Monthly Archives: September 2012

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To Be Enjoyed in Moderation

So you want to write. So you want to direct blockbuster films, and compose the best music there ever was. So you want to make good art. What do you do? Well, if you’re hardworking and have a good eye for what works and what doesn’t, you’ll find a forum on which to put yourself out there, get the word around and attract people who appreciate what you do.

Increasingly in this age of technological self-made fame, most of the artists that you and I know have followed this recipe to become the next big thing. Sites like Youtube, Thought Catalog, Flickr, DeviantART are teeming with overwhelming bundles of creativity. I say ‘bundles’ because it’s precisely that: creativity neatly organised in a single place where you can find all sorts of outlet for artistic expression. That whoever’s out there must then plough through to find those rare bursts of true talent that speak straight to the heart, and sometimes even to millions if they’re lucky. It really takes a good mix of inspiration, perspiration and sheer luck (Edison never mentioned that!)

Having said that, after trawling through sites, galleries and blogs on an almost daily basis, I can say that the price of sifting through the mundane and the uninspired is worth it a hundred fold for every time I stumble upon a rare gem: a shining diamond of truth out of the yawning gloom of the internet, something really worth telling your more artistically inclined friends about over brunch. But what does it mean when everything is concentrated in one massive hub, like a library, like a museum? It means that you have to go searching for what is really good. It means that in a community made up of self-publishing, self-critiquing individuals, we are our own audience.

Self-conscious mediums that generate huge quantities of art prime its viewers and listeners to stay guarded on quality control. We become more selective, more judgmental because we have more choice. The thing is, you aren’t supposed to go looking for good art. Good art is supposed to be there, it’s supposed to stand out singularly, not crowded in by all the mediocre art and poor art around it.

Writing that sits in a blog doesn’t have quite the same holding power that a single book has. It doesn’t yell at you like an image on a billboard does. A homemade clip can be hard to distinguish from a million others. And when you go to see an exhibition, the sheer volume of good art can keep you from enjoying each painting for itself, separate from the experience of the others.

Think back to the most moving works of art you’ve seen. I bet it was spontaneous, when you least expected it, and didn’t it enliven you to see it? Maybe it happened when you were tired from navigating a whole day in downtown Tokyo, and saw a painter sitting on the street, tiny ceramic tile in hand, painting his mind. Maybe it was a short silent film in the middle of a rowdy place, with emotions that you recognised and words you substituted for your own.

Will we always remember these lone beauties that deserve a unique place in our memories? I say yes, we will. After all, what is art if it doesn’t tie us to our experience of that time, in that place? Who wants to remember sitting at their laptop in their room when they discovered the book/song/movie that changed their life?

Like anything else, art struggles to be heard. But good art never struggles. A writer once said, ‘In art as in love, instinct is enough.’ We know this. Just that sometimes, it’s hard to get there. In other words, this is the war of finding the one.

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Why Young People Don’t Need God (Or Whoever’s Out There)

Today, 68 per cent of Generation Y-ers can firmly state that they have never doubted the existence of God. This figure seems high, until you compare it to the same study done five years ago, at 83 per cent. And there is nothing to indicate that this percentage isn’t still on the decline.

Michele Boorstein of the Washington Post reported that ‘the percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, and those who do are increasingly identifying themselves without traditional denomination labels.’ Nor is this a lifecycle effect, meaning that as people age, they take recourse to religious belief: studies on generational patterns show that ‘the Millennial generation is far less religious than were other preceding generations when they were the same age years ago.’

Pew Research Center, American Values Survey

Source: Pew Research Center

What I want to know is this: how hard is it be religious, or irreligious in our world today? In a free society bombarded with competing claims on our political, economic, cultural, social attitudes, how much space do we have for religious freedom? These statistics seem to tell us that the answer is none to little. If this is true, then what is the alternative, and is it enough?

As a young girl I often accompanied my friends to church; I attended a Baptist primary school and later, an Anglican high school, both where learning R.E. and going to Mass was compulsory. Later on, when my father embraced Buddhism in his forties, I was exposed to another widely different set of religious customs and values. To this day, I identify somewhat as an atheist, meaning I reject the existence of god/s – but I draw from the teachings of both religions openly – I do, for example, believe in being a good Samaritan, karma, and I’m still very undecided about reincarnation. We had medieval crusades and the purging of Catholics and Protestants. Is this crisis of atheism now a common theme amongst young people?

