The Clippings File

by Jillian Burt

30 September 2007


The Clippings File

What the Monks told the Military Powers in Burma

The BBC has news footage of UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari in Burma, who was allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi but has not yet met with senior members of the Burmese military. Agence Presse France said that “Ibrahim Gambari met with Aung San Suu Kyi for more than an hour, the UN said in a statement. The rare encounter, seen as a sign of intense pressure on the regime, took place at a government guest house in the main city of Yangon.”

The Nation has printed a letter from U Thangara Linkhara, the abbot of a monastery in Yangon, to the leader of the military, Tan Shwe. “We monks [see that] Burma’s difficulties have gone on for over 60 years. As delicate political issues have not been solved in a delicate way, now after 60 years they have been needlessly prolonged, like an unfinished painting,” he wrote. “The root cause is power. Those individuals who temporarily held the people’s power on behalf of the people have prolonged [their hold on power] for their own purposes for over 60 years. The original owners of power, the people, have been made innocent victims: more and more repressed and poor and impoverished. In fact, the people’s power should be in the people’s hands, so that people can live comfortably and free from difficulty.” His letter is written with metta (loving kindness) and he makes suggestions for peacefully returning power to the hands of the people. 

In an editorial in The Guardian, Pankaj Mishra explains the moral authority of Buddhist monks in violently oppressed societies.

Buddhist monks, living not in forests but in retreats close to populated settlements, are traditionally bound to laymen by an ethic of social responsibility. Not surprisingly, in Tibet and Burma, where a modern, militarised state tyrannises a largely pre-modern and unorganised population, monasteries have been exalted as alternative centres of moral and political authority, and monks and nuns have come to spearhead resistance to unrighteous regimes.

Certainly, Buddhists are not immune to ideological delusions. In early 20th-century Japan, and in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 90s, many Buddhist monks succumbed to the lure of nationalism and militarism. Nevertheless, with its absence of dogma and emphasis on intellectual and spiritual vigilance, Buddhism has proved to be less vulnerable to fanatical zeal than not only other major religions, but also such modern ideologies as nationalism and secularism. As Nhat Hanh exhorts, echoing a major theme of the Buddha: “Do not be idolatrous about, or bound to, any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.”

It helps, too, that Buddhist political methods aim, relatively modestly, at dialogue and moral conversion rather than total revolution. Writing to Martin Luther King in 1965, after another Buddhist self-immolation in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh explained that “the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man.”

Pankaj Mishra. “The Burmese monks’ spiritual strength proves religion has a role in politics: Buddhism and its values have inspired a tradition of non-violent protest more powerful than secularists understand”  The Guardian. October 1, 2007

The Nation has linked to a You Tube video of the military beginning to use force to beak up the monks’ protests from burmadigest, which is continually posting footage of what’s happening on the streets in Burma.

Behold Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman from The Principles of Uncertainty

Maira Kalman from The Principles of Uncertainty

With the closing of its Times Select subscription service the New York Times has opened a treasure chest of guest columns to the general reader, although, like a pirate pursuing treasure, you need to dig to find them.

One of the most popular, and unusual, was Maira Kalman’s year- long illustrated essay “The Principles of Uncertainty” which ended in April. The columns have been gathered together in a book that’s just been released. In “Principles of Uncertainty” she addressed the great questions of life and death and happiness and grief in a way that connected with her readers and attracted hundreds of comments each month. Readers began posting their reactions the moment the column went online.

“Principles of Uncertainty” has many of the whimsical existential qualities of her children’s books, which included a series of books about a beagle-like dog Max, a poet, who lived in New York but dreamed of going to live and write in Paris. Max saw poetry everywhere, in the lives of the people around him, and literally written on the trees, sidewalks and cars of the city. Max fulfilled his dream and in Paris married a shapely poodle, a showgirl/dog. He moved to Los Angeles and in Max in Hollywood, Baby saw his poems turned into a screwball comedy movie. Max began to think deeply about illusion and reality, and as he was about to become a father took a—perhaps dreamed—trip to India, and pondered the nature of reality, marvelling at the way that a deeply metaphysical spirituality is threaded through daily life in India.

Maira Kalman has frequently illustrated covers for the New Yorker Magazine: my personal favourite is a portrait of her dog Pete (who is also the star of two books) at a desk, reading. She told Steven Heller, of the graphic design magazine, Eye, that walks with Pete are her primary inspiration. “I was out walking the dear dog (who is a sweet meal ticket – two books about him, one New Yorker cover and a back page) and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art. I ran into a father taking two kids to school. The girls were wearing green skirts and orange rain boots and one of them had a ponytail and was carrying a pink book and was pigeon-toed. Then I saw a man wearing a bowler hat with a feather and he was wearing an eye mask like Zorro made out of a twenty-dollar bill and I thought, ‘There is a God. Thank you, whoever is showing me this.”

Portfolio, turned inside out.

Before the first issue of Conde Nast’s quarterly business magazine, Portfolio, was released earlier this year I was sceptical about its editorial stance of applying Vanity Fair’s glossy approach to the world of business. The physical magazine is yet to appear on Australian newsstands, but the constantly updated online version of Portfolio has made me eat my words. Instead of reducing business to shallow celebrity cover, Portfolio has applied the business writer’s examination of the money and financial power-broking to culture. While there are fawning profiles of business and finance figures, and features on luxury products there is also a unique examination of the financial practices that underpin culture. Examinations of hedge funds investing in art, and how auction houses set estimates for works of art to be sold.

A new online story looks at the business of sampling.

Modern-day sampling started in the South Bronx, where party DJs in the 1970s would find a favorite chunk of music and blend two duplicate records to play that section over and over. It has always been the de facto beat-creation process for hip-hop producers, but as the music has exploded in popularity, copyright laws have been enforced more regularly and the stakes—and money—involved in the sampling business have risen accordingly. For example, as rapper Kanye West celebrates selling nearly 1 million copies of his new album, Graduation, last week, royalty checks aren’t just being readied for him, but also for Elton John, ’70s duo Steely Dan, and the abstract German band Can. West borrowed from a motley crew of musicians to create his hit album’s sound collage, which means he’ll be dividing his several million dollars with the original artists. Jay-Z, Nas, and even West’s competitor 50 Cent built their catalogs on sample-based albums, their tens of millions in royalties split among hundreds of artists, some of whom haven’t released a new song in decades.

Damon Brown. Portfolio. Sep 24 2007


What Happens to Storytelling when Readers Disappear.

Stephen King has edited the “Best American Short Stories 2007” compendium, and writes in the New York Times about going to a book store and having to get down on his knees and rustle about on the bottom shelves to find short story magazines.

...writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.

Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale.

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