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I had an epiphany yesterday: bookstores deserve to die.
I have wanted to be an author my entire life. I work in a bookstore. In the brewing war between traditional brick stores and ebooks/online retailers, I would have previously been galloping into battle alongside fellow bookstore lovers. I love browsing, I love discovering books I’ve never seen before, I love the different moods and characters of independent stores. I love the musty smell and quiet atmosphere of a second-hand store – I recall one store in Marylebone that was so cram-packed full of books that you literally couldn’t get down the aisles. I love the jumbled decorations and hipster music of stores like Readings or Planet Books. I love being in a foreign country and tracking down an English-language bookstore, a homely refuge of familiar Western culture – the best English-language bookstore in Asia, by the way, is What The Book in Seoul.
All that was my point of view as a reader, a consumer and a customer. I’d be lying if I said I never used online retail – it’s vastly cheaper than inflated Australian retail prices, and I’m more or less guaranteed of finding the book I need. But I felt guilty about it, especially using The Book Depository, which I’m pretty sure is deliberately selling books at a loss in order to gain a market share. I still shop at independent stores, and when I use Abe Books I always try to shop from stores in Australia or New Zealand. I’m no hippie, but I don’t feel comfortable having a book flown all the way from England or the US just to save myself a few extra bucks.
But my point of view as a bookseller? I’ve worked at my current store for about six months. Recently our stock manager went on holiday for a few weeks, and I accepted the offer of covering for her, since it meant regular hours and less customer service. Yesterday I tackled the thousands upon thousands of overstock books in our warehouse and spare room.
When a book in a bookstore is not sold, it is not marked down – at least, not at my store. It is “returned,” and packaging and sending returns is a huge part of a stock manager’s job. Nobody had done returns at my store for months, which was why we could barely move in our back room. Yesterday I went through the shelves and pulled all the books that had been there for more than five months; some had been there longer than a year. Today I packaged some to be mailed back tomorrow. I filled 33 large cardboard boxes merely with United stock (Allen & Unwin, Simon & Schuster and Penguin). The place is still drowning in a swamp of books from Harper Collins, Hatchette, Random House and dozens of smaller publishers.
I would estimate that we sell less than 30% of the books that enter our store. The rest, ultimately, become returns. As I understand it, the distributors send them to other stores after they’re returned; maybe they return them too, and the cycle goes on until the books are all sold. Or maybe they get pulped. The number of books that get damaged during shipping, or when I’m scraping price stickers off with a razor blade, means a large number of them probably get pulped anyway.
But their ultimate fate is irrelevant. What I’m getting at is that the system in place is monumentally inefficient. We ship massive numbers of new releases and promotional stock into the store, sell a handful of them, eventually relegate them to the normal shelves, sell a few more, then – once they’ve been out for a month or two – leave a few copies on the shelf and shove the rest onto the teetering piles in the back room. Allegedly they’re kept there to restock the shelves when those few copies out there are sold, but in reality those copies don’t sell, and the extra two dozen copies out the back sit there until they’re returned.
If you’re even remotely environmentally conscious, consider the impact of all those trucks and planes going back and forth, ferrying unwanted piles of books between suppliers and stores, all so we can have a fully-stocked promotional display for Paulo Coelho’s new book, or because the last Harry Potter movie was released and there might be a few families left out there who don’t own the books, or because somebody at head office had a gut feeling that “Last Man In Tower” would sell 140 copies (I’m not exaggerating, we literally got 140 copies).
It might seem like a leap to go from complaining about this, to saying that bookstores deserve to die. We live in an interlinked, global society, and probably everything you or I own was manufactured overseas and shipped to us in the first world. There are already tens of thousands of cargo ships criss-crossing the oceans, gradually killing them; already thousands of planes in the sky, already millions of trucks on the road. What does it matter if the bookstore supply model is part of that ravenous machine?
It matters, I think, because we have a more efficient alternative. We have e-readers – which I’m not a fan of, but which are unquestionably more efficient in terms of both transport and raw materials, and which will probably endear themselves to the next generation. Closer to my point, we have online retailing, which still provides readers with the comfort, style and possession of a physical book. Ordering books from Amazon or The Book Depository or Abe Books still involves mailing them out to you, still involves that global supply chain – but there is no wasted travel. You select the book online, pay for it, and it’s sent directly to you. None of this zig-zagging back and forth like Odysseus, shuttled from store to warehouse to supplier to store, in the vain hope of finding a buyer.
All this makes me sound like some kind of efficiency-devoted robot who cares nothing for books and literature, but that’s not the case. We will always have second-hand books, and as James Bradley argues, we’re likely to see physical books become more of a status or prestige item in the coming years. I always notice when browsing at Readings that they tend to stock nicer editions of books; hardbacks, and books with interesting covers, like this edition of “The Slap.” I think independent bookstores will persist for some time yet, out of customer loyalty if nothing else; I know of nobody who was sad to see Borders and Angus & Robertson close down (apart from their shareholders), but there were plenty of long faces when Reader’s Feast closed its doors. For dedicated book lovers, I suspect there will always be a few places in any major city where they may indulge themselves.