As fiercely independent Gen Y-ers who thrive on technology and media, we are the first generation born with freedom of information at our fingertips. Our umbilical cords may as well have been internet modems connecting us to the wise, wide world. Modern media forces are the tip of the iceberg of information revolution, which does precisely that: it informs us of the multitudes of views and facts out there. Some of these might even be opposing views to those taught to us by our teachers, parents or religious practitioners. This might explain why young people can increasingly take control of their beliefs, and seek the vast amount of diverse information available out there. In secular Australia, where church and state function independently, everyone enjoys freedom of religion without fear of discrimination or hatred, and this includes the freedom of religious conversion also. This is a different story in non-secular societies like Saudi Arabia or Iraq where freedom of religion, though constitutionally protected, still faces massive cultural hurdles. So political liberty to choose or leave your own religion might contribute to the decline of religious affiliation in Western countries compared to in the Middle East.

But here, religion is no longer a dominant part of the lives of most Gen Y-ers. Instead of religion and morality, our everyday existence has slowly been taken over by the modern logic of capitalism and global consumerism. Education, intellectual self-development and professional achievement is held as the highest standard of man; religion is viewed as backward and irrational. More than this; science is commonly referred to as the primary authority on humankind’s biological evolution. In a world where the scientific method is the guiding light to enlightenment, where can a young person find the personal and social freedom to uphold his or her own religious beliefs?

Wherever you look, the most common answer is in the family and community. The conditions for religious faith are deeply entrenched in our cultural systems, and an ever-important structure of the family unit. Strong community bonds forged through years of churchgoing and participation are lifelong, and give a young person the opportunity to deepen his or her faith. The hereditary nature of religious belief is also understated: How many Christians do you know were born into Christian families?

On the other side of the argument, atheism is not a religion; it has no church or ceremony. It is the denial of God, the absolute inverse of religion. To get to the depth of atheism, you have to evaluate the appeal of irreligion, or No Faith as it is sometimes known. According to Reuters, the no-religion group is the fastest growing religious affiliation category. Each year 1.3 million more adults claim identification with ‘no religious affiliation’. American economist and atheist Bryan Caplan gives a blunt and uncompromising statement on why he considers religious believers to be irrational.

They:

  • accept their religious beliefs with little or no evidence
  • accept religious beliefs that are contrary to the evidence
  • accept religious beliefs without studying competing views
  • are certain about religious beliefs that are dubious at best, and
  • accept their religious beliefs not because they are intellectually compelling, but because they are emotionally comforting.

Once we examine these points though, an important question arises: does atheism relieve the anxiety, isolation and disappointment that many seek to soothe through God, community and prayer? Most of us already live as if there are no gods. Atheists may have the upper hand on ideological justification – not satisfied with the rationale of believing anything, they opt to believe in nothing – but this lonely superiority could leave them feeling more bereft than their religious counterparts.

Perhaps we do reject brick and mortar religious institutions but we can’t deny that spirituality is something we all feel strongly. A friend of mine, a staunch atheist who was recently forced to sleep at the airport due to unforeseen circumstances, chose the Airport Prayer Room as his refuge that night. He jokingly insisted that philosophy was his religion, and as we were in the midst of phone conversation that night, he considered ‘all philosophical discussions a form of prayer’. Another friend has on occasions cited kindness as her religion.

Can these simple moral philosophies really take the place of entire belief systems? Why or why not?

Finally, I want to point out that alternatives to religion do exist if you’re after existential validation. Humanist and agnostic theories are not mere negations of religion, but pose sound arguments of their own. You may like to read about some of them here.

To end this off, religion is fast waning in a world of…well, trivial pursuit. This is unrelated to the intensity of faith of those who do declare themselves to be devoutly religious. But those numbers are steadily decreasing. Maybe it’s a matter of political liberty and choice, maybe it’s the media opening up more corners of the world to us. But at the end of the day no matter what you believe in, it should matter what kind of person you strive to be. And this is true for all of us regardless of religion or irreligion.

