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‘America!’, a ramble

Is America a force for good in the world?  Many people would respond positively, convinced of some strange belief called ‘American exceptionalism’, and would top it off with a resounding ‘God bless America!’  But on the other end of the spectrum we find many who would respond with disgust, as if such a question was not worthy of a response at all.  Perhaps both of these responses are true.  In an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970, Orson Welles declared,

I think one thing that is generally true, the one generalisation that is true about America is that everything is true about it.  It’s impossible to say anything that isn’t true, good or bad.  Our enemies are right, our friends are right.  It’s an awful big country [with] an awful lot of different kinds of people in it.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement.  From my perspective, an expatriated American of Scottish extraction, I can’t bring myself to side with either one of the two  extremist responses above.  The disestablishmentarian in me would readily scoff at the first answer when looking at the actions of ‘America’ throughout its short history.  ‘Manifest Destiny’; CIA plots to interfere with South American politics in order to stop the spread of COMMUNISM(!); capitalistic exploitation in America and in third world countries; the ill-informed invasion of Iraq in 2003; all those boy bands from the 90s – America isn’t a wholly good nation.  But then again, such a thing doesn’t exist.  That is not to say that America has done exclusively ‘bad’ things with this power.  Throughout history America’s government—however manipulated by an insecure worldview—has acted in self-interest.  Sometimes America’s self-interest is beneficial for the rest of the world and sometimes it isn’t.

When I left America for Scotland I was told by a Northern Irish friend that I would probably find myself defending my the States more than I expected.  But to be honest, I never had an entirely bleak outlook on America in the first place.  At different points I toyed with expatriation as a self-righteous act of political protest, but if anyone wants to lump America together as a homogeneous society of nit-wits I will try my best to convince them that this cannot truly be said of any nation.  America, with more than 300 million citizens who for the most part find their origins in faraway countries, is a freakishly diverse and dynamic nation.  But as it stands, and while this is not unique to America, many Americans (me included) and American governments have been guilty of making this world a poorer place in many inventive ways.

But America is also a beautiful nation full of beautiful people.  This as well is not unique to America.  But growing up in and around Los Angeles has shaped who I am in many ways and I wouldn’t change that fact even if I could.  And while I profess a love for Scotland, it inevitably shares many of America’s flaws.  I simply can’t escape what is broken with the world because I can’t escape the world.  All any of us can do is aim to repair what is broken and spread what is good.  But at this point we must ask the question, what is good?

Regarding America, and in celebration of the Fourth of July, when Americans commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (according to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams), I will now point out two things that I think are exemplary of the good: American music and baseball.

Let me make clear that these two things are not free of their own flaws.  For instance, in addition to the 90s boy bands I mentioned earlier, America is also responsible for Journey and a host of other terrible artists.  Of course this is a matter of taste, and while some poor folk might think that Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are passé, their music had and continues to have a profound impact on culture around the world.  Of course we are reminded of the words of Donne, ‘No man is an island’, and the two owe a great deal to a rich and fertile musical heritage borne from countless sources like the Negro spiritual.  But it can be argued that, among many others, the highly influential genres of ragtime, jazz, country, rock and roll, soul, hip-hop, and grunge were all founded in the US of A.  And of course there’s the broad Americana genre.  Perhaps these developments can be attributed to the rapid economic growth of America throughout its short history, mixed with the continual convergence of various world cultures, all taking place alongside the development of music recording and transmission throughout the 20th century.

Regardless of the cause, American music has always pushed new ground and inspired subsequent generations of artists.  See legendary musicians of days long past like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger (who is still kicking!).  Their torch was passed to popular artists like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Thelonius Monk, and Frank Sinatra.  Then this was followed by a wave of dramatic developments from American artists like The Beach Boys, Blondie, James Brown, T-Bone Burnett, Devo, Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Michael Jackson, Love, Ramones, The Talking Heads, Television, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, and Frank Zappa.

