Thursday, 14 November 2013

Bristol - To Bear an Unbearable Burden

Here's a challenge. How do you find the right tone to discuss a city of lively waterfronts, picturesque woods, stunning rock faces...and a foundation of half a million foreigners tortured to death and the heart of humanity split asunder?

In Bristol, the principal city of southwest England, the hopes of present and future generations were doomed by their ancestors to play out forevermore in the shadow of the hellish horrors those ancestors loosed on the world, in the form of the triangular Atlantic slave trade. The Bristol industrialists made a choice, to profit from the ruin of humanity; and made it so that their city would in the first instance be defined, then and now and forever, by a burden no-one should wish on the heritage of any society.

The result bears some comparison to Japan's Sapporo, a very different city with a nonetheless similar burden at the depths of its conscience. How do you do justice, to the agonized and humiliated ghosts of nightmares that should never have been made real, in a city which once grew by feeding on their cries – but without dragging down those who live there now, hundreds of years on, who had no hand in those atrocities?

How do you celebrate and support the good things that present generations strive to build, while not permitting the suffering of those broken, so that Bristol could rise, to fade from memory? How do we keep those memories alive, that they may stand down the ignorance, the pride, the xenophobic nationalistic supremacism which twists the prospects of Britain today, and which still swaggers, blustering that no lessons were ever there to be learnt?

It is a tightrope, a trial of balance: one that must test even a city as Bristol of hill slopes, cliffs and gorges.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Clouds on the Tyne

In England's far northeast there is a river. Its waters are calm, not pristine but not particularly befouled. The air is silent. From heart to mouth there is little traffic upon it: perhaps a little patrol boat nosing around, or a massive tanker asleep on its banks. Someone, at some moment, might be fishing in it. It is far removed from the crowded, noisy, money-spinning concentration of madness that is London and England's southeast, in the cold, the wet and the wind of what one Conservative MP recently disdained as the 'desolate north'.

Keep opinions like that out of the earshot of the thousands of ghosts on this river, or their still-living descendents, for the heritage of that region defines their identities, their fears and their hopes to this day. This river, as they know it, is the river that made them who they are: a river of life and of death, teeming with ships – trade vessels, tankers, battleships of the royal fleet, birthed in its never-sleeping docks and set forth upon the waves, or ploughing in from or out to the sea, a maritime network connecting this region inextricably to the world. A river that was once one of Europe's mightiest industrial heartlands, whose people broke their backs to contribute to their society, and endured, in turn, far more than their fair share of its injustices and pains. Its story is a paradox of pride and sorrow, its waters a reflection of some of England's bitterest struggles of sustainability, of development and of peace, throughout the past and to this day. It is – of course – the River Tyne.

The former Baltic flour mills, now a museum of contemporary art.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Struggle to Establish Sexual Diversity on the United Nations Agenda (Master's Thesis)

The primary result of my two years' research at the United Nations University in Tokyo, which I am making public here as promised. It is too long to post here in full, so if the abstract and contents attract your interest, you can view the complete text by clicking here.

I am not an academic, and write things like this with the sole purpose of making a contribution to a better world. So though I am aware my written English is a bit of a minefield at times, I deliberately do my best to reject academic jargon and politically-motivated euphemisms throughout this kind of work; write without any consideration for the effect on my own prospects; and will make no pretence at impartiality, for sometimes there is no such thing. So if you are not of an academic background but still take interest in the subject matter, then please do not feel daunted by the scale of this work, and feel free to ask me if you want anything explained more clearly.

