Posted in essay

Thoughts on the Arrest of Julian Assange

In the original incarnation of this blog, there was a post about Julian Assange. I didn’t delete it because of what happened later on, but it was deleted nonetheless when I decided to get rid of everything and start afresh. I can’t remember why I did that, exactly. I think I was looking for a new direction in my writing. Or maybe I wanted to cut ties with parts of the past. In any case, I remember blogging about him and, like many progressive people at that time, I was very much on his side.

I still have the original Word document of that post in an ancient file on my laptop, and I just looked it out. It makes for awkward reading, which was pretty much what my memory had told me it would be.

I’m glad I’m not famous because it’s the sort of thing that really comes back to haunt you. We’re not allowed to have mistakes in our past anymore. Almost anything from our digital lives could be dredged by hack journalists for salacious gossip in an attempt to discredit us among the increasingly vicious “progressive” media: “Oh, he made a joke five years ago that sounds bad now that we’ve completely changed our morality? Well, we’d better throw him under the bus to make ourselves look righteous.”

Fuck that. I can’t stand that attitude. It makes me think of China’s Cultural Revolution. A few days ago, Barack Obama called it the left’s “circular firing squad,” and he was spot on.

But that’s not what I’m talking about today. Not really.

I’m talking about Julian Assange, a man who was a hero to many of us just a few years ago, and who now makes us squirm. I certainly feel a tinge of embarrassment to look back. But I’m not ashamed, exactly. In fact, to go back a few paragraphs, I said that I found my original writing on the topic, and I’m going to share the very worst lines:

What the organization [WikiLeaks] does is invaluable. It is a true wonder of this era and gives me hope for the future of journalism, the internet and mankind.

Oh, that’s uncomfortable reading. (And not just for the lack of Oxford comma.) It’s a prime example of something that did not age well.

But that’s what life is. We say things, we change our minds for some reason, and we say something else. It’s the ones who don’t admit what they said in the first place that you can’t trust.

I did indeed look at Assange and WikiLeaks as heroic for what they did, and looking back, I can see why. In my original blog post, I called them out for being careless in certain regards, but ultimately I applauded them for bringing transparency and shining a light on the evils of the US government. The US was a tyrant, stomping around the world cloaked in secrecy, hiding evil deeds… Along came Assange and WikiLeaks and suddenly everyone knew, and it wasn’t all conspiracy theories but real hard facts. Like him or not, he helped hold people to account, and probably made it a little harder to get away with war crimes.

I still feel that way, but like most people I’ve come to watch Assange’s hysterics and the organisation’s decline. They have veered towards a darker path, it seems. For many, they are at least partly responsible for the election of Donald Trump and the cancer he has brought upon the United States. Assange’s rage at Hillary Clinton caused him to participate in the skewing of the American political dialogue, pushing opinion in the direction of a man who is easily the worst president in American history. What he did – something that affects the whole world to a great extent – was utterly unforgivable.

I suppose you could argue that he just did what he was always doing – bringing transparency and taking down powerful people. You might say that of course someone on the left of the political spectrum would be angry… that I’m just pissed now that he helped the right wing. However, I think that it changed fundamentally while Assange was trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, becoming increasingly unstable and bitter. I think that his interference in the election was a matter of spite, whereas his original actions were about transforming the world for the better.

It was uncomfortable for me – and, I presume, for countless others – watching Assange being hauled from the place he’d hidden for so long. I remember him taking refuge in the embassy, and thinking, “Thank god there’s at least one country willing to stand up and do the right thing.” It seemed the whole world was against him and he deserved protection.

Although I now view the man as a twat, and resent his organisation’s role in one of the saddest events in recent years, I hope that he isn’t extradited to the US, and that he doesn’t receive punishment for the WikiLeaks hack. Ultimately, what happened back then was something that needed to happen. As for helping elect Trump, there were a million and one factors at play. No one should be punished for that. We just need to learn from it, and ensure it never happens again.

Democracy has been weaponised. Russia and China and other non-democratic players, whose governments don’t even pretend to value free speech, have figured out how to undermine the things that used to make us – the western world – strong. Organisations like WikiLeaks and people like Assange were, I thought, necessary for an open society. Maybe they still are, but we have seen how they can switch sides and become selective in how they choose to use the information they uncover. Their methods have been subverted, and they have caused chaos, tearing our societies apart.

It’s hard to see any positives coming from this. Not many will sympathise with Assange now, and there are plenty who will castigate him for a wide array of perceived offences. He has helped usher in a dark era in global politics, but perhaps it says more about us than him that that was allowed to happen. I guess he will go off to prison for the rest of his life – a fate probably no worse than spending it in an embassy – and we will all just forget about him. But I can’t help but feel we are living in a world partly of his creation, and one that was very much unforeseen.