But for casual readers, who comprise the vast majority of the buyers – people who buy paperbacks from supermarkets and newsagents and chain bookstores like Dymocks – a more efficient model has emerged. The online retailer is more environmentally friendly, more likely to have the books in stock that the reader wants, and has low overhead costs which are passed on to the consumer. Bookstores (like all stores, I suppose) were the only option for many centuries. That’s no longer the case. Like recording companies and real estate agents and video stores, they are middle-men, struggling to stay afloat after being rendered useless by a ubiquitous global communications network.
There are three responses I can see people making to my argument. The first is, as always,“But jobs will be lost!!!” This is never an excuse for anything. Eventually technology renders jobs obsolete. Deal with it, and get a new job. As I said, I hope there will still be a few independent and second-hand stores around, providing jobs for those who are truly passionate about being booksellers. For the vast majority of booksellers who work for companies that treat books like potatoes (which includes mine), there will always be plenty of other general retail jobs.
The second response is that I may be wrong about the scope and extent of the inefficient system, and it may simply be that my company is exceptionally badly-run. This would come as no surprise; they run a wide variety of retail stores, and head office often fails to grasp a lot of the fundamentals of being a bookstore (because, as Henry Rosenbloom points out, books are a hands-on, detail-intensive business which can only be run successfully by people who love books and know their stuff). Our staff turnover is amazing, and one of our senior employees told me the other day that she has never in her life worked for a company more poorly run than this one. Maybe other stores sell a lot more than 30% of their stock. If anyone well-informed would like to correct me, please leave a comment.
The third response is that it’s hypocritical of me to say that bookstores deserve to die out while still hoping that plenty of cool independent stores and second-hand stores survive. Well, you try spending all day boxing up Eckhart Tolle books and Snooki’s autobiography and see how you feel at the end.
Given the recent national hysteria about the carbon tax, which is going to cost people earning less then $100,000 a year a devastating +20 cents, I thought I might mention a few things about climate change. You may have heard of this. It’s been big in the media in the last few years. The media is also big on talking about the climate change “debate,” which does not exist. 97% of people qualified to hold an opinion on the matter concur that it is happening, which is why it grinds my gears when the Prime Minister has to say on national television that she “believes” in man-made climate change.
I don’t. I can’t “believe” in climate change any more than I can “believe” in my scarf or my laptop or my nose. It exists. It is happening. We caused it, and the only question now is whether we’re going to take action to reverse it, or whether we’re going to collapse into a tangle of squabbling idiots while the atmosphere is ruined around us. Smart money is on the latter.
Yet you’ll see a lot of talk in the media about the “debate” on climate change, which they’ll usually express as giving equal airtime between an esteemed climate scientist and an English aristocrat with an undiagnosed mental disorder, or between a representative of the Commonwealth’s official scientific agency and a representative of the mining industry. It’s utter bullshit and I am going to appeal against it based not on empiricism but on rationalism.
The ironic thing about the climate change debate is that it is, by and large, a subject of faith. Like most people, I can only grasp the fundamentals of any given scientific issue, and that includes climate change. I take the scientific community at their word, because I cannot personally verify their information. It’s all out there, and you or I could go look it up. I could even reproduce it here. I’m not going to, because graphs and charts and scientific studies exist beyond the realm of my attention span, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to try to understand them. Few people do. So it comes down to trust, and whom you choose to place it in.
On the one hand we have our elected Prime Minister, CSIRO, and 97% of the world’s climate scientists. On the other hand we have Lord Monckton, Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and – the man behind the curtain – various lobby groups and alliances associated with the mining industry.
Which of those sides stands to benefit from the status quo?
It didn’t take long after the government announced its carbon tax policy for an ad campaign to be released by the Australian Trade & Industry Alliance, producing a series of misleading “facts” objecting to the government’s decision. The ATI did not exist prior to the carbon tax hysteria. It was formed solely to combat it, and one needs only click on their “about us” section to get an inkling of what this alliance consists of. The Australian Coal Association. The Mineral Council of Australia. The Australian Steel Institute.
Is a lobby group of polluting industries, formed during the announcement of a tax on polluting industries, really the organisation you want to listen to for unbiased information?
There is absolutely nothing unusual about huge corporations distorting the truth and pouring millions into propaganda in order to preserve their own profit margins. Unethical, yes, but not surprising. Corporations exist to make money. (They can even claim that they must distort the truth and create propaganda, because they have an ethical duty to give their shareholders a return; to keep their promises.) The climate change debate is a struggle between the national interest and the vested interest; the interest of a few powerful people who meet at the intersection of polluting industry, politics and media. It is completely unremarkable that such people would exploit their influence to deny climate change and protect their wealth.
