Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pat-downs and Wikileaks, to the EXTREME!!!

There are two current issues about which I have been thinking: the "pat-down" and body-scanning security checks at American airports, and the Wikileaks "Cablegate" scandal. Both issues challenge our mainstream ideas of what is acceptable in Western society, but from completely different standpoints. The main criticism of the pat-downs is that they are an unacceptable invasion of privacy and a capitulation to a fear of terrorism. The main criticism of Wikileaks is that it has exposed that which should be kept secret, i.e. classified cables from American diplomats around the world, and has thereby damaged relations between the US and numerous other countries and potentially endangered lives. Broadly speaking, I agree with both of these criticisms.

First to the pat-downs. Airport security in the United States has gotten increasingly strict over the last nine years since 9/11. Passengers had to take off their shoes, then they were prohibited from bringing bottles of liquid on a plane, now they must submit to a stranger either feeling them up or looking at a (usually very unflattering) digital image of their naked body. Despite widespread outcry, a number of Americans have expressed the view that this is a reasonable price to pay for security. This makes me wonder, when you willingly surrender all of yourself, no matter how quickly or gradually, to others, what have you left that's worth protecting? While I think that it is reasonable to have one's bags X-rayed and to walk through a metal detector, these recent security measures go too far. This is risk-management taken to extremes, and it is a dangerous abdication of responsibility to the government. For me to say that as a centrist, that's saying something.

Now to Wikileaks. The website, which has leaked classified material before, this week released about 200 of roughly 250, 000 diplomatic cables involving US interests around the globe. The cables comment on many subjects, including the relationship between China and North Korea, the reliability of the Pakistani and Afghan governments, and the poor manners of the Duke of York. Some of it is interesting reading, some of it not so much. Some analysts have said that the release of these documents is more embarrassing than dangerous for the United States. However, Wikileaks and its Australian co-founder, Julian Assange, have been almost universally slammed for leaking these cables to the media, and some US politicians have called for Assange to be prosecuted as a terrorist or a spy.

On the other hand, there have been those who have argued that Wikileaks stands for freedom of information and is valuable for the role it lays in exposing the United States' duplicity and obfuscation in its foreign policy dealings. To a point, I think this is true. For example, the release earlier this year of a video taken from a helicopter gunship of a massacre of unarmed civilians by US soldiers in Iraq exposed the level of cruelty and moral ambivalence that can be found in the US military. However, Wikileaks' ability to expose that which governments would rather keep hidden gives it a shocking amount of power. And with great power comes great responsibility.

It boggles the mind as to what Wikileaks or Assange thought could be accomplished by the release of sensitive diplomatic information. What if the revelation that Chinese leaders are growing impatient with North Korea now forces the Chinese to become even more vehement in its public support for the Kim regime? What if the private criticisms of the Pakistani and Afghan governments destabilises them further, thereby emboldening an already resurgent Taliban? Freedom of information is a worthy cause, but when you have the power to directly influence the actions of governments and potentially put lives at risk, you have overstepped the line between standing up for a free society and negating the lamentable but necessary measures governments take to preserve such a society.

Assange has stated that the next crop of released documents will expose the nefarious dealings of various Wall St banks. Time will tell whether they will reveal things we already know, or whether they have the power  not only to seriously damage an already ailing financial sector, but deepen and prolong the pain of average citizens already suffering from the effects of the Global Financial Crisis.

In a time when our way of life is supposedly being threatened by religious extremists, we should take care not to fall into extremism ourselves. This goes for those on both the Left and Right, those who wish to protect our societies from harm and those who wish our societies to remain free. There will always be a trade-off between freedom and security, and the beauty of functioning democracies is that they can strike an enduring balance which allows citizens to live their lives as they wish without fear of interference. They need not labour under the oppression of a police state, nor must they scurry about in a state of anarchy. But the balance is teetering. If we allow the scales to be tipped too far either way, we could bring everything crashing down. That would be extremely bad.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dutch Photos: Part 3

 "Measuring the Universe", Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

 "Measuring the Universe" (detail), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

 View from bridge over canal, near the Homomonument, Westerkerk and Anne Frank House, Amsterdam.

 Bust of Eduard Dekker aka Multatuli, anti-colonialist writer.

 Queue outside Anne Frank House, Amsterdam.

 "Coffeeshop Reefer", the obviously named coffeeshop, Amsterdam.

 Statue of groper, Amsterdam.

 Bronze relief paver, showing hand groping breast, outside the New Church, Amsterdam.

 Interior of Saint Nicholas Church, Amsterdam.

 Swans in the canal at night, Amsterdam.

