The Best Album of 2016 (Yes, Already): HOPELESSNESS by Anohni

[Image description: Anohni’s pale face, dark hair, dark eyes, and somber expression, with the words “I Love You + Want The Best For You” written on her cheek]

Content note: discussion of state violences, dysphoria, abuse, death

anohni
[Image description: album cover for Hopelessess; Anohni’s face and Naomi Campbell’s face superimposed on each other, in grayscale]

HOPELESSNESS is an ode to neoliberal imperialist USAmerica, an embrace of the ugly sides to capitalism and the erosion of our environment, our privacy, our human rights. Written by Anohni and produced in collaboration with Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, Anohni’s singular voice dominates the album, surrounded by colossal strings and beats. On their own, her lyrics are scathing political commentary and heartbreaking poetry; paired with the wide-open upbeat electronics and swelling strings, HOPELESSNESS interrogates the genres of pop and dance. Can you make a pop single about drone bombing, or ecocide? You not only can—you should.

 

 

In the gorgeous video for “Drone Bomb Me”, Naomi Campbell cries as she lip-sync’s Anohni’s lyrics about survivor guilt, begging to be killed by a drone bomb and scattered across a mountain. The imagery is beautiful and disturbing:

Blow my head off
Explode my crystal guts
Lay my purple on the grass

If you weren’t paying attention, you might think it’s just a dance track—bodies sweat and thump in blue and green lighting and smoke to other lines like:

Choose me tonight
Let me be the one
The one that you choose tonight

“After all / I’m partly to blame” is the running theme of the album: we’re all complicit in the horrors of oil-thirsty imperialism.

 

 

The second single, “4 DEGREES” is just as impassioned and unapologetic. “I have grown tired of grieving for humanity, and I also thought I was not being entirely honest by pretending that I am not a part of the problem,” Anohni said. “’4 DEGREES’ is kind of a brutal attempt to hold myself accountable, not just valorize my intentions, but also reflect on the true impact of my behaviors.” It’s an accelerationist take on climate change, backed by huge drums, deep brass, and syncopated strings:

I wanna hear the dogs crying for water
I wanna see the fish go belly-up in the sea
All those lemurs and all those tiny creatures
I wanna see them burn, it’s only 4 degrees

The track finishes with “Ooh let’s go, let’s go, it’s only 4 degrees”.

Track three, “Watch Me”, also has double-meanings. In the first verse she croons:

Daddy, ooh
Watch me in my hotel room
Watch me move from city to city
Watch me watching pornography
Watch me talk to my friends and my family

It’s an ode to voyeurism with sexual overtones which could be about a controlling Daddy Dom, and quickly becomes about NSA privacy breaches and the collection of personal information. The surveillance state isn’t Big Brother, it’s Daddy:

I know you love me, cause you’re always watching me
Protecting me from evil
Protecting me from terrorism
Protecting me from child molesters
Protecting me from evil

Watch me in my hotel room
Watch my iris move from city to city
Watch me watching pornography
Watch my medical history

bird
Album art for “I Am A Bird Now” by Antony And The Johnsons, 2005 [Image description: black and white photograph of a femme person in dark makeup laying in bed, surrounded by flowers]

Anohni is the first trans music I heard, about six years ago with her previous band Antony And The Johnsons. Their songs about dysphoria and self-directed abuse, supported by sappy piano and orchestral arrangements, still make me cry.

I am very happy, so please hit me
I am very, very happy, so please hurt me

“Cripple And The Starfish”, 1995

One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful woman
One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful girl
But for today I am a child
For today I am a boy

For Today I Am A Boy“, 2005

She’s always been an Important artist to me, and I’m so glad to see her get widespread acclaim with HOPELESSNESS. Anohni’s voice quivers with angst and sorrow, and anyone familiar with her work will recognize it immediately despite the new pop dance aesthetic. Her poetic lyrics are simple, clear, and beautiful. Their directness is what makes them so moving. It’s also inspiring to see a trans woman at 45 years old, visible and still angry and engaged and relevant and alive. HOPELESSNESS is an eloquent as ever shift from the personal to the (explicitly) political, with bigger percussion.

Track four, “Execution”, sings in praise of capital punishment. It cheerfully hooks:

Sometimes a feeling is reason enough
It’s an American dream

The justice system which legally murders as punishment is a key part of the USAmerican “dream”, the mythology, the terror of the state; it’s viewed as a part of our “free democracy”, but Anohni correctly groups the US with China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Nigeria as states which practice the death penalty. The bastardization of morality among the USAmerican right: it’s enough to execute someone simply because you feel like it’s right, with no appreciation for that feeling stemming from classism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, and/or queerphobia.

Track five, “I Don’t Love You Anymore”, is a break-up song: to the US, to neoliberal capitalism, to herself as a member of the state and a reproducer of its power? It could be ‘just a break-up song’, but given the political content of the other tracks I find that unlikely. The lyrics

You left me in a cage
My only defense was rage

are a too real description of my own feelings about our current state of affairs. Whether a comment on the prison system or feeling trapped by an abusive partner, the line speaks to the value and necessity of anger as a coping mechanism, an emotional survival strategy.

