl Hlabane, an activist and change agent. “[In South Africa] we are not meant to be in certain spaces… That has been engraved in our minds.”

Building out

Inspired by Women Also Know Stuff, a U.K. organization that curates a database of women experts in political science, Kathy Magrobi created Quote This Woman+,  abbreviated as QW+. The plus sign represents any expert ignored or misconstrued by mainstream news narratives, whether because of disability, sexual or gender orientation, or something else. 

QW+ makes it easy for journalists and news producers to find a vetted expert to speak with. Users can filter their queries through the database or contact the platform handlers directly. 

“We kind of plug that gap when we say we’re going to put in all of the time, we’re going to look for people, we’re going to approach them, we’re going to make sure that they are in fact experts,” says Jordan Magrobi, Kathy’s daughter and QW+’s database manager. 

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QW+ was built on sacrifice, family and selflessness. Kathy Magrobi’s husband, Bruce Gordon, works as the organization’s accountant, and Erin, her other daughter, designed QW+’s graphics. Magrobi launched the endeavor with mentorship provided by an intensive media accelerator at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. For this, she travelled 480 kilometers each way every two weeks to the university from her base in the tiny midlands village of Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal. 

“At 50, I wasn’t looking to start a nonprofit organization,” she says. “Starting a nonprofit is like any startup. It’s a huge tussle. It takes a lot of energy.” 

As a middle-aged white woman in South Africa, Magrobi thought twice about launching a feminist startup. “I felt it was wrong for a privileged, white woman to be starting this organization. I knew that I had to do my best to confront my own unconscious biases.” (Perhaps ironically for a person spearheading an effort to amplify women’s voices, Magrobi has trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that makes speaking painful.) 

In the runup to the 2019 elections, Magrobi built a board of directors who could give QW+ access to other “important people, both at expert level and at community level. And then I used them to help me find my first experts.” 

The database was built out like a pyramid scheme. Newly added experts were asked to refer at least five other experts in fields important to the election, such as education, corruption, crime, housing and health. “It was amazing,” marvels Magrobi. “Interest was instantaneous.” The platform launched in time for the election with 40 experts in 25 categories. 

Interestingly, initial queries came from foreign journalists. The New York Times, Al Jazeera and the BBC all quoted QW+ experts. Only after that did South African publications like the Mail and Guardian begin to utilize the database. Once they did, it made things easier, says Simon Allison, the Mail and Guardian’s Africa editor. “They’re really responsive and have helped us find brilliant interviewees on the most obscure topics. It means we have no excuse not to quote women in every story.”

After the elections, a South Africa Media Innovation Program (SAMIP) grant enabled QW+ to expand with new volunteers. And as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the country, a Covid-specific database launched with eight women experts. (Now it has over 100.) 

In total, QW+ now has 513 experts across 49 categories. About a thousand journalists receive its biweekly newsletter. Allison, who is also the founder of The Continent, a pan-African publication, says reporters across both publications where he works use the QW+ database frequently. 

“It’s inspiring to us. [The Continent] is currently in the process of formalizing our pitching guidelines, and we will be insisting that at least one woman is quoted in every story,” he says. “It’s extraordinarily important to have a balanced newsroom. Every journalist has blind spots, and without a genuinely diverse newsroom, those blind spots are all too apparent in a publication, which then fails in its most basic task of explaining the world around us.”

Getting the details right

In January, the South African government sought to amend the country’s identity laws to include a third legal gender, offering individuals an option outside of the gender binary. 

As fierce public debate over the proposal spilled into media coverage, QW+ experts from the LGBTQ community were tapped by journalists and news producers.

Kellyn Botha, a trans woman and QW+ expert, granted a number of media requests.

Kellyn Botha

“The media as a whole does not always do a great job in speaking about trans issues,” she says, “and I felt [joining QW+] was at least one way of offering myself as a resource to contribute to better trans-related content in the media.”

The name of the platform has at times alienated potential participants, especially cisgender men from other marginalized groups. Magrobi remembers a rejection from a Black man who lives with a disability because the platform’s name implies it is for women exclusively. Situations such as these have given rise to thoughts of a name change, but Magrobi resists the idea because she says that QW+ is a feminist organization first. Also, there are experts from marginalized communities whose area of focus differs from the reason for their marginalization.