The great diversity of human sexual and gender identities, senses, behaviours and feelings is a central part of the human experience. Hostility to this diversity, along with the prejudicial violence, discrimination and ostracization that hostility produces worldwide, constitutes today one of the gravest challenges to the United Nations's founding pursuit of the rights and dignity of the human person. Nonetheless, this issue has been marginalized and misunderstood in international politics until recent decades, becoming recognized and addressed only during the 1990s and 2000s, primarily on the human rights agenda: and then only through a painstaking struggle that still endures against hostile forces who seek its exclusion. This study thus inquires into the current state of sexual diversity as a human rights concern in international policy discourse and practice, particularly in the United Nations agenda. It examines the recent history of sexual diversity as a complex political and human rights issue; the movement whose efforts have advanced it; and the hostile counter-movement's drivers, methods and contexts. Ultimately, in pursuit of an international system free of heteronormative biases and the recognition of the full relevance of sexual diversity across all its major policy fields, the thesis explores and asserts the significance of sexual diversity for the vision and practice of the United Nations – and above all for the integrity and prospects of universal human rights.

Chapter 1 – The UN Agenda: Overcoming Exclusion
a) Human Rights
b) Development
c) Peace and Security
d) Convergence
i) Gender
ii) Sustainability
iii) Health
iv) Towards Sexual Diversity Rights

Chapter 2 – Sexual Diversity: The History and Movement
a) Sexual Diversity as Politics
b) Sexual Diversity as a Human Right
c) The Sexual Diversity Rights Movement: Academics
d) The Sexual Diversity Rights Movement: NGOs and Social Activists
e) A Case Study: Gaya Nusantara, and the Sexual Diversity Rights Movement in Indonesia

Chapter 3 – Hostility to Sexual Diversity: The Counter-Movement
a) Counter-Discourse and Counter-Practice
b) Analysing Hostility
i) Cultural Relativism
ii) Construction of History
iii) Moral and Medical Pathologization

Chapter 4 – Sexual Diversity Rights: The Challenge
a) Conclusion: Universal and Diverse – Not One or the Other, but Both
b) Recommendations
i) The UN
ii) Activists
iii) Moral Authorities
iv) Academics
c) An Exhortation

Again, you can access the full text here. In addition, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), one of the foremost international sexual diversity rights organizations bringing together over 750 groups around the world, has also made the text available on their website here (angry photo included!).

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Repressive Culture of the Necktie

A curious observation.

There is one particular freedom, like most freedoms as old as humanity itself, which keeps a suspiciously low profile in everyday concern. Like freedoms of speech and expression, of belief, association, or the fulfilment of social and economic needs, this one has been commonly ripped from us by tyrannical governments, institutonalized prejudices, social pressure, or ideologies that try to convince us it's for our own good. But unlike those other freedoms, we find ourselves far less inclined to mobilize to try and get this one back.

Why is it that in almost every land, we have allowed the complete suppression of the freedom to wear what we choose?

One piece of sundry clothing has become today's ultimate embodiment of this suppression: the necktie. From its obscure origins in early-modern European militarism and fashion, ties have since become globalized across the societies of every continent as a standard, exclusive, pan-professional marker of serious respectability.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Fiend with Seven Faces

Let's have a story today.

Maybe this story is true. Maybe it is not. Likely it is as most stories, and lies somewhere in between.

Consider a time between humanity's origin and today. A moment, or period, when our kind was displaced from its prior trajectory; turned away from the set of potential future storylines it had at the time. The coming of a Corruption: an external agency, which interrupted the natural development of this unsuspecting race – "natural" as in, determined completely within the cosmic system it existed in – and left it proceeding in a very different direction.

Perhaps it was fifty thousand years ago; perhaps just ten thousand; or perhaps a million and a half. Somewhere in those ill-defined reaches of history, long before we set about trying to record it, an abomination came from outside the system. It shambled upon the Earth.

And we don't know what it looked like, so here's a random shambly-looking-type thing instead.

It did not consume us for sustenance, or aggress us in self-defence. Indeed, its nature and will were beyond our understanding, for the thing was not of a logical universe.

Instead, it inhaled our senses of ourselves; our relationships; our very being. It had us look upon those we once loved, and decide they meant nothing at all. It consumed our courage to be free, such that when threatened with force, we fell to our knees. It cast a haze over our horizons, such that we could not imagine the future, could not even know of tomorrow; only of today. It dripped its venom upon our identities, such that these were lost: we became without meaning; faceless. Truly the thing was a horror whose name no words can speak.

