Pivot to Asia?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew at the State Department in Washington / Jewel Samad, AFP (2009)

The course of global politics, wrote then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011, “will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.” Building up on underpinnings laid by the last Bush administration, President Obama made a cornerstone of his tenure a foreign policy elevating American involvement in the Asia Pacific.

In Burma, the 2012 conduct of independent elections ensuing decades of military rule marked the beginning of American-Burmese rapprochement. Concluding long-standing economic pressure from the United States, reforms toward democracy were accompanied by the gradual easing of sanctions – the last of which was lifted via executive order in October.

Ties between the United States and Vietnam – once ostensibly beyond repair, saw in its advancement reciprocal visits by the countries’ presidents to Washington and Hanoi. Not long before, the 92-million strong nation joined the United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a far-reaching deal initiated in 2005 by the Bush administration and negotiated by Obama’s.

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President Trump signs an executive order to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership / Evan Vucci, AP (2017)

Involving twelve signatories, the Partnership would have changed the tune of two-fifths of global gross domestic product. Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, already enjoying resilient links with the United States’, forged closer American ties by becoming party to the deal.

Beyond the fiscal advantages surfacing when free trade is balanced by active governance, its long-term merits are perhaps more significant. The interdependence produced between countries sharing a trade deal may assure a more constructive approach in reconciling two-pronged disagreements.

Inclinations toward forceful resolutions, then, are undermined. This is enhanced with a multilateral collaboration like the Trans-Pacific Partnership; a large trading community comprising autonomous countries drives for every member nation an analogous economic stake in the immovability of its partners.

Yet, the partnership – lacking at the conclusion of the Obama presidency the congressional ratification that would have assured American partaking – was rescinded in the wake of a new administration. In nullifying the cornerstone of a foreign policy interweaving the United States and Asia, is President Trump at the threshold of a shifting trajectory in the international balance of power?

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Defence Secretary James Mattis with South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo at the Defence Ministry in Seoul, South Korea / Ahn Young-joon, AP (2017)

When Secretary of Defence James Mattis visited the Republic of Korea and Japan – both United States treaty allies – earlier this month, he assured the primacy of the region to leaders in Seoul and Tokyo. The on-going nuclear programme in neighbouring North Korea – disquieting in its equivocality both of scale and success, underscores an imperative necessitating sustained American ties in Asia.

In highlighting the looming deployment of a nuclear defence system to the Republic of Korea while maintaining the validity of treaty guarantees ensuring mutual defence, then, Secretary Mattis was prudent in reinforcing the solidity of the present defence architecture. Military reassurance absenting economic ties, however, render the new mode of American involvement brittle. Without the tangible reciprocity produced by free trade, the United States provides a disparate hand in its relationship with Asia.

The Trump administration, then, should look toward sustaining the more ample involvement hitherto anticipated. The naïveté inherent in the United States’ present approach is, worryingly, averse to its longstanding efforts in the region.

This piece was printed in the Courier, a student newspaper, today.


Rethinking American Foreign Strategy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Tripoli, Libya following the fall of Col. Gaddafi / Kevin Lamarque (2011)

His worst mistake, reflected President Obama last month, was “failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya”. In the build-up to the American presidential elections this November, a significant critique of front-runner Hillary Clinton – who was Secretary of State at the time – has been the spiral of the North African country into extraordinary disorder following the 2011 ouster of its Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi.

For years, the United States has worked to transfer globally a democratic framework of governance. This is rooted, conceivably, in the somewhat principled nature of American foreign policy: an understanding of how governance ought to be, and an attitude toward democracy as the basis of global cooperation. Yet, the modern-day democratisation of a foreign country has remained impracticable.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush survey damage en route to Palace West Camp during a visit to Haiti / George W. Bush Library (2010)

When the Bush administration in 2001 launched a military effort to remove the terrorist presence within Afghanistan, the fall of its capital Kabul altered the American schema: it was, now, to move the country into a scaffold of democracy. Yet, today, the ancient state is fraught: it is fiscally impoverished, its politics predominantly corrupt, and its citizenry threatened by a new ferocity of terrorism. In 1994, the Clinton administration sent American forces to Haiti in a nation-building effort. But, existing in the Caribbean country today is a floundering authority shaken by uprisings and accusations of fixing.

