Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

❝HOW THE GUN LAW GOT SHOT DOWN – Of all the senators who attempted Wednesday to rally support for the doomed Manchin-Toomey background check amendmentConnecticut‘s Democratic freshman representative, Chris Murphy, probably faced the greatest temptation to borrow the moral authority of the Newtown families. They are his constituents and many were present in the chamber.

He’s young – the youngest sitting senator, actually – and an early Obama supporter, given to occasional bouts of (understandably) overwrought emotional rhetoric. During his very first floor speech as a senator last week, which itself took on gun legislation, he read the names of the Newtown victims – and some of the 3,000 other victims of gun violence since 14 December – into the congressional record.

Murphy’s also been a vocal, unusually sharp critic of the National Rifle Association. He described their response to the Newtown tragedy – the “National School Shield” Program – as “unhinged”, “revolting”, and “tone deaf”, declaring himself “flabbergasted” by the group’s press conference and calling out the program for what it was: a bald ploy for further political power.❞

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❝Since the inception of Malaya in 1957 and the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the political narrative of our country has been one of race. Campaigns, parties, social movements rely on appealing to ethnocentric sentiments to remain relevant.

Post-1969, this narrative hardened and played on fears of ethnic violence. To a large extent, it has reinforced barriers between Malaysians, and created a siege mentality of “us versus them”.❞

In The Malaysian Insider

☞ Malaysia, like all countries, is constructed (or re-constructed) through narratives. Not all these narrative, of course, are positive. Even some of the positive ones have a negative undertow. In spite of the tightly controlled official media, other narratives about the main players of Malaysian society and politics have emerged from alternative sources. The following acerbic article, from the reform movement Aliran, gives examples of the counter-narratives that have emerged, often with discernible tones of sarcasm, in spite of the official versions promulgated by the government.

Malaysia is the most exciting country to live within the South-East Asian Region.

Murder, betrayal and greed are some of the key
ingredients in the script of our national reality show
Graphic: freemalaysiatoday

We have the greatest beaches, the tallest flagpole, the best food, and the longest yee sang (or Prosperity Toss practised by the Chinese). We also have the best education system in the world and the best and most vibrant democracy. And most of all, Malaysia has the most vibrant, Oscar-standard, and colourful political dramas.

Our national news is the stuff of legends. Most Malaysians stay riveted for hours to online news portals reading about real-life scandals, sexual indiscretions, murder, betrayal, greed, conspiracies. Of course, we also cringe at the utter shamelessness and embarrassment of it all. Seriously, when they say real life is better than fiction, it cannot be truer in this country.

Fortunately, what stops us, the hapless addicts from descending into hopelessness is Malaysia’s cast of heroes. They come in the unlikeliest forms such as those of Irene Fernandez, Tijah, A Samad Said, Peter John Jaban, Rafizi Ramli, Wong Tack and a score of other ordinary people made extraordinary by their selfless work for all and especially the voiceless and downtrodden. They battle the Goliaths of Malaysian villainy, notwithstanding the injustice of Malaysian laws. Amazingly, just like in the movies, they still remain strong enough to fight the good fight, even after several rounds.

While we have these remarkable heroes, we also have an epic line-up of powerful villains, liars and cowards and their equally repulsive minions. Self-serving, greedy and conniving, they fester and permeate every level, feeding off and into a system that enriches them and impoverishes everyone else.”

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☞ From the Palestinian conflict to Australian politics: two very different issues and two very different sets of narratives. Both are political in their own unique ways, even if some of their features could be generalised or universalised. Both are also ultimately dependent on the right narratives to set things right for particular groups of people. It’s not the case that Australian politics or the Labor Party have lost all narrative: there are quite a lot of narratives or potential narratives going on there, with their own plots or potential plot outcomes. They are discussed in this article, and also, the readings listed below. The problem is not with narrative per se but the appropriate narrative or set of narratives that could save the Labor government. In this regard, the readings below have some interesting stories of their own to tell: such as the well-known one that there is a man waiting in the wings (a.k.a. Sir Kevin) who will very probably save the tribe (a.k.a. the Australian Labor Party); but his problem is that he is more popular in the land of Oz than among the fellow knightsmen and knightswomen of his tribe. Other narratives have to do with metaphors, such as Gillard being a zombie (“dead woman walking”) or that she is a woman with ba***. I am not sure if becoming the latter was helpful, or that, indeed, she has metaphorically undergone the tranformation (one of the occupational hazards of being a woman politician). She has in fact been accused by another female politician of using her gender to shield herself from complaints about her performance as prime minister.