But in spite of it all, we were better than it. We knew we were better than it. So we fought it. And against all odds, we won.

And yet, as sizzling blood oozed forth from the wounds in its unspeakable mass, its seven broken heads each found it in themselves to let loose a final, terrible breath. Gales which infused the air and harrowed the soul – and so did humankind inhale them. And to this day, in our world, in ourselves, we sustain the essence of that which is not of our reality.

Still the breath of the seven heads churns in our lungs today.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

"Green and Pleasant Land"?

The best that can be said is that it's still got green things in it.

After two years of Japan, these pictures follow my temporary “return” to the United Kingdom.  Maybe soon the Not-So-United Kingdom if the Scots go independent next year. Something to think about: who gets the UK's current seat on the UN Security Council if that happens?

The UK was never the place I wished to be, nor is it any more so now. But getting outside London to quieter areas where people are friendlier, and society not quite so obliterated by the Conservative Party's assault on all that is good in basic humanity, can offer much-needed fresh air both literal and figurative. These are the Malvern Hills, a ridge in the West Midlands near the border with Wales.

Unlike Japan, England lacks proper mountains and has little left in the way of wilderness (another thing that sets it apart from Scotland and Wales). The human presence has thoroughly terraformed virtually every part of the country it has touched. As such, however picturesque the countryside, there is no getting away from the UK's persistently ominous human context.

Last week, acting on government orders, the police arrested the partner of a Guardian journalist at Heathrow Airport. They interrogated him for nine hours, threatening him with prison, and seizing his mobile phone, laptop, memory sticks, and even his game console: because they feared he was carrying material related to the whistleblower Edward Snowden, and the exposure of the systematic spying of British and American authorities on their own citizens and who knows what else.

So of course the police invoked anti-terrorism legislation to do this, while politicians have been bringing out their usual fearmongering rhetoric about aiding terrorists and the like. As if this were not enough, the Prime Minister then saw fit to have The Guardian newspaper threatened into physically destroying its computers containing Snowden-related materials, even sending government thugs to go in and oversee that destruction.

There has of course been a public outcry, and a corresponding counter-outcry. But this affair stands out not for being exceptional, but, on the contrary, being typical in the Britain of today. The sequence seems to go:

a) Someone does something utterly reprehensible. It may be political repression like the above, from harassing journalists to covering up crimes against humanity in the name of “national security”; or it may be a socio-economic atrocity wrought under the Conservatives' austerity programme; or it might be something xenophobic, like the billboard vans threatening immigrants, or the UK Border Agency randomly interrogating black or brown people in train stations. Britain is fertile ground for generating creative forms of cruelty these days.
b) A lot of people protest and make angry noises.
c) The bad guys defend the indefensible. It's always the same arguments – security, counter-terrorism, the economy, immigration, and so on – the same buzzwords and boogeymen brought in to justify the same derelictions of humanity, be it persecuting whistleblowers, widening the gap between the privileged elite and the most vulnerable's abject misery, or intimidating foreigners out of plain racism.
d) No-one is properly held to account, and things get worse.

The thing is, it isn't just monsters in the government, or the banks, or the police, or the Murdoch press that are responsible for this. The problem is not just a political but social. Too many people have embraced these repressive or prejudicial currents, and given them prominence; too many see fit to make themselves comfortable with the infliction of shocking cruelties on other human beings, and to justify that as acceptable, even as necessary, for a functioning country.

The British know all this, of course, whether they deplore this state of affairs (which I hope most do) or live in denial. I wonder how familiar this is to those outside the UK though? It seems staggering to me that so many people want to go and live there; still more staggering that it can still be defined in global consciousnesses more by romanic imaegs of the royal family and red buses and union jacks than by the relentless decay of the actual circumstances for people in it.
Beneath those postcard pictures, this is a country whose defining dynamic is – and perhaps always has been – conflict. It is diverse, like perhaps all countries, but beneath its courteous veneers there rages as vicious a struggle as any between competing visions of what kind of country it should be. Britain has no singular cultural base, no dominant heritage to answer that question: there is no such thing as British ethnicity, Britain's national identity itself the emergent of hundreds of years of immigration since time immemorial.

