Anwar, Bainimarama and Assad via Jonathan Richman

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Pablo Picasso‘ by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, ‘I’m Straight‘ by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, ‘You Can’t Talk to the Dude‘ by Jonathan Richman and ‘Let Her Go into the Darkness‘ by Jonathan Richman

Jonathan Richman’s opus is a varied one, but his songs are instantly recognisable. They all feature most if not all of the following characteristics: his distinctively nasal and Boston-inflected vocals, sparse and simple melodies, beatnik language and laid back instrumentation.

His songs also contain myriad insightful social commentaries. One of his most loved (and covered) songs – from the period when the Modern Lovers was his band – is ‘Pablo Picasso’.

Some people try to pick up girls, and get called asshole

this never happened to Pablo Picasso…

…Well he was only five foot three but girls could not resist his stare

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, not in New York.


It’s a take on exceptionalism. People make allowances for talent, for greatness. A great painter could act like a sleaze with impunity because he was a great painter, while the rest of us plebs are forced to act civilised. I bet a lot of dictators employ that sort of logic too.

Except of course the women Picasso screwed over undoubtedly did call him an asshole, so Richman’s critique is really aimed at New York arts snobs lionising the artist instead of just the art. So ‘Pablo Picasso’ lambasts exceptionalist justifications for cruelty and the indifference of people to cruelty which does not directly affect them, especially when it has positive by-products. Well, that’s one, politically applicable interpretation anyway. And then there’s the guitar solo.

Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of sodomy charges this week.  Whether Anwar is ‘good’ or not is open for debate (more on these labels in future posts), but few would deny that his acquittal – representing as it does either a healthier than previous distance between the courts and government, or a recognition on the government’s part that removing political opponents by throwing them in prison is not on (or both) – is good for Malaysia.

Anwar is now deemed “straight” and is free to pursue his goal to “take his place” a la the 1976 Jonathan Richman and Modern Lovers doozy ‘I’m Straight’.  ‘Straight’ in Anwar’s case should be taken to mean ‘straight with the law’, not straight in the sense meant in the song, or implied by the initial charge.  The Hippy Johnny of this saga is Prime Minister Abdul Najib Razak.  Najib is leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, of which Anwar was a member when he was Deputy Prime Minister from 1993 to 1998.  UMNO is the foremost force in Malaysian politics, and has been so since the country gained independence in 1957.  Anwar hopes to challenge its supremacy by highlighting corruption and appealing to non-Malay constituencies.  Elections are due in 2013.

Frank “I’m your Venus, I’m your fire”  Bainimarama could be forgiven for expecting a designation better than bad this week, with the news that he lifted Fiji’s emergency regulations, in place since 2009.  Sharp on the heels of this positive move however, Bainimarama introduced a bill allowing people to be detained for two weeks for a range of offences, again tightening the screws on the Fijian people.

Commodore Bainimarama took control of Fiji in a coup in December 2006, six months after successful elections and the formation of a representative government.  In the intervening five years he has introduced strict media limits, repeatedly postponed promised elections and alienated his neighbours (he expelled Australia’s ambassador in 2009) and the international community more broadly (Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth).  Seriously, as Jonathan would say, ‘You Can’t Talk to the Dude‘ (from 1992’s I, Jonathan).

Meanwhile in Syria, things are getting ugly.  President Bashar al Assad delivered a hard-arsed, televised speech this week, his first in months.

Many saw the arrival of Arab League monitors in the country in late December as cause for real hope.  In fact, violence has only increased since then.  One writer has said that this failure has left the Syrian people, fully aware they will receive no R2P-type foreign assistance as Libya did, feeling utterly alone.  The Arab League may be monitoring, and the rest of us observing, but while we watch we ‘Let Her Go into the Darkness’.

The boyfriend leading Syria into the darkness would be considered by many to be Iran.  A majority Sunni country, Syria, via the Alawite ruling class, is a close ally of its majority Shia neighbour.  Should the Assad regime be toppled, it would be expected that Syria would flip its allegiance to the dominant Sunni country in the region, Saudi Arabia.

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