 Waiting lounge, Seoul-Incheon Airport.

Korean Air Boeing 747, Soeul-Incheon Airport.

Dutch Photos: Part 2

 Self portrait inside a modern art installation at the Bojman van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam.

 View of Rotterdam skyline from the Euromast.

 View of a very small part of the harbour, Rotterdam.

 Old town hall, Delft.

 Massive guns at the Army Museum, Delft.

 Parliament, The Hague.

 An exhibition on the journey of a trafficked sex worker in shipping containers, in front of a statue of William the Silent and The Hague skyline.

 Cracking sign in front of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

 Weird installation art involving Stalin, outside the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague.

 The Peace Palace, headquarters of the International Court of Justice, The Hague.

 The "World Peace Flame", boxed up in front of the Peace Palace, The Hague.

 Inside the grounds of the Parliament, The Hague.

 The International Criminal Court, sideways, The Hague.

 The pier at Scheveningen.

 The miniature world of Madurodam, where all of Holland is 1:15 size.

 The red light district of Madurodam, complete with miniature prostitutes.

The Church of Saint Nicholas with construction work, Amsterdam.

Dutch Photos: Part 1

"Gold doesn't fall out of my ass." A carving in the choir stalls of the Old Church, Amsterdam, a more colourful version of "money doesn't grow on trees."

"Two drunks under one roof." A carving in the choir stalls of the Old Church, Amsterdam, meant to refer to two people in agreement.

A windmill by the river Amstel, Haarlem.

A packed bike rack outside Central Station, Haarlem.

The Domtoren, the belltower of a church half destroyed by a hurricane, Utrecht.

Self portrait in dorm room mirror, Utrecht.

Statue of a dog, whose significance I do not know, Utrecht.

Children's book covers by celebrated Dutch graphic artist Dick Bruna, Utrecht.

Massive container ship, Rotterdam harbour.

Sculpture of toxic waste barrels, where the toxic waste oozing out looks like people,Rotterdam.

Disembodied legs outside the Kunsthal museum, Rotterdam.

Danger, giant rabbit statues! Outside the Kunsthal, Rotterdam.

Cube-shaped apartments, Rotterdam.

No Surprises: Meditations on Depression

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal

You look so tired-unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us

I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide
With no alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
Silence, silence

-          No Surprises, Radiohead

Being the philosophical sort, I sometimes wonder about the nature of reality – not just reality in general, but my reality. I think about what it means to be me. Unavoidably, I think, this only happens when I’m down. For who would question the happy times? Who would look that gift horse in the mouth? Not me. But then, how could someone constantly re-evaluate their existence? It’s bloody exhausting, trying to give yourself a reason not to despair. So, the only time I open the window to let judgment rain in is when the winds of hardship are too strong to be kept out.

It all sounds quite dramatic, doesn’t it? Pathetic navel-gazing, even. I wonder whether every depressed person experiences this self-loathing, this kind of unworthiness and shame for feeling so low. What circumstances in my life could possibly compare to those of a dying AIDS patient or a prisoner on death row? What makes me worthy of pity? I don’t know. Nothing probably. But I crave it all the same.

I remember now my worst period, when I was a teenager. In hindsight, it’s probably something just about every teenager has gone through. I didn’t take it well though. And I find that, when the feeling returns, it amounts to the same fears vomited up by the past, stinking and acidic. I am weird. I am unappreciated. People do not take me seriously. My friends can turn their backs on me whenever they want. I have the power to change nothing. My existence is inconsequential. Loneliness is my destiny.

I tell myself that none of this is true. I must tell myself that, and I must believe it. The alternative does not bear thinking about. Hope returns eventually, but you must always chase it and grab it when you can lest it fly away forever.  It is its own reward. And the journey is important. It will always be full of surprises, shocks and disappointments. The quiet life, the numbness you crave when hope is gone and sadness has bled into your skin, that’s no life at all. It is the denouement, the prelude to the end. Make the story worth telling. Make it an adventure. Only then will you want it to go on a little longer. The book stays open, and another page is written. Surprises, please.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Amsterdam: Part 5

Yesterday I visited the Dutch Resistance Museum and today I visited the Anne Frank House and the Jewish Historical Museum. It's difficult to say anything original about these places and what they represent, so what I'll write some personal reflections instead.

I continue to find it baffling that people in the Netherlands accepted German occupation so readily (though there was a determined Resistance almost from the start). Were people complacent or were they simply too frightened to do otherwise? Or, with much of Europe in the grip of some form of Fascism, the Soviet Union controlled by communists, and Poland carved up between the two, did people simply have no faith that democracy could survive and that dictatorship would win?