In more recent years we’ve seen the rise of significant American musicians like Lou Barlow, Jeff Buckley, Botch, Converge, Fugazi, Grandaddy, Aimee Mann, Neutral Milk Hotel, Nirvana, Pixies, R.E.M., Tupac Shakur, Daniel Smith, Elliott Smith, Sonic Youth, Sunny Day Real Estate, The White Stripes, Yo La Tengo, and yet more recent artists like Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Cass McCombs, and Frightened Rab…nevermind that last one.  Of course there are many more artists that should be included in this list (I merely picked some of my favourites), but that only goes to show how important American music has been in the last century.  In Sufjan Stevens alone we can see a massive and ambitious output of constant reinterpretation and innovation.

Now onto the second good thing I want to affirm about America, which probably came as no surprise to seasoned LITC readers.  Baseball may not enjoy the global fame of association football, but I happen to think it is the greatest sport to ever grace the face of the earth (though football’s soccer’s not far behind – apologies to cricket, rugby, golf, etc.).  I’ve professed my undying love for baseball through blog posts on several different occasions.  And despite the inevitable corruption that plagues the sport (greed, performance-enhancing drugs, marital infidelity, bench-clearing brawls, etc.), there’s a magic and heart to baseball that is truly good.

In the classic 1989 film Field of Dreams, the character Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) is trying to convince the main character, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), to embrace his dream, a vision he had of a baseball field on his farm in Iowa.  Because Ray has cleared land for this baseball field and has invested money into its development (outfitted with stadium lights and all), he is losing money rapidly and in this particular scene his brother-in-law is trying to convince him to sell the farm and leave his dream behind.  Mann responds,

Ray, people will come Ray.  They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom.  They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it.  They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.  Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say.  It’s only $20 per person.  They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack…

And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon.  They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces…

People will come Ray…

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray.  It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.  Oh, people will come Ray.  People will most definitely come.

There’s much more going on at the core of the film, but I won’t spoil it – you should watch the film.  What I want to point out is this sentiment expressed so sweetly through James Earl Jones’ transcendent voice.  Throughout many wars and economic depressions baseball has remained because it is a special vessel of goodness.  I suppose that’s part of why I love the Tigers so much – they represent this beacon of goodness (among many other great beacons of goodness in Detroit) in the midst of a suffering place.

So this is to you, America!  And while I’m not too keen on the cult of the American flag, here’s Ol’ Glory, which stands as a mere symbol for the hopes and dreams—noble and ignoble—of millions of people throughout the last 235 years and in the present.  May God bless America, but more importantly, may God continue to bless this struggling world.

Helicopter Megaphone

The new Deerhunter album, Halcyon Digest, was released this week and I seized the opportunity to purchase it at Avalanche during a quick trip to Edinburgh on Monday.  The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.  The artwork is intriguing, with the fold-out insert designed in the fashion of an underground newspaper or zine.  All of the lyrics to the individual tracks are written on this insert with an additional bit before the eighth track, ‘Helicopter’.  Before the lyrics this short article appears, reprinted in the album artwork with permission from Dennis Cooper:

Dima (real name Dimitry Marakov) was born in 1986 in the town of Nalchik, Russia.  From a young age, he dreamed of working in the fashion industry as a designer.  Lacking the moral or financial support of his parents, he actively sought out contacts within the industry through the internet.   At the age of 14, he became acquainted with a successful fashion photographer in St. Petersburg who invited the boy to come live with him and work as his assistant.  Dima accepted the offer and moved in with the photographer.  According to friends of Dima, he became the older man’s lover for approximately the next year.  He eventually grew dissatisfied with the lack of benefits he had been promised would result from the arrangement.  He left the photographer to become live-in lovers with a wealthy man who provided the financial backing for a conglomerate of pornographic gay websites.  It was at this point that Dimitry adopted the stage name Dima and, with the help of false documents that corrected his age to the legal 18, began a successful career modeling naked and starring in hardcore sex videos on the gay websites financed by his lover.

