Archive | October 2012

The Meaning of the Melody – Just a song?

Click here for the article in Tokyo Weekender

…or paternalistic?

Everyday on the strike of 5 o’clock (in my area) an entrancing melody is played from loudspeakers that look like they were installed for propaganda purposes or doomsday warnings. The melody is majestic. It rings out during the warm tinge of dusk, its soothing notes wafting through the air like the scent of some distant doughnut van. It’s the perfect interval for Tokyo’s infamous hustle – a daily sedative in musical form.

It would be agreeable to leave it at that – to put it down as just a song – but when considering the absence of such a phenomenon in my own country, and in most other countries I feel compelled to query its purpose. According to the Minato ward website, it’s played in order to test the loudspeakers for when a disaster strikes, so the sirens don’t let you down just when you need them. But this isn’t commonly known. In fact, the widely held belief is that it’s played in order to tell children that sunlight is fading and that it’s time to go home.

It seems sensible enough. You could postulate a number of reasons for why the evening would not be a fit place for children. For one thing, decreased visibility and scampering children don’t mix well together. As an urban cyclist, I could vouch for that. But also, the onset of the evening usually brings with it the debauched sighs of tired-out salary men, whom having spent the day in the shackles of their companies might prefer instead to enjoy their evenings without the knowledge that there are impressionable and corruptible children wandering around. The melody therefore acts as a warning to all, including the children themselves.

Then to the question at hand, why is it the case that my countrymen don’t feel the need to issue such a warning? Do the British just care less about the whereabouts of their children in the evenings? Or could it be that their children are more independent and self-reliant? The evenings in London could certainly stand to have a few less kids on the streets, I’d say in my grumpy old-man voice. At risk of stereotyping, the likely reason that no such warning exists in my country is because of “nanny state” fear – parents would probably resent the loudspeakers for their suggestive and disapproving tone. It places the sort of general expectations on parents that make that smug accusation – “well…the loudspeakers told you so” always possible should any child run into any harm in the night.

Women-only train cars in Japan work on the same misguided principle of blame. If you’re a woman molested while riding a standard car at 8am, then the blame is implicitly placed on you. You should’ve gone to your designated women-only car, is the suggestion. Likewise, if you’re the parent of a mugged child, you should’ve known to call your child home earlier.

Of course, this is not to place a mild melodic warning on a par with the oppressive paternalism of gender segregated train cars. The latter is an utterly contemptible misunderstanding of gender equality. But both are different expressions of the same wider paternal tendency in Japan, for better or for worse. It’s the same tendency that dispatches teams of old men to stand in front of minor construction work on streets where nobody goes, waving batons around like children swatting flies. These chaps are, depending on your view, either terribly sweet and devoted, or pitifully redundant.

If it at least means the elderly are cared for, or if it means I’m well supplied with wet napkins and plastic utensils when I buy my bento, I could probably support such a paternalism (And, I’m sure there is some connection between this tendency and my wallet being handed into the police!). However, there should be a very thick line drawn between this sort of paternalism – the one that looks out for me, and the other sort of paternalism – the one that watches over me, that claims to know what’s best for me, and that demands I listen. In other words, a charming but suggestive twilight melody is about my upper limit.


The Muslim “Moderates” and Free Speech

The eruption of riots across the Muslim world after the circulation of the “Innocence of Muslims” is the most recent example in a long history of pious and overly sensitive fanatics trying to quash one of our greatest Enlightenment privileges – free speech. Lets not forget others who have dared to think and speak for themselves and who have suffered for it; novelist Salman Rushdie, Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s cartoonists, Mauritian atheists Mohammed Nazim and Ismail Mohammed Didi.

Not only are our privileges under threat from street-rousing Muslim mobs, but also from sneaking so-called moderates who demand sensitivity and self-censorship in response to tyranny. It’s shameful but necessary to have to point out that not all criticisms of faith qualify as incitement to religious hatred, “Islamophobia”, or any other such misplaced labels. Our principles won’t defend themselves. And, dispensing with them so that we may accommodate the parochial demands of crazed theocrats is to capitulate to unreason and intolerance. As the late Christopher Hitchens once said “the barbarians never take a city unless someone inside holds open a door for them”.

I’m told I must not distract myself with the riotous, fundamentalist rabble that represent only a minority in Islam, and that it is the moderate and mainstream Muslims that are the true Muslims. (Of course, the idea that someone could even claim to be a “true muslim” is the problem in the first place). However, in considering the middle ground of Islam, I find that it is they who spend the most time holding the door open for the fanatics. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest international organisation outside of the U.N (with a growing lobby inside the U.N), responded to the “Innocence of Muslims” and the subsequent violence with the following:

“The Group calls on the political and religious leaders across the world and all stakeholders to take a united stand against fanatics and radicals who are destabilizing global peace and security by fanning religious intolerance”

This statement should have been exactly four words shorter. If it were, it might actually look like a much-needed, positive denouncement of Muslim crimes.  Instead, the OIC claim that the “fanatics and radicals” are not the Muslim rioters and murderers of the U.S ambassador to Libya, but are in fact the makers of an entirely lawful film, supposedly for “fanning religious intolerance”. (If it is “intolerance” that the OIC abhors then they might do well to reconsider their own intolerance of criticism of the Prophet). Recent demands expressed by the OIC are as alarming as it gets. They have proposed “measures for implementing resolutions against stigmatizing religions” and have asked the UN to condemn “defamation” of religious ideas as a human rights violation. In other words, they require that their religion be granted the right to censor. Their priorities lie in the aggrandizement of Islam, not in liberal free society. For the second largest international organisation in the world; one that describes itself as “the voice of the Muslim world”, this is not really good enough.

Meanwhile, The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was attempting to denounce the whole affair:

“We hope that others will join us in condemning both the violence in Egypt and Libya, and the irresponsible actions of the film’s producer”.

This is an improvement, but it’s still hopelessly feeble and reluctant. Nowhere in their lengthy statement did the MCB mention anything of an Islamic commitment to free speech, preferring instead to condemn both the film and the violent response to it on equal terms.  At a time when muslim authorities as a whole should be stressing free speech and advancing liberal principles, instead we’re getting ambivalence and hesitancy.

Of course there are Muslims who denounce the violence sufficiently, but until Muslim authorities acknowledge the value of free speech, the censors will go on snooping and trampling our privileges trying to protect the most pious and sensitive of our species from any possible hurt feelings. I would invite both the moderates and the rabble to join me in a world in which no law is preordained and everything is subject to criticism. In this world, you may reproach your adversaries with the utmost disdain, bearing in mind as you do the great mantra of the Enlightenment – “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.