Nuclear standoff and that appalling United flight incident

At times, it may seem as if the world is a farce, what with all the crazy political developments and societal mishaps. Except the problem is that this has long stopped being funny and people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.

The latest crisis in Asia is the ongoing standoff between North Korea and the US that hopefully will remain just that, without breaking out into nuclear war. While I really don’t believe that could happen, despite North Korea’s warning of “thermonuclear war” and a U.S. fleet deployed in nearby waters, it is still possible violent conflict can break out. Especially as the two key actors are a callous buffonish tycoon who leads the world’s most powerful country going up against a rotund tyrant whose cartoonish appearance masks the fact he heads one of the world’s most despicable regimes.

Meanwhile, I know it is kind of old (last week) news but I’m still trying to get over the shocking scene from of an Asian-American doctor being dragged off a United Airlines plane bloodied and unconscious. When I first saw the news and hadn’t read all the details, I thought maybe it was a case of excessive force being used on a passenger who had done something violent. Instead, it turned out he did nothing wrong  but had merely been chosen at random to get off because the airline had messed up and needed to squeeze four of its crew onto the flight. Because he refused, he earned the right to be forced from his seat, pulled violently towards the ground, thus knocking himself unconscious after his head hit a seat armrest, and dragged like a corpse through the aisle.

What made it worse was that despite the clear video footage and multiple witnesses, the United CEO came out and made some boldfaced lies about the customer having been “disruptive” and “belligerent.” It took growing outrage from the public before the CEO was able to admit anything, in what were his third and fourth statements after the incident.
Frankly, this is one situation where everyone involved from the security personnel who forced the victim out of his seat and pulled him out violently, rendering him unconscious in the process, to the airline crew to the CEO was wrong. You have to wonder what was going through the minds of those security men, who seem to have escaped blame given all the attention on the airline, when they did all that. “Just doing their job” isn’t a good-enough excuse.

I don’t know, there’s an enormous lack of decency in society today in how we treat each other and what is scary is how much it permeates all levels, from top to bottom.

A little more turmoil in the world

Just came back on the weekend from a short holiday to find the world has become a bit more turbulent.

On Sunday evening, China suffered a ghastly terrorist attack when alleged Uighur separatists attacked civilians in a train station, killing 29 and injuring about 130. This attack took place in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, which is far from Xinjiang, and represents a disturbing escalation (assuming the perpetrators are indeed Uighur terrorists) in tensions involving Uighurs and the state, in terms of both the victims (innocent civilians), the place (train station) and the location (another province). The suddenness and the body count seems to have stunned the authorities and people enough that for now, there’s actually been some sort of reasonable approach to coping with the tragedy and a lack of calls for revenge or repression.

Ukraine had been going through a crazy set of events where its Russia-leaning former president was forced from power by mass protests in the capital. Suddenly this was upstaged by an even crazier development where Russia decided enough was enough and sent in troops, supported by local pro-Russian militia, to seize government and military installations all across the Crimea, an autonomous coastal region which has a lot of Russian speakers and houses a Russian naval base. Besides occupying the Crimea, Russia might move on further into Ukraine, which will almost certainly trigger war with Ukraine, and by extension the US and maybe the European Union.

In Beijing, no violence and turmoil, but the weather has been terrible lately, to the point where day after day seems to be apocalyptic gray and hazy from morning till evening and the PM2.5 reading (which measures the amount of polluted particles less than 2.5mm in the air that can get into your bloodstream) has soared to over 400. The weather has been bad before, in the past half-year I’ve been here, but only say one or a few days per week. For the past two weeks, it seems like it’s been continuous. This was one week ago and it hasn’t gotten much better.

Dangers of trivialized war reporting

Not that long ago, the US was engaged in a staredown with Russia over launching an attack Syria to punish it for allegedly using chemical weapons to kill civilians. Russia refused to back down and made some strong counterpoints to the US’ supposedly solid evidence. I don’t want to be callous but I’d strongly advise against accepting the Western “evidence” about the chemical attacks and to be skeptical of the reporting done on that attack and on the conflict so far, which in my view has been skewed towards the anti-regime rebels.

This LRB article takes a wider look and gives a sound criticism of war reporting especially in the last few major conflicts. What’s especially pertinent and harmful is the simplification of these conflicts by media, often describing conflicts as between oppressive evil regimes/dictators and heroic opposition rebels. What’s also relevant is how Western powers (US, Britain, France etc) have been involved in these conflicts and taken advantage of faulty media reporting to influence public perceptions. In addition, the opposition in Libya or Egypt (anti-Mubarak protesters) has often been rather media-savvy, taking advantage of social media like Youtube videos and Twitter to press their cause, which often generates sympathetic coverage and propagation from Western media -sometimes along the lines of “these people use Twitter, they’re just like us, they’re the good guys blah blah.” Hence when the general public, for instance you and me, reads and views these reports, it’s easy to be taken in and believe the general simplified narrative of the conflicts.

Instead of just criticisms, the writer gives actual examples. The “victories” over the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and over Iraq in 2003 by the US were not real military wins, which would explain why so much fighting and instability occurred, even to the present day. Much more recently, Libya presents a good example of a conflict becoming the hot topic for a period of time, before being bypassed for the next conflict or controversy or whatever passes as the story of the day. The country was easily rid of Muammar Gaddafi, but since then it’s descended into chaos and violence. Even the killing of the US ambassador last September hasn’t been solved as yet. Coming back to the current conflict hotspot –
What’s been happening in Syria for the past two years is terrible, but the US has been right to not intervene. Let’s hope it stays that way.

