Notes on the Olympics

August 25, 2008 at 2:56 pm (Uncategorized)

If as Clausewitz once wrote, “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” what then would he have made of sports?

Everyone seems to agree the Olympics were a sight to be seen, and they were certainly hard to miss.  I’m not a big fan of sports. I usually watch soccer during the World Cup or tennis during Wimbledon, but I wouldn’t really describe myself as a follower. My general take is to agree with Orwell in his essay on sports

I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.

Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved. it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.

— the Sporting Spirit 1945

That said, whenever I came across the Olympics when flipping channels, I often found myself watching. There’s just something about the competition between perfectly trained human beings in this format which makes it difficult to turn away. My kids, 8 and 4, are both hooked: Both of them chanted “Go Canada Go!” with increasing regularity and volume.

My favourite moments had little to do with sports though…

Cold War Redux

I constantly had to check the date on the calendar during the games. The mainstream media seemed to view this year’s Olympics as a chance to dust off all the Cold War Rhetoric which had lain unused for two decades. On Saturday, the Toronto Globe and Mail headlined “China’s Totalitarian Success.” Granted China maintains an exceedingly short leash of “democratic” freedoms, but totalitarian? A few nights ago I saw former Bob’s Your Uncle and current CBC commentator Suk Yin Lee interviewing Chinese punk bands. The segment even included footage from punk clubs.  Totalitarian seems hardly the word. A lot of the language that used to be addressed at the former Soviet Union is simply re-directed toward China.

Come Back Milli Vanilli All is Forgiven

The decision to substitute a very cute child with unknown singing capabilities (to me anyway), for a cute child with proven singing abilities has provoked somewhat of a tempest in a teapot. Yes, it’s not a very nice thing to do, but it’s the singer who should feel angry. The reaction seems a little overblown.  Looking through my CDs and albums, I own not a small number of “live” records which feature studio enhancements – Phil Ochs’ “In Concert” features several tracks actually recorded in the studio. And I shall not mention the laugh track which accompanies almost every US sit com.

Award for Unconscious Humour

Nicholas Kristoff wrote an extremely funny column in the New York Times last week about applying for a protest permit in Beijing. When he applied he was asked the names of everyone who would be attending the protest. He gave up.  It struck me as hysterical, that in many cases people who took the government at face value and applied for a permit were later arrested. Was it simply entrapment or Hundred Flowers Mark II?

Coverage (part 1)

An article published in the Toronto Globe and Mail last week reported that after the 2000 Sydney Olympics held in September, US broadcasters met with Olympics officials and demanded that the games never be held in September again. The reason? They felt that the lower number of viewers was due to the fact that more people are home in the summer than in September. A September Olympics also clashed with US sporting events: Fewer viewers, less money. Can’t have that. From the coverage I saw, the NBC was a little more gracious when showing other countries competing than in the past, but as Anthony Lane put it in the New Yorker, ” what NBC chooses to broadcast is not the Olympic Games. They offer selected clips of selected American athletes, largely in major sports, sometimes hours after the event, whereas, if the bruised Olympic ideal still means anything, it means loosing yourself, for a couple of weeks, from the bonds of your immediate loyalties and tastes.”

Coverage (part2)

On my Olympic journey, I came across women’s beach volleyball. Now leaving aside my qualms about whetther or not beach vollyball was really an Olympic sport, I couldn’t fail to notice that all the competitors were wearing bikinis. Later, when the men played, surprise surprise they were not wearing speedos, but shirts and the curiously named long board shorts. It couldn’t really be the obvious explanation could it?


I work in a place which has a large number of recent immigrants from China. Everyone was bursting with pride about the Olympics. “Did you see the opening ceremonies?”, “I am so proud.” and so on. It’s always puzzled me. When the Toronto Blue Jays won the misnamed World Series twice in a row in the mid-1990s, no one bought me a beer because I was from Toronto. I didn’t know any of the athletes on the team (few if any were actually from Toronto – not that that would have made any difference), my boss didn’t give me a raise. Yet, as Orwell noted above, for many people it’s a siginifcant source of pride.

However, this pride also has an ugly side. Often love of “your” team becomes hatred of the other team, especially if the player or players “look different” from “us.” (Yes, that’s exactly what I mean).  But it can also be extended to when a player from “our” side doesn’t win. When I was a kid, the joke was always that the Soviet players who failed were sent to the “salt mines.” The case of liu Xiang is a good one. While the government has publically stood behind him, internat boards and newspaper letters columns are filled with insulting and hateful language.

That Sporting Spirit

The prediction was for dozens of people caught doping, but it was only a dozen. I’ve occasionally wondered about a steroid Olympics where all the competitors MUST take drugs: let’s see how fast you can go, how much you can lift, how high you can jump, before you die of cancer, heart attacks or whatever else these drugs will do to you.

But the awards for ironic spirit must go to Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian for rejecting his medal after he felt he had been unfairly judged, and Ángel Valodia Matos Fuentes for kicking a referee in the face. Honourable mention to the Spanish basketball teams.