The introduction of a new system of governance overlooks the political and public interdependence entrenched within any political framework. Democracy is a mode of rule that does not exist only within the governmental realm; it necessitates the support of the citizenry. An economy unable to absorb foreign aid will not advance. A populace considering their new government a passing import will not be moved to welcome its rule. A new government, undermined by continuous foreign regulation, will not find the autonomy necessary to advance a nation.

To expedite democratisation in the interests of foreign protection is to discount the dependence of national survival on continuous adaptation. If expectations are flounced, a country must move to change for the better. And, if those in power are slow to do this, the citizenry is likely to move toward resistance. Then, transformation comes about. Take the Gandhi-led struggle for an independent India, or the 1989 Velvet Revolution that overturned communist Czechoslovakia, or the Burmese pro-democracy movement steered by Aung San Suu Kyi.

By privileging expedience while subordinating prescience, has the United States looked past the core of a successful democracy as a mode of government by and for the people? It is conceivable that a mode of democracy initiated by a foreign body, rather than a local majority, has seldom worked cleanly because it overlooks this principle of self-determination.

Myanmar's National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to the opening of the new parliament in Naypyitaw
National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for the opening of the new parliament in Naypyidaw, Burma / Soe Zeya Tun (2016)

This is not to suggest that the United States should remove itself from the facility of foreign aid; the nature of its global position obliges a keen level of international involvement. This should, however, be exercised with a measure of circumstantial cognisance.

The United States’ unilateral post-Second World War nation-building in Japan succeeded for the allied interests of both governments and the Japanese citizenry toward repairing a marred country. In the present-day, the economic influence still enjoyed by the United States has allowed it to encourage, in a number of countries, reforms toward international cooperation and domestic reconciliation.

As another presidency looms and as we continue to dissect foreign policies past and present, it is my hope that the United States will continue to look toward more circumspect strategies in the interests of moulding a more secure model of global understanding. Democracy, by nature, rarely comes at gunpoint.

This piece was printed in the Courier, a student newspaper, today.


On Artistic Progression

Marc Quinn / Frozen Waves, Broken Sublimes at The Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court, Somerset House (2015)

Last October, sitting amidst fountains outside the Somerset House in central London were cast stainless steel sculptures by the contemporary artist Marc Quinn. He is the archetypal member of a group of contemporary artists called the YBAs (Young British Artists) who once fashioned a figure formed of his newborn son’s placenta, moulded a self-portrait incorporating ten pints of blood, and exhibited a canvas streaked entirely with excrement.

Quinn’s newest constructions – overlooking the River Thames – melded the jagged elements of seashells with the grace of passing waves. Somerset House, the 18th-century project of Sir William Chambers, reflected last year in its courtyard a union of traditional neoclassical architecture and contemporary artistic creation.

‘Blood head’ self-portrait / Marc Quinn (2006)

When considering art, I find myself relegated to the versatility of adjectives.

Contemporary art has been called a number of things – shocking, lazy and self-centered, for example. Unlike the bold Van Gogh brush strokes that produced in his paintings a mix of madness and fantasy, or the nuanced Monet depictions of sunlight against still landscapes, the visual simplicity of contemporary art often engenders scepticism amongst viewers.

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‘View Finders, Sharpies, Coffee, and Cigarettes’ / Katherine Bernhardt (2015)

On a visit to the Tate Modern in London today, one would find Katherine Bernhardt’s 2015 painting ‘View Finders, Sharpies, Coffee, and Cigarettes’, a colourful spray-painted illustration resembling – perhaps intentionally – a child’s artwork. In the Baltic 39 here in Newcastle, Cath Campbell’s recent ‘My mum was a beatnick/Canary yellow with royal blue’ installation took the form of open hardcovers spread out on six wheeled tables lined up on a sparse cement floor. Another contemporary art gallery, the White Cube in London, is home to Ellsworth Kelly’s 1986 ‘Dark Gray Panel’: a dark grey panel.