Training and survival

Maintaining the database and making experts available is half of what QW+ does. “What we do is also a lot of media training,” says Jordan. “So, instead of just having somebody go onto the database, if they don’t feel very comfortable, we can say, ‘We are going to take you through another short media training thing and just uplift you and empower you, so you can be confident with speaking to the media.”

In April, QW+ launched Quote Me On That (QMOT), a paid service that trains women in media engagement, overcoming imposter syndrome and, through a partnership with the Mail and Guardian, op-ed writing. This month, activist Hlabane and media veteran Paula Fray spoke on impostor syndrome at a QMOT webinar. During the previous municipal election in 2016, only 17.5 percent of people quoted in news reports were women, per a Media Monitoring Africa report. The 2021 municipal elections will be held on October 27. In South Africa, municipalities are the grassroots of government, where local ward councillors exert control over water, electricity and land use. Whose voice is heard during such elections is critical. 

Funding remains QW+’s biggest hurdle. Aside from the SAMIP grant, revenue is generated through donations, crowdfunding, media/gender training for organizations and consultancies, and more recently, QMOT. 

With three more volunteers joining the team, the SAMIP grant runs out in four months. Prospective investors are still recovering from Covid-19 setbacks, hence Magrobi and her team are on the lookout. 

“We’ve got four months to pull a rabbit out of a hat. That’s the bottom line,” she says. She’s holding out hope that QW+ will land a corporate sponsor or donor to support their work at diversifying the narrative in the upcoming elections — and beyond. 

The post South African Women Are Reclaiming Their Voices in the Media appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The Baron Smiles: The Olympics Win Again

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 08/08/2021 - 7:19pm in

Published in Japan Forward 8/8/2021

The 32nd Summer Olympics will be remembered for the steely-eyed resolve and ingenuity that Japan displayed in successfully staging the Games under the shadow of Covid-19, which has made such a mess of our economies and societies.

In such circumstances, the ability of great sporting events to lift our spirits is particularly precious. Replacing the virus as the top news item, if only briefly, is a gold medal achievement in itself.

Some critics, including athletes, have complained that it doesn’t feel like a “real Olympics” because of the lack of audience and the constraints on social mixing, which were indeed unfortunate and unprecedented. At least the quiet in the stadium was a lot more dignified than the fake crowd roar injected into spectator-less Premier League football (soccer) games in Britain.

Drone display illuminates the Tokyo night Drone display illuminates the Tokyo night

Indeed, the empty Olympic stadium and the stunning drone display of the earth in orbit neatly summed up our world today, with its ever more sophisticated technology and weakening social bonds, both tendencies being accelerated by the pandemic.

In reflecting the era in which it took place, Tokyo 2021 was as “real” as any other Games. The truth is that the modern Olympic Games has never been a purely sporting event. Right from the beginning, it has always held up a mirror to the political and social reality of its era.

The founder, Baron Coubertin, conscious of France’s loss of status in nineteenth century Europe, copied the sporting ethic of British private schools, which he saw as key to the British Empire.  By banning professionalism, he excluded working class athletes who had competed for prize money.

 Statue of Baron Coubertin in Tokyo
Statue of Baron Coubertin in Tokyo

Berlin 1936 signalled Nazi triumphalism and the clash of ideologies. Tokyo 1964 heralded the rise of Japan as an economic superpower. The shocking atrocities that occurred at Munich in 1972 ushered in an era of terrorism which has never ended. At the height of the Cold War, the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games; the Eastern bloc returned the compliment in 1984 at Los Angeles.

As for our era, it is a strange one, marked by Covid and the extraordinary response of governments everywhere. In the background is a backlash against the excesses of globalization and the rise of an assertive China determined to challenge the geopolitical status quo. Meanwhile, fear, anger and distrust are instantly magnified by social media.

War with no bullets

Several of the episodes from the Tokyo Games seemed particularly redolent of the shifting values of today’s world. The transgender female weightlifter who was male until the age of 35; two high-jumpers preferring to share the gold medal rather than face off in a decider.