What is remarkable is that ordinary Australians – people who stand to lose from climate change, who gain nothing from corporate profits – believe them. Andrew Bolt’s column is the most widely read in Australia. One only need skim the comments on any given article there, or on The Australian or news.com.au or The Drum, to wonder if wilfully blind climate skeptics comprise a majority of our population.
Some of them are diehard partisans who will criticise anything the Labor Party does. Some of them are diehard tribalists who will believe anything Andrew Bolt writes. Some of them are simply naive, and believe that because mining corporations provide us with jobs, they must love us and have our best interests at heart.
Yet I think most climate skeptics – and this includes many people I know in real life – believe climate change isn’t happening because it’s easier that way. It would be so nice, wouldn’t it, if we could go on the way we are? Chugging along in our cars, using our coal power plants, not having to change one tiny whit of our lifestyle. Say what you will about Al Gore, but the title of his film could not have been more perfect. Climate change is inconvenient, and when Australians suffer inconvenience they squeal like stuck pigs.
To return to the faith comparison, this is similar to the reason I think many people believe in God and an afterlife: it’s easy. It’s nice. It’s comforting. They shut out the evidence and the facts and their own nagging doubts, and embrace the myth, because it makes life so much easier.
And so we have this ludicrous “debate:” our elected officials, national science agency and leading researchers vs. shock-jocks, right-wing journalists and mining companies who stand to lose money if we take action on climate change. All because Australians are self-centred skinflints who are happy to let our planet slide into environmental ruin because they don’t want the price of groceries to go up a few dollars.
It’s all really depressing. I’m not the kind of person who looks back on “the good old days” or “the greatest generation” with misty-eyed fondness – the 1940s were, after all, a time when women couldn’t hold real jobs and Aboriginals couldn’t vote – but the last time an Australian generation had to face down a dire threat, they were asked to sacrifice a lot more than a few extra bucks a week. Some might think it specious to compare war with climate change. I almost think it myself. That’s because our brains are still, fundamentally, primate brains. They react to sudden, shocking things like bombs and gunfire, and are complacent about gradual threats like climate change – which will ruin us, financially and physically, more than any war could.
So, as usual, the problem isn’t the media or the government or even big corporations. It’s us. It’s the fact that most of us haven’t learned to critically assess claims, to scrutinise the motives of the person making them. Most of us suffer from normalcy bias, which means we’ll gladly listen to anyone who tells us it’s not really happening, so we can go back to driving our 4WDs and watching The Biggest Loser on our plasma flat-screens. Most of us, even if we do believe in climate change, will scrounge around for reasons why we don’t need to do anything – because it’s not happening as fast as they say it is, or because our contribution wouldn’t make a difference, or because Juliar’s Great Big New Tax won’t immediately solve the whole problem. The Herald-Sun has a higher circulation than the Age not because Rupert Murdoch is an evil Sith Lord who exerts eerie powers over the populace, but because most people are happier to read an oversimplified, sensationalist story that stokes their anger than they are to read in-depth, unbiased, fact-based journalism. It’s not stupidity or even ignorance – it’s just laziness, and an unwillingness to think laterally about how and why people tell you things.
Stop doing that. You don’t need to bury yourself in the last ten years of scientific journals, spend all your free time examining the different carbon pricing schemes in countries across the globe, or fly to Antarctica and take your own ice core samples. Just think for a moment about who Andrew Bolt’s largest patron is, and why mining industries are opposed to the carbon tax, and whether CSIRO is a more reputable source on scientific matters than News Ltd and Lord Monckton.
But I know that any climate skeptic or Boltite who reads this isn’t going to do that. They’ll dismiss it as leftist-warmist-Nazi-fascist crap, and go on listening to their propaganda, and claiming that the real propaganda is the scientific evidence, and 150 years from now our planet will have warmed, our arable land will have been decimated, our economy will be in ruins, we will be wracked by drought and bushfires, and the descendants of today’s climate skeptics will be howling with indignant rage that the government of today didn’t do anything to stop it.
I don’t want to come across as a conspiracy theorist, but…
It seems awfully suspicious to me how quickly the US dumped bin Laden’s body.
Maybe it’s psychological. The 9/11 attacks happened when I was 12. Osama bin Laden has been our society’s cultural boogeyman for nearly half my life. For almost ten years, one of the most recognisable faces in the world – ghostly, demonic, more of a symbol than an actual man – has been infuriatingly beyond our grasp. Sketchy reports of his death surfaced at least once a year. He seemed to have disappeared entirely. His name became a by-word not just for evil, but for something that was impossible to find. It seemed like his ultimate fate in the history books would be uncertain, his name followed by a (1957 – ?), his legacy having trailed out somewhere on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And then suddenly, when most of us had given up or forgotten or no longer cared, it was announced that he had been found and killed. And then, before we could even wrap our heads around this news, we were told that his body had been buried at sea.
