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Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

On trying to give up The Independent

In Uncategorized on March 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Review by John Bedwell

Maybe it’s because they never publish my letters. Perhaps it’s the obsession with the Liberal Democrats. It could be the red sans-serif masthead, or the front-page shock therapy, or the compulsive editorial rejigs. It could be the i, or the nauseating ‘Trending’ (whatever that is). Most likely it’s the never-ending debates around the Blairite/Thatcherite dynasties, and or that thick inky coating of pro-market goo. But whatever it is – I’m hacked off with The Independent (pun intended).

We’re not talking about The Daily Mail (like spending twenty minutes in a mental institution). This isn’t that royalist Telegraph rag I begged my grandfather to ditch after 60 years. My god, it’s not even The Guardian. Dear Indy has been the centre-left mouthpiece of good old-fashioned journalism since 1986. This is the newspaper that publishes opposing views ON THE SAME PAGE. The daily that opposed the invasion of Iraq, has called for the legalisation of soft drugs (whatever those are), went ‘compact’ first! The newspaper that continuously reports on stories even after they’ve gone out of fashion: social inequality, AIDS, Iraq, post-revolutionary fallout, that thing about all the ice melting. An honest voice in the mainstream wilderness, which until recently carried on its front page the banner, “free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence”.

Yet things have changed on Fleet Street, sorry, I mean in Canary Wharf. Read all about it: Economic Survival at Stake; Internet Gobbling up Sales; Trust in Press at All-Time Low. With all this happening everywhere to everyone all of the time, The Indy is feeling spooked, threatened, defensive, schizophrenic. The word ‘independent’ used to mean something – or was at least a badge of respectability on the train. On Saturday March 9th 2013, it means whatever you want it to mean so long as you’re not planning on thinking too much.

‘Proprietorial Influence and political bias’, let’s meditate on these expressions. Or, let’s meditate on the purchase of the newspaper by Russian billionaire, Alexander Lebedev, in 2010 (Oligarch Buys Newspaper Scandal!). Or, we could just flick through today’s edition and pick out some juicy tidbits. On page five here’s an article shaming The Sun, really. On page nine we’re told the world’s best restaurant has been poisoning cliental, scary. Moving on, here’s the J.K. Rowling page, the i-pad advert, and the announcement that tomorrow’s edition will feature an interview with ‘What-she-did-next-X-factor-judge-in-spiritual-journey’. Luckily, no Britons died yesterday, but a brutal human rights violating dictator did die of cancer during the week. Thank Amnesty he’s not free to brainwash his people or violate the sacred codes of unlimited consumption anymore. Hugo Chavez’s funeral was attended by, and I quote, ‘a strange cast’ (page 18). Maybe it’s the clichés that really drive me wild.

But this is news. Hot off the press, Kanian style, giving us what we want, how we want it: fear, aspiration, titillation, assurance.  Visit Switzerland, Sri Lanka, The Serpentine. Those pesky Argentines should leave our islanders alone. When will the Kenyans learn how to vote properly? The PM’s had his knuckles rapped! Osborne’s got a headache! China’s shitting itself because its troublesome neighbor wants to blow the world to kingdom come! Oh no hang on, everything’s OK. Charlotte Church and Will Smith matter. There is no invisible hand at work here. No one’s being influenced one iota, especially not the independent minds writing and reading this self-declared ‘proudly liberal newspaper’.

How can a publication be free from political bias if it is of one political persuasion? Is ‘neo’ liberalism (you draw the line) not a political position? Has the sky fallen out of the sky? Doesn’t this newspaper have an editorial proudly publishing proudly liberal views, everyday? The freedom The Independent proclaims and revels in is the freedom to portray itself as above and outside the very system it supports. The freedom it professes is that of a business producing, distributing and selling itself as commodity. The independence of The Independent is that of any self-validating media to say what it wants within the bounds of law and political economy. Within the bounds.   

You may find these boundaries roughly in-between Gorgeous George Galloway’s sermon on our bankrupted political class and the two-page spread profile on Home Secretary Theresa May, ‘The Iron Lady in Waiting’. Witness a symmetrical narrative; the remains of half-crazed socialism as the natural counterweight to staunch conservatism. The Independent nestles safely in the middle, on the wasteland, a crow on the shoulder, where the taxes are tweaked and the backs are scratched. In expending much space on Politics, Arts, Science and The World (wherever that is), cloaked in objective veneer, The Indy but reinforces the norms which justify our condition; a self-referential discourse that has no intention of breaking with dogma.