Track six, “Obama”, captures our disillusionment with the US president who we were once so proud of. I’m going to include the lyrics in full because they’re so pointed:

When you were elected
The world cried with joy
We thought we had empowered
The truth-telling envoy

Now the news is you are spying
Executing without trial
Betraying virtues
Scarring closed the sky

Punishing the whistleblowers
Those who tell the truth
Do you recognize the yellow
Staring back at you

Obama
Obama
Obama
Obama

All the hope drained from your face
Like children we believed
All the hope drained from your face
Obama

The juxtaposition of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden as truth-telling whistleblowers incarcerated and in exile, to Obama as a spying imperialist elected on the false premise of truth, is a reminder that the continuation of Obama’s policies in Hillary Clinton is not good enough, and how Bernie Sanders’ promises of a just society which have so inspired the disenfranchised could too end in further decay of leftist values and more militarism.

“Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?” interrogates the distance we feel between our consumption and the environmental destruction caused by it.

I don’t want your future
I’ll never return
I’ll be born into the past
I’m never, never coming home

Why did you separate me from the Earth?
What did you stand to gain?

This time, Anohni rejects profit as a priority over the ecosystems, and rejects the mythological future of luxury capitalism. She goes on to list crimes against the Earth with vivid imagery while strings pluck away and pad synths swell.

“Crisis” begins minimally, with staccato deep bass beat and a metronomic tone behind Anohni’s voice, before adding in wet strings dripping with delay.

Crisis
If I tortured your brother
At Guantanamo
I’m sorry
I’m sorry

Daughter
If I filled up your mass graves
And attacked your countries
Under false premise
I’m sorry

It’s an apology to everyone killed in US-NATO adventurism in the Middle East in the name of “crisis”, and a renaming of those deaths as a crisis greater than the ones which allegedly brought us there.

The title track, “Hopelessness”, echoes the sentiments of “4 DEGREES” regarding individual environmental accountability:

I don’t care about me
I feel the animals in the trees
They got nowhere
Nowhere to go

I’ve been taking more than I deserve (hopelessness)
Leaving nothing in reserve (hopelessness)
Digging til the banks runs dry (hopelessness)
I’ve been living a lie (hopelessness)

On the final track, “Marrow”, Anohni continues to ask us what it means to be USAmerican. She concludes that as we steal money and oil (and land, and lives), “We are all Americans now”.

This is an album in the traditional sense. It has rhythm and cohesiveness, alternating between chipper pop melodies (like “Execution”, “Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth”), big dance tracks (“Drone Bomb Me”, “4 Degrees”), and somber open soundscapes (“Obama”, “Violent Men”, “I Don’t Love You Anymore”). I’m not an “album-enthusiast” who decries the death of the LP making way for internet singles, but HOPELESSNESS is a satisfyingly unified body of work, both thematically and aesthetically.

ano
[Image description: Anohni amongst the green leaves of a tree; her face and piercing blue eye are in focus, with her dark hair across her forehead and cheek obscuring the other eye; green leaves in the forefront]

I haven’t bought the album; I pirated it yesterday, after listening to the two singles “Drone Bomb Me” and “4 DEGREES” at least 100 times each on Anohni’s bandcamp (protip: use a different browser or an incognito window to get past the 4-play limit without purchasing). This is how I get most of my music—the rest are £0.50 cassette tapes and 3-for-£1 vinyl at my local record shop. I want to support artists and pay for their music; I also struggle to make rent every month. There is no ethical consumerism when you’re poor. Hopelessness.

Despite the title and the bleak themes (the latter not a departure from Anohni’s earlier work), the album is empowering. It’s powerful to hear that artists are as disappointed and disillusioned, embracing the hopelessness of late capitalism and challenging our collective complacency. This album offers solidarity. It gives me hope.

 

This review is cross-posted on Beyond The Binary.

 

Review of Travis Alabanza’s “Stories Of A Queer Brown Muddy Kid” for Beyond The Binary

[Image description: Travis, a black trans femme, wearing black lipstick, a black headscarf, black shirt and chunky gold chain, sits in a bookshop facing camera with a stoic expression. Photo by Alexander Lijka]

Beyond The Binary asked me to review “Stories Of A Queer Brown Muddy Kid” by Travis Alabanza. It was their final performance of the intense, funny, moving autobiography of queer black life in London, and I’d already seen it twice before. The piece is all about, and for, queer black femmes, so I was reluctant to take on the task as a white boy(ish), but I gave it my best.

Acutely aware of racialized violence in the queer scene, Travis scornfully highlighted colonialism in sexual relationships, their role as “his bucket to empty his microaggressions” and a “brown fetish of the week”. “I’m not your black boy top”, they insisted, but then, “Why do I still need him?” Their vulnerability about intimacy, about simultaneously recognizing abuse but longing for your abuser(s), was bold and affecting.

tl;dr I absolutely loved it, Travis is amazing, give them all your money.

Review: Shakesqueer’d A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[Image description: Black and white shot of an actor in masc clothing with a donkey’s head, and a femme actor in ethereal wispy white clothes sitting together in a forest]

Last week the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, London put on a wonderful queer take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nick Connaughton. This Shakesqueer’d version features both original text and added monologues which capture a wide array of modern queer experiences.

As I took my front-row seat, I was informed by a middle-aged fairy wearing nipple clamps that if I wanted to partake in drugs all I needed was to slip some money in Puck’s pocket and he’d make sure I was amply supplied. The lights dimmed; a spotlight on Puck. He opens with “Ladies and gentlemen, genders outside and in between…” (Can everyone please use this?)

The setting is split between a closing gay bar in Athens and the traditional magical forest. The main four characters (Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius) are genderfucked and queer: Demetrius is masc with some internalized homophobia, Helena is a lovesick gay boy, Hermia is a lesbian, and Lysander is a woman who loves women. All four wore variations on white dresses (tunics?). The King and Queen of the fairies are both fabulous drag performers. The actors within the play were enjoyably camp, excepting one very sexy dance scene. Theseus and Hippolyta were an adorable and hilarious old couple trying to mediate the disputes.