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The soloist

The start of Spring, and I find myself seated in the Hamer Hall yet again. The last time I was in this very same recital hall was for Year 8 Presentation Night. Lengthy renovations on the Arts Centre discontinued Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performances under its roof, then in June finally reopened to a dazzling inaugural season. If not on acoustics, then I am expecting at least a fresh lease on the seating and decor. The highlights of the night will be the Dvořák cello concerto and Tchaikovsky’s famous Pathétique.

I’ve been going ever since I was a child. I love everything about it. I love the low murmuring of the audience that interweaves with the cacophony of tuning strings. I love the fierce, surging dance of the conductor. I love the way the soloist always comes back three or four times to thunderous applause, with an encore if we’re lucky. I love how being generations younger than everyone else in the audience is the most secure feeling I’ve ever experienced, because it foretells a promise that I will be taken care of in old age too, in this world of muted footsteps on rich burgundy carpet, glass tinkling and enlightened laughter.

Last time I went with a good friend J, we sat next to a little old Russian lady and her husband. She engaged us in exhaustless chatter throughout the break and in between movements with a smattering of her life story; retired journalist, travelling for fifteen years. She told us to think of her if we ever went to Paris, her favourite city, and asked if we were married (!).

Here at Hamer Hall the soloist, a retiring man with a greying mop of hair in a traditional button-up Chinese collar suit, keeps adjusting his glasses and wiping his hands on his suit trousers. After he changes the position of the cello for the fourth time, I am starting to feel nervous for him as well.

The end of the first movement beckons, and he begins to play. As he bows with precision to die for, I am struck by how his whole body tremors, his hair shakes ecstatically to an almost comical degree; I can’t help smiling. When I went to see them perform the Rachmaninov piano concertos a few months ago the force with which the soloist worked the piano took my breath away. At certain points though, the delicate sequences would be overpowered by the full majesty of the orchestra, something I can’t help emphasising with. When I used to play, and we were mounting a crescendo, nothing on earth could stop us from reaching the full climax that was ours. This time it could not be more different – lovely carved phrases, full resonant body. Not a single quaver goes unheard, nor a beat drowned in insignificance.

As I sit in the audience I’m very moved because I’ve never heard this orchestra play this energetically before. The orchestra has lost the singular quality of its different parts and has taken on a seamless togetherness, white, never-ending. Angles pronounce themselves with brilliant clarity: the straight back of the third desk violinist, the taut line from elbow to wrist. Technical virtuosity never ceases to amaze me, but the depth of passion, always veiled by the resolute control with which the musician holds himself, is something I will die trying to grasp. With nothing to focus on visually for the next two hours, my eyes involuntarily zero in on the minutiae of the orchestral anatomy. Curly brown hair escaping from a tightly coiled braid. E is drawing birds next to me.

An hour in, and E and I are utterly absorbed. I’m not voyeuristically spectating some detached group making noise anymore. Maybe it’s because we’re sitting 10 metres away from the stage? Or maybe it’s Tchaikovsky. My grandfather loved his music too, the sombre notes that don’t ever paint a complete picture but rather express such exquisite, astounding complexity, courting the mystical, the fathomless, the inexpressible dream from another life. Music really is to the soul what rain is to the desert.

Heartbreakingly beautiful. Oh to be a chair in this room and live in here forever. An elegant old lady near us turns from side to side, beaming, ‘I had tears running down my face’, she exclaims to her seat partners. The old man behind us gives a standing ovation, he is the only one in the hall to do so. He stands for five minutes, for as long as the applause lasts. Interval, 20 minutes. As if by a collective body clock, everyone trickles back in for the last piece, tutti sans soloist. A few minutes settled into our seats, and the usherette motions down our row, ‘Anywhere you like, anywhere really’. The soloist stands at the end of her arm – the man who moments earlier had us all entranced by his beautiful magic on stage – has chosen to sit among us in unified appreciation of the final piece. There are gasps, ‘well done’, ‘good on you’, ‘magnificent’. The humble Chinese artist, surrounded by admiring Australian seniors, bows and receives the praise quietly.

We get up to leave, but I want to hang back, get in a few words if I can. He makes his way down the row, signing people’s brochures. At last he’s in front of us, I tell him it was beautiful, I loved it. I ask if he has a name for his cello, he laughs and says in his polite, accented English ‘not yet’.

It’s a night to remember, as I am starting to realise all these are. How wonderful it is to bask in the classical sometimes, to revel in history’s success. I don’t have to understand it. I don’t have to analyse it. To simply sit back and listen.