“Governments ultimately thrive on narrative. Voters are not merely electing a suite of set policies. They are electing a party that will respond to future, unforeseen policy questions. They therefore need to know what you’re about. That’s what a clear consistent story tells them.

A party without a narrative is reduced to seeking your support as a lesser evil. Hence Labor’s focus on Tony Abbott.

Every successful government can be summarised in a phrase or two. Bob Hawke: a new, deregulated, globalised economy. Keating inherited that story, then added Asia, a growing economic power in our backyard we should embrace by shedding our British skin. Howard was about nationalism, security and capital’s triumph over labour. Everything – asylum seeker policy, counterterrorism, foreign affairs, even unsolicited social commentary about minority groups – was tailored to fit the story.

Exactly what story has Labor told us since 2007? It began with something about ”Australian working families”, but that too was a relic of the WorkChoices campaign. After that, it has been mostly a blancmange of conflicting messages. Perhaps it started when Kevin Rudd wanted to be ”tough but humane” on asylum seekers. It took Gillard only a matter of days as Prime Minister to continue the incoherence, declaring both that the number of boat people arriving in Australia was much smaller than many imagined, before swiftly going on to reassure those worried about invading hordes that their concerns were legitimate, and that they’re ”certainly [not] racist”. We learn nothing from this about how Labor sees asylum seekers. We learn only that it’s trying to please everyone.”

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☞ There is no question that the Palestinian problem is one of the great humanitarian crises of today. Like some of the historical problems of this nature, it has to do with the attempt to manufacture, promote and impose a dominant narrative through unjustifiable and savage means. In this case, as the Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa notes — in her review of a film which shows how the Zionists tried to demolish the Palestinian identity and intellectual heritage through the robbing of their books — the interpretation of the Palestinian narrative might depend on “who tells it, in what context is it told, how is it told, and, ultimately, who owns it.” To Abulhawa, unless the narrative is told from a historically-informed Palestinian perspective, there are bound to be gaps that do not allow the more complete picture of Palestinian nationhood from being conveyed.

(Image: Via Al Jazeera)

(Image: Via Al Jazeera)

“I finally watched The Great Book Robbery at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend with some friends.  It’s a film documenting Israel’s systematic looting of over 70,000 books from Palestinian public and private libraries after Jewish gangs in Palestine proclaimed the state of Israel and ethnically cleansed the native population.

The film itself is excellent and I have a lot of good things to say about it.   But I was bothered by a certain element, at the very end, which was repeated by the Director, Benny Brunner, who was at the showing to answer questions.  So I raised my hand and asked a question about it.  Mr Brunner became very defensive.

His reaction made me think and re-think on a topic that already preoccupies me on a near daily basis – namely, the Palestinian narrative: who tells it, in what context is it told, how is it told, and, ultimately, who owns it.    The importance of such a discussion regarding a people’s narrative should not be underestimated, particularly in instances of oppression and ethnic cleansing.

Putting aside the single, albeit important, element that bothered me in the film, and the film director’s unfortunate reaction to uncomfortable questions, I will first tell you everything that was right and good about this documentary.  For starters, it unveils another facet of the Zionist project to strip the indigenous Palestinians of everything tangible and intangible, not merely out of pure greed and opportunism, but also to necessarily fill in the various gaps and requirements of manufacturing a Jewish state in the 20th century.  This documentary deals with our books – some ancient, others contemporary; some rare one-of-a-kind books, others reproduced.  Most of them were personal, all were historic, and each was a piece of Palestinian cultural and intellectual heritage and identity.