The US says this was done to avoid creating a gravesite that would become a pilgrimage site for extremists (understandable), avoid the hassle of finding a country that would accept having bin Laden’s body buried on their soil (understandable), and to respect the Muslim tradition of not cremating bodies and disposing of them in a short timeframe. This last one is not so understandable. Why would we give a fuck about treating Osama bin Laden’s corpse with respect? Why would we prioritise that above other concerns, like independent verification?
How did this go down? Dust-off outside Abbotabad, helicopter flight to a US Navy vessel off Karachi, quick DNA sampling and dental extraction, and then tossed over the side like a Big Mac wrapper? How many people actually came into contact with that corpse? Who was the highest-ranking official who did?
I find it very… well, either “suspicious”‘ or perhaps merely “unsatisfying,” that a body we invested ten years of effort into locating – dead or alive – was so rapidly destroyed.
Maybe it’s because we had such stark images of Saddam Hussein’s capture, trial and execution in comparison, but bin Laden’s imageless death feels somehow wrong. This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. I’m not saying he should have been taken back to the US and stuffed and put in a museum, but it couldn’t have hurt to have kept him in cold storage for a month or two. That would allow independent DNA verification (instead of whatever the CIA tells us), would allow high-ranking military figures and US government officials to inspect the body, and – most importantly – would go a long way towards discrediting exactly the kind of conspiracy theory that I’m sort-of-suggesting here.
Maybe more information will emerge in the coming weeks. I hope it does. I don’t want to go about accusing Obama of manufacturing some kind of fake emotional closure on the issue. Obama is a worse president than Bush and an appalling disappointment to any honest leftist, but he’s still above that. But if this rapid burial isn’t suspicious, it is, at the very least, sloppy and careless. Because now these conspiracy theories are going to start appearing like cockroaches in spring – and not without cause.
Update, May 5: Aaaand further details are released. Apparently it was less of a life-or-death firefight and more of a brutal massacre, and the US can’t release photos of bin Laden’s corpse because of that classic catch-all excuse, “national security.”
Obama also says: “There are going to be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see Bin Laden walking on this earth again.” Um, we didn’t see him walking the earth before, either. That’s the whole point of wanting to see photo evidence of this event.
Australians are quite notoriously stupid and selfish people. I make a habit of reading the letters in The West Australian, to angry up the blood, and over the last few weeks many of them have been harping on about how we should cancel foreign aid to assist the Queensland floods. This is not uncommon for the typical West letter writer, who is usually an octogenerian Pom who fled the United Kingdom when they started letting darkies in, so I was unsurprised.
What has surprised me is the rabid vitriol with which Australians have met the government’s proposed tax levy. Apparently people are quite happy to feel sorry for Queenslanders as long as they don’t have to do anything, but are absolutely unwilling to part with a miniscule fragment of their annual income to help rebuild. Tony Abbott, the leering populist religious zealot who will no doubt be our next prime minister, is going on and on and on about how it’s yet another “great big tax” that will “hurt Australian families.”
I challenge anyone to show me one family – literally one – that will be “hurt” by the levy. Shit, show me one person.
If you are earning under $55,000 a year, you don’t pay the levy at all. If you earn between $55,000 and $65,000, you pay 48 cents a week – or 6 cents per day. If you earn between $65,000 and $80,000, you pay $1.44 a week – or 20 cents per day. If you earn between $80,000 and $150,000, you pay $2.88 a week – or 41 cents per day. If you earn over $150,000 you pay $14.42 a week, roughly the amount you tip your Filipino maid.
I know maths is boring, but you need to stop and think about or you’ll look like a fucking nong – like, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald did when it published a whiny story about the poor Aussie battler family that will now be doing it tough because of the minimal contribution required to help families further north who have lost everything they own (including, sometimes, their loved ones).
Mr Matias works in IT and Mrs Matias has a home business making personalised luggage tags. Their combined income means the levy will cost them about $600.
This is because they are in the highest tax bracket, i.e. they are among the wealthiest 0.1% of people in the world. And yet the Herald would have us crying sweet salty tears over their terrible plight, perhaps enough to drown out the tears of those Queenslanders who returned to their homes to find them still knee-deep in mud, their possessions destroyed or washed away.
This bears clarification: people are complaining about a tax to help their countrymen who have lost everything – a tax that will, for the average income earner, add up to less than two fucking dollars a week. If that’s enough to obliterate your finances and drive your family over the brink into miserable poverty, then your razor-thin income margins likely should have been addressed earlier.