This version of Shakespeare touched on key queer themes: coming out; deviating from gender norms; HIV poz stigma; substance ab/use in the queer scene; moving to the big city, thirsty for a sense of community; and of course, worshipping queer idols like Cher. The foursome’s intertwined love-square is easily adapted from traditional Shakespeare to modern queer social groups, which tend to be intimate and entangled.

Hermia (Krishna Istha) gave a desperate monologue about coming out to her homophobic father (who interrupted harshly) made me cry, and Bottom (Camilla Harding)’s monologue broke the fourth wall to call out white, masc-as-default cisnormativity in queer spaces and proudly claim their non-binary identity (“I’m using labels to defy labels, get it?”). The traditional Shakespearean dialogue was punctuated by modern interjections like “oh, for fuck’s sake” for both clarity and comedic effect.

It closed with an amusing musical number: “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound Of Music, culminating in the entire cast stripping. What this has to do with AMSND exactly is lost on me, but it was cute nonetheless.

My only disappointment was that there was not enough time between scenes to properly emote: the lighting would change too quickly, and I felt the actors deserved an enthusiastic response. Shakespeare shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and audiences should feel uninhibited in making noise (clapping, booing heckling, and wolf-whistling alike) rather than quiet and grave.

There is great power in seeing yourself represented on stage, in adjusting stories to accommodate marginalized experiences (I’m a big fan of queer headcanons), and Shakespeare’s plays, populist by nature, are absolutely ripe for reimagining. I’m very much looking forward to more from the Arcola Queer Collective.

Reflections on Trans Academia panel

Content note: institutional transphobia; Islamophobia; sexual assault mention

 

Details

Tuesday 17 November 2015,  1900–2100
Main Building, City University, London

From the facebook event page: “This panel explores some of the complexities of transgender and academia as they intersect”

Host: Sahra Ray Taylor (she/her)

Panel: Natacha Kennedy (she/her); Charlie Oughton (they); CN Lester (they)

Reflections

Natacha was very professional and a strong speaker despite some sound difficulties at the start. She opened by discussing the fragility of white liberalism, demonstrated by its cries of “censorship” at university students platform-blocking Germaine Greer and other transphobes (while ironically supporting the arrest of Bahar Mustafa for tweeting #killallwhitemen, whose right to free speech was not invoked by her institution). Most of her talk was spent discussing her research on discrediting the alleged comorbidity between autism and gender dysphoria, and her studies of young trans people’s experiences coming out which often take place in the university setting. Trans students, she said, research gender studies as a defense against discursive delegitimization—by necessity we arm ourselves with Butler. Because its the site of so many people’s coming out, the university needs to be a safe/r space for trans people.

Charlie was impassioned and their energy was defined by them saying, “I’m taking a risk, but damnit it needs to be done”. They talked about the importance of not preaching to the choir and bringing the uninitiated in to trans discussions, and making discussions on trans issues comfortable for people who may not know the right vocabulary. They also off-handedly, hypothetically, pitted “hardcore Muslims” against “American lefty queer” students, and noted that we all get offended by something these days (is it Political Correctness Gone Mad?); the “oppression olympics” was also cited. Most of their time was spent discussing how their institution refuses to change their name on institutional documents, and bar them from outing themselves to students. The law is on their side, but it’s not helpful to them if they lose their job in taking legal action. During the Q&A I raised the point that it shouldn’t fall on the trans students/lecturers to provide a “safe space” to discuss and dissuade transphobic opinions, and that it’s extremely empowering for trans people to bluntly shut down transphobic comments and demonstrate that they are unacceptable.

CN apologized at the start for being sick, but they still spoke articulately. They highlighted that transphobia isn’t only external (e.g. Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel), it’s within classrooms and institutions. They gave the example of a professor at CUNY (New York) sexually assaulting a trans student and claiming victimhood because he expected her to be cis; he was fired but has since been appointed at King’s College London and given tenure. Trans academics are apparently obligated to not only be experts in their fields, but to be up to date on trans/gender studies too. They made many other good points, but I failed to note them down because I was too busy vehemently agreeing.

Each of the panelists gave grave examples of transphobia that they had experienced within the academy: difficulty in getting names and pronouns recognized; third, non-binary gender options being unavailable; being the only trans person in LGBT student organizations; and using transphobia as a teaching opportunity. The event ended with an excellent comment from an audience member asking how we can utilize the power of the intersectional trans experiences and bodies in the room to find solutions to academic transphobia, and how to make academia more accessible to those outside of the academy; it was met with some defense, and ultimately unrealized.

Despite the few problems with this discussion I was so happy to go to a trans-led event about trans issues, and sit among a mostly (entirely?) trans audience. and I hope there will be many more. We should not only be visible when we are gender studies scholars, but also when our research has nothing to do with gender because—as should be obvious—our identities and interests are not limited to our transness.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is too straight (and racist)

As a relatively new fan to Star Trek, I’ve been playfully admonished for enjoying the camp and queer-baiting The Original Series (never mind the primitive shaky-cam special effects); I’ve also been told that I would much prefer Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard to William Shatner’s over-acted Captain Kirk, and that The Next Generation did a much better job of representing minority characters.

I wanted to love TNG as much as I did TOS, but after watching its first 4 episodes, I’m quitting.