As Zionists did with our homes, bank accounts, photographs, farms, orchards, and all remaining worldly possessions, they also stole our books.    A large number of them were looted from wealthy families from Jerusalem and Haifa, and in the process of watching this documentary, the viewer gets a sense of the cultured and highly-educated Palestinian society that was dispossessed of home and history by foreign Jewish newcomers.  One man in the audience made reference to this in a comment to the director.  This film clearly changed the image of Palestinians in his mind from something other than cultured, to people he could relate to.   That says something about the film’s power.

Several Palestinian personalities were featured, including Nasser Nashashibi, whose tears fell as he spoke of the loss of his library.  Ghada Karmi, too, was in the film.  Footage showed her returning to her home in Qatamon and finding the same lemon tree and porch tiles from her youth.  Another poignant interview was with a Palestinian by the name of Ahmed Batrawi.  He described himself as a prisoner of war who was forced to work and to clear out other Palestinian homes, including his own, and turn over all loot to Zionist authorities.  Although the director did not mention this, all evidence points to Batrawi having been in one of the many forced labor camps that Israel apparently established just 4 years after Nazis closed the last of their forced labor camps.  Little is known of these camps and I first heard of them from Dr Salman Abu Sitta, whose research into the archives of the Swiss Red Cross revealed 5 camps with 6,360 prisoners who were forced into slave labor after 1948.  But I digress.

The story was haunting and compelling.  It provoked anger in me that plunged into a depth of sadness and loss.  I think it would seem silly to some to mourn old books, especially when there is so much more to mourn, from stolen futures to extinguished lives.  But perhaps it is precisely for the magnitude of our loss that our books, our intellectual heritage and narrative, matter so much.”

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☞ One of the ways a dominant group tries to present a negative image of another group, is to engage in storytelling that undermines the latter. If the narrative is not negative or not negative enough, there might be an attempt at narrative shifting, resulting in a more adverse picture of the group being portrayed. As this article illustrates, this is certainly true of the image of Arabs as narrated by westerners.

‟Control of the preferred narrative is essential in today’s instant-news political culture. This has been particularly true since 9/11, as the United States government and the cooperative media have worked together to make sure that a series of enemies are identified and then attacked as a response to what has been shaped as a global terrorist threat. Narrative-shifting also protects against failure, by making it more difficult to advance any actual inquiry either to learn what motivates terrorists or to explore the apparent inability of the federal government to respond effectively. The best known attempt to shift the blame and thereby redirect the narrative was President George W. Bush’s famous assertion that “those evildoers” of 9/11 “hate us because of our freedom.” Other, more plausible motives need not apply.

Later this year PBS will release to its affiliates a documentary film that it co-produced called “Valentino’s Ghost.” I recently watched a preview copy. In its full version it is 95 minutes long, and it lays out a roughly chronological account of how Muslims, particularly Arabs, have been perceived in the West since the 1920s. Written and directed by Michael Singh, it includes interviews with a number of well-known authorities on the Middle East, including Robert Fisk, Niall Ferguson, John Mearsheimer, and the late Anthony Shadid, the New York Times journalist killed in Syria last February. The film explores the political and cultural forces behind the images, contending that the depiction of Arabs as “The Other” roughly parallels the foreign policies of Europe and America vis-à-vis the Middle East region. The title of the film is taken from the first great cinematic “Arab,” Italian Rudolph Valentino, who starred in the 1922 silent film “The Sheik.” When asked regarding the plausibility of the script, in which English aristocrat Lady Diana falls for the “savage” Sheik, Valentino responded “People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world…the Arabs are dignified and keen brained.”