Between the age of 15 and 18, Dima was a highly sought after pornographic model and performer.  He saved the money he made from modeling to pay for the tuition at a leading college of fashion that he hoped to attend when he reached 18.  At a certain point, Dima began supplementing his income by renting himself out as an escort within his lover’s circle of associates and acquaintances.  According to friends of Dima, they included several leading figures in the entertainment industry as well as one of the most powerful men in Russia’s world of organized crime.  Dima began to express concern to his friends that the organized crime figure had become obsessed with him, but he refused to accept their advice to stop seeing the man because of the large amount of money these dates were earning him.  Sometime in 2005, Dima abruptly left his lover, gave up his modeling career, cut off all communication with his friends, and moved in with the organized crime figure.  The last public Dima sighting was late that year when his friend Ignat Lebedev, who was also working as a male escort at the time, accompanied a client to a private sex club where he claims to have witnessed a very thin and confused looking Dima being forcibly sodomized by a group of perhaps ten to fifteen men.  Lebedev claims his client identified one of the men as the organized crime figure and dissuaded him from speaking to Dima for his own protection.

Lebedev claims he described what he’d seen to Dima’s former lover and was told Dima had been killed the previous week and that he shouldn’t speak of this again.  Lebedev reported both incidents to the police, but after interviewing the lover and being told Lebedev had made the story up, they declined to investigate the matter.  In 2006, Lebedev persuaded a prominent Russian gay journalist to write an article on Dima’s disappearance, but during the course of investigating the story, the writer was abducted by unknown assailants, beaten, and told he would be murdered if he wrote the story.  Dima has not been seen or reliably heard from in three years, although in early 2007 another organized crime figure, Evgeny Ershova, who was awaiting trial on an unrelated murder charge, claimed that in late 2005 he witnessed a young male prostitute matching Dima’s description be pushed out of a helicopter over a remote forest in the north of Russia.  Before Dima’s ex-lover died of lung cancer in late 2007, he reportedly confessed to friends that Dima was sold as a sex slave to a man in the Ukraine in late 2005 and had lived until late 2006 when he’d committed suicide.

The actual song—shared in the video below, which was released earlier this month—contains heartbreaking lyrics from the perspective of Dima.  Principle songwriter Bradford Cox beautifully delivers these sorrowful words of exploitation, abuse, helplessness, isolation and loneliness, which prove to be all the more sobering when heard in light of the article above.

Dima’s story is incredibly heartbreaking, and while he lost his life at the hands of those who would oppress, Deerhunter reminds us of the unfathomable struggle faced by those around the world that presently experience the horror of human trafficking.

Thank you Deerhunter for speaking for those who have no voice and for doing so in such a creative and effective manner. May we all be challenged to do the same and to seek to protect all people.

I became President and all I got was this Nobel Prize

Not even a year into his presidency and Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize.  He didn’t even need to make a documentary.  And it will look good between his two Grammys.

There will most certainly be both many praises and many criticisms floating about regarding the bestowal of this honor upon the young American President, but I really must say that my first reaction was overwhelming joy.  Why?  I simply believe that while standing up for what he believes America needs, President Obama still retains a considerable amount of respect from the rest of the world (or at least from those who vote for the Nobel Prize).

Once again, I am working from the assumption that two-way communication with the rest of the world is a positive thing.  From my view I would say that President Obama is not bowing down to the demands of the ‘enemies‘ of America (part of the reason for his winning of the Nobel Prize is the fact that he has really amped up calls for nuclear disarmament and human rights).

Still, while I am filled with joy, I wonder how the President of the United States could have won this award after only being President for roughly eight months (let me also add that the nomination proceedings for the Nobel Prize took place before he had even been in office for one full month).  [But let's not also forget that one need not be a President to be awarded a Nobel Prize, i.e. he could have received it (in theory) even if he had not won the election.]  And in the back of my head is the thought that perhaps President Obama simply looks so much more attractive to the rest of the world in contrast to the administration that he followed…

Either way, I hope that people won’t get nasty about this award: Obama didn’t ask for it.  This is meant to be a gift from the Norwegian Nobel Committee to someone who has contributed significantly to the cause of peace.  I think it would be difficult to defend the belief that President Obama has yet to actually impact the global political climate/landscape.  Even North Korea is changing its tune (for now).

Whether or not the world is unanimous in approval of President Obama’s receipt of this award, we can all agree that a world where peace flourishes is a good goal; may we hope and pray that President Obama would continually make decisions that point the way (in as much as one man can) to that goal.