At the south end of the Malvern hills, there stands this hill fort. Appropriately for this discussion, it's known as “British Camp”. It is thought to date back about 2200 years, to the UK's Iron Age, and the archaeology hints at hundreds of years of struggle on this site since then to define where different Britishnesses began or ended. The Romans (from Italy); the Normans (from France); the Anglo-Saxons (from Germany); the Vikings (from Scandinavia); the Welsh; even bickering dynasties of local nobles, their names adorned with fancy titles and numerical suffixes, are thought to have contested these beacons. The Victorians liked the water that came from these mountains, and developed an infrastructure to draw on it – and theirs were harrowing visions for Britain if anyone's were. And when you walk on this ridge nowadays, chances are that you'll encounter, as I did, people of origins even further afield, talking perhaps in Polish or Chinese or Punjabi, or with accents from the Caribbean or the United States; all part of a Britain which still fights with itself over what “British” means, what “human” means, and what the relationship is between them.

So let's be clear: Britain's heritage is not something to celebrate or be proud of. It is certainly not the case that respect for liberty, diversity and human righs are the defining characteristics of its national DNA. Rather they represent at most just one strand of what is still a double helix, with the other coded from horror and atrocity that must equally be faced up to. Political repression; power-tripping authoritarianism; an addiction to punishment and fear and demands for obedience; and the most harrowing crimes against humanity based on supremacisms and prejudices across the whole bloody spectrum. Racisms, sexisms, heteronormativisms, ageisms, fear and hatred of all who could possibly in any way at all be construed as “different”, as “other”: Britain's problem may be not just that these are its problems, but that these became part of what it is.

Is that why the political, social and economic abuses of today are so accepted here? When David Cameron orders a newspaper's computers destroyed, or Home Office thugs round on random Muslims in broad daylight, or success and failure is judged by abstract economic indicators instead of actual human experiences and sufferings; is it because that kind of human callousness is so established in the long British story that no critical mass can be reached to strike them down? Do they weave on ancient threads, the likes of colonialism, massacres abroad, religious persecutions, witch-burning hysterias, and the never-ending examples of that most unpardonable and foolish of mistakes: the belief that more force, more fear, is the answer to any problem?

I cannot purport to suggest solutions to Britain's problems. It is not a country I identify with; after the things I experienced on account of it, with the frameworks of alienation and paradigms of persecution of the “different” still in place here, it is sadly not a society I can feel at peace with, let alone yet consider reconciliation.

What I feel, though, is that to even begin to pass as a decent country, let alone the 'green and pleasant land' of its dreams, it will have to find it in itself to change at a fundamental level. To find the humility to come to terms with the worse parts of its heritage, and categorically deny them a place in its future. To get past its hypnosis on abstract nothings and self-justifying dogmas – the faith of economics, “interest”-driven politics and foreign policy, “democracy”, “development” and so on – and come to measure its worth in terms of how its real decisions affect real human beings, and take responsibility. To recognize that Britain's heroes, who fought against tyranny and slavery and patriarchy and so on, fought not against fearsome demons on the deepest floors of dungeons far across the sea, but against Britain itself: against a country which held so many bloodlusts and bigotries to be natural, normal and just.

Britain has nothing to fear from immigrants, or dissidents, or deserters, or whistleblowers, or the deficit. First it should fear itself: that half of its own soul that hungers for blood at the very mention of such things. The true enemy of British human beings is British inhumanity.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Hakone - The Volcano With Thousands of People In It

Approximately 200,000 years ago, in what is now the southwestern corner of Kanagawa Prefecture, there was an explosion of catastrophic proportions. Some time later, about 50,000 years ago, there was another one. The result: a great volcanic complex of lava domes and calderas, all contained within an elegant ~15km-wide mountain rim just southeast of Mount Fuji.