“Encounter At Farpoint”

The double-length S01E01–02 “Encounter At Farpoint” was a strange beginning. The plot centers around the Enterprise’s diplomatic mission to secure Starfleet use of the base at Farpoint, while an omnipotent alien called Q threatens to prosecute the Enterprise crew for the crimes humanity committed in then-antiquity.

It is set 100 years after TOS. The original Enterprise’s 3rd successor, the Enterprise-D, is captained by Jean-Luc Picard. The Klingons are apparently friendly with the Federation, judging by the presence of Lieutenant Worf on the bridge. DeForest Kelley makes a guest appearance as Dr Leonard McCoy—now an Admiral—to enthuse the audience. There are more women and not all of them wear short skirts; in fact, in one scene some masculine extras are seen wearing dresses on the Farpoint base. It was the highlight of the episode.

SE01E01 dress2

 If you look closely, you can almost see a non-normative gender expression

We’re introduced to the new characters, who seem quite one-dimensional. The Chief Medical Officer is widowed Dr Beverley Crusher, and her tween son tries to set her up with First Officer William Riker, who does take a liking to the boy. Dr Crusher’s entire characterization is centered around the tragic death of her late husband; she is lonely but competent in her job, a strong single mother yet flustered at her boy’s attempts to stimulate her personal life. We also meet Geordi La Forge, the token black and disabled character, who doesn’t get much characterization beyond being blind-yet-extra-able, able to sense a larger light spectrum than sighted people with the aid of his VISOR. He describes a constant pain caused by the VISOR to Dr Crusher who, with little knowledge of the VISOR, recommends exploratory surgery; La Forge declines. For anyone who’s been to a GP about a ‘specialist’ issue, this scene is too real.

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 23.03.51

But Wesley’s sweater game is on point.

The plot is disjointed, jumping between the Farpoint base and the trial of humanity. It transpires that the base at Farpoint is actually a giant shapeshifting jellyfish alien who has been trapped there by the Bandi people who occupy it. Picard proves humanity’s newfound peaceful nature by refusing to resort to force when the captive alien’s “mate” shoots tentacle-lasers at the Bandi.

It ends with the ‘base’ being liberated, joining its mate. They are monogamous. They are color-coded pink and blue, so you can feel comfortable about the normative genders and sexuality of these telepathic jellyfish aliens.

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 23.05.57

Verdict: Messy, but I’m willing to give it some time to grow into itself; 2/5 stars

“The Naked Now”

S01E03, “The Naked Now”, is a throwback to TOS S01E04 “The Naked Time”. TNG Enterprise falls victim to the same disease which plagued TOS Enterprise 100 years prior, which removes their inhibitions and makes the crew act intoxicated. In TOS, the crew’s altered state of mind is used to develop their characterizations: Sulu is an adventure-seeking swash-buckling pirate, Nurse Chaplin confesses her tender and quiet love for Spock, and Spock is an emotionally constipated mess who (when not lacking inhibitions) only keeps himself under control through extreme force of will.

Star.Trek.TNG.S01E03 - The Naked Now gif1 sml

Aggressive heterosexuality

Just like in TOS episode where Lieutenant Riley takes control of the ship, Engineering is commandeered by a drunk young Wesley Crusher who refuses to yield control or let anyone in. In TNG, the intoxication device is used to throw every character with a plot-line into a heterosexual romance: Picard and CMO Crusher; 1st Officer Riker and Counselor Troi; and Chief of Security Tasha Yar and Data (aside: that Data has a gender at all is contentious).

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 23.57.24

Troi immediately before Riker literally sweeps her off her feet and brings her to sick bay

Unsurprisingly, given his parallels with Spock, Data saves the day; surprisingly, Wesley is instrumental, guiding the show toward the child prodigy trope. At the end, Yar blushes when she spots Data on the bridge and harshly whispers to him, “It never happened”, as though their world is a dull sitcom. Data is a promising character: pure, curious, and nonjudgemental. Yar’s dismissal of their shared intimacy was unnecessary and weak, and made me despise her.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 00.03.05

Verdict: Heteronormative sitcom trash; 2/5 stars

“Code of Honor”

S01E04, “Code Of Honor”, was the third strike. The plot: an alien race, the Lagonians, has a vaccine desperately needed by Starfleet, but their diplomatic customs require absolute deference on the part of the Captain and Enterprise crew. Ligonians are played entirely by black actors, wearing ‘African’-coded clothing. They are extremely proud despite only having primitive technology and culture compared to 2360s Earth: Ligonians regard women as only useful as keepers of wealth and property (passive), while men defend and uphold their honor (active); and their weapons are poison-laced axes and spiked clubs.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 00.17.53

The Ligonian leader Lutan kidnaps Tasha Yar, Chief of Security and white woman, in a display of dominance—the King Kong trope is impossible to ignore. The entirely non-black rescue party (Picard and Troi, and later Data) juxtaposes the entirely-black Ligonians.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 00.19.19

Lutan declares that Yar will be his “first one” (primary partner), prompting his current first one Yareena to challenge Yar to a duel to the death. Yar, rational and peaceful, meets with Yareena to dissuade her, but Yareena is an Angry Black Woman, unreasonable and blinded by her competitive drive to win the man. Lutan has a potent animalistic sexual attraction that even Yar cannot ignore, though she is able to differentiate between lust and love unlike Lutan who claims to love Yar despite having just met her.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 00.25.00

The battle is long and boring. Lutan watches with pleasure, his male gaze strong. An audience member falls victim to a stray spiked glove and dies. Picard is visibly distraught but the crowd claps, reminding us of their savage nature. Yar eventually defeats Yareena with a fatal blow; both are immediately transported to the Enterprise, and CMO Crusher provides an antidote which “brings her back from the dead”. Lutan decries this as “witchcraft” before he concedes and offers Picard the vaccine.

