Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Los Angeles

Behind enemy lines

Everywhere I go in Los Angeles I am reminded of America's essentially militarist nature. From the stealth bomber display in Exposition Park to the special rates at the circus for seniors, students and military personnel, the armed forces seem to underpin American society. And of course it is the young men and sometimes women of these Latino, black and poor white ghetttoes that I am bussing through that serve as the cannon fodder for that military machine.

The TV news over the last few nights has been dominated by three such soldiers, convicted last year of the summary execution in March 2007 of suspected guerillas in Iraq. CNN acquired videotapes of their interrogation, and the main thrust of their defence, and the media comment has been that the blame for those murders lies with the top brass. Not because they have been encouraging summary execution, mind you, but because soldiers in Iraq have recently been issued with instructions that when they detain suspected insurgents they need to provide some evidence of the alleged crime when they hand them over to be locked up: photos of the scene, eyewitness accounts, phyical evidence and things of that nature. Criticism has rightly (if lightly) touched on the lack of training on how to collect evidence and the reasonableness of expecting soldiers in the field to collect evidence of criminal activity in the middle of a war zone. This, of course, is the consequence of refusing to treat your opponents as POWs instead of criminals. However, the greater focus has been on the frustration of soldiers who detain Iraqis they suspect of being involved in attacks on US troops, only to see them released and back on the streets some time later. The few proponents for the policy given a voice on mainstream TV reply that you just can't lock people up indefinitely without actual evidence of criminal activity – although it need not be to the standard of 'beyond reasonable doubt' it would seem.

“When is the dividing line between armed conflict and murder crossed?” CNN asks rhetorically, arguing that it is understandable for US soldiers to march detainees into a gully and shoot them in the back of the head if they think that they are likely to be released if taken in for detention. They cite the release of some 75,000 of the approximately 86,000 people detained (roughly from memory) as evidence that the frustration is valid and that the evidence gathering policy is too onerous. The possibility that those people were released because there was little reason to think they were actually involved in attacks on US troops, beyond being in the vicinity when panicked troops were rounding people up, did not come up much in discussion.

The interesting thing as an observer was to see the studied avoidance by those both for and against the new policy of the principle underlying problem. These people are not criminals engaged in violent crime, in the normal sense of the word. They are guerillas fighting a foreign occupying army with whatever pitiful weapons they have at their disposal. Whatever you think of Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda or the tactics being used, that is the essential reality. You either set up concentration camps for vast numbers of civilians on the basis that they are involved in or support the insurgency (a fine tradition begun by the British fighting Boers in South Africa and perfected by German and more recently Serbian forces in Europe) or you figure a way to get the hell out with as little loss of life and face as possible. I guess that is where the US administration is at, but CNN et al have not quite caught up with the play.

Why do museums make my legs ache?

Its weird – I can walk for a reasonable length of time on the street or on a track, but wandering round a museum or art gallery for a couple of hours just kills me. Fascination battled fatigue and aching limbs today at the California African American Museum where we wandered a small but engaging display of African American history in California. Some very fine art works by Faith Ringgold and Willaim Pajaud particularly moved me, as did the photographs, film, music and spoken poetry covering the bebop and beatnik movements. The sheer creative outpouring and entrepreneurialism of black americans in those periods was inspiring, as they invented new art forms and musical styles and established and took control of their own venues. All this was brought to a rapid and seemingly deliberate end as the city decided to 'assist' poor black people by bulldozing whole blocks of Fillmore in San Fransisco, the area at the centre of this vibrant cultural spring, and relocating people to the suburbs.

A particular gem for me was coming across the name of Bob Kaufman. I've read a bit of Ginsberg and Kerouac, but hadn't heard of Kaufman until today. What I heard of his work was wonderful, although much of his poetry was spontaneous public performance and never recorded. Apparently much of what survives is due to his wife hurriedly writing down his words as he orated at a restaurant or bar or in private, although a cache of writings was found miraculously preserved in the attic of a building that burned down, although the entire place was otherwise destroyed. Great stuff, and a museum worth visiting.

We also visited the Getty Centre, an architecturally very interesting space with an impressive collection of works. Poor Pirimaia found it hard going (tips on how to make visits to art galleries more interesting for 6 years olds most welcome) but after spending over an hour on the bus to get there we weren't inclined to rush. In any case the collection was worth spending time on, ranging from painting and pastels / watercolours to tapestry and French decorative arts of the 1700's to sculture and a guide to forging bronze. The exhibitions richly demonstrated how European art developed over the last few hundred years, although without delving into contemporary work. My only critical comment is that it was a shame to visit yet another gallery which seems to be based on the theory that only European heritage art is worthy of collection and display. We largely suffer from the same myopia in New Zealand, and although do we have a heightened awareness of Maori artforms since Te Maori we still seem to ignore the rich artistic traditions of the vast majority of the world.

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