Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Few Of My Favorite Things

Wednesday's Financial Times offered up a trifecta of much interest for our own Saint Paul.

First, a review of a concert by Saint's favorite Scottish rockers The Fratellis:

Presumably the ham-fisted heraldry was supposed to underline The Fratellis' pride at being a people's band. Unfashionable but hugely popular--their first album sold 1.5m copies--the Scottish trio bash out unreconstructed bloke rock, all football terrace choruses and beer-spraying guitar solos. The singer Jon Lawler has a passing resemblance to Marc Bolan with his tumbling curls of hair but otherwise they're archetypal lads next door, dressed in dark jeans and casual tops and possessing not one ounce of charisma.

They opened with "Mistress Mabel" from their new album Here We Stand. Pub rock piano and rhymes from Noel Gallagher's reject pile ("Mistress Mabel, you're seriously wrong/Clears my table, bang, and then she's gone") clattered from the stage. The words "Nae Dance" were spray-painted on a speaker stack. Beery men lurching around in the audience did their best to obey the injunction.

The evening's course had been set. The songs were plodding and derivative: sub-Beatles melodies, unglittery glam rock (more Slade than T-Rex), rabble-rousing punk rock in the dubious mould of The Libertines. Lawler's vocals aped Liam Gallagher's growl and the Arctic Monkeys' phrasing. Britpop's life flashed before my eyes.

But other than that, how was the show?

Then we have Gideon Rachman comparing American and British journalism and the use of Saint Paul's favorite tool of the trade; the anonymous source:

American journalists, I realised, regard themselves as members of a respectable profession--like lawyers or bankers. Their British counterparts generally prefer the idea that they are outsiders. They like to quote the adage of the late Nicholas Tomalin that: "The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability."

The British sometimes argue that because American journalists have joined the establishment they are easily duped by "senior sources". The US press's supine role in the run-up to the Iraq war is cited as evidence.

Maybe so. On the other hand, it was painstaking and daring American journalism that uncovered the Watergate scandal.

Certainly, after a while in Washington I began to develop a grudging respect for my neighbours at the Tribune. I admired the fact that their investigative team would work for months on a single article. On the British paper I then worked for, an "investigation" was something we started on Tuesday and published on Sunday. I was also sure that when American papers used the phrase "sources say", there really were some sources. I was not always so confident when that phrase appeared in my own newspaper.

Later in my career, I found myself defending a British colleague in Thailand--who was being roundly criticised by some Americans for using quotes from the Bangkok Post, without attribution. I coldly informed my American colleagues that they were box-tickers, making a fuss about nothing. When the Americans left, my British colleague thanked me and then added casually: "Mind you, you might have struggled to find those quotes in the Bangkok Post." He had made them up.

Finally, a look at Saint Paul's favorite Asian cooking instrument, the "hot wok." Okay, it's really more of look at China's "war on nature" and the spectre of rising Chinese nationalism by Niall Ferguson, who is one of Saint's favorite writers:

China on the eve of next month's Olympic Games is like a "hot wok" of aiguozhuyi - national pride--according to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese writer. The question is how far the Chinese government risks overcooking the popular mood. Wherever you go, there is no escaping the official slogan of Beijing 2008: "One World, One Dream". The five cutesy Olympic mascots known as Fuwa are equally ubiquitous, chirruping away on screens large and small, from Beijing's striking new international airport terminal to the humblest local railway carriage.


The trouble with a semi-planned economy, as soon becomes clear to the visitor to Chongqing, is twofold. First, in the absence of rule of law and meaningful private property rights, there are no real limits to the "negative externalities" of economic development. The air in Chongqing is as thick with pollutants as the local food is thick with hot chili peppers, frequently turning the city's natural mists into dense pea-soup fogs. Second, the semi-planned economy allocates resources to infrastructure investment but does nothing to mitigate social inequality. The economic gulf between insiders (officials and entrepreneurs) and outsiders (construction workers and the rest) is now huge. If this is the "harmonious society" of which China's leaders boast, then São Paulo is an egalitarian paradise.


Yet the new forms of electronic communication may just as easily act as channels for popular nationalism as for political dissent. "We Have Nothing to Fear", an unofficial video posted on the internet shortly after the unrest in Tibet, is almost hysterically critical of the western media.* With its ultra-nationalist imagery, its strident music and its defiant slogans--"China's sovereignty is sacred and inviolable"; "We have an obligation to safeguard the community's prosperity and stability"; "Do not provoke us!"--it perfectly captures the moment when Chinese nationalism met YouTube.

On the eve of the Olympics, there is indeed something of the "hot wok" about the mood in China. But it is China's hot websites, burning with a new generation's nationalism, that should make the rest of the world feel uneasy.

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