We are, it seems, past the age of grand brush strokes, of a preoccupation with detail and complexities in design. Perhaps a reflection of the present-day, there is an expedience surrounding contemporary art. This disrupts the expectations of the viewer, and moves us to question what it means to be an artist.

Under the Wave off Kanazawa / Katsushika Hokusai (1830-32)

Traditional art tended to balance on a particular axis: Mesopotamian art, for example, was positioned on a warrior civilisation, ancient Egyptian art on the afterlife, and Edo art on classical literature. Contemporary art, however, is centred on pluralism; it has no centre. It may draw stimulus, then, from Rembrandt and Kate Moss, or Abanindranath Tagore and Instagram. There is no apparent particularity of style expected in newer art; it is grounded by multiplicity, a personal response unalike, shocking or sometimes, entirely familiar – think the unmade bed of Tracey Emin, or Ai Weiwei smashing a Han dynasty urn.

My Bed / Tracey Emin (1998)

Different from the years it took the Paul Cézanne to paint the post-Impressionist ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’ series, much of contemporary art has seen a displacement in focus on physical process. Instead, in newer art, there is a principal concentration on intellectual, more than aesthetic, projection by the artist. One misses the point, therefore, when newer artists are criticised – as they often are – for lack of tangible skill.

In the institutional premium placed on perceptible effort, aesthetic significance and historic depth, an appreciation of traditional art often comes naturally. But, a different and, yes, more contemporary frame of thought is needed to realise contemporary art.

The openness both realms of artistic expression may evoke in the observer inspiration through understanding – perhaps the basis of art in itself.

This piece was printed in the Courier, a student newspaper, today.


An Advancement In Treating Paraplegia

Prof Geoff Raisman, Dr Pawel Tabakow and Darek Fidyka / BBC (2014)

“An ailment not to be treated,” warned perhaps the earliest record of paraplegia due to injury of the spine, a 30th-century B.C. Egyptian medical text called the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. As late as 2003, the orthopaedic surgeon John Russell Silver declared that the “spinal cord cannot be repaired”.

Until 2012, paraplegia remained firmly in the league of the incurable: it had been discussed extensively, with a range of measures to improve the process of living with the condition, but remained from most angles, a death knell for a physically active life.

Last month, the New Yorker published the article “One Small Step” by D.T. Max, encircling 41-year-old Darek Fidyka, a Polish contractor and volunteer fireman, who became paralysed from the waist-down following a stabbing that almost completely severed his spinal cord.

Hieroglyphics on plates vi and vii of the Edwin Smith papyrus / New York Academy of Medicine (2010)

Much like paraplegic patients worldwide, Fidyka was told that walking again would not be possible; his initial treatment therefore involved alleviating the medical problems that accompanied his paralysis – lung infections, inflammation in leg veins and pressure sores – and a physical therapy regime that yielded no significant results.

In six months, Fidyka had exhausted his medical benefits. Hope was slipping.

Fate intervened when his cousin came across an article on the ongoing work of Prof. Geoff Raisman, Chair of Neural Regeneration at the University College London Institute of Neurology, and Dr. Pawel Tabakow, a consultant neurosurgeon at the Wroclaw Medical University in Poland, and suggested Fidyka ask to become a patient.

Dr Pawel Tabakow in theatre / BBC (2014)

Prof. Raisman and Dr. Tabakow were in the early stages of developing a means of spinal repair involving the injection of specialist cells from the nasal lining, called olfactory ensheathing cells, which allow the nerve cells that provide us our sense of smell to recover when damaged, into the injured spinal cord.

Likening the spinal cord to a roadway and its nerve fibres to a car, Prof. Raisman somewhat lyrically relates a damaged spinal cord to a road interrupted by ploughed fields and mountains. The introduction of regenerative olfactory nerve cells into the vertebra may re-link the damaged spinal cord and re-establish the communication of nerve fibres.