Conspiracy Theory

Yesterday’s New York Times magazine featured an interview with former Democratic Party presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich. In the piece Kucinich suggests that Georgia’s actions in South Ossetia were a part of the Bush administration’s “War Olympics”,  and that this may be a prelude to a strike against Iran, just in time for November.   

There, and I didn’t even mention Tibet or Darfur.

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Mark Steele

August 23, 2008 at 2:06 pm (Uncategorized)

A recent post on the From Despair to Where? blog Reflections on Blogging quotes comedian and former SWP (UK) member Mark Steel from a book he wrote after leaving the Cliffites.

“[We need to] recognise that the very worst course of action in these circumstances would probably be to start up a new far-left socialist group, as if we’re just one short of the number of groups we need. Apart from anything else, there are no names left as every permutation of the words socialist, communist, worker, power, party and group has been taken. So a new group would need a random word thrown in and have to call itself something like the ‘Socialist Perpendicular Party’. ”

My local library didn’t have Reasons to be Cheerful , but I did find a copy of Steel’s stand-up history of the French Revolution  Vive le Revolution . It’s a witty account, but I think my favourite observation, right in time for the Olympic post coming up later this weekend, is this one:

“The left can be bafflingly puritanical at times. I once heard a political meeting entitled “Will there be Sports under Socialism?” The speaker informed us there wouldn’t be any desire for sports in a socialist society, as everyone would seek more fulfilling desires, such as back-packing. So all the struggle through the centruies will be worthwhile in the end, when our prize is to spend all day up in the hills with a thermos and a fucking compass.”

(Vive le Revolution p. 219)  

Now, my question is, was it a Socialist Workers Party or Socialist Party of Great Britain meeting?

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Leaflet on the war in Georgia

August 16, 2008 at 9:24 pm (Uncategorized)

Leaflet by a Russian anarcho-syndicalist group.




The eruption of military actions between Georgia and South Ossetia threatens to develop into a large-scale war between Georgia supported by NATO on the one hand, and the Russian state on the other. Thousands of people are already killed and wounded – principally, peaceful inhabitants; whole cities and settlements have been wiped out. The society has beed flooded with muddy streams of a nationalist and chauvinistic hysteria.


As always and everywhere in conflicts between the states, there is not and cannot be the righteous in new Caucasian war – there are only the guilty. The coals which have been fanned for years now have caused a military fire. The Saakashvili regime in Georgia keeps two thirds of population in poverty, and the greater internal discontent in the country this causes, the more it desires to find a way out from the deadlock in the form of a “small victorious war” in the hope, that it can write everything off. The government of Russia is full of determination to keep the hegemony in the Caucasus. Today they pretend to bethe defender of weak, but their hypocrisy is abundantly clear: in fact, Saakashvili only repeats what the Putinist soldiery did in Chechnya 9 years ago. Ruling circles of both Ossetias and Abkhazia aspire to strengthen their role as exclusive allies of Russia in the region, and at the same time to rally the impoverished population around the tested torch of the “national idea” and “rescue the people”. Leaders of the USA, the European states and NATO, on the contrary, wish to weaken the influence of their Russian rivals in the Caucasus as much as possible to provide to themselves with control over fuel resources and their transport. Thus, we became witnesses and victims of the next coil of world opposition in struggle for power, oil and gas.


This fight does not bring to working people – Georgians, Ossets, Abkhasians or Russians – anything, except for blood and tears, incalculable disasters and deprivation. We express our deep sympathy to the friends and relatives of the victims, to the people which have beenleft without a roof over their head and means of subsistence as a result of this war.


We shouldn’t fall under the influence of nationalist demagogy which demands unity with “our” government, flying the flag of “protecting the homeland”. The main enemy of the simple people is not the poor brothers and sisters on the other side of the border or of other nationality. Their enemie are the rulers and bosses of all kinds, presidents and ministers, businessmen and generals, those who generate wars for the sake of multiplying power and riches. We call on the working people in Russia, Ossetias, Abkhazia and Georgia to reject the bait of nationalism and patriotism and to turn the anger on rulers and the rich on both sides of the border.


Russian, Georgian, Ossetic and Abkhazian soldiers! Do not obey the orders of your commanders! Turn your weapon against those who sent you ti war! Do not shoot the soldiers of your “opponent” – fraternize with them: a bayonet in the ground!


Working people in the rear! Sabotage military efforts, leave to go to meetings and demonstrations against the war, organize yourselves and strike against it!


No to the war and to its organizers – rulers and richmen! Yes to solidarity of working people across borders and the front lines!


Federation of Education, Science and Technical Workers, CRAS-IWA


This declaration is open for signatures

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Music Notes – August

August 12, 2008 at 2:13 am (Uncategorized)

Where does the summer go? Yeah I know, I missed July. Anyway here’s a few things of note.

1. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Dig Lazarus Dig

What do you do after you make an almost perfect record like Abattoir Blues/the Lyre of Orpheus? Hard to follow up.  Instead, Cave and some of his buddies grew moustaches and turned into Grinderman. The sensibility of that record informs this disc, and Cave sounds as if he’s enjoying himself. It’s a looser, even poppier sound throughout, but which contains  Cave’s distinctive style.

2. Spiritualized – Songs in A&E

It took me a long time to discover/get into Spacemen 3 and later Spiritualized. Jason Pierce has come a long way since those early Spacemen days, but it was worth following him. Songs in A & E deals with Pierce’s brush with death, but it combines those lyrics with gorgeous arrangements and harmonies. (and a few rockers too).

3. I-tunes 

 Well, I-Tunes is probably horribly uncool, but I spend a fair bit of time browsing the selection. On the one hand, I’m shocked by what they don’t have (that Slit’s recording of Man Next Door; for example), but on the other, I’m shocked by what they do have.

I mean, Nobby Clegg and the Civilians Essay: Me Dad, and the 102 Band’s Working on the Radio are available there. The Nobby Clegg song appeared on a compilation called Toronto Calling, and as far as I know is available nowhere else. It’s song in a  folksy style with a nostalgia for the "old" working class, and in particular the singer’s father.

The 102 Band song is another I remember from listening to CFNYin the early 80’s  when it was still called The Spirit of Radio (Yes, Rush wrote the song as a tribute), and long before all this modern Rock or Alternative Edge nonsense.  Written as a joke, the song celebrates the little indie station with the immortal couplet:

“We won’t play a record just because it’s a hit/but we love new wave and the punk girls’ tits”

Oh and you can buy Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music for $4.49! Amazing

4. Exclaim

Canada’s monthly music newspaper. Nothing spectacular in the issue, but it comes out every month, it covers new music and has lots and lots of reviews.

5. 2 Many Djs

A Soulwax side project . I was never a big fan of dance music, but combining Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s Push it with No Fun makes so much sense. Hardly new, but if anyone knows where I can find a copy of the CD, let me know.

6. The Future is Unwritten – The Joe Strummer movie. I was 15 when Sid Vicious died. I didn’t feel much as we were all expecting it (my sister laughed and said good.) I felt somewhat sad when Johnny Thunders died (although I did see him play – he wasn’t very good). When Joe Strummer died it was a complete shock, and I felt a genuine sense of loss: As if I’d lost someone close.  

The Future is Unwritten is Julian Temple’s movie/tribute to Strummer. Anyone who was a fan of the Clash should see this movie. Lots of interviews and recollections from the Class of 77, and an amazing amount of video new to me.  The DVD is a little skimpy on the extras, but a good investment.

After watching (or maybe before watching) you should read Chris Salewicz’sbiography Redemption Song.

 7. Superchunk – Tossing Seeds

Was there ever as perfect a singles band as Superchunk? (OK, the Buzzcocks) I own the first three Superchunk albums, and while they have highs, they also drag in places.  On the 7 inch however, Superchunk were peerless. Tossing Seeds is a collection of Superchunksingles. Six singles, 13 songs including Slack Motherfucker Cool and the sublime Cast Iron.  

8. Rolling Stones – You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Soulwax Remix)

I sometimes think Mick Jagger would agree to just about any use of Stones material as long as the cheque cleared. That said, the blending of this Stones classic with electronica is a work of genius. Sure to outrage Stones fans who will no doubt object to this as sacrilege, it’s wonderful. Maybe Jagger’s not so bad after all. On the soundtrack to 21.

9. Natacha Atlas – Ana Hina

I don’t believe in God, but if someone wanted to make the argument of God’s existence based on the beauty of Natacha Atlas’ voice, I’d have trouble countering it. 

I saw Natacha Atlas in Toronto two years ago performing an acoustic set in English, French and Arabic, and it was simply mesmerizing. I have no idea what the songs are about, but the rhythm, and that voice just pull you in.

This album is an acoustic set of wonderful wonderful tunes. You can hear some of them at her myspace page

10. Luna – Luna Live

Another band I somehow missed out on. Dreamy pop that reminds me of, oh I don’t know, the Velvets third album and a lot more good stuff. A great cover of Serge Gainsberg’s Bonnie and Clyde rounds things out.

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Definitions of Class

August 10, 2008 at 4:11 pm (Uncategorized)

This from Aldous Huxley’s 1923 novel, Antic Hay. An interesting insight into the way class works on a micro level.

“Gumbril nodded. He himself had envied his securer friends their power of ignoring the humanity of those who were not of their class. To do that really well, one must always have lived in a large house full of clockwork servants; one must never have been short of money, never at a restaurant ordered the cheaper thing instead of the more delicious; one must never have regarded a policeman as anything but one’s paid defender against the lower orders, never for a moment have doubted one’s divine right to do, within the accepted limits, exactly what one liked without a further thought to anything or anyone but  one’s own enjoyment.”

Antic Hay is also notable for the presence of a tailor, Mr Bojanus, who seeks a clientele of “the Best People”  but who is also “a great admirer of Lenin” and expects class habits to be the great undoing of many of his clients.

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