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Posted in essay

The Absurdity of “Cultural Appropriation”

Yesterday I watched a series of presentations by young Chinese businesspeople. Their task was to find a product or service from China, then choose a target market abroad, and figure out how to break into that market. It was an exercise in culture, as much as anything. Their assigned reading included various essays on the failures of businesses attempting to enter the Chinese market and vice versa. My job was to pick apart their presentations and find flaws in their plans, and then challenge them to defend or change their presentation.

Most of the groups picked various Chinese foods that have not yet penetrated international markets, but two of them looked at Chinese clothing. In particular, they decided to pick the qipao, and market it to consumers in the United Kingdom. One of the groups intended to hybridize the qipao with Victorian-style clothing, which I think is just a horrible idea that profoundly misunderstands modern British tastes, whereas the other thought they could simply sell the qipao as it is to British women.

Qipao_woman
A woman wearing a Qipao (Source: Wikipedia)

My question to them went a little like this:

“I think that most people in the UK and other Western countries would agree that the qipao is a beautiful and elegant item of clothing, and maybe fifty or a hundred years ago they would love to wear it. But these days people would be afraid of receiving criticism for cultural appropriation. How do you intend to get past this obstacle?”

The students were unfamiliar with the concept of cultural appropriation. In fact, if you try to explain this issue to just about anyone here in China – or, for that matter, much of Asia – they look at you as if you were insane. And I would tend to agree. To me, the whole concept is indeed insane.

The Chinese, like the Japanese and Koreans, mostly wear Western-style clothes. Their idols are American pop stars, movie stars, and basketball players, and, each year, their diets are comprised of more and more Western-style food. Their cultures are utterly permeated with American and European influences. It is hardly surprising, then, that people from this part of the world dream of the day that Westerners walk about in Asian clothing, listen to Asian music, watch Asian movies, and eat Asian foods. The idea that this could somehow be offensive to them is absurd.

The issue of cultural appropriation was widely discussed a few weeks ago after an American girl wore a qipao to her prom, and incurred the wrath of America’s liberal trolls, who said she was offending the Chinese. Meanwhile, in China, people agreed that she had done nothing wrong.

qipao
Keziah Daum in a qipao

My girlfriend has asked me about this before. Last year, she was looking for a dress to bring to Scotland, and she suggested I buy something Chinese for myself. She thought it would be nice if we both wore Chinese-style clothes when we visited. I tried to explain that British people would think I was stealing from her culture and being offensive to Chinese people.

“But it’s my idea! I’m Chinese and I want you to wear Chinese clothes!”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what you want. There are a bunch of people who think they know best, and they decide what’s right and wrong, and they’ve decided that this is offensive to you.”

We “argue” about it sometimes, although I’m entirely on her side. I am merely trying to explain what cultural appropriation is. I have no interest in defending it. I can certainly understand why it’s wrong for kids to wear offensive Halloween costumes, and that there’s a difference between respecting someone’s culture and mocking someone’s culture, but it seems that too many PC folks cannot understand these nuances.

When pressed, these critics will argue that cultural appropriation is a matter of power. The argument goes that Western countries have pushed their culture on the rest of the world for so long that it is impossible for them to steal from us. However, when Westerners take an element of another culture and incorporate it into their own, it is a form of theft. This is reasonable, except that is usually a form of respect to see something worthwhile in another culture, not to mention a natural part of intercultural exchange throughout human history. Surely it would be far worse to dismiss that other culture entirely, saying, “I’d never wear Chinese clothes! I have more class than they do!” As for the power dynamic, as my girlfriend pointed out, surely by now China has far more power and wealth than, say, Scotland, and yet no one would complain about a Chinese man playing the bagpipes.

In Asia, despite the sudden influx of Western fashion, people remain fiercely proud of their traditions, even when they don’t engage with them much themselves. A Chinese person who has never done kung-fu or played the er-hu will nonetheless tell you of the subtle sophistication of these cultural artifacts and, whenever a picture of a white person engaging with either makes it onto social media, they are not offended. On the contrary, people are filled with pride that something from their part of the world has made an impact on someone from another part of the world.

If you ask them about it, they’ll say, “Well, we have x from your country; why shouldn’t you have y from ours?” And that is exactly the point. It is precisely why cultural appropriation is a deeply ignorant concept, even if it is, in some cases, well-meaning.

To be honest, I have no interest in wearing Chinese clothes when I go back to Scotland. It’s just not my style. However, I have been in Asia for more than ten years now, and in that time I have travelled through dozens of countries. I attempt to see and experience the culture in each place I visit, and it always makes me sick to look at the limited perspectives of the people who get riled up on social media about cultural sensitivity. These folks are mostly from the US, and their entire worldview is shaped by American society and politics. They attempt to apply their morality on the globe, whilst at the same time decrying ethno- or geocentrism. The things that they say make no real sense from a global perspective. Their hearts are, mostly, in the right place, but their heads are firmly lodged inside their own rectums. They make me embarrassed to call myself liberal.