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Forgetting George Bush

Again, hilarity. HBO’s Bill Maher on the Tea Party’s collective amnesia about its recently expelled, failed creations George Bush and Sarah Palin but to name a few.

Castro’s daughter flips hair into fame

Adorable 3 year old daughter of Julian Castro werkin’ it at the Democratic Convention. Hilariously cute. 😀

What should we think about ‘Innocence of Muslims’?

In the past week, the death of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens has become irrevocably linked with the outbreak of a crude video attacking Islamic Prophet Muhammad.

The video, ‘Innocence of Muslims’ directed by Californian Muslimphobe, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, was blamed for mass protests in Libya and Egypt of an anti-American nature, which included storming of the U.S. embassy in the Libyan capital of Benghazi symbolically on the eleventh anniversary of September 11 attacks, killing Stevens and three of his embassy staff.

Reactions worldwide have been fairly unanimous in outrage and condemnation of the short, 13 minute video. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy called for the prosecution of the U.S. filmmakers, and appeals were made to the United Nations to formally forbid the denigration of religious faiths.

However, by doing this objectors also inadvertently call for revision to U.S. constitutional laws and its wider, cultural values of liberty and individual rights. In America, where federal and state laws protect freedom of speech without exception, even ‘hate speech’, the publishing of material inciting hatred, is perfectly legal under the First Amendment.

In other, less democratic libertarian societies such as the recently politically re-birthed countries Egypt and Libya, the dominating Islamic faith can be equally as authoritative as constitutional law. What this means is that rudimentary videos – or comments, or essays, or songs, or anything – disrespecting the Prophet are faced with public cries to terminate the source of offense, rather than treating the video merely as ‘hate speech’, to be condemned, certainly but not as impetus for killing four innocent Americans. Notably, Mohammed Hamdy, commentator of a popular Egyptian Salafist television station al-Nas, publicly announced that ‘an apology is not enough. I want them convicted.’

Meanwhile, U.S. authorities have scrambled to smooth over diplomatic relations with both Arab states, and tried to salvage its image as a peaceful, democracy-bearing intervener in the Middle East. This is probably a dismal prospect I would say, as after blatant U.S. support of corrupt Arab dictatorships, violent and protracted occupations of two nations (one that was justified on fabricated evidence at that), you can bet that anti-American sentiment is going through the roof. White House officials have also requested Google to remove the original video, and to consider whether the video had breached Youtube guidelines.

On a socially constructive level, it could be argued that the removal of such a video could prevent the further spread of dangerous hate speech and ease U.S./Coptic Christian/Islamic tensions in flash points of conflict across the Middle East.

In its submission guidelines, Youtube states intolerance for hate content:

We encourage free speech and defend everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view. But we don’t permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, sexual orientation/gender identity, or their status as a returned soldier).

Is this purely a matter of offending the wrong people? We all know that religious sensitivities are not the same as political bias and support or football team loyalty, but should they be? Up until last century, political ideologues like Nazis, Stalinists, Chinese communists would have reacted with similar violence to public slander. Yet since then, Western political factions have of course managed to moderate their reactions to public dissent.

As much as it would be easy to directly eliminate what is seen as the source of violence, blocking the video doesn’t solve the root of the problem. This should be a fight against extremism. We should, as we do now, continue to embrace freedom of religion, and while such freedoms come with the inevitable conflict and antagonisms of diverse believers coexisting in a single society, we should tolerate and sort these out with each other. Simply shutting down voices everywhere because of their potential to offend is surely an insult to our capacity to overlook and forgive.

Should Google Inc remove such inflammatory videos from Youtube? What do you think?

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Quiet girl in a loud world

I don’t know if any of you know, but one third to one half of us all are introverts – it’s true. And this is a fact that should speak loudly on our behalf (I identify as one myself beyond all doubt). However until recently, it was a fact that I sought to hide from myself, and especially others. To strangers, the go-to first impression I am always eager to project is one of good cheer and gregariousness. This is not to say that these are completely unnatural figments of my personality – many of my friends would describe me as bubbly and friendly (I hope). But they are definitely extensions of the personality I comfortably live in on a day-to-day basis when with close friends and family.