“Conviction that a toxic government is the root of all evil is the public position of most oppositions, but it’s damaging to trust one’s own propaganda. The Iraqi opposition genuinely believed that Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic problems stemmed from Saddam and that once he was gone all would be well. The opposition in Libya and Syria believed that the regimes of Gaddafi and Assad were so demonstrably bad that it was counter-revolutionary to question whether what came after them would be much better. Foreign reporters have by and large shared these opinions.” 

Assorted China and (1) Taiwan reads

There’s been an epidemic of public shootings in the US recently, with the latest being a gunman who was shot dead in the middle of New York City by police (who also shot 8 bystanders by accident) after having killed a former colleague (not to mention a rash of murder-butcheries in Canada recently). So does this really mean that the United States is full of guncrazy lunatics who love to buy and use weapons without any shred of responsibility or accountability, and idiots who fully support these rights even if it means crimes like the one above and the Colorado Batman cinema massacre are easier to commit? Probably there are quite a lot of people in the US like that, but it still wouldn’t be just to accuse all Americans of being gun nuts. The US is a nation of 300 million, the fourth biggest in the world, and it’s kind of pointless to paint it with simple stereotypes.
This goes the same for China, a nation of one point three billion (1,300,000,000), and the world’s third largest nation, and with subregions and subidentities. A lot of media coverage and public perceptions of China portray it as a giant, monolithic entity with articles proclaiming bold statements like China’s in trouble, China is booming, China is a land of great opportunity, China is a ticking time bomb, foreigners are all leaving China,  and so on. Foreign Policy magazine has a new article on China in which Minxin Pei declares that “everything you know about China is wrong.” What if China isn’t rising, but is falling, Pei states and warns about the danger to the US of overestimating China. The article might be interesting to some people (so do take a look at it), but one problem with this is that it’s not just the US government who might be overestimating China, but the media, who often hype anything about China and in the process paint China as a single broad monochrome canvas.

On slightly more upbeat news about China’s global relations, here’s Der Spiegel about China’s positive relationship with Germany. Trade is booming between these two economic giants, though not everything is rosy. Still, the Germans seem to have a pragmatic approach that bodes well for future relations. Germany’s leader Angela Merkel knows that it’s essential to have a strong economic relationship with China, who is Europe’s main trading partner and vice versa. Also to avoid a unipolar US-dominated or a bipolar US-China world, it’s necessary to have China on board, who would be a much more reliable partner than Russia as Merkel seems to realize, from what the article says. Conversely for China, it’s smart to boost relations with Europe’s top power and ensure this relationship grows stronger.

On to football, while Japan’s Shinji Kagawa has played very well for Manchester United as the new season begins, it’s sad to remember at one point United had signed a young Chinese star. It’s quite obvious that Dong Fangzhuo wasn’t quite ready for the opportunity and that he was mainly signed to give United a presence in the Chinese market, in other words, to sell shirts and win fans.

Finally, if there’s one really charming historical place in Taiwan, that would be the old capital of Tainan. I only went there once but the southern city has a number of interesting and well-preserved historical sights and still has a laidback atmosphere to it. One could liken it to Nanjing, China’s southern former capital city, which also has a nice charm and peaceful atmosphere. Of course Nanjing is not as sleepy and its historical sights have a more rugged and damaged condition due to the wars it’s suffered.

I might not read most of these but I’m sure anyone would find something good here in this (near) Top 100 list of American nonfiction for 2010. You can never go wrong with long nonfiction journalism.

One of these reads like Apocalypse Now meets National Geographic – a New Yorker investigative piece on a wildlife activist couple who may have gone over the edge in protecting elephants in Zambia. Having written books and been featured on American TV, the couple (both Americans) created a program in a remote area in Zambia to train rangers to patrol and capture poachers. The allegations are they crossed the line by directing their rangers to kill poachers, among other things. It would not be a surprise if they did, when I was in South Africa last year, I heard about how rangers do this in Zimbabwe and SA – kill poachers on sight and leave their bodies in the wild- and there wasn’t much sympathy for the poachers. It’s a tough issue because on one hand, are animals’ lives worth more than human’s but on the other hand, when humans purposefully and illegally hunt and kill magnificent creatures, do they deserve much sympathy if they die? I don’t think I can give a clear answer but I definitely find poaching of large rare animals reprehensible, especially for non-food purposes. The article comes with a dark twist towards the end, pertaining towards a controversial event during a live ABC broadcast.

Michael Hastings is the reporter who wrote a Rolling Stone article that featured then-US Afghanistan military head Stanley McChrystal dissing his own president, who not surprisingly, got sacked for that. Guernica has an interview with him where he dishes out some interesting takes on the dirty side of the US military leadership including conducting psy-ops on the public and even US senators, the futility of the war in Afghanistan and whether military intervention for humanitarian purposes in countries is really feasible. Hastings, who will have a book out on Afghanistan later this year , takes an admirable stance on the journalistic questions of war reporting.