Why couldn’t the Enterprise reproduce the sample vaccine that Lutan gifted them at the beginning of the episode? Why didn’t Yar refuse to fight?

I could forgive the episode for falling back on a tired TOS storyline, but the racist depictions of black culture as primitive, unreasonable, driven by lust, undeservedly proud, and dangerous to white people is both unforgivable and extremely boring. Perhaps the producers and writers thought that the portrayal of black characters was balanced out by the sympathetic La Forge, but having a token ‘good’ black character only creates the distinction between acceptable blackness and unacceptable blackness. The only decent part of the episode was the allusion to the sexually tense fight between Kirk and Spock in TOS “Amok Time”.

Verdict: Racist tropes and tired plot; 1/5 stars

Abandonment

TNG is so assertively cis-heteronormative that I don’t feel like it’s made for me. Its characters seem like reboots from TOS: Data as the new Spock; Geordie as Uhura (the token black character); Riker as Kirk. Geordie and Data and Wesley’s sweaters just aren’t enough reason to watch the remaining 172 episodes. It doesn’t help that I know that there is not a single canon depiction of queerness in all its 7 seasons—literally no one, human or alien, in TNG universe is anything other than cisgender and heterosexual. These days I’m simply not interested in cishet media.

Star Trek - S02E01 - Amok Time gif1

Subtext

TOS is by no means perfect: it’s portrayal of POC characters is stiff and tropey, American imperialism is often aggrandized, and some episodes even feature white actors in brown/red face. Maybe the problems with TOS are easier to swallow because they seem more removed from modern social dialogues; brown face is so widely unacceptable today that it’s almost laughable instead of deplorable, but the implied racism in TNG is too similar to today’s problematic media. Even with its problems, I loved TOS: space exploration with a lot of subtext to fuel queer!Kirk/Spock speculation.

Book Review: Cat Country [1932] by Lao She

Lao She, Cat Country [貓城記]. William A Lyell, trans. Penguin Books: Melbourne, 2013 [1932]. ISBN: 978-0-14-320812-9

A Chinese man crash-lands on Mars, finding himself in a country inhabited by Cat People. One of my colleagues and I have a long-standing mutual exchange of books whenever we see each other; I saw this on their shelf in their office in Leeds and insisted on borrowing it (thanks, Adam!).

A glimpse into the political situation in China in the 1930s through the eyes of a pessimist: Lao She despises both the ossified bureaucratic state and the hapless youthful revolutionaries; both groups are irredeemably corrupt and idiotic. References to the Chinese state, Karl Marx (“Uncle Karl”), and Communism (“Everybody Shareskyism”), and opium (“reverie leaves”) are thinly veiled. The text is interesting and enjoyable, if you enjoy fuel for misanthropy. The main thrust: everyone is irredeemably stupid to the point of deserving death, for what is the point of living such hopelessly selfish, vacuous lives?
I don’t like this translation and its gratuitous use of English/British idioms—I prefer when translators use idioms of the original language, explained in footnotes or endnotes. There are some poetic moments (“My brain was a murky ox rolling in the mud”), and I’m sure there are many more in the original Mandarin.

Finally, on gender: the book is hopelessly dated in this regard, with Lao She’s depiction of women/femininity as frivolous, pitiful, and spineless. The phrase “I’m not a misogynist, but…” actually appeared in the text. All women are either wives, concubines, or whores, defined entirely by their relationships to men; they have even less agency than the Cat Men, who at least have enough sense of self as to be selfish. This is a hard limit for me, and greatly reduced my appreciation of the text.

Science fiction is one of my favorite mediums for political satire. Cat Country is valuable primarily for its historical insight; the plot and characterization is not interesting if you deprive it of context. The lessons are not exclusively Chinese, offering a general critique of the tensions between conservatives and leftists. I recommend it on a historical basis, but for works of brilliant science fiction I might instead suggest Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, or anything by Ursula Le Guin.

“Japanese Security Policy” at RUSI: Event Review

JMSDF
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Kongō class destroyer | Image: Wikipedia

Event details

“Japanese Security Policy”
The Royal United Services Institute
2014.06.19
Vice Admiral Ito, Japanese Self Defense Force Joint College
Chaired by Peter Roberts
Open to the public; lecture on the record, Q&A off the record

Review

The event began with a food and drinks reception at RUSI’s stately 51 Whitehall. Present were the usual suspects from the big think tanks, students accompanying Admiral Ito from the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) Joint College, members of the press, the generally aged and very white RUSI members, and a few plebs from the public. I talked to a JSDF student who told me—in fairly good English—the he thinks Shinzo Abe is not especially nationalistic and that he worries China might “eat” Taiwan, especially if US commitments in the region falter.

The lecture took place in one of the reading rooms. Admiral Ito spent the majority of his time detailing the history of the JSDF and its evolution from a force only used in war time to one which assists with humanitarian crises, ensures regional stability and prevents power vacuums, and asserts itself against non-state threats (terrorists) in a post- 9/11 environment. He described the JDSF is a tool of “military diplomacy”, engaging in bi and multilateral training exercises and UN peacekeeping operations. It also serves as a deterrent, ready to protect Japan from North Korean missile launches or Chinese attempts to shift regional “balance of power”.