Abbott’s declaration that “mates help each other – they don’t tax each other” beggared belief, as though he thought the funds raised would be going towards a few extra bottles of cognac at the Lodge, but he quickly amended it to: “Mates choose to help each other. They aren’t forced to help each other.” Many people say they have already donated to the flood relief effort and resent being forced to donate on top of it. This is bizarre to me, particularly in light of the calculations above (again: less than two fucking dollars a week). This is why it seems, to me, to be a facade argument along the lines of “we don’t want boat people coming here because they jump the queue/leaky boats put their lives in danger.” I suspect that the grim reality is that most Australians are happy to give lip service to flood victims, but with squeal like stuck pigs if expected to make any kind of actual, tangible donation, no matter how negligible and unnoticeable it is – like, say, LESS THAN TWO FUCKING DOLLARS A WEEK. FUCK YOU AUSTRALIA, YOU NATION OF WHINY SELF-ENTITLED SHITHEADS.
As usual, there’s nothing quite like looking over The Big Picture’s “Year In Review” while listening to “Saturdays=Youth” by M83. Happy Boxing Day!
I love Wikileaks. I love everything about it, not just the delicious caches of secret information it releases; I love the fascinating international man of mystery who controls it, I love the way it regularly sends the U.S. government into an explosive panic, and I love the way it represents the digital age being used for freedom of speech and the press, exposing all of our governments’ shameful secrets. Some of the best revelations from the cable leaks:
When Afghanistan’s vice president visited the United Arab Emirates last year, local authorities working with the Drug Enforcement Administration discovered that he was carrying $52 million in cash. With wry understatement, a cable from the American Embassy in Kabul called the money “a significant amount” that the official, Ahmed Zia Massoud, “was ultimately allowed to keep without revealing the money’s origin or destination.”
Aside from the implications of that (i.e. that the government we have established in Afghanistan is hopelessly corrupt), how does one actually carry $52 million in cash? $2 million alone fills up a briefcase, doesn’t it?
Counselor of the Department of State Eliot Cohen and CSIS Director Jim Judd in Ottawa on July 2 discussed threats posed by violent Islamist groups in Canada, and recent developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (CSIS is Canada’s lead agency for national security intelligence.) Director Judd ascribed an “Alice in Wonderland” worldview to Canadians and their courts, whose judges have tied CSIS “in knots,” making it ever more difficult to detect and prevent terror attacks in Canada and abroad.
Urggh, God, how dare the courts try to maintain the rule of law?
In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.
This is a huge deal. The question of whether China’s desire to maintain a buffer state between itself and a country with a permanent US troop presence would translate into actual combat support in the event of a war has now been answered, with a resounding no. North Korea now has zero chance of winning a war against the South. That still makes a war undesirable for all concerned (except Northern citizens languishing under a barbaric regime), but now that Southerners are aware of this, it could make a huge difference in the level of public support if push ever comes to shove.
4. (C//NF) Grinda stated that he considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual “mafia states” and said that Ukraine is going to be one. For each of those countries, he alleged, one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC groups.
//Identifying The Scope of The Threat the Russian Mafia Poses//
5. (C) Grinda suggested that there are two reasons to worry about the Russian mafia. First, it exercises “tremendous control” over certain strategic sectors of the global economy, such as aluminum. He made a passing remark that the USG has a strategic problem in that the Russian mafia is suspected of having a sizable investment in XXXXXXXXXXXX 6. (S//NF) The second reason is the unanswered question regarding the extent to which Russian PM Putin is implicated in the Russian mafia and whether he controls the mafia’s actions. Grinda cited a “thesis” by Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence official who worked on OC issues before he died in late 2006 in London from poisoning under mysterious circumstances, that the Russian intelligence and security services – Grinda cited the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and military intelligence (GRU) – control OC in Russia. Grinda stated that he believes this thesis is accurate.
An intriguing alliance: American diplomats in Rome reported in 2009 on what their Italian contacts described as an extraordinarily close relationship between Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and business magnate, including “lavish gifts,” lucrative energy contracts and a “shadowy” Russian-speaking Italian go-between. They wrote that Mr. Berlusconi “appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin” in Europe.
You know how you watch those old movies set in medieval times, like, say, Robin Hood or Braveheart or whatever, where the upper class lives in insane luxury and malevolently rules over the populace with unrestrained power? That’s basically still how the modern world works.
Speaking of the monarchy:
9. (C) Addressing the Ambassador directly, Prince Andrew then turned to regional politics. He stated baldly that “the United Kingdom, Western Europe (and by extension you Americans too”) were now back in the thick of playing the Great Game. More animated than ever, he stated cockily: “And this time we aim to win!” Without contradicting him, the Ambassador gently reminded him that the United States does not see its presence in the region as a continuation of the Great Game.