When Fidyka first met Dr. Tabakow, this approach had yet to be tested beyond rats, and it would have been years before the procedure was approved for human application.

In a stroke of perverse luck, however, the declining usability of Fidyka’s olfactory ensheathing cells as a result of a prior sinusitis operation lent a degree of urgency that prompted an unprecedented approval from the Wroclaw University Hospital’s ethics board.

Dr Geoffrey Raisman / University College London, United Kingdom (2011)

Following eight months of a 40-hour weekly physical therapy regime and electrical stimulation of the vertebra to rule out the possibility of a spontaneous recovery, Fidyka underwent the first leg of the procedure.

This involved the removal of his olfactory bulb by opening his skull, before slicing the extracted tissue to isolate his olfactory ensheathing cells. To obtain a sufficient number of ensheathing cells – half a million – for the second leg of procedure, the cells were given two weeks to subdivide. Fidyka’s spine was then opened up. Over a hundred microinjections were made, situating the ensheathing cells around his wound and onto a band of nerve tissue that was extracted from his lower leg before being inserted into the spinal column.

Darek Fidyka’s road to recovery / BBC (2014)

The operation was a success.

Today, Fidyka is the first person in history to recover from an almost complete severing of the spinal cord. A measure of normalcy has returned to his life: Fidyka is able to stand on his feet, drive a car, pedal a stationery bike and walk continuously for an hour and a half.

As research continues, the bleakness that underscores severe spinal injuries seems to be, finally, waning.

This piece was printed in the Courier, a student newspaper, last week.

On Mourning Musicians

David Bowie in his ‘’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ music video (2014)

Last month, the passing of David Bowie was met with a spontaneous tribute under a mural of the singer in Brixton, where together, hundreds sang, danced and cried. One year after Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, fans assembled outside the Forest Lawn Memorial Park to mark the occasion.

There were fans who had an image of Jackson tattooed on their person. One travelled from Adelaide to attend Jackson’s unofficial memorial in Los Angeles. At a dedication to Bowie outside the Ritzy Picturehouse in London, red-eyed mourners each carried a bouquet of white lilies, bending to place them delicately within a sea of others.

Occasionally, this may be branded modern indulgence; in the absence of considerable grounds for unhappiness, we may relegate our capacity for sorrow toward the deaths of those we have not met. But, I imagine this is too simplistic an outlook.

Fans pay tribute to David Bowie at Ritzy Picturehouse, London / Niklas Halle (2016)

In the legions of tributes to Bowie that poured into the New York Times’ comments section from readers around the world, some stood out particularly. Some recalled the strength they drew from Bowie’s music during their loneliest times, while others wrote that his work – it’s sheer authenticity – inspired courage to come out in an otherwise discouraging sexual landscape. Some regaled us with their stories of fleeting encounters with Bowie – recalling a “twinkle in his eye” – while some remembered ‘Let’s Dance’ playing in the background of their first date.

I don’t doubt the role social media plays in affecting our emotions when a musician dies. I remember scrolling through clips of Whitney Houston posted by fans on social media – her ‘One Moment In Time’ performance at the 1989 Grammy Awards and ‘I Look To You’ music video from her final album in 2009 were especially poignant – when I woke up to news of her passing one Saturday some years ago.

Whitney Houston in her music video for ‘I Look To You’ (2009)

There was a need to be a part of the world of re-tweets, likes and shares that morning. It was a continuous wave of unanimity so unlike the individualism of day-to-day social media posts; a community of shock, sadness and memories of the nights that ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ made.

By sharing our thoughts – and in turn, making Facebook a little more connected, we reminded each other of our shared cultural experience; we may never have listened to Whitney together, but we understood that our worlds, our youths, would have been somewhat different without her music.