JGSDF
Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) during a bilateral training exercise with the US, 2008 | Image: Wikipedia

The Q&A was—unfortunately—off the record. Suffice it to say that Ito’s JSDF was brought abruptly into the present with difficult questions on complex issues.

The whole event was a bait for RUSI’s upcoming International Sea Power Conference, which unfortunately has a large financial barrier to entry (£195–£1,079).

“Prospects for Change in North Korea”: Event Review

Event details

“Prospects for Change in North Korea”
House of Lords, Committee Room 4A
2014.06.18
Lord Alton of Liverpool (David Alton)
Hosted by the Centre for Opposition Studies
Open to the public

Overview

Lord Alton began by admonishing the impotence on the international community which has so far failed to act in any meaningful way on North Korea’s gross human rights violations, which were passionately enumerated in his powerpoint slide show. Memories of the Holocaust were evoked. American civil rights activists were quoted. We were reminded of the evils of [Soviet] communism, and the BBC was exalted as a beacon of hope for those trapped within the oppressive regime—a regime, we are told, which is comparable to present-day North Korea. Just as Soviet Ukrainians and Jews hoped for the collapse of that hellish communist command, so too the North Koreans hope and pray for change (apparently actioned by a benign external arbitrator). “In defeating communism we did so with wisdom and strength”, Alton clumsily asserted, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime no doubt requires the same Manichaen treatment.

To his credit, Lord Alton offered a list of actionable items which would allegedly create an environment for the DPRK state to redeem its human rights record. This included: formalizing diplomatic relations between the US and DPRK, and ROK and DPRK; diplomatically engaging with the DPRK; protesting human rights abuses and promoting human rights initiatives; breaking the information blockade; encouraging peace talks in Beijing and Seoul; informing ourselves about the human rights situation in the North Korea; and “building bridges” where we can.

He concluded that, after a long history of human rights abuses, the North needs a face-saving strategy: that the regime will not last for long unless it pursues peace and advances rights.

Review

I’ve very much enjoyed going to the Palace of Westminster for these DPRK events, though I’m sorry to say that the setting was far and away the most satisfying aspect of this talk.

The Lord’s Cold War perspective came across as foolishly triumphant and hopelessly outdated. The notion that North Korea needs “saving” by a benign Western allied force is patronizing and othering on top of being unhelpful. Grand narratives (“good capitalism defeated evil communism”) and reductive binaries (good/evil, us/them) demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of a very complex problem.

Alton seemed unaware of the numerous failed attempts at regional peace talks, and the work of human rights organizations already considering this issue. The idea that North Koreans could be empowered to change their system of government—rather than change being imposed upon them externally—completely passed him by.

Finally he failed to appreciate that—moral responsibilities aside—the DPRK’s neighbors are keen to preserve the status quo for the sake of regional stability.

The most interesting bit of the talk was when Alton alluded to potentially creating a DPRK government in exile headed by North Korean refugees in the South, but he did not elaborate on this.

A few minor but nonetheless insufferable points:

The lives of some one thousand fallen British soldiers in the Korean War were tastelessly given prominence over the several hundred thousand Korean dead, the victims of the 1990s famine, DPRK refugees, and those still-living in the North.

There was an unfortunate focus on the prosecution of people practicing Christianity—excluding that of the more commonly practiced Korean Shamanism (16%), Cheondoism (13.5%), or Buddhism (4.5%)—a thinly-veiled attempt at engaging his religious peers and/or appealing to a constituency which can’t empathize in the absence of religious commonality.

There was also one Churchill quote, which is one too many.

That Lord Alton is the Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on North Korea worries me. He is obviously passionate about ending the suffering of North Koreans, but his failure to acknowledge complexity coupled with his apparent “white man’s burden” does not bode well for the DPRK’s “prospects for change”.

“Japan’s Maritime Disputes”: Review of the Chatham House Event

Event details

“Japan’s Maritime Disputes”
Chatham House
2014.06.12
Talk by Professor Tom Berger, International Relations at the University of Boston
Open to the public, on the record (Chatham House rule not in effect)

Overview

Prof. Berger opened by stating the US-Japanese relations are having a “schizophrenic moment”—that the American pivot is sincere and it’s a productive time for trade and security, but there is a harsh ideological clash, and Abe and Obama “are not natural soul mates”. He goes on to say that a combination of geostrategical changes and geocultural changes are lend themselves to this, the ideal environment to develop the US-Japanese alliance wherein the tension commands attention but remains a manageable problem (for now).

The geostrategic situation has shifted from hegemonic American air/maritime power and Japanese isolation but potential for great power status to a new regional balance where China is rising as America declines, and where Japan no longer fears an American-led war by entrapment but where America fears being pulled into territorial squabbles.

The principle geocultural change is a “rising tide of nationalism”, though Prof. Berger was keen to point out that the “hydraulic model” employed by journalists is reductive. Abe is not an old-style (imperial) militarist, and Japan’s not too nationalistic; rather it’s not nationalistic enough. Nationalism and unity allowed Japan to rise until World War II, and its 20th century defeat was institutionalized, militarily and morally, and reinforced by the Japanese left. Since the 1950s Japan has sought to rediscover its unity: constitutional changes were made imbuing the education system with nationalism, and military policy was altered to allow Japan to become more independent (and by extension less dependent on the US). Abe’s support then comes from: perceived Chinese aggression on the Senkakus and the resulting sense of threat; and “Abenomics” (economic reform). That is, the conservatives supporting Abe are not ideological nationalists but pragmatists.

