The Shining Path, Turkmenistan and Tuareg Rebels via Townes Van Zandt

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Pancho & Lefty’, ‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning’ and ‘Brand New Companion’ by Townes Van Zandt.
 

I’m going country for this week’s good, bad, ugly post to make up for bagging the genre (or a subsection of it) a bit in my last post.

Townes Van Zandt was a master singer-songwriter, active from the mid sixties until his death in 1997 at the age of 52.  He was not an innovator, but rather a master craftsman who took country and folk music to brilliant heights (aesthetically) and depths (in terms of heart achingly depressing content).

During the 1980s, radical Communist group Shining Path was a force to be reckoned with.  Its war with the Peruvian state resulted in around 70,000 deaths.  Inspired by Maoism, the Shining Path hoped to instigate a cultural revolution in Peru, eventually leading to a perfect Communist state.  At the height of its powers it controlled many parts of rural Peru.

Things calmed down after leader – and former philosophy lecturer – Abimael Guzman was captured in 1992.  In the mid 1990s many cadres surrendered, and although it continued to launch sporadic attacks in the 2000s, Shining Path is no longer the existential threat to the Peruvian state it once was.  Remaining Shining Path members are said to have more or less quit ideology for the more lucrative coca trade.

Made famous by Willie Nelson, ‘Pancho & Lefty‘ is a beautiful lament for two washed-up rebel bandits.  Pancho’s dead, and Lefty (who happens to have the right political persuasion) is scraping by in a cheap hotel in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Federales say they could “have him any day.”

There was a further nail in the Shining Path coffin this week with news of the arrest of Jose Eleuterio Flores Hala (alias Comrade Artemio) on Sunday.  Artemio reportedly said last year that the Shining Path had been defeated and wanted to negotiate laying down arms in exchange for prisoner releases.

Incumbent Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was re-elected to Turkmenistan’s Presidency on Sunday with an unbelievable (literally) 97 per cent of the vote.  Voter turnout was reported to be just below 99 per cent in the gas-rich former Soviet state.  Berdymukhamedov has steadily been building his own personality cult in the five years he has been in power (in the vein of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov).

Van Zandt’s ‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning‘ is a promise (in time broken) from the troubadour to his lover that he’ll choose her over the road.  The chorus in isolation could be given a more sinister interpretation.  Picture a dictator, crooning a lullaby:

Close your eyes, I’ll be here in the morning

Close your eyes, I’ll be here for awhile

Berdymukhamedov’s seven opponents frequently praised him during their campaigns, suggesting their hearts may not have been totally in it.  Turkmenistan is a one party state, so all eight candidates were from the brilliantly named Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.

The point of carrying out such a manifestly bogus display of democracy is not clear.  It has been suggested it may be to give western countries something to point to to justify their doing business with the country.  Central Asia expert Joshua Foust points out that by furnishing journalists with easy copy in the form of outlandish landslide victories and wacky personality cults, Turkmenistan manages to distract the world from the very serious, and very dry abuses, it inflicts on its people.

 

One of the ways Muammar Qaddafi secured his position for so long was to lend moral and material support to a number of African insurgent movements.  Indebted rebel armies would then lend reciprocal mercenary support to their northern patron (to drastically simplify these complicated relationships).  Now that Qaddafi’s gone, those fighters are streaming back to their origins, along with his weapons.

Nowhere has this been more visible than in Mali.  Over the last few weeks Mali’s arid north has seen the return of hundreds of Tuareg rebels.  The Tuareg rebels’ stated goal is secessionist.  They seek to create a new state called Azawad.  The rebels, armed like they never have been before with heavy weapons such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft arms, have caught the Malian army off guard.

The lyrics of ‘Brand New Companion‘ jar, sort of, with its style, which is blues.  The narrator has found a new woman, so why the blues?  It seems any joy is tempered by regret and/or pessimism: he swears he’ll “do right this time”.

His way of describing his new companion is also unusual.  Focusing as it does on unromantic physical detail, it leads the audience to question the sentience of the object of his affection.  He could be talking about a car, a fishing rod.  He could be talking about a gun.