Mount Hakone (箱根), as it came to be known, produced its most recent outburst around 1,000 BCE, which blew up the northwest flank of the central lava dome and created, eventually, the picturesque Lake Ashi (Ashinoko, 芦ノ湖). Though it has not exploded since, it remains a tectonically active area with frequent seismic swarms, fluorescent yellow deposits, and fumaroles which still belch out great columns of sulphurous gas; and the risks from earthquakes, landslides and toxic fumes have led to the zone's active management by the Kanagawa authorities.

Lake Ashi, with Mount Hakone's western rim behind it, as seen from the central lava dome.

Notwithstanding this volatility, the Hakone highlands' location made them the effective gateway to the Kanto plain and, from the 1600s onward, to Japan's burgeoning new capital of Edo (Tokyo). This raised Hakone's human significance, such that by the transformations of the Meiji era, its stunning natural beauty, prolific onsen (hot springs) and the looming profile of Mount Fuji were already popular with visitors seeking a quality getaway, foreign dignitaries included.

Since then, Hakone has developed into one of the greater Tokyo area's most popular tourist destinations, supported with dozens of ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), hotels, museums, shops, cultural heritage sites and examples of local folklore, and connected by a reliable transport network of trains, ropeways, cable cars, buses, and boat cruises across the length of Lake Ashi. The Hakone Free Pass, for about 5000 yen, gives you either two or three days worth of unlimited use of these transport options, as well as covering passage between Hakone and any stop on the Odakyu Odawara Line.

And yet, the human intrusion manages not to terminally disrupt Hakone's natural integrity. Most buildings and tourist facilities are concentrated into clusters – the entry point at Hakone-Yumoto, the lakeside town of Hakone-machi, or the crossroads and transport connections of Gora and Sengoku – or are otherwise dispersed along the mountain complex's long arteries, which snake through densely forested slopes, sheltering valleys and tranquil streams down deep ravines. Hakone offers much to those exhausted by the Kanto region's mass of humanity: hiking routes provide an escape into the clouds, and strolling through the sleepy hamlets may be a welcome contrast to the crammed containers of tourists chugging between them.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

A Broken Sexual Paradigm

NOTE: This text is suitable for any person to read. In a way, that is the whole point. If you believe from the subject matter that this is not a topic for open and frank discussion, then that is part of the problem. Read on for why.

So now, three years deep into his regime's methodical dismantlement of British humanity, Prime Minister David Cameron would seek to crush pornography.

This is exceedingly dangerous. Censoring and monitoring a whole nation's internet usage and putting your name on lists if they do not like yours: even those most adamantly opposed to pornography should know that permitting this government an iota of that power, for any purpose, would be the blindest folly.

But the real problem runs deeper: to a set of mistakes of civilizational magnitude. While the focus here is on British society, these could just as easily be applied, with varying mutations, to societies all over the world in what has become one of the most calamitous, yet least confronted, global problems of our time.

1) We lack an informed understanding of sex. Sex and sexuality issues are far more complex than we tend to assume, and certainly more complex than is reflected in the current British national conversation about them. Where ignorance leads, paranoia and hysteria follow. A more informed and rigorous social mindset is needed if we wish to get anywhere with sex-related problems.

2) Sex is not inherently harmful. There is a distinction between sexuality as a whole, and harmful sexual outcomes (violence, the subjection of women, child abuse, and so on): and yet, through ignorance and fear, we tend to carelessly conflate them. Too often we assess sexual behaviour and material not through its outcomes, but through an ethical compass long mangled beyond recognition.

3) We are not clear on what pornography actually is. Pornography is not the problem, though certain things within its content or context can be. But to identify those, we need to be MUCH clearer on what we are talking about: because pornography can mean any of a thousand different things, or nothing at all. In the dire wreckage of the “war on terror”, we can no longer excuse ourselves for the consequences of crusading against things poorly defined.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Climbing Mount Fuji

Fujisan (富士山), Japan's highest mountain, needs no introduction. The outstanding symbol of Japan on a billion postcards, woodcut prints, calendars and fridge magnets worldwide, this sacred, symmetrical snow-capped cone has held a special place in the Japanese cultural consciousness since time immemorial.