Sometimes the strain of trying to appear louder-than-life and carefree is exhausting, which always seemed to me a worrying abnormality when we know from pop culture and entertainment how delightful and easy it is – and should be – to make new acquaintances. In the movies, the best buddies always seem to hit it off after a string of blithe, lively banter requiring hardly any effort – and isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Of course, my friends all either fulfilled this Type A Extrovert personality or were busy projecting the same personalities as me (something I know now for certain), and so we got through most of high school without ever breaching this topic. Now, I wonder if these thoughts ran through their minds too – insecurities not of appearance or intelligence, but of personality: Am I being too quiet? Should I talk more? Am I boring her? – and the answer, at least on the part of most introverts – is yes, they did.

So, why is it so undeniably necessary to be, or at the very least, appear loud-spoken, enthusiastic, and ultra-sociable at first meeting – and subsequently at every meeting after that? It’s a standard that we hold ourselves to, our peers hold us to, and our employers hold us to. All that the behaviour I outlined above does is to show that us introverts are extremely skilled at pretending to be extroverts. So why is being an extrovert so important in our society today?

Firstly, let’s clear up any confusion in our definitions of ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’. Introvert, contrary to common opinion, does not refer to anti-social tendency or even shyness. An introvert displays a preference for solitude, and as a usual development will show distaste for small talk, favouring instead deep discussions over subjects of interest. S/he will have a small band of close friends, as opposed to the extrovert’s broadly extensive social network. S/he will likely communicate better through writing than speaking. And all that this comes down to, psychologists argue, is the body and mind’s reaction to external stimuli. Introverts feel comfortable at a low level of stimuli, for example feeling pleasantly buzzed over a quiet dinner date or a cozy night in curled up with a book (what I found interesting also was that introverts were more receptive and likely to be moved by a piece of classical music, or a beautifully turned out phrase. This might also explains why introverts have stereotypically been accorded interests like reading, or painting).

It is equally interesting to discover that introverts typically have higher levels of internal stimuli – which explains their lower capacity to deal with external stimuli. High internal stimuli may manifest itself in having a rich inner life, think: thoughts ideas poems imagination. Still, this matter of difference in stimuli tolerance has placed introverts at a striking disadvantage in the political economy; many, if they cannot change their ways to fit the extrovert model, are undervalued in the work force. How many job vacancies demand criteria such as ‘outgoing, fun, able to work in teams’, when these qualities, dare I say it, are no indicator whatsoever of the ability and productivity of the employee? So why do we so much want our friends, lovers and workers to be extroverts?

Of course, the search for an answer always begins with a book, and this time it came in the succint, beautiful white-matte bound title ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking‘ by Susan Cain. After delving into the extensive psychological and sociological research done by Cain, I was armed with some extremely arguable points.

  1. Extroverts are more likeable. Their open demeanour and highly-charged power personalities make them instantly relatable, and able to strike up friendships no matter where. Note however that this has no actual bearing on qualities like honesty, authenticity and integrity. Of course, personality types like introvert/extrovert are entirely distinct from moral character and values – what makes up you, inside. After getting to know an introvert for a longer period of time, you might find that s/he is just as friendly, thoughtful and insightful on areas that extroverts may have missed.
  2. Extroverts speak up. This is, indeed, perhaps one of the extrovert’s greatest assets and the introvert’s greatest weaknesses. The desire to avoid conflict, or attract too much focused attention on oneself prevents the introvert from expressing many of her/his valuable ideas, while the extrovert will inevitably be credited for her/his, as s/he is heard for it.
  3. Extroverts speak well. Confidence is key. However, I would here like to point out a favourite quote of mine from Voltaire:

Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.

Life is inherently unpredictable, full of uncertainties and ambiguities. How can one proclaim to be full of conviction all the time, and how can others believe him? Good presentation skills do not necessarily equate to good ideas, and indeed it is potentially dangerous for someone to merit all the attention on the basis of her/his speaking skills, especially in situations where caution should be duly exercised (See: the GFC).

Intuitively, we should all know that introverts AND extroverts are equal in every sense of the word; they do, however, have different ways of expression and styles of action.

Let’s not overlook the shy violets and wallflowers of our classrooms and offices. Each of us has our own valuable contributions to bring to the table, whether we pound it with our fists or quietly take notes on it. So next time you notice someone who is conspicuously or inconspicuously introverted, don’t shine the spotlight on her. Observe her quietly, talk to her, and appreciate her mind.

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