"Damn."
Another disappointing day.

Chávez changes tone concerning Venezuelan-US relations

A section of Hugo Chávez’ speech to the United Nations General Assembly was posted on BBC News online last night.  I took the courtesy of transcribing this portion of the speech:

John Kennedy said, ‘In the south there is a revolution and the main reason is hunger.’  Only a few days later he was assassinated.  John Kennedy was not a revolutionary, but he was an intelligent man, just as I think President Obama is an intelligent man.  And I hope God will protect Obama from the bullets that killed Kennedy.  I hope Obama will be able to look and see-genuinely see-what has to be seen, and bring about a change.  It doesn’t smell of sulfur anymore.  I doesn’t smell of sulfur, it’s gone.  No, it smells of something else.  It smells of hope.  And you have to have hope in your heart and lend your strength to the hope.

Chávez and his rule of Venezuela can be characterized as many things, but I find it intereting to analyze his view of the United States.  In 2006, the last time he spoke at the UN General Assembly, he called President George W. Bush “the devil.”  Now he declares that the smell of sulfur is gone and has been replaced with hope.  We could debate what seem to be his views regarding a link between the assassination of President Kennedy and Kennedy’s stance on South America, but I find his great optimism regarding the presidency of Barack Obama a great opportunity to heal relations with Venezuela and if America so demands it, to exercise some suggestive influence to change certain ways that some Americans might have an aversion toward him and his policies (specifically characterizing Chávez as a threat to capitalism I mean democracy in South America).

Still, some Americans can percieve any interaction with our “enemies” a great threat to national security, and anything divergent from the stagnant animosity America has experienced between itself and a significant portion of this wicked world during the virtuous presidency of George W. Bush ought to be shuned.  Why can’t America talk with these countries?  Why must America set a tone in foreign policy based on closed conditions and global superiority? ◊

Whichever side of the political/economic spectrum we’re on, we can probably agree with a sizable majority that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is incredibly odd.

◊ But I admit that I am rather ignorant when it comes to the scientific study of foreign policy.  I don’t like to be at odds with fiscal conservatives, I simply find that more often than not, I am.  I don’t take my views from this philosopher or that philosopher, but I tend to try to see things through a particular grid, one essentially based on restored relationships between humankind & God, humankind & itself, and humankind & nature.  I am certain that there are ways in which I am totally wrong, but my desire is not to push socialism, capitalism, nor any other -ism, nor is my desire to pledge allegiance to this political party or that political party.  I simply try to view this world as something that was created wisely, broken tragically, and will be redeemed thoroughly via the agenda of one greater than any president or king in this world.

The current Israel-Gaza conflict

I’m surprised that our blog hasn’t featured much (if any) discussion regarding the current troubles in Gaza (though we are being assured of a ceasefire by Israeli leadership).  I have rather strong views in opposition to the many of the actions of Israel (both presently and in the past), but I understand that as a group of people the Israelis desire a place to call their own (understandably so) and many of their surrounding countries would have them stripped of self-governance (if not even wiped out entirely).   I am certain that great deal of heated discussion would follow if I listed out my criticisms both of Israel and the various Palestinian groups who oppose them, but in this time of intense suffering I desire to write a prayer—something we’ve yet to do on this blog—and I hope it is not out of bounds.

God, the holy creator and sustainer of all things in this universe, we ask that you would exercise your will, particularly with regard to peace and the preservation of life on this planet.  We know that the tensions of war and strife are part of our lot as a result of disobedience, but we also know that you are abounding in grace and love.  Please guide the leadership of these conflicting peoples and—though this seems a near impossible task given the state of affairs in the Middle East—provide a lasting peace.  As a result of this current crisis we ask that you would please heal those who have been injured, provide shelter for those who have been displaced, and provide comfort for those who have lost their loved ones.  We boldly ask that this world would be transformed by the immense power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit.   Use us to pray and provide practical assistance in this situation.  Give us wisdom to see where we can work for your kingdom.  In all of these things may you be glorified.  Amen.

Who neither believes that war is tragic nor peace beautiful?

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