On close inspection dear old Indy is locked into the prevailing plotlines of our times. Perhaps it always has been but we just weren’t paying attention. That nasty residue is the taste of conformity. Maybe I’ll stop writing letters. Maybe I’ll stop buying it. If only I could resist the red sans-serif. 

Raminder Kaur’s “Atomic Mumbai: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns”. New Delhi: Routledge 2013

In Kaur on March 2, 2013 at 12:15 am

Reviewed by John Hutnyk.

This book both begins and ends with comics, but the sting is not in the tail. Rather, throughout, the disturbing words of Oppenheimer, lifted from the Bhagavad Gita, hover threateningly – it is in the title, so you know the quote will come in the text, it is relevant on every page, but it waits, with much foreboding, like the sensibility that drives the author and the immense power of the topic: ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’. It is not until the very last pages that these words make their doomsayer appearance, and here is the books merit. You had me at the get go.

The book ostensibly starts with the story of a twelve-year-old boy reading a comic about a nuclear-powered superhero and I am immediately thrown back to the cartoons of my own childhood where Prince Planet, ‘with a medallion on his chest’, was all-powerful, and nuclear of course. Which naturally enough prompts an adult question: why do comic heroes in particular have such an intimate relationship with atomics and is this an ideological get-em-while-they’re-young marketing strategy or something still more aberrant? Vigilantes, law and order, planetary survival, all underpinned by a new supernatural power to rival the gods.

Beneath this mild-mannered speculation a far harsher reality of cancer deaths and poverty, a health care system wholly insufficient to requirements and a legal and legislative morass that allows criminal loopholes like an x-ray machines leaks gamma rays. Raminder Kaur’s survey of all things atomic in India is very welcome, and indeed urgent. The questions she asks press at the time, relevant both to Nehru and now: ‘how entwined are the (grand) children of the midnight hour of independence to a perception of the minutes-to-midnight scenario in the city?’ (Kaur). The city in question is Mumbai, with its nuclear research facilities and reactors. This urban anthropological study stands out as a compelling, relevant and insistent call to notice.

An archival investigation of the bomb in Bombay (the city’s old name allows the alliteration). The book documents Indian responses to atomic science from Gandhi on Hiroshima to contemporary vernacular cultural responses to geopolitical brinkmanship and the Indo-Pak tests of 1998. Along the way, newspapers, cinema, oral testimony, and as already noted, comics, and cartoons, provide the fissionable materials.

It is an anthropological study, but not so anthropological that the disciplinary protocols get in the way of the storytelling. There is one short graphing of the odourless, invisible, maleficence of radiation onto the way anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard described ‘witchcraft’ among the Azande, but the analogy is not pushed too far – since there is no consensus that radiation might be a ‘natural philosophy’. Nevertheless, the gesture of reference to one of anthropology’s ancients will be approved by some.

What has India thought of nukes? The early newspaper reportage in India after Hiroshima and Nagasaki is also a record of critique of colonialism and superpower machinations. An anti-American strain across India in response to ongoing atomic ‘tests’ in the Pacific, but on another plane there is also a Ghandian-Hegelian ‘spirit’ that posits an alternative to militant atomic science (strange bedfellows, Gandhi and Hegel) in ‘atma’, ‘stayagraha’ and ‘ahimsa’. Is this a staging of soul, truth and non-violence over against the destroyer of worlds? This is further strained through a kind of mad dialectical adaptation of H.G.Wells’ story ‘The World Set Free’  and forecasts of another war, this time nuclear, needed before humanity steps back from a mutually assured destruction to renounce war altogether. All this at the same time that Nehruvian socialism and Congress non-violence also joined hands with H.J.Bhabha’s Nuclear Energy Commission and the warm glow of technological advance was adopted to nurture the nation. A Third path through science and non-alignment would be the promise of a progressive post-independence future.

Yoga, Vishnu, Hanuman, space flight, chemistry, the Vedas, global warming, commercial markets, tilak paste, the films of Arnand Patwardhan, research reactors, spills and leaks, saffron, suits, signs and risk, the range of topics bombard us with a terrifying and convoluted story. Yet the text never leaves off worrying at its main theme – the atomic narrative as it appears from the perspective of the (many) peoples of Mumbai. Whether this be from the window of a mega-city skyscraper, from a lab in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), a middle-class activist daughter’s household, or over a tiffin box lunch or shared tea at a stall, the view from atomic Mumbai is the story of the city retelling itself. Much more than a travel-guide or urban history, in this atomic perspective we get to know the city intimately, and – for give the pun – to its core.

Continue reading this review: NXRB Raminder Kaur’s “Atomic Mumbai: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns”

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