She fits just like my guitar

Man she’s near as tall as me

She got arms just like two rattle snakes

Legs just like a willow in a breeze

I’m gonna track her with my body

And I wanna trace her with my mind

Back in Mali, so far there have been dozens of casualties on both sides and at least 55,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, many crossing into neighbours Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania.  Violent demonstrations, protesting the inefficacy of the government’s response, have broken out in the country’s south.

To compound matters, northern Mali is part of the greater Sahel region (between the Sahara and Sudanian Savannas) which is facing the immediate prospect of a severe food shortage due mainly to drought.

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Embattled Leaders via The Drones

 
Soundtrack for this post:

Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots !!!! ‘Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!!!’ by The Drones.

Disclaimer: The Drones are my all time favourite band and I don’t know that I can write about them without gushing pathetically.  To try and focus myself, I’m going to concentrate on just one song for this post (their songs are long and dense, so one is enough for the purposes for post accompaniment anyway).  Given this admirable restraint, I reserve the right to post about them again.

My good, bad and ugly of world politics this weeks concerns leaders in trouble: two are recently unemployed and one is facing the fact of his political mortality for the first time (even if the inevitable death is still a while away).  ‘Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!!!‘ has the desperate melancholy of a powerful man losing his grip.  The worldiness and world-weariness of the lyric brings to mind Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer’s character in Blade Runner) and the anguish of memories’ extinction he represents.  Some illustrative lyrics below, and also see THE GOOD.

I have seen mountains stop short of the sky

I’ve seen continents reach the oceans and shy

I have had beauties and charred fire breathers

I have drunk whiskey and your methylated spirits

I have seen harder men shrivel and flake

A common theme in Drones’ songs is how hard it is to make rent.  In this song financial indiscretions are more dire and dramatic: “I have spent thousands, most of it loaned”.  In these economically depressed times this brings to mind structural rather than individual difficulties: ie. the sub-prime crisis and, by extension, Europe’s current economic travails.  See THE BAD below.

I particularly like the line “We were shat from a wormhole, to revere your face” and the refrain, “you were not easy to break”.  Without wanting to over-analyse, to me, the subject in this song is unstable.  Sometimes the subject and object seem to coincide, sometimes they don’t.  The idea fits well with the final line of the chorus “admit you were only two inches away from zero control, again”.  See THE UGLY below.

The title of the song is, as anything that seems so directly aimed at its audience, provocative.  Who is he calling idiot???  And what chorus is he even talking about?  Is he being ironic and referencing that anemic wailing?  (Incidentally, the counterpoint that wailing makes with the hard-man bravado of the verses is another instance of the instability of the song’s subject).  Or is this straight-forward self-deprecation; a reference to the easy emotiveness of exaggerated dynamics The Drones use a lot, particularly on this album?

Taking a political slant, the song’s title could be read as a reference to the group-think that props up music idols and fascists alike.  At a Soundgarden concert I attended in Melbourne in 1997 Chris Cornell yelled something like “you’re all fucking idiots”, provoking cheers of adulation.  While I was bemused, Cornell was amused: he clearly knew he would get such a reaction.  He’s now mellowed, but The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard has been known to utter similarly misanthropic asides on stage.  I could imagine our mindless devotion could be scary when seen from the other side.  Or mildly embarrassing, anyway.

For the first time ever Vladimir Putin is looking slightly less than inviolable.  He is a long way from staring down any kind of barrel, but for a man who officially received 72 per cent of the vote last time he ran for president in 2004, developments since mass street protests were first seen after last December’s parliamentary elections are surely cause for reflection.

There’s always been opposition in Putin’s Russia (bets are any Russian journalist who died in mysterious circumstances over the last decade was a voice for such forces).  This sort of mass mobilisation is however new.  The most recent protest was reportedly attended by around 100,000 frozen Muscovites.