This entire cable is worth reading, written as it is by a wearily cynical American diplomat. A privileged jackass runs his mouth while surrounded by people who are better educated and more hard-working than he is, but they smile and nod throughout because he’s part of the royal family. Ah, the delights of monarchy!
On a final note, while many of the leaks themselves are highly entertaining, none can live up to the reaction of the U.S. government, which has again accused Wikileaks of “[putting] people’s lives in danger.” You can see a list of the people who have died as a result of Wikileaks’ various disclosures here; meanwhile, you can see a list of the people who have died as a result of the U.S. government’s actions here.
1. The military’s decision to immediately “light ‘em up” when the men in question are anything but hostile. (Just because the ROE mean you can engage doesn’t mean you should engage).
2. The Apache gunman hoping that the mortally wounded man crawling along the road in agonising pain will reach for a weapon, so he can open fire again.
3. The military’s decision to open fire upon a van the pulls up and tries to medevac the wounded men.
4. The Apache crew’s hoo-rah fuck ‘em up exaltation of their own cowardly actions, even after discovering there were children in the van.
5. The U.S. military’s decision, upon realising they had fucked up royal, to forego launching a clear and open investigation in favour of covering it all up.
6. The harassment of Wikileaks by U.S. intelligence agencies in the lead-up to the release of the video, including the detention and interrogation of a teenage project volunteer.
7. The apathetic attitude towards this video displayed by most major media organisations, who would prefer to devote headlines to Tiger Woods’ return to golf.
So, as you can see, this video is abhorrent on almost every imaginable level. Props to the Marines on the ground who hustled the wounded kids to safety, however – a timely reminder that not every member of the American war apparatus is a dehumanised killing machine like our friends hovering safely in the Apache. Wikileaks editing was also quite biased; the facts speak for themselves, and the pre-video montage of the deceased journalists was unnecessary, as was sticking the word “eventually” into the sentence describing the Marines evacuating the wounded children; their tone of voice is quite urgent, and they run across the road while holding the kids in their arms, so it’s anything but “eventual.”
On the whole, though, this video neatly encapsulates everything wrong with the American political and military status quo. Removing soldiers from the consequences of their actions by having them peer through lens a thousand metres away as though it’s a video game? Check. Covering up your transgressions rather than coming clean about them and working to ensure they don’t happen again? Check. Waging an illegal and unjust war that leads you into murky ROE territory? Check. Assuming that terrorists attack the US simply because they hate freedom, and that there are a finite number of them that can be killed, and that incidents like this don’t serve to create even more terrorists? Check!
I’ve learned some valuable lessons reading the news in the last few days. If you are a Muslim and you use violence for ideological purposes, you are a TERRORIST. If you are a white Texan with an Anglo-Saxon name, and you use the exact same kind of violence for ideological purposes, you are not. This is good to know!
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (2006) 371 p.
Black Swan Green is a break from Mitchell’s usual style. Previously, he rivalled Michael Chabon as an author commendably unafraid to plunge into the waters of speculative fiction, despite what the long-beards on the Pulitzer and Booker boards might have to say about it. His previous novel, Cloud Atlas, was a dazzling trip through space and time, from the South Pacific in the 19th century to the dystopic, Gibsonesque streets of a 22nd century Korea, to the savage and brutal islands of Hawaii long after life has been snuffed out in the rest of the world. It’s partly because of this that Cloud Atlas is my favourite book. There are very few writers in the world who are able (and willing) to approach genre fiction with genuine literary skill, and I love them all.
Yet Black Swan Green is what some might call a “maturation.” Split into thirteen chapters set from January 1982 to 1983, it chronicles a year in the life of Jason Taylor, growing up in the titular village in Worcestershire. It is clearly, to some extent, a fictionalised autobiography. Jason is a shy and quiet boy, intelligent but not a genius, an aspiring poet. The novel follows his typical teenage trials – popularity at school, his parents’ rocky marriage, the inevitable encounters with girls – with barely a whisper of the more exotic and imaginative flair that rapidly made David Mitchell my favourite author. Black Swan Green holds no fabricants, no non-corpus, no nuclear wars, no omnipotent AIs, no expeditions to ruined observatories atop Mauna Kea. Instead we have Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands War, Woodbines, Beta and the jingoism of the Daily Mail.
This is not entirely a bad thing; Black Swan Green is still an excellent novel. David Mitchell is endlessly readable; he could write a novel about bricklaying and I’d buy it. His effortless use of prose to create beautiful, elegant sentences is a matter of public record, and of equal merit is the wide range of themes he weaves into his stories.
Not since Ender’s Game have I read something that so hideously reminded me of what those early years of high school are like: the savagery and the cruelty, the constant fear and anxiety, a few asshole kids capable of making you miserable on a whim (“Picked on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on,” Jason notes). Once you become an adult, when people automatically treat each other with civility and respect, it’s easy to forget what wretched pieces of shit most young teenagers are. “It’s all ranks, being a boy, like the army,” Jason says, and while his own popularity rises considerably over the course of the year, it all comes crashing down with a single act – one which any adult would characterise as selfless and brave.
