Sunday, 21 March 2010

Save the Whales

“A government which can’t defend its flag at sea has lost its sovereignty!”

Something felt wrong last Friday. I’ve started some temping work in the centre of Wellington and, in my lunch breaks, take the chance to enjoy the warm early-autumn weather by walking over to parliament grounds.

Normally it’s a quiet spot but, last Friday, there was a small crowd listening to a man dressed all in black, flanked by two imposing New Zealand flags, as he delivered a speech on New Zealand’s loss of national sovereignty (the line above I took as a note during this speech). Turns out I’d spotted Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd, addressing an anti-whaling gathering.

There is a worrying undercurrent of anti-Asian racism that permeates Sea Shepherd’s publicity and arguments. Most people, rightly, oppose whaling: the Sea Shepherd campaign connects this genuine environmental concern to much older, and dangerous, currents in Australian and New Zealand politics: nationalism, especially ‘left’ nationalism, and the racism that accompanies it. Facing an environmental challenge like the slaughter of endangered whales, we start to see a choice between an internationalist approach, stressing the potential for a politics which can unite, and a nationalism which turns genuine concerns into props for reactionary and toxic ideas. Greens Senator Bob Brown – with his talk of “our” whales, as if New Zealand and Australia ‘owned’ these creatures – and his anti-immigrant comments, re-enforces a long tradition of anti-Asian racism in this part of the world.

Sea Shepherd has chosen to draw on imagery from the Pacific War, modeling its campaign logo on “the legendary Flying Tigers who fought the Japanese Imperial Forces in China” and taking their name – Operation Waltzing Matilda – from “the unofficial national anthem of Australia.” If this media campaign is merely opportunistic and naïve then it is, at best, dangerous and regrettable. If, however, it’s conscious evocation then Sea Shepherd’s rhetoric is far more sinister. Nationalist mythology to the contrary, the Pacific War, in the words of activist historian Tom O’Lincoln, “was a ruthless power struggle between rival empires.” The death and suffering Australia and New Zealand helped bring to the Asian world – culminating, of course, in horrific and criminal atrocities in Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki – are a warning to ordinary people the world over, not part of a tradition to be embraced. Since the war anti-Asian racism has appeared time and again in Australian and New Zealand life – with violent and dangerous consequences. In toying with this rhetoric Sea Shepherd takes up a dishonourable heritage.

We’ve always despised them – now we must smash them!

“We in Australia confidently approach our task. We stand ready, with freedom in our hearts…we shall throw the Japanese back where they belong.”

“Throw the Jap back where he belongs”

“There is only victory or defeat for the whales, and we do not intend to see the whales defeated, nor do we intend to let the murdering barbarian butchers win.” [Emphasis mine].

The first two quotes are from Australian government posters produced during World War Two; the second from a Sea Shepherd leaflet distributed on Friday.

The echoes are so obvious, the de-humanising provocation so blatant. The ‘murdering barbarian butchers’ of today are the ‘Japs’ of sixty years ago, the victims of racist attacks and outrages of the recent past, the ‘foreigners’ hated by racists in a settler colony founded on dispossession and dislocation and determined to forget its own foreignness. It’s the language of racism, of poisonous nationalism and, if it came from a neo-Nazi, it would be denounced as such.

And yet, lunch time last Friday, a crowd of good-natured environmentalists, respectable figures – including Green MPs – and campaigners heard it all without so much as a murmur.

It’s not only in the ocean that Sea Shepherd are playing a dangerous game.

A note on sources

All quotations taken without a link are from the Sea Shepherd leaflet “Defending Whales”, which I took from their stall on parliament grounds 19/03/2010.

By far the best introduction to anti-Japanese racism in Australia is, sadly, not available online. It is Phil Griffiths, ‘Australian Perceptions of Japan: the History of a Racist Phobia’, Socialist Review (Melbourne), no. 3, 1991, although I've provided a link to a summary of it above.

The Japanese side to the whaling debate would require a post of its own: David McNeill’s reportage on the state’s persecution of Greenpeace activists in Japan is very useful, and his commentary has been a consistent model of a non-racist, internationalist anti-whaling stance.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Rockabilly, Sexuality, Imperialism

Wanda Jackson was one of my favourite musical discoveries in 2009. She’s spent most of her career as a country singer, but the album I found, Wanda Jackson: Queen of Rockabilly, (only Y200 at BookOff Kichijoji) is full of early rock’n’roll of a kind so powerful it makes Elvis seem tame.

When you remember that Jackson was only 20 or even younger when she recorded most of these songs their fierceness and independence seems all the more extraordinary.

Jackson’s most striking song - too raunchy to get national play time in the US - is “Fujiyama Mama”, as wild an artistic celebration of female assertiveness and sexuality as you’re likely to hear. (It was Annisteen Allen who in 1955 first recorded the song, but Jackson’s version is much more explicitly sexual and direct and, presumably, given its white singer and intended white audience in segregation-era America, would have been all the more unsettling).

Amidst all the ultra-conservative reaction of the United States of the 1950s, this song’s outrageousness is like something from a past we never had:

Cause I'm a Fujiyama Mama and I'm just about to blow my top!
And when I start erupting there ain’t nobody gonna make me stop!