From left to right: Bette Midler, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Georganne LaPiere and Cher backstage at Bowie’s ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour / Denis O’Regan (1983)

Music has the capacity to instill in us the power to embrace fragments of ourselves we would not otherwise have embraced, to discover solidarity in our differences, and to find ecstasy in rhythms that underpin the best of times. In music, we discover elements of bliss, of life, and of grief. It invariably alters our surroundings, and our moods and movements adapt to its rhythm. And often, music makes us feel less alone.

Over the wave of tributes to David Bowie, we were reminded that his music moved, inspired and changed us. We realised that so many of our memories were enfolded in his work, and that it was entirely possible to find oneself in a song.

So we grieved. We grieved for the loss of the life that shaped parts of ourselves. And we grieved that we would never experience anything quite like him again.

This piece was published in the Courier, a student newspaper, this week.

On Sleep

Oprah Winfrey in Harper’s Bazaar / Terry Richardson (2012)

Snooze less, be more? The dazzling composer Mozart made do with 5 hours daily – as does Oprah Winfrey, Voltaire and Margaret Thatcher: 4 hours, Thomas Edison and Tom Ford: 3 hours, Nikola Tesla and Da Vinci: 2 hours.

It’s an enduring trend that begs the question: are these sensationalised instances of self-imposed depravity, or does keeping awake pave the runway for phenomenal success? Invariably, our accomplishments in our waking hours are what count: it earns us money, it often satisfies us and is, essentially, our legacy.

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Martha Stewart attends The Martha Stewart Center for Living 2015 Gala in New York City / Donald Bowers (2015)

Martha Stewart attributes her lack of sleep to an early start to her schedule – she has guests arriving at 6.30am, while Donald Trump boasts that his 3-hour nights give him a competitive edge.

Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer once pulled weekly all-nighters, managed 19-hour days and presently functions on 4-hours of sleep. What makes her different from the “sleepless elite”, however, is Mayer’s compensation for her sleep dearth: weeklong vacations every four months.

I found this somewhat intriguing. The Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School tells us that we should clock 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep per 24 hours, while our National Health Service advocates 6 to 9 hours.

But can we, ambitious young ones, survive on a little less and make up for it afterward? Can we do it all: attend our lectures, take on fantastic internships, ace our assignments, participate actively in societies, do the laundry, cook healthy meals, excel in sports, maintain a vibrant social life and throw flat parties while sleeping say, 4-hours nightly, safe in the knowledge that we can make up for this one day – over the weekend, over Christmas, over summer?

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer delivers a keynote address in Las Vegas, Nevada / Ethan Miller (2014)

In a two-part series on the science of sleep, Forbes called this the ‘sleep debt theory’, which proposes that the first six nights of minimal sleep would be largely reversed by the last three nights of catch-up sleep. Citing a new study by the American Physiological Society, the series quashed this theory, concluding that even though it made up for daytime sleepiness, participants’ attention levels remained significantly impaired even after compensatory sleep.

For these findings to be true across the human spectrum, however, is unlikely as Marissa Mayer being absent-minded or Thomas Edison having lacked focus. A few of us are simply wired differently.

Speaking to the Scientific American, Professor Ying-Hui Fu of the University of California in San Francisco, explained that the amount of sleep we require boils down to genetics.

In a study he co-authored, Professor Fu found that chance mutations on an individual’s DEC2 transcription facilitator, which affects our body’s 24-hour circadian clock, could make one require much less – or much more – sleep.

Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Cloud Atlas" - Red Carpet
Halle Berry arrives at the premiere of Cloud Atlas at the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, California / Kevin Winter (2012)

Oscar-winner Halle Berry, the Dalai Lama and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos enjoy 8 hours of shuteye daily, Albert Einstein: 10 hours, and Winston Churchill: 7 hours.

It is more likely than not that, amongst thousands of luminaries, a vast majority enjoy wholesome sleep routines. But in the age of extremes, drawing attention to 3-hour nights is far more exhilarating.

In a piece titled ‘When Sleep Leaves You Tired’, the Wall Street Journal suggests while that some people may achieve the recommended hours in bed, a significant proportion may unwittingly undergo only superficial sleep, without progressing to the deep, restorative stages critical for memory and physical repair.