This geocultural shift toward nationalism is also present in South Korea and China, as these countries come into their increased strength. Both states have anti-Japanese sentiments and South Korea in particular can’t politically continue to ignore Japan’s imperial war crimes, but likewise both China and the ROK have set aside political concerns in favor of pragmatism, especially in trading.

During the Q&A Prof. Berger was asked about the nuclear issue, Japanese domestic politics, and the motivations behind the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. He finished by remarking that nationalism in Japan is taboo and therefore seductive, and it’s more likely to fuel anti-Korean sentiment via kimchi boycotts than militarization.

Prof. Tom Berger speaking at Chatham House, June 12, 2014 | Image: Morgan Potts
Prof. Tom Berger speaking at Chatham House, June 12, 2014 | Image: Morgan Potts

Review

Pardoning Prof. Berger’s casual ableism (“schizophrenic moment”), the talk was compelling. Berger acknowledged the plurality of Japanese perspectives and implicitly noted that it is from plurality and competing voices that states arrive at their “national interest” which directs policy.

However it also seemed fundamentally contradictory: is Japan experiencing a “rising tide of nationalism” under Abe, reflected in the Senkaku dispute and desire to lessen security dependence on America? Or rather is Japan not nationalistic, putting aside ideology and nationalism for pragmatism?

I would suggest that Japan is in fact nationalistic in its foreign policy, especially regarding the island dispute: if Japan (and China, it takes two after all) were pragmatic instead of nationalistic, the two states would table the issue of sovereignty and agree to jointly develop the resources within the EEZ of the Senkaku/Diaoyus, much as China and Vietnam have come to a fishing agreement in the Tonkin Gulf. Instead, the two nations exploit the dispute over otherwise meaningless barren rocks for their nationalistic effect on domestic populations—if this continues, Abe might rediscover Japanese unity after all.

All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea event: Jang Jin-sung

westminster eye

Event details:

House of Lords
2014.05.07
Jang Jin-sung, with Shirley Lee translating
Organized by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK)
Open to the public

Overview

Jang Jin-sung is a North Korean defector, poet, and the founder of New Focus International. This event was a short talk by him on the various organs of the DPRK state, including the reveal of the henceforth secret “OGD”, followed by an altogether disappointing Q&A. Rather than detail the dialogue here, I’m offer the minutes from the meeting.

Review

The event was essentially a book launch for Jang’s Dear Leader. While the ODG reveal would be huge news in North Korea watch circles, Jang provided surprisingly little about the organization: only that it supersedes both the military and Kim Jong-un, thereby “controlling everything”. I suppose the talk was a teaser for the book, which ostensibly provides more depth, but my interest was not sufficiently piqued.

New Nuclear Initiative talk by Women in War and International Politics

Yesterday evening in the Kings College Maughan Library was a two-part event by Women in War and International Politics on being a woman in nuclear studies and so-called New Nuclear Initiatives. The panelists were:

  • Andrea Berger, Research Fellow in Nuclear Analysis at RUSI
  • Heather Williams, Research Fellow on Nuclear Weapons Policy at Chatham House
  • Dr. Jenny Nielsen, Research Analyst in Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at IISS
  • Dr. Nicola Horsburgh, British Academy Post-Doc Research Fellow at Oxford

WIWIP

The first part of the event was off the record, but suffice it to say that the panelists gave frank advice on what can be expected in nuclear work as someone with a uterus. While slightly depressing, it was encouraging to see four successful women who had tackled academia, think tanks, and defense departments on the panel in front of me.

New Nuclear Initiatives

M. Berger began the second half of the talk by outlining the lack of leadership in the P-5 process: no state seems comfortable or interested in spearheading a public discussion on nuclear disarmament. While the UK began the initiative in 2009, it now is only interested in a supporting role; US domestic stakeholders are disinterested; Putin continues to benefit from taking a tough stance toward Washington and so won’t engage in bilateral disarmament; France  prefers to have nuclear discussions in private rather than public; and China is disinterested. The result is stagnation.

M. Williams focused on US-Russian arms control and outlined three possibilities for disarmament: unilateral reduction in nuclear arsenal on the part of the US; pressure for bilateral US-Russian disarmament from non-nuclear states; and status quo. Unilateral disarmament is attractive because it lends itself to informal discussions and potential reciprocity while bypassing a lengthy debate in Congress (see H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiative); however any reduction of US missile defense in Europe would require NATO’s approval. Additional difficulties lie in Russia’s national identity as a nuclear superpower, and the declining credibility of Congress in Moscow (and elsewhere).

Dr. Horsburgh discussed China’s nuclear history and its current stance on disarmament. China was a “late-comer” to nuclear politics, but has since become a skilled and confident actor. Only possessing approximately 240 nuclear weapons, China does not consider the technology to be special in the same guarded way other P-5 states do. China’s approach to nuclear policy is supportive of the NPT regime but not the PSI, which it sees as too aggressive; weary of multilateral arms control, and as such is fairly obstructionist; and it is not an initiator in nuclear politics, excluding the No First Use Treaty. China is currently developing a glossary of nuclear terms, which sounds fluffy until you realize that the P-5 do not agree on the definitions of “warhead” and “fissile material”, impairing negotiations. Finally, China is less worried about nuclear terrorism than about a civilian nuclear accident which would affect economic growth.