Valentino’s cinematic triumph was followed by other films extolling Arabian exoticism, including 1924’s “The Thief of Baghdad,” starring Douglas Fairbanks. But the cinematic love affair with Arabia did not last long. The 1920s also witnessed Anglo-French moves to divide up the Arab provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire and to gain control of Iran’s oil supply.The Arabs, not surprisingly, resisted, which forced a rethink of who they were and what they represented as reflected in Eurocentric movies made in the 1930s, including “Beau Geste,” “The Lost Patrol,” and “Under Two Flags.”

Arabs were increasingly depicted in the cinema as lawless savages who mindlessly opposed the advanced civilizations of Europe, not unlike the American Indians who had stood in the way of manifest destiny. The possible motives for their savagery were strictly off limits, as they were in the American historical narrative. The good Arabs were the ones who were “obedient” and sought accommodation with the French and British. The bad Arabs were the “disobedient” who sought to maintain their traditional ways of life.”

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☞ This article is on vegan empowerment, but much of it has to do with narrative as a shaping device. One of the ways by which the process of empowerment or disempowerment could be viewed is by seeing it through the eyepiece of narrative. In this light, empowerment is the attempt to ensure that the dominant narrative that suppresses a person or group of persons is subverted and replaced by a narrative that views the person or group more favourably. The article views the narrative that substitutes the dominant narrative as the “true” narrative. It is of course “true” from the perspective of those who stand to benefit from it. From a more value-neutral perspective, what can be seen here is the dynamics of narrative in the dialectics of empowerment and disempowerment, where a group uses a dominant narrative to perpetuate its power, whilst another group tries to subvert this for its empowerment by introducing an alternative narrative. 

✲ “History is shaped not by weapons, or tyrants, or rebellions. History is shaped by stories. Beneath every oppression and every revolution are narratives that guide them: we cannot invade and take up arms against another without first believing the story that the other is our enemy who must be conquered, just as we cannot stand together in protest of violent invasions without believing the story that the war is unjust.

Dominant narratives are the stories told by the dominant culture; they define our reality and guide our lives like an invisible hand. And when the dominant culture is oppressive, so, too, are its narratives. Such narratives are fictions, constructed to delude people into supporting the dominant way of life even though that way of life runs counter to what they would otherwise support, and to silence the voices of people who seek to tell the truth. Thus, social change is made possible by those who challenge the dominant narratives, replacing fictions with facts by bearing witness to and speaking out against oppression. Revolutions that change the course of history are made possible by those who speak truth to power.”

✲ “Stories shape our lives, and our world, for better or worse.

When women believed the stories told by the dominant, sexist culture – when they looked at the world through the eyes of (sexist) males – they believed that their own personal deficiencies, rather than external power structures, were to blame for their lower social status.

Stories can be fiction or fact.

The dominant story of sexist culture – that women were inferior because they were overly emotional, weak, and irrational – was based on gross distortions of the truth about women’s true nature and experience. It was a fiction. True stories, on the other hand, reflect the authentic truth of our experience.

Widespread stories reflect (and reinforce) a widespread belief system, or ideology.

The story that women were inferior to men did not come out of nowhere; it reflected the widespread ideology of sexism. And the more men and women alike bought into this fiction, the more they reinforced the sexist system, playing out and thus confirming the stereotypes of dominant males and submissive females.

When we change our stories, we change our lives, and our world.

As vegans, we are largely aware of the fictions spun by the dominant, animal-eating culture; our advocacy is organized around providing alternative, truthful stories. But there are some dominant stories that many vegans remain unaware of, and these stories can cause us to feel disempowered and despairing and they can seriously undermine our advocacy. When we become aware of these stories, though, we can rewrite them, and transform our despair into inspiration and empower ourselves and our movement.”

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☞ In an earlier post, where I quoted from an article titled “Narrative as scaffolding” on this blog, Phlip Zack argues that political perception cannot be immediate, as perception itself is mediated by narratives. I also mentioned that in the previous American Presidential election, Obama understood the importance of storytelling, and made good use of it in his campaign. Romney, as a contrast, did not, and in fact criticised Obama for believing that he should have engaged the people better through more effective storytelling in his first term as President (see Romney, RNC react to Obama’s comments on his biggest mistake). Romney’s failure to devise an effective narrative for himself was one of several factors that eventually led to his defeat. But would a future Republican Presidential candidate have a more effective story (or set of stories) to help him in his campaign? Jon Ward thinks that there is one, in the person of Marco Rubio, who, like Obama, appreciates the power of narrative in political engagement.