That initial celebratory shock has to give way, though, to a sense of horror as Jackson’s metaphor becomes clear:

I've been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too!
The things I did to them baby, I can do to you!

But temptations to put this down to contradictory consciousness or the attitudes of a different era should be avoided. Best to listen to the music and take this lurid mixture of sexual frankness and revelling in violence and destruction quite literally.

For an imperialist power at the height of its reach and confidence there’s an obvious libidinal investment in its power and potential for destructiveness. What we forget - in the era of the crisis of US imperialism - is how explicit this all could once have been. Jackson’s forthright assertiveness meant she could never fit the images and sounds of appropriate feminity for the home market, but isn’t her performance here just amplifying all that sexualisation of violence and power which is so much a part of US imperial fantasy: those paintings of women on WWII warplanes, the naming of missiles and bombs, the kitsch salacious wholesomeness of shows to entertain the troops? In this context, comparing wiping out hundreds of thousands of lives to having an orgasm makes perfect sense.

The tension here is that Wanda Jackson was singing from a marginal, oppressed location within that social relation: it would have been, from her position as a woman in a reactionary and misogynist society, almost impossible to live the kind of sexual and personal autonomy her music espouses. Jackson’s rockabilly scandalises and unsettles the very imperialist ideology it advocates.

Japanese listeners were alive to those tensions, and “Fujiyama Mama” was a big hit there in 1958 (Tamaki Sawa even released a Japanese-language version). Jackson and others claim, with a fair bit of between-the-lines racist wink-nudgery about those naïve Asians, that the song was a hit because its fans couldn’t have understood it. Again, surely it’s best to take things literally: the Japanese understood this song all too well, and understood the world order being arranged around them. As John Dower shows in his important history Embracing Defeat, there was a complex process of both sexualisation and de-humanisation at work in US representations of the Japanese through the first part of the US occupation.

Japanese listeners may well have been - to use a strangely appropriate metaphor for the era of 45s - turning the tables on their occupier. In embracing so fervently a song which expressed the attitudes of their conquerors too honestly to make it a hit at ‘home’, their appreciation for the Queen of Rockabilly may have, for the briefest of moments, exposed the ruling ideology all too clearly.

Either way, it’s a deeply unnerving song from a powerfully talented performer.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Is everything new better than everything old?

“Do we have an image for what it means to work?”

These last weeks I’ve been pondering Giovanni’s excellent post on our failures of memory and representation, which are also failures of a particular type of political courage. Alongside class analysis and understanding, vital too, we need certain visual vocabularies to see one another and to take the measure of our movement’s state and outlook.

[There I am in the middle, looking as happy as the day is long.]

No longer knowing that vocabulary once it changed visual languages was one of the many usefully bewildering experiences I found living in Tokyo. You can – and should – read trade union history, but there’s a whole structure of feeling evoked by the movement’s iconography and rituals, one which needs to be lived to begin to be understood. I took these photographs last year at a May Day rally in Hibiya Park (a place with a rich but well-hidden working-class historical legacy); they tell an interesting story.

What struck me that day, amidst other hopeful signs, was how carefully considered the imagery of work was at this demonstration. There’s a long tradition of this at May Days the world over, of course – workers marching in their uniforms, union banners depicting a model of their particular trade – but what’s different here is the uncovering or re-presenting of work and workers more usually invisible, or not considered as a part of traditional accounts of strength and resistance.

The Hibiya Park May Day was and is defiantly militant, stressing political opposition to militarism and war as much as wages and safety, but look at who’s here as the bearers or symbols of that militancy: the ‘working poor’, the young, women and women’s unions, aged care workers. The marginalised and invisible, in other words, of both neoliberalism and, all too often, the mainstream of the organized labour movement.

[No more working poor! Nerima Ward Workers at the Child Welfare Residential Facility]

The imagery and self-representation these groups are experimenting with – and their organizational forms, too, about which Kaye Broadbent’s research is enlightening – help show how these questions of memory and representation are questions of strategy, too.

[Stop workers getting the ax. Workers are not disposable /We need a political solution to promptly solve the Japan Railways struggle!]

There’s a much wider question hovering behind all this: how are we to make use of tradition in these bad new days? Making work visible is one step in approaching that question: making our own movement’s current composition clear to itself is another.

Monday, 1 March 2010

코리아 獨立 萬歲!

March the first - and our remembering of the movement of that name - is bound to have a particular resonance during this centennial anniversary of Japan's colonial conquest of the Korean peninsula. There are all sorts of vexed political questions attached to how - and what - we remember, questions I'm not in a position to explore here. For many of us, though, one way to pay tribute to that time is to remember that struggle continues.

I want to offer as a small tribute to today's history this image of Yu Gwan-sun, one of the many martyrs of the fight for Korean independence. There's so much about her story which is moving - her suffering in prison, the courage of her Christian faith, her tragically young death - but what I see and keep seeing in this image is the certainty of her defiance.

I first saw this photograph hanging from the wall of a peace museum in Nagasaki, a museum whose volunteers have set themselves the task of telling the stories of Japanese imperialism in Asia, stories of cruelty and oppression those in power would rather see forgotten or denied. Their task is a thankless and sometimes threatening one and, in that context, Yu Gwan-sun's portrait - and her steady gaze and cool defiance facing what must often be skeptical and hostile visitors - is an encouragement and inspiration.