Dr. Nielsen examined the humanitarian initiative with an eye toward the NPT review in 2015. States supporting the humanitarian initiative fall into two camps: those who promote salience regarding nuclear weapons and “ban fans”; while the former wish to prepare for the use of and potential accidents involving nuclear technology, the latter seek to challenge the role of nuclear arms in security doctrines, contesting the social construct of deterrence. She suggested that if the ban fans want to keep the P-5 on board with the humanitarian initiative, they should be careful and slow or else the P-5 will block it, as France as done with the February 2014 conference in Mexico.

Following questions from audience, the panelists discussed France’s difficulties regarding the Iran nuclear deal, the opaque nature of P-5 nuclear policies and the lack of confidence building measures taken by P-5 states, Egypt’s strong position regarding the Middle-East WMD-free zone, and the false distinction between “nuclear” and “non-nuclear” states. Finally, they summarized that any dialogue between P-5 states is a success, and that the NPT review in 2015 won’t make or break the regime but we should not expect much progress.

UK PONI Roundtable

Last Tuesday evening the UK Project on Nuclear Issues (UK PONI) hosted a roundtable event with British nuclear policymakers on the subject of Trident. Participants included:

  • Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, MP – Labour MP for Derby South since 1983. British Foreign Secretary from 2006–2007, and first female to hold the position. Served in Blair’s Cabinet. Involved in the 2009 MP Expenses scandal.
  • Rt Hon the Lord Browne of Ladyton (Desmond “Des” Browne) – Labour MP for Kilmarnok and Loudoun (Scotland), 1997–2003. Secretary of State of Defence, 2006–2008. Secretary of State for Scotland, 2007–2008. Served in Blair and Brown’s Cabinet. Signatory of Global ZeroRejected as UK Special Envoy to Sri Lanka.
  • Rt Hon the Lord Owen (David Owen) – Labour Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords since 1992. British Foreign Secretary, 1977–1979. Co-founder of the Social Democratic Party (which after a merge became the Liberal Democrats); Leader from 1983–1987, 1988–1990. EU co-Chairman for the Conference for the Former Yugoslavia, 1992–1995. MP (various constituencies), 1966–1992.

The event was chaired by the Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, professor at Queen Mary’s. The Tories were notably absent (that is not a complaint). The event took place in the House of Lords, only slightly uncomfortable choice of venue on the 5th of November.

The roundtable was introduced by M. Richard White of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), stating that the roundtable was a forum of tech-heads meet policymakers. Below are what I thought to be the highlights of the discussion.

Owen, charismatic and entertaining, opened up the dialogue by saying he is confident that a nuclear weapons accident is inevitable. His assessment of Trident was that nuclear deterrent usually goes way over budget, and that it is impossible to justify the high cost of a submarine fleet which does nothing else. He also pointed out that the US contributes 85% of NATO’s budget and that NATO will not subsidize the UK’s deterrent. He closed the comment by suggesting nuclear cruise missiles as a possible alternative to Trident.

Beckett came across as quite the hawk with a confident air reminiscent of another Margaret in British politics. She began by stating: “I left the CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] when it became pacifist, because I’ve never been a pacifist.” She went on to say that the greatest threat of the 21st century is climate change (“expect massive Chinese migration”), and though she doesn’t advocate Trident, the motors are made in her constituency and she’s not too bothered about what they’re used for once they’re made.

Browne began with the solemn thought that after the Cold War ended politicians stopped worrying about nuclear weapons. He went on to describe the shocking matter-of-factness with which people talk about the weapons, as though they’ve forgotten the massive damage they can cause.

He then made the point that Trident was renewed in 2006 because naive policymakers (himself included) were told that if it wasn’t renewed, the boats would wear out before they could be replaced.  This illustrated his point that independently verifiable expertise is crucial to nuclear policymaking, and the disparity in knowledge between experts and policymakers is too wide. In short, nuclear technology is not so special or inaccessible that policymakers cannot understand it.

Questions from the Audience

The first question taken was from a young Tory woman (I’m pleased to note that this audience was much more diverse than the last event I reviewed): “Who does Trident deter now?” The panel answered that it was indeed a Cold War holdover, persistent as part of the status quo in an international environment still seen as anarchical and uncertain. Owen said that the US should reassure the UK that scaling down its nuclear deterrent would not cost the British their international relevance or their seat on the UNSC.

Another RUSI intern noted that the UK already has less nuclear weapons than most nuclear states, and that the cruise missile alternative might increase uncertainty through miscalculation. Browne disagreed, saying that duel-capable systems were effective deterrence. Beckett was unconcerned about war through miscalculation, worrying instead about India-Pakistan. Owen replied that the MoD lies, and we need to have an honest debate.

The question of disposing of retired nuclear weapons was raised – Browne said they could be treated like land mines or chemical weapons, Beckett reminded us that it’s been done before (see South Africa).

An American woman was appreciative of this debate she feels is absent in the US. Owen said that the reduction in conventional weapons spending has generals challenging the high costs of deterrence, implying that the US has a much larger defense budget and so does not need to choose between convention and nuclear weapons.

Hugh Chalmers of UK PONI asked: “How easy is it to work toward the disarmament goal?” Beckett replied that politicians must be engaged, and too often they are distracted by other issues (namely elections). Browne said that we are stuck in the status quo, and we need space, time, and political capital to change it (but that there’s none left after the 2008 financial crisis). Owen said that the CBTB was close, and he believes that eventually someone will get elected in the UK on the platform of nuclear disarmament, supported by the armed forces who want a bigger slice of the defense budget.