Jason eventually learns to fight back, and stand up for himself, and repels his tormentors in a story arc I found to be entirely too convenient. You change fast when you’re thirteen – but not quite that fast.
Jason’s thoughts and feelings are livened up somewhat by the presence of three voices in his head, facets of his personality. Hangman is the personification of his stutter, a cruel monster that strangles his words, forcing him to live in constant fear that his secret will be discovered and he will be forever pegged “Stutterboy” by the other kids. Maggot represents everything he hates about himself, all his worst desires, particularly his desperate need to be accepted by his peers, no matter what the cost to his personal values and integrity. Unborn Twin is the most mysterious, sometimes a guiding angel and sometimes a luring demon, never fully explained.
There are a few echoes from Mitchell’s other novels – Neal Brose, one of Jason’s bullies, is the narrator of the Hong Kong segment in Ghostwritten, a shady financial lawyer who will one day experience his own epiphany and drop dead of a heart attack. The Neal Brose of Ghostwritten is not a good person, but not a bad one either – he is a human being, an adult, flawed and complex, containing multitudes. Mitchell’s choice of this character is not an accident; he is reminding us that everybody grows, that while Jason’s peers may be dickheads now, they won’t always be. As Jason points out, though, “How does that help me?”
The more interesting encounter is with Eva van Crommelynck, who was a teenager in Cloud Atlas, and the object of Robert Frobisher’s desire. She is an old woman now, tutoring Jason in poetry, and at one point they leaf through her old photo album together. Robert Frobisher, Cloud Atlas’ greatest character, is enshrined in black and white, and Eva spends a page or two recounting his fate and revealing the terrible guilt she felt over his suicide. Zedelghem, we learn, was destroyed during World War II. Now it’s just “little boxes for houses, a gasoline station, a supermarket.”
And, of course, we revisit Mitchell’s favourite themes. Aside from the obvious presence of predation in schoolyard bullying, we see bigotry and hatred and ignorance cropping up everywhere. Walking down a country lane, Jason is told to clear off by a farmer who then sets his dogs loose. Jason escapes, and is: “Okay, but poisoned. The dog man despised me for not being born here. He despised me for living down Kingfisher Meadows. That’s a hate you can’t argue with. No more than you can argue with mad Dobermanns.” The casual racism flung about by Jason’s older relatives, pompously waffling on in the assumption that their younger audience agrees with them, felt very familiar: “The fact of the matter is” (Uncle Brian doesn’t hear what he doesn’t want to) “the Japs are still fighting the war. They own Wall Street. London’s next. Walking from the Barbican to my office, you’d need… twenty pairs of hands to count all the Fu Manchu look-alikes you pass by.” And when the council proposes a permanent gypsy settlement next to Black Swan Green, the villagers assemble an “emergency” meeting to protest it. Jason is repulsed by their violent prejudice, but when he encounters some gypsies himself, he finds that they too hold similar prejudices against the townfolk, and uses the same metaphor twice to describe their narrow minds and blinkered eyes.
It is a cruel world we live in. And there’s nothing we can do about that. For the October edition of The Atlantic magazine, Andrew Sullivan wrote an open letter to George Bush, urging him to personally take responsibility for the countless acts of torture that occurred during his administration. (It is beautifully written and worth your time.) Sullivan was formerly an advocate of prosecution, arguing that Cheney and Bush and their ilk needed to be held fully accountable for their actions if the United States was to truly live up to its ideals. Now he argues that this would “tear the country apart” (a cop-out excuse used during every season finale of 24, but each to his own). Instead he urges Bush to take personal responsibility, to apologise, to demand an independent inquiry and to admit that he was wrong.
We all know that Bush will never do this – even this, this small and tiny thing, far easier than what he truly deserves, which is to be tried in the Hague as a war criminal. He will remain encapsulated in Texas, living amongst the 20% of the American population who still think he was a great President. He will deny even to himself that he ever did the wrong thing.
A reader wrote in to the Sullivan shortly afterwards:
What I saw was the final summation of a very fine attorney – an attorney for the defence of this nation and our deepest values. It was a summation made not to a jury and a courtroom, but to everyone in the nation, and to history; a summation made in the clear knowledge that no actual indictments will ever be brought against these men in the real world, no verdicts entered, no sentences handed down. It was left to the power of the pen and the pixel to render judgement – which you did, brilliantly… You indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced them all in one grand piece.