Despite these refreshing digs at Putin’s entitlement to rule Russia indefinitely, his victory in the March 4 presidential election is all but assured due to a lack of a credible opposition figure.  At best, he may be forced to contest a run-off election (required should he receive less than 50 per cent of the vote).  A very optimistic view is that all bets would be off should a run off indeed be necessary.  In that scenario, given a plausible shot at the top job, presumed second placed candidate, billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov – regardless of whether or not he is a Kremlin puppet (no one is entirely sure) – would take off the gloves,  throw caution to the wind and have a real tilt.

Emil Boc resigned as Prime Minister of Romania this week.  He is being depicted as the latest casulty of Europe’s economic woes.  Romania is a member of the European Union, but not the Eurozone (it does not use the euro currency).

Boc increased taxes and cut government wages in line with requirements accompanying an IMF bailout package agreed in 2009 after the country fell into a deep recession.  These moves appear to have set Romania on a positive fiscal track but, as is pretty much always the case with austerity measures, they are deeply unpopular.  Along with now-shelved health sector reforms, they led to mass demonstrations in Bucharest and other cities calling for Boc’s resignation.

Analysts say Romanians are in a deep malaise about all politicians, not just Boc or the current government.  President Traian Basescu is at least as unpopular as Boc.  The role of President in Romania is substantive, sharing executive functions with the government.  The country’s chief spy Mihai Razvan Ungureanu took over the Prime Ministership yesterday.  Elections are due later this year.

Mohamed Nasheed stepped down from his post as President of the Maldives on Tuesday.  In a televised resignation address, Nasheed stated he was removing himself in response to sustained protests.  He said to remain in power he would have to use force; something he did not wish to do.  Nasheed has since said he did not go willingly but was actually forced at gunpoint to relinquish his democratically elected position.  He claims a military-backed coup is what actually occurred.  An army spokesman denies a coup took place.

The current crisis has its origins in Nasheed’s call for the country’s chief justice to be arrested for favouring previous ruler and opposition leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.  Gayoom is strongly allied with Islamist groups who oppose Nasheed’s liberalism.  No matter the reason though, the military detention of a judicial figure is never a good look and the justice was released pretty quickly.

Nasheed came to power in 2008 following the Maldive’s first democratic elections.  His ascension marked the end of Gayoom’s thirty-year reign.  Nasheed, then a pro-democracy activist, was repeatedly imprisoned during Gayoom’s rule.

Fellow former activist and Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan has stepped into the Presidential role and maintains Nasheed’s resignation was voluntary.  An arrest warrant for Nasheed was issued yesterday.  It is not clear what charge he faces – it has been speculated it may be alcohol consumption – and he is yet to be arrested.  One of the key groups involved in the protests that led to Nasheed’s ouster was the police.

Uzbekistan, Mexico and the Sudans via The Damned

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Democracy’, ‘I Just Can’t be Happy Today, ‘Neat Neat Neat‘ and ‘Smash It Up (Parts 1 & 2)‘ by The Damned.

Inspired by Indonesia, I’m sticking with punk for this week’s wrap up of the good, the bad and the ugly in world politics.

Pioneering goth-punk band The Damned are generally not considered all that political compared to their peers, particularly The Clash.  That’s not because there isn’t politics in there, The Damned just don’t wear their politics on their sleeves quite like Strummer & co did.  As I alluded to in the preceding post, punk’s political message is in its mode anyway.  Content can be complimentary, or not, but either way it’s secondary.  With punk, style is substance.

The Damned do in fact do political content quite often as well.  The most overt example is ‘Democracy?‘ off 2001’s Grave Disorder.  But this is an older, disillusioned punk’s political statement: “revolution changes nothing, and voting changes even less”.

In good news for Uzbekistan’s authoritarian leadership, the United States announced this week that it is waiving military assistance sanctions, in place since 2003.  The waiver is partial and temporary: only non-lethal equipment can be provided, and only until September 2013 (the deadline is extendable).