“Let us count the ways that Sen. Marco Rubio is already better positioned to be a competitive presidential candidate in 2016 than Mitt Romney ever was.

Marco Rubio - Caricature

Marco Rubio – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

Rubio (R-Fla.) is younger. He’s Latino. He gives a good speech. But less remarked upon: Rubio understands the importance of talking about himself.

In other words, Rubio, 41, gets narrative.

For much of the last year, the Republican Party apparently did not. And the GOP’s self-examination in the wake of Romney’s loss has prompted many to say that the party needs to convey a more compelling, inspiring vision to American voters.

“The number one rule of competitive politics [is that] your story has to be rooted in lives of people. Having a narrative is really important,” said former president Bill Clinton.

Narrative has become an overused cliché in everyday political parlance, but as a concept it is as crucial as ever for any national politician. President Barack Obama paved his path to victory in 2008 by telling his own story in a 1995 memoir. And Obama’s longtime trusted adviser David Axelrod centered the 2008 campaign message firmly around the candidate’s biography.”

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☞ Narrative is not only confined to literature and mythology. It is a very important means through which we perceive reality. Indeed, arguably, reality itself is not only perceived through, but created with, narrative. Narrative is certainly important in politics, as we have seen earlier on this site, in the case of Obama, who understood the importance of narrative and storytelling better than his Presidential opponent, Mitt Romney. With a view towards explaining the importance of narrative in politics, Philip Zack argues, as seen in the series of quotations below, that it is something that we cannot escape from. The perception of raw sensory data is meaningless to us, unless it is mediated by narrative. In this light, narrative plays an active and domineering role in perception, and in the construction or reconstruction of perceptions in the realm of politics.

Change happens in any field because someone offers a different story of how and why things are or could be. We’ve achieved change by stepping into the world of a different narrative and making it real through our words and deeds.❞

Vase

Photo credit: Sunil Photos

✽ ❝Everything we know begins as raw sensory data, a pattern of light and color, perhaps. We make sense of that data by fitting it into a story — that the pattern depicts an object, in this case a vase. What happens next is important: we remember the vase, and discard the pattern.❞

✽ ❝There are all sorts of stories: static ones such as what that vase looks like from different directions, dynamic ones such as imagining pouring water from the vase, and complex ones such as having our medical bills paid for by insurance provided by the company that paid us to make a thousand of those vases. Some of these stories are our own creation, but most of them come from other people in the form of memes, or contagious ideas. The world as we know it is a dynamic ecosystem of interlocking stories, some of which are built on top of other stories. And like the animals and plants in biological ecosystems, some kinds of stories can only survive by dominating others, while other kinds of stories are able to coexist and even support one another.❞

✽ ❝Thinking of stories as living things — which is a meta-story you may not have encountered before — gives us a way to evaluate the relative merits of competing stories such as these. Set them down in front of you and see how they behave, how they interact with other storiesin the narrative ecosystem. Stories such as those with arcs about gaining dynastic power at the expense of others thrive by destroying competing stories that are not of benefit to them. Their objective is to be the last story standing, as it were. They do not make good neighbors. In contrast, stories such as those in which people benefit through collaboration are strengthened by building larger stories in which our personal stories have a stake.❞

✽ ❝Politics in the US has become a contest between competing stories describing what our nation is about, what the role of its government ought to be, and what is important in life. Thesestories, however, do not exist in a vacuum, because the narratives have been manipulated, and the raw data that we attempt to fit into these stories has been intentionally filtered and curated to appeal to our desire to associate it with a particular story so we can forget the data itself and go about our business.❞

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