I admire those who resisted. However, I think it's very easy to say "I would surely have resisted" but it wouldn't have been easy to put this into practice. What about family members who would lose your support, or be endangered as a result? What about the threat of imprisonment, torture or death at a moment's notice? What about having to shoot traitors? It doesn't seem to have been glamorous at all, and I, for one, would have found it very difficult to feel heroic being involved in this. Yet, enough people did it, and it made a difference.

I can never know what it was like, for a Resistance member, or for a European Jew, during that dark time. What I've seen, though, I think has given me just a little bit more understanding of how some might have felt back then. Conceptually, they would have had to face the inconceivable notion that their way of life, their country, even their entire people, could be driven to extinction. How must it have felt, feeling like you and everything you have known were doomed to die? It would have been like walking into oblivion, alone, with nothing waiting at the end. Surely, there cannot be any more hopeless feeling in the world.

My visit to the Anne Frank House focused these thoughts. I was confronted by the thoughts of a young girl who could never go outside and who could never make a sound. She and her family had to live like ghosts for two years, only to be betrayed anyway (by whom, still no one knows). All but the father, Otto Frank, died in concentration camps, a relatively short time before the Allies arrived. Anne expressed her wish in her diary to be a journalist. During her time in hiding, she not only wrote personal reflections but short stories, and she revised her work continuously in the hope that it would be published after the war. She had the makings of a great writer, something I ambitiously hope for myself. Hers was one of many lives needlessly cut short. So much talent was wasted, so many chances lost. All to feed the fires of hatred and greed.

Why would I live like a ghost willingly? Why would I go out of my way to get out of the way? I have always believed in the need to speak up for what you believe in, but then I've also been shy and conservative for most of my life, deferential to authority, loathe to make a scene. Yet, how can I preach tolerance for all when I provide nothing to tolerate?

I feel the need to ask myself, how dare I not live life to the full? I must no longer assume that people would be better off without me, and that the world will sort itself out without my contribution. Whether I or anyone else likes it or not, I am part of this world. I should act like it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Amsterdam: Part 4

A quick post today. Yesterday was a good day, especially after the scam debacle. I felt like avoiding the Museumplein for fear of seeing that thieving bitch again, but decided that I was kinda over it already. So, I took a tram to the Van Gogh Museum.

It's a brilliant museum. There are only a few paintings which one might call famous outside of artistic circles, but the exhibition as a whole gave such a succinct insight into Van Gogh's work that his humanity couldn't help but shine through his unique mastery of painting. As I'm sure many of you know, he was certainly quite a tragic figure, basically failing at everything he did throughout his life, only to receive worldwide adoration after his death. It makes me wonder, as someone playing at being an author, just how much commitment a person must have, and how much sacrifice a person is willing to make, to be considered an artist. And is it worth it?

My next stop was the Stedelijk Museum, a decidedly different institution. Usually, it houses modern masterpieces by Picasso, among others. However, it is undergoing heavy renovation (just like most of the Netherlands' tourist attractions, and their major train stations to boot!), so no paintings were on show in the temporary exhibition space. Most of the works on exhibition were installations.

There were three of note. The first was a series of seven empty rooms, which was billed as a tour through the museum through 18 corners. Andrew, if you're reading, it smacked of the sentiment behind Ten Lakes. I didn't spend much time in these rooms, and lamented that they could have used the space to show something museum patrons could actually look at.

The next work was actually cool. I walked into a room with writing on the wall. Short lines in black marker comprising people's names and dates were clustered about halfway up the white wall, forming a band stretching around the room that dissolved into individual lines at its bottom and top. I was approached by a tall Dutchman with white hair and a suit jacket over his t-shirt. He asked me whether I would like to be part of the artwork. I said I'd love to.

It turned out the work was be a Slovakian (?) artist who came up with the idea of turning the tradition of measuring a child's height on the wall as he or she grows older into art. So the room actually started off with bare white walls, but in the space of a few months a galaxy of names had been written on the wall, like a negative photograph of the Milky Way. I thought this was pretty neat, and I shall put up some pictures at the end of my trip.

The last work of note made me laugh. It was called One Million Years. The artist had made two books, one filled purely with the million years preceding 1966 and another filled with the million years succeeding 1999. To "perform" this artwork, a man and a woman sat a a desk with copies of the latter book open in front of them, each alternately reading a year from the book into a microphone. I sat there chuckling for a couple of minutes while they droned in turn, "100,067 AD, 100,068 AD, 100,069 AD". There was a note on the wall asking people interested in becoming a reader for this artwork to inquire at the front desk. I must say, I did not find this tempting.

Next: Anne Frank