The ban was in place due to the dire human rights record of President Islam Karimov’s regime.  Karimov has been in power since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.  He is a straight-up dictator who violently quashes any potential sources of opposition and controls every aspect of Uzbek life, as in the Orwellian ‘I Just Can’t be Happy Today‘ (from 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette):

A lot of you know there’s nowhere to smile
There’s no feeling fine without being fined
It’s a price on your head
No point being sad when justice is red

The waiver however has nothing to do with the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, which if anything slightly worsened in 2011 in reaction to the Arab Spring.  According to Human Rights Watch’s 2012 World Report,  torture in the criminal justice system is “endemic”, opposition figures and journalists are routinely targeted by authorities, the state sanctions child labour and even religious worship is strictly controlled by the state (Karimov is an avowed secularist).

The waiver instead reflects the importance of Uzbekistan geographically for US and NATO supply lines into Afghanistan.  The Uzbek route is the only land alternative to the Pakistani route, closed since NATO helicopter attacks killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on their own soil last November.  The move is likely also motivated by this week’s announcement that the US plans to withdraw troops from combat roles in Afghanistan by mid 2013.

There’s plenty of violence and anarchy in The Damned’s songs.  The first song off their first album ‘Neat Neat Neat‘ is dripping in the stuff.  Kind of like bad ol’ Mexico.  Apart from the violence in the music itself, lead singer Dave Vanian sings of cannons, guns, a lack of crime “if there ain’t no law” and “no cops left to mess you around”.

Mexico’s violence speaks for itself: the border town of Juarez has one of the highest murder rates in the world, violence has now spread throughout the country, including to formerly immune areas, and it seems barely a week goes by without another headline about a grizzly mass murder.

Mexico is also arguably a study in anarchy.  Anarchy can be taken to mean a society without a government or, more broadly, without authority.  There is authority in Mexico, but it doesn’t come from the elected government.  Every human manifestation of the state has felt the wrath of the drug lords who really control Mexico since President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drugs in December 2006.  A particularly striking instance of Mexican anarchy, or the state’s inability to fulfill state-like functions, is the fact that the state is now attempting to protect (by hiding in hotels) those whose very vocation is themselves to protect: the police.

Things are tenser than ever between South Sudan and Sudan.  Of course no one ever expected that carving out a new country after a civil war that cost around 2 million lives would be without its complications.  Straight after South Sudan’s birth last July there were disputes over border demarcation, particularly the contested region of Abyei.  Ethnic clashes in border states of Jonglei, Blue Nile and South Kordofan have been worsening.

Now arguably the most flammable issue of all has reared its ugly head: oil.  The majority of former Sudan’s oil lies within South Sudan.  The new, land-locked country can’t export the oil on its own and existing pipelines go through Sudan.  To use these pipelines South Sudan pays its northern neighbour fees which in some way compensate that country for its lost oil revenues.

The two sides disagree about what is an appropriate amount for those fees.  As a result the north has allegedly been skimming oil to make up for what it considers to be unpaid dues.  The south calls that oil stolen and has retaliated by halting all pumping; a drastic measure by any standard, downright reckless for a country who relies on the black stuff for 98 percent of its income.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is worried the current stand-off could lead the Sudans back to war.  South Sudan says it won’t recommence pumping until its oil is returned and all other outstanding issues between the two countries are resolved.  ‘Smash It Up (Parts 1 & 2)‘ is the ultimate “fuck you all, let it all go to pieces” statement and so, I think, an appropriate adjunct to South Sudan’s approach to negotiation.  It’s also one of the best rock’n’roll songs ever written.

Islamists via A Tribe Called Quest

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)‘, Steve Biko (Stir it Up) and ‘8 Million Stories‘ by A Tribe Called Quest.

Islamists have made the news for very different reasons over the last week.  Broadly speaking, Islamism can be taken to mean the promotion of Islam as a political, not just religious, system.  Islam is seen as governing every aspect of human life: the personal is political.  Such groups generally promote the institutionalisation of shariah law.  Some also propound pan-Islamic ideals such as the resurrection of the caliphate.  There are many, many variants, from moderates to jihadis.  Unfortunately in the west there is a tendency to associate the term with the latter most of the time, obscuring the pluralism of Islamism and the reasonable perspectives of some who fall under its rubric.

