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Oh, America!

October 29, 2011

Tariq Ali

More from the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, October 2011

We should judge people not by their niceness or intelligence, says Tariq Ali, but by what they do. On this basis Barack Obama is a huge disappointment.

Tariq Ali was speaking at the Ubud Writers Festival about his latest book, The Obama Syndrome, which catalogues the ways Obama had outdone Bush, for example by increasing drone attacks. In June 2009, at the same time as the US criticised the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan in the Iran election protests, a drone strike on a funeral in Pakistan killed possibly 50 non-combatants, mainly women and children.

Ali is also concerned about the sudden, serious decline in living standards in the US over the past ten years, especially among African-Americans. Since the end of the Cold War and competition from Communism, he said, Capitalism has become less accommodating to protecting poor people. Domestic policies are subject to the power of lobby groups: the US spends more on health than anyone else, but most of it is on pharmaceuticals.

Ali’s latest novel, Night of the Golden Butterfly, is the fifth in his Islam Quintet. Unlike his polemical non-fiction, his fiction comes from deep inside him – his subconscious begins to talk, he said. He wrote the first novel in the quintet as a response to the West’s widespread ignorance about the history of Islamic civilisations.

In another session, ABC journalist Andrew Fowler discussed his book about Julian Assange, The Most Dangerous Man in the World. Again Obama’s record was criticised: during his watch there has been more action against whistleblowers than under any other President in history.

I believe Wikileaks has done both good and harm – good by revealing matters kept secret because of potential embarrassment rather than national security, and harm by carelessness in releasing names of people who may face reprisals. I also felt that Assange was precious about his own secrets, but Andrew Fowler explained his rationale: Assange believes in people’s right to have secrets plus people’s rights to know state secrets. Fowler said it is rare for a techo to be able to articulate political ideas and to combine brilliant technology, clarity of thinking and political vision in the way Assange has done.

Shirley Lim

America, and especially its President, did get some bad press in sessions like these. But in the final session of the festival, Crossing Cultural Divides, writers from various parts of the world discussed why they now live in the US. 

Writer and English Professor Shirley Lim was born in Malacca but is grateful to have landed in the US, because there she can be something she can’t be in Malaysia. She first went on a Fulbright scholarship to do her PhD, which would have been impossible in her home country for a woman from an impoverished background, especially a woman of Chinese descent. After her studies, she would have returned, but Malaysia did not want her. Seventh-generation Chinese are still called immigrants, while Indonesian migrants become bumiputera as soon as they arrive.

Shirley Lim said, “The US has the oxygen for us organisms to grow. While much is wrong in America, in the end it will always bend towards justice.”

Book illustrator Edel Rodriquez made the crossing from Cuba to Miami as a nine-year-old in 1980. “There is no place like America for being able to do what you want to do,” he said. “You don’t need family connections to get ahead.”

Chris Abani

Nigerian writer Chris Abani (see previous post, link here) has many reservations about Western culture, but said that what he is drawn to in the US is informality. “Other societies are more complex and you have to negotiate protocols, but in America you can interact in a freer way,” he said. “You can invent yourself.”

When Abani’s English mother came to visit him in America, he took her to a restaurant. After the hip young waiter explained the menu, she asked her son what language the waiter had spoken.

“English,” Abani said.

“Oh, Americans,” she said. “We gave them a language. I wish they would use it.”

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