This is how I feel about David Mitchell, not as an author or an entertainer, but as an observer of the world around us. It is a world of unspeakable cruelty, of barbarity and violence, from the sickening taunts of bullies in Black Swan Green to the savage rape and murder perpetrated by Kona tribesman in Cloud Atlas, to the very real torture inflicted on detainees of questionable guilt in CIA black sites all over the world. It is a world full of hatred and prejudice, which Jason aptly describes as “poison.” As infuriating as the poison itself is, the most frustrating and heartbreaking part is its inexplicable nature – the lack of a why. This will never change. But as long as we have writers like David Mitchell (and Andrew Sullivan), gifted wordsmiths and good people, to at least acknowledge and decry the poison, we’ll be okay.
I just hope that in the future, Mitchell will return to combining this with the imaginative, exotic adventures I came to love in his previous novels.
What is it with Australians? Why are most of us such irredeemable fuckheads?
A bunch of refugees show up in a rickety boat, having crossed thousands of miles to escape the kind of terror and misery that we can’t even begin to imagine, and Australians react by writing angry letters to the The West Australian about how we should “send them back where they came from” and how “we decide who comes into this country.” The West feeds the fire by regularly splashing photos of boat people across the front page with headlines like “STRAIGHT TO OUR DOORSTEP.”
I hate the West. I really do. I read it because I don’t have much of a choice, it being the only daily in the state. The highlight of each paper is usually the letters to the editor, a seething nest of xenophobic snakes that lash out at anything remotely foreign and lament the road to ruin that we are surely rocketing down. And you know, the funny thing is, the day that the most recent SIEV exploded out near Ashmore, killing two and severely wounding dozens, the West ran two editorials by Andrew Probyn and Paul Murray. Both of them dispelled the notion that there is a “tide” of illegal immigrants threatening to “swamp” Australia, and pointed out some facts:
1. In 2008, 4750 people applied for (“applied for,” not “were granted”) asylum in Australia… compared to, say, 36,900 in Canada and 31, 200 in Italy.
2. Less than 1% of the global population of asylum seekers wind up on Australia’s shores.
3. The vast majority of asylum seekers (95% to 99%) in any given year arrive by plane, not by boat. The vast majority of illegal immigrants in Australia are not those who apply for refugee status, but rather those who arrive here legally on tourist or working visas and then simply remain when they expire.
Why does the West concurrently run reasonable, sensible articles on the one hand, and throw fear-mongering headlines around with the other? A rhetorical question. It sells papers, and all you need to give up in return is your journalistic integrity!
The fundamental truth is that asylum seekers are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a threat to Australia. They are poor, ragged, desparate human beings who throw themselves on our mercy. The fact that the previous government exploited them as a convenient political scapegoat, pandering to the worst kinds of ugly, racist elements in Australian society, is disgusting. The fact that the current government maintains the status quo for fear of being seen as “soft” is disgusting. The fact that most Australians still see refugees as a threat, a problem or an inconvenience, rather than as human beings who need our help, is disgusting.
We went camping on the weekend. Chris and I had an argument with the adults about the whole issue. I find it shocking that these people, mature adults whom I am very close to and whom I greatly respect, have such ignorant and bigoted views on the issue. My father complained that all the medevac flights and Navy rescues and surgical operations will cost a lot of (PRECIOUS TAXPAYER’S) money. What is the alternative? Letting them burn to death, or drown? How warped does your moral compass have to be to put a price tag on a human life? “They’re not from our country,” he said. How warped does your moral compass have to be for you to think that, simply because somebody was not born on the same patch of soil that you were, you have no obligation to PREVENT THEM FROM BURNING TO DEATH?
One of my aunts said “where do you draw the line?” I repeatedly tried to explain to her that there is no need to draw a line; that boat people are a non-issue; that the numbers are so miniscule as to be completely irrelevant. She stubbornly repeated the same line over and over.
Another of my aunts said she was genuinely concerned that Muslims could become a majority in Australia and somehow destroy our culture and not let us raise the flag, sing the anthem etc etc. Apart from being a mathematical impossibility, the fact that people view Muslims as some kind of all-devouring force of subjugation and destruction is so hysterical as to be completely laughable. “They come here and tell us how to live,” “if we tried that in their country we’d be shot,” “we’re not allowed to celebrate Christmas anymore” BLAH BLAH FUCKING BLAH. I’m so goddamn sick of hearing the same old, tired arguments with a foundation in nothing more than a filthy swamp of prejudice and xenophobia.
And this didn’t fucking happen by accident. Yes, the urge to fear and destroy anything different from us is deeply embedded in our genes, but it was fucking Howard who carefully, painstakingly nurtured that urge into violently nationalist sentiment over his eleven years in office. Now it’s part of the zeitgeist and it isn’t going away. We still have people perceiving a handful of Muslim refugees in leaky boats as some kind of MASSIVE OVERWHELMING THREAT to the Anglo-Saxon juggernaut that straddles this massive continent. Racism and intolerance has become a social norm.
I can’t wait till that generation dies.