I don’t know much about Islamist music (if there is any), or even Islamic music (my loss, no doubt).  So accompanying this post is one of my favourite groups with Muslim members (tenuous, I know): A Tribe Called Quest.  A Tribe Called Quest fall under the broad category of hip-hop.  They don’t however have a lot in common with the present-day artists that spring instantly to mind with that tag.  You could consider them hip-hop moderates.  Their songs don’t deal with gang violence, they aren’t known for displaying overt markers of affluence (read bling) and their videos don’t feature scantily clad gyraters.  Instead their beats are low-tempo, their rhymes smooth and laid back and their lyrics sensitive.  They even throw in shout outs to Muhammad (or maybe they’re to member DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad).

Results in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections came out this week.  It was good news for the grand daddies of the modern Islamist movement, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.  Their political party offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), won 213 of the 498 seats contested.  Another Islamist party – the Salafist Al-Nour party – came in second with 123 seats.

Victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in these elections was widely predicted (Al-Nour’s success came as something more of a surprise).  Before Mubarak’s downfall the Brotherhood was illegal and its candidates had to stand as independents.  In the June 2010 polls those independents did not win a single seat.  Official turnout for those elections was said to be 14 percent; analysts believe it was as low as 10 percent.  The current elections, held over seven weeks, had a turnout of around 60 percent.

The relationship between Islamism and democracy is a fascinating one, and it will be interesting to see whether democratic legitmisation ‘normalises’ the Brotherhood, or whether they ‘Islamise’ Egypt’s burgeoning democracy (or both).  The first session of the new parliament was held on Monday and it was an entertaining start.  While members of the public danced on the street outside to celebrate their first freely (although the degree of freedom is disputed) elected government in over six decades, things got increasingly unruly inside with lawmakers attempting to pledge allegiance to the revolution or to Islamic Law rather than to Egypt, a bitter dispute over the election of the speaker and a lot of yelling.

One final point of interest is that, unlike previous Islamists elected into power (think Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon), the United States is taking some very tentative steps toward engagement with the Brotherhood.

It was revealed last week that things did not go as planned for a shadowy group of Bangladeshi Islamists whose plan to depose the elected government was foiled.  Up to 16 serving and retired military officers were involved in the coup attempt.  All but one has been detained.  Two of those arrested have said they have links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an international pan-Islamic organisation banned in Bangladesh by the current government in 2009.

Islam is the state religion in Bangladesh but the current government made a controversial amendment to the constitution last year re-establishing secularism as one of the four pillars of the state.  While the state’s success fending off the threat was bad for the plotters, it isn’t exactly good for the Awami League government which comes off looking besieged (a similar attempt was made in 2009).  The fact the threat came from the military is particularly concerning. Analysts believe radical Islamism in the Bangladeshi armed forces is widespread and growing.

The ever more prolific Boko Haram struck again in an ugly series of bomb attacks and armed assaults in the city of Kano in Nigeria’s (largely Muslim) north last Friday.  Over 200 people were killed in the attacks which appeared to target police.  Two days later the group bombed two empty churches and a police station further south and attempted to rob a bank.  Two days later again Boko Haram reportedly attacked another police station, this time with hand weapons and grenades.

It turns out the name Boko Haram is not a nod to prog rock but translates to “Western education is forbidden”.  Some believe the group has links to transnational Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda or Somalia’s al-Shabaab.  Others think its gripes are less ideological or pan-Islamic and more local and economic.  It is difficult to know because the group does not have stated demands.  It has been suggested that beyond a small group of hardcore Islamists in the group’s northern heartland, the name Boko Haram is used by any number of diverse groups, including criminals, for a variety of ends.

Boko Haram is not even Nigeria’s biggest problem at the moment (that honour probably goes to the tussle over petrol subsidies).  And no one is yet talking about the prospect of Islamist forces taking over Nigeria.  But Boko Haram is at the very least a scary manifestation of the divisive identity politics that continue to weigh the country – a country that is Africa’s most populous and that has incredible economic potential – down.