Then there was the American gymnastic superstar who dramatically quit mid-contest on grounds of mental health; the Japanese actor whose role in the opening ceremony was cancelled at the last minute because of an inappropriate skit broadcast 35 years ago.

Meanwhile, a gold-winning badminton player was blasted on Chinese social media for dedicating his victory to “my country, Taiwan”.  Jessica Springsteen, daughter of Bruce, the denim-clad bard of the oppressed working man, became an Olympic equestrian.

 Jessica Springsteen competing in Tokyo
Jessica Springsteen competing in Tokyo

There were also plenty of the marvellous athletic feats that the Olympics were designed to celebrate. Who could forget the Italian winner of the 100 metres sprint, who took up the event just two years ago; the Japanese brother and sister both winning gold medals in judo; the Norwegian 400 metre hurdler whose record-busting time bettered the British record for the equivalent flat race;

Other great stories were the 13 year old Japanese girl who struck gold in skateboarding, and the Philippine weight-lifter, apparently a trenchant critic of President Duterte, who won her country’s first ever gold medal.

13 year old gold medallist Momiji Nishiya 13 year old gold medallist Momiji Nishiya

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words, it is war minus the shooting.” That was the opinion of English author George Orwell, writing in December 1945 after an ill-tempered tour of Britain by the Moscow Dynamo football team.

What Orwell left out was that “war minus the shooting” is greatly preferable to “war including the shooting.” Recent Olympics have had their fair share of problems – financial corruption, doping, etc. – but as sporting jamborees go, the Games are fairly benign.

Good will is helped by the large variety of sporting contests on display, which mean different things to different countries. For Japan, judo is the crucial sport. For East African countries, distance running is all important. Over the years, Britain has harvested medals from sports that you can do sitting down – cycling, horse riding, rowing and kayaking.

By boosting the number of events, the International Olympic Committee has cleverly ensured that many countries will go home happy, with “a record haul” of medals.

“Imagine no Olympics”:  a bleak prospect

As the drones rotated in the Tokyo night sky during the opening ceremony, a disparate group of remote singers broke into John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

At first sight, it seemed a strange choice. After all, if there were “no countries”, as the lyrics posit, there would be no Olympic Games, at least not in their modern form which is built on sporting nationalism. “No possessions” hardly fits the bill either, with some of the more photogenic star athletes on multimillion dollar sponsorship contracts.

In retrospect, though, John Lennon’s fifty year old song – jointly credited to Yoko Ono as of 2017 – suited the occasion. It is now a secular hymn, not a radical political programme. And as is the case with most hymns, people listen with respect or boredom then carry on regardless with their flawed human ways.

Yoko with Paul McCartney Yoko with Paul McCartney

That applied to the mercurial Lennon too. In an interview just before his death, he explained his idea of socialism. “I think people should get their false teeth and their health looked after, all the rest of it. But apart from that, I worked for money and I wanted to be rich.”

That is a proposition that would probably command a lot of support in the Olympic movement and indeed in most of the member countries.

Critics of the IOC and the Games make some good points, as do critics of the United Nations, which has many obvious flaws with little prospect of being fixed any time soon. Yet to delegitimize the U.N. or withdraw from it would be a terrible mistake, as the fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations, suggests. The same could be said for the Olympics. Despite its many shortcomings, it helps to hold us together.

Since Baron Coubertin launched the first modern Summer Games in 1896, there have only been two outright cancellations, in 1940 and 1944. In other words, “no Olympics” has historically signalled apocalyptical destruction and the reconfiguration of global power by violence.

Jesse Owens receives his gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics Jesse Owens receives one of his gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

So far, the confirmed death toll from Covid-19 is 0.002% of the fatalities from WW2 relative to population, and our countries and institutions are still intact, more or less. Yet staging such an enormous global spectacle with so much medical, logistical and financial complexity presented a Herculean task.

Japan pulled it off. By maintaining the continuity of the Olympics cycle, and thereby reassuring us that one of the most familiar markers of the modern era is still intact, it performed a useful service for us all.

Yes, these Olympics were different from all others. That is because the world is different, and we are different too. The winners are all the athletes who took part and all the people who watched and enjoyed their performances.

Now the baton passes to Paris. Let’s hope the 33nd Summer Games takes place in healthier circumstances