As of June 2013, that cultural significance has been internationally recognized in the form of UNESCO World Heritage status, noting Mt. Fuji's defining role in Japanese art, religion, tourism and popular imagination. And if you live around Tokyo, commute on its trains or expressways or hike in its mountains, then chances are that every now and then, when the horizon is clear of clouds or smog, there Mt. Fuji will be: a timeless landmark, a stalwart constant, standing firm in an ocean of endless upheaval and change.

A few friends and I decided to climb it. At night. This post is as much to provide information and useful advice for those hoping to do similar as it is a commentary on our trek, because at 3,776 metres high, climbing Mt. Fuji is a serious undertaking.

Mt. Fuji climbing season is open for only two months per year – July and August – when the mountain huts and services are running, regular bus routes serve the trailheads, and hundreds of thousands of people from Japan and abroad pour in to attempt the climb. Even then, when Tokyo scorches in thirty-degree summer heat, Fuji's upper reaches and summit may fall below freezing amidst battering winds and shrouds of cloud. In winter these winds become extreme, temperatures plunge to minus thirty, and severe snow and ice bring a perpetual risk of avalanches, making an ascent not far from maniacal.

Ascending at night adds darkness and fatigue to this mix, but will reward you with one of the most magnificent experiences, natural and cultural, in the entire sum of what Japan has to offer: the rise of the morning sun, as witnessed high above the clouds and peaks of the mortal world.

Make no mistake: you'll bring your mortality with you and be reminded of it as it clatters against you on every step of the way – especially as you straggle back down the next day on thirty hours without sleep. Click below to see the full account.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

5) Epilogue: Pampanga

After a great subterranean adventure and a hike back over the mountain from dawn, it was time to depart Ifugao for now and return to the lowlands. A day-long bus ride saw us back to Manila, but not before stopping by one final port of call: Pampanga.

Just to the north of Manila, Pampanga is a core province of the Philippines: urbanized, populated, fertile, flat, and rich in materials and culture, the first province to be designated by the Spanish colonizers in 1571, and well-reputed as the capital of Philippine cuisine.

My connection to this region was a distant one. Many years ago, when I lived in Hong Kong, my family hired a Filipina domestic helper. She lived with us for many years, going so far as to move back to the UK with us, and became an integral member of our household. After all those years of urging on her part that I visit the Philippines, I was delighted to at last fulfil that advice: and so do I write today with considerable thanks to her daughter Irish, Irish's husband RR, and their three adorable children, for the kindness of hosting us and showing us around on our last few days in that country. So too do I extend my greetings to everyone living nearby, all of whom descended on their house within minutes of our arrival to give us the warmest welcome possible to their neighbourhood.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

4) Pangagawan Cave, Kiangan: The Heaven Below

Ifugao harbours many ancient secrets. Another legend, whose details escape me, tells of a group of Ifugaos who were travelling through the mountains and forests of Pangagawan, in the south of Kiangan, perhaps hunting or gathering plants. Apparently, they happened upon a deep cave, and upon exploration, discovered a passage to the Skyworld within.

That cave is now becoming established as a special tourism asset, and if you're the adventurous sort, then this is not something you will want to miss. You too can delve to a whole other world a hundred metres beneath the surface: a realm made of darkness and limestone, shaped and contorted over thousands of years into vast and surreal formations; and so too of subterranean rivers and waterfalls, which weave through the darkness and churn from depths of stone.

Appropriately, an expedition to those depths is serious business, and the journey to get there alone will test your worthiness to enter. You would certainly be wise to stay the night at the lodge in the forest over there, due to the distances, energy requirements and rain patterns involved; and the cave passages twist and project in all imaginable shapes, which will certainly bend, bruise and cut you as you contort yourself to negotiate them. Fortunately, the local guides will provide you all the oversight, equipment and support you need to explore them safely; and you will emerge, at last, with experiences you will not forget any time soon.

Oh, and remember to bring toilet paper.