Citing caffeine, alcohol and anxiety as triggers, continuous instances of sub-par sleep may blight our daytime alertness whilst raising our risk for depression, heart disease and obesity.

‘Sleep coach’ Nick Littlehales / News Corp (2015)

Enter Nick Littlehales, a ‘sleep coach’ who works with our national sports teams solely to improve the quality of their sleep. Warning against sleeping pills and self-medication, Littlehales advocates a cool bedroom with plain white bedsheets, a light duvet, a shallow pillow and complete darkness.

A healthy night, it seems, is a keen balance between self-discipline, simplicity and commitment; snooze right, be more.

This article was printed in the Courier, a student newspaper, this week.

Sexism In Film

Meryl Streep with Glenn Close at the Academy Awards by Chris Pizzello, Invision/Associated Press (2014)
Meryl Streep hugs Glenn Close at the Academy Awards / Chris Pizzello (2014)

At a recent press conference for her upcoming movie Suffragette, the brilliant actress Meryl Streep expressed her frustration at the lack of female voices amongst American film critics. The week before, Emma Watson reflected that, thus far, she had been directed by a total of 17 male directors and a mere 2 female directors. That same month, Anne Hathaway, told the New York Times that, in the professional realm, she had been “treated differently because I was a woman”, while Helen Mirren discussed the “profound sexism” in the film industry with the Guardian.

If wages reflect worth within an industry, women in film aren’t worth very much. A leaked e-mail exchange, a product of last November’s Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, shed light on the wage disparity between the two female leads and three male leads of American Hustle where, despite almost equal screen time, the female leads were each paid 7% of the film’s profits, while the male leads and male director were each paid 9%.

Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller in American Sniper (2015)

This lack of value towards women in film is conceivably due to the narrow scope of roles available. In this year’s highest-grossing films, we observe male leads in a range of roles: a dinosaur trainer and researcher (Chris Pratt in Jurassic World), a celebrated and deadly marksman (Bradley Cooper in American Sniper), superheroes (Avengers, Ant-Man), professional street racers who are also affectionate fathers (Furious 7), and suave espionage agents (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). Men, it seems, can be anything: strong, smart, lethal, extraordinary, sensitive, sophisticated.

Female leads in this year’s highest-grossing films have had a more uninspiring scope of representation: personified emotions (Inside Out), an innocent, long-suffering orphan whose be-all and end-all is marriage to a prince (Lily James in Cinderella), and an innocent, bland college senior who cooperatively becomes an outlet for a male billionaire’s sexual inclinations (Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey).

Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey / Universal Pictures and Focus Features (2015)

Perhaps this bias has stemmed from our traditional experiences with gender roles, chiefly the heteronormative ideal of the breadwinning male returning from work to an aproned wife. It is not unlikely that the same children growing up with this microscopic view of gender roles have become consumers and industry bigwigs who expound the versatility of the male identity and the subservient, domestic limitations of female identity.

But, this model of gender roles must not and optimistically, cannot last. Throughout the modern world, gender dynamics are changing rapidly. Encouragingly, the film industry and its consumers are gradually recognising the growing social and economic power of women. Amongst the top ten highest-grossing films in the American box office this year, four films feature women in leading roles and/or have a female director and/or female screenwriter, and are targeted toward female consumers. This is double that of a decade ago. And in the United Kingdom, there are now more female screenwriters than male.

2014 National Board Of Review Awards Gala - New York
British screenwriter Emma Thompson attends the National Board Of Review Awards Gala in New York City / Dennis Van Tine (2014)

But, until women have equal representation and standing throughout the film industry, I don’t think this is enough. This is not merely a question of giving talented, deserving women the jobs they deserve. This is about the film industry finding the integrity to produce truthful and meaningful representations of the diverse sexual, racial and economic landscape we live in, and for its consumers to welcome this change. We are well past the time for Cinderella.

This piece was printed in the Courier, a student newspaper, this week.