Burma, Iran and Pakistan via Queens of the Stone Age

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Goin’ Out West‘, ‘Go With the Flow‘, ‘Leg of Lamb‘ and ‘The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret‘ by Queens of the Stone Age.

There’s been an unrelenting parade of good news streaming out of hitherto pariah state Burma/Myanmar over the last twelve or so months.  In November 2010 a widely discredited election was held and, days later, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detention.  Many figured her freedom would be limited and short-lived.  But in the last quarter of 2011 there were a number of surprising developments.  President Thein Sein, seemingly responding to the concerns of the Burmese populace, put the kybosh on a Chinese plan to produce hydroelectricity for Yunnan province by damming the Irawaddy.  Then in October around 200 political prisoners were released from the country’s jails.

Burma observers are much too cynical to imagine such moves don’t have an ulterior motive, and the motive generally agreed upon is a desire to move away from Burma’s utter reliance on China.  Burma is ‘Goin’ Out West’, as in this Queens of the Stone Age take on the Tom Waits song.  West in terms of making concessions to tempt – or allow – Western countries to soften and/or remove sanctions; and west in its immediate neighbourhood, by looking to India to balance China (the Chinese hydro snub was closely followed by a state visit to India).  This new turn has likely come from the realisation that a great line in this song, “I’m gonna do what I want, and I’m gonna get paid”, just ain’t true.

The reason Burma gets the ‘good’ mantle this week in particular is because the positive announcements have just kept coming.  Pessimists have pointed to the parlous states of relations between the central Burman administration and various ethnic minority rebel groups as reason for caution about Burma’s progress.  If anything, things had deteriorated in this arena (they were already pretty bad) since the change in government.  The announcement just over a week ago that the government had signed a peace pact with the Karen rebel group was therefore particularly significant, particularly when combined with other developments – all of them happening just this week: more political prisoners released, the United States to reinstate diplomatic ties and Aung San Suu Kyi’s registration to run in April by-elections.

Although a cover, ‘Goin’ Out West’ is, to me, a prototypical Queens of the Stone Age song with its driving rhythm, angular guitars and swagger to burn.  The subject matter also fits in well with their macho-druggy desert aesthetic (refer ‘Go With the Flow‘ – both song and video).  I think of Queens of the Stone Age (Queens to their friends) as the thinking male teen’s dream band.  They scratch a particular itch, often associated with pubescent masculinity, to lose yourself in mindless, relentless, heavy head-bangery.

Speaking of mindless machismo…Iran and Israel/American continue to ramp up their stand off.  Things are tense now, but they could get really bad after the Europeans meet on Monday to rubber stamp their Iranian oil embargo (in response to Iran’s nuclear program).  We will then see how genuine Iran was when it threatened to retaliate by closing the Straight of Hormuz.  That threat has been described as a kamikaze one, a concept that doesn’t really work at the country level.  The stand off is also proving damaging on the domestic front for Obama.  All in all, it’s looking to be a lose-lose.

I don’t know about you, but all these protestations that no one’s about to attack Iran are starting to make me nervous. The Queens song ‘Leg of Lamb‘ is not easily interpreted, but talking as it does of head cases, truth freaks with lies and not wanting to follow the laws of man, it seems fittingly downcast and cynical.  Oh and it has the line “It’s so hard to win, when there’s so much to lose”.

The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret‘ is another wonderfully enigmatic song, shrouded in Machiavellian secrecy and distrust.  Pakistani politics is similarly murky.  At the moment it is like a grizzly car wreck: ugly and totally compelling.  Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appeared in the country’s supreme court this week in the latest installment of civil-military wrangling that has beset the country since its independence.

Pakistan’s military has historically opted for straightforward coups rather than the current judicial theatrics.  Following last year’s ‘memogate’, wherein President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly sought US support to forestall an impending military coup, perhaps they are looking for more sustainable and internationally acceptable modes of dominance.  Many believe the current pressure will force the government to call early elections.  Military man and former President Pervez Musharraf is lined up to run in those elections, and has announced an alliance with popular ex-cricketer Imran Khan.  Mysterious memos, shady dealings…the art of secrecy is alive and well in Pakistan.

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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