January 15th, 2009


Is your daily paper transvaluing values?

As 2009 dawned, I found myself rearranging my newspaper bookmarks. The website of UK newspaper The Guardian has been my main -- almost exclusive -- newspaper site for years; I hit the front page several times a day. But this year, for various reasons, I've felt the need to see whether I can replace The Guardian with something else. I turned to two rather odd newspapers, The International Herald Tribune and the Japan Times.

These papers are odd because they're, in some way, parachuted into the cities they're based in, Paris and Tokyo. They're both English-language papers in non-English-speaking capitals, and there's a blurriness and precariousness in their identity which I find, actually, very valuable, and which matches something in my own. I also like a certain quietness and restraint in their manner. Until fairly recently, the culture section of the Japan Times, for instance, was dominated by a column on yakimono pottery.

The International Herald Tribune (the only newspaper I've ever heard David Bowie endorse, incidentally) may speak English, but its outlook is cosmopolitan. It's linked with Monocle magazine and The New York Times. But it also covers Paris rather well; there's an interesting video story today (very much in the style of the video reports on the Monocle site) about the progress of new Paris art centre Le CentQuatre. The lead story on the paper's front page this morning was a style story: In the lap of luxury, Paris squirms. The focus was on how the recession is impacting luxury fashion brands, but I liked the way writer Elaine Sciolino presented this: "The recession brings anxiety to France but also a welcomed values debate on the French way of life."

"Only in France is the recession lauded for posing a crisis in values," writes Sciolino. "There is... an underlying satisfaction here that an era of sometimes vulgar high living is over and that a more bedrock French way of life will emerge. Some French intellectuals want to go much further, calling for the death of the entire luxury industry as a sort of national ritual of purification. "Since the ancient Greeks, luxury goods have always been stamped with the seal of immorality," said Gilles Lipovetsky, a sociologist who has written several books about consumerism. "They represent waste, the superficial, the inequality of wealth. They have no need to exist."

This is a post-materialist message, and it's something I don't find much of in the Anglo papers, even The Guardian. On the front page of The Guardian today we had Dan Black, one of the paper's music tips for 2009 -- a somewhat annoying young man who sounds like an estate agent doing karaoke versions of Britney Spears numbers -- telling the paper that in ten years time "I'll either be swimming in a swimming pool full of champagne and diamonds or crying in a gutter trying to get ten pounds to buy a bag of skag." Black, like Britain, is still oriented to America, to consumerism as a selfish "guilty pleasure", to money-as-drugs, to bling. His vision of his future in Britain is a parody of a high Gini coefficient; he'll either be massively wealthy or homeless.

The cultural coverage in the Japan Times is much more to my taste. In the art section we have Donald Eubank on Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and his work with Brazil's catadores, people who recycle rubbish for a living: "An estimated 3,000-5,000 people live in the dump, 15,000 derive their income from activities related to it, and some that Muniz met in Jardim Gramacho come from families that had been working there for three generations. "These people are at the other end of consumer culture," he says. "I was expecting to see people who were beaten and broken, but they were survivors." His aim — besides the creative challenge — was to see... if the experience of creating art could change people".

There's a sense in both The International Herald Tribune and The Japan Times that the papers know what time it is; that they realise a "transvaluation of all values" (in Nietzsche's phrase) is necessary at this point. Even while it reports David Miliband's important public recognition that the War on Terror was a mistake, The Guardian doesn't seem to have taken this transvaluation thing on board. For instance, a story about a minister who said she saw "green shoots" in the UK economy basically takes for granted that green shoots mean economic growth, and that that's good, and its absence bad. There's no actual green perspective in the green shoots story -- it lacks the angle Sciolino wrote into her IHT story about how economic downturn is an opportunity to rethink priorities.

Another Japan Times story I love today is Antiforeigner discrimination is a right for Japanese people. Here, Gregory Clark plugs -- without mentioning him by name -- the ridiculous Debito Arudou (David Aldwinckle), who has plagued his host country with lawsuits alleging discrimination against foreigners (in, for instance, barring him from certain bathing houses frequented by troublesome Russian sailors). Clark boldly says something I've long believed too: "Japan girai — dislike of Japan — is an allergy that seems to afflict many Westerners here... It is time we admitted that at times the Japanese have the right to discriminate against some foreigners. If they do not, and Japan ends up like our padlocked, mutually suspicious Western societies, we will all be the losers."

What I enjoy here is that an article by a foreigner in a foreign newspaper takes the side of Japanese against foreigners. That seems to express very well the complexity and ambivalence of these cuckoo newspapers, and the awareness, typical of sensitive foreigners, of one's own fragility and awkwardness. This guilt, for me, is at the root of consideration for others. It transcends selfishness, and to achieve it you have to be slightly decentred, as these odd expat papers are. I think their willingness to transvalue values is all tied up with these newspapers' transplanted, lateral, parallax positions in foreign cities.