Four Visions of Evil in the Best Documentary Ever Made

In honour of the fact that Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing, has been rightly awarded a MacArthur Genius Award today — here’s a review I wrote for Beacon last year of the film. I’m very much looking forward to his follow-up The Look of Silence.

Dec 2013:

The Act of Killing has a claim to be not only the film of the year, but one of the best documentaries ever made. By exploring what it takes to be a mass murderer, it offers an unprecedented insight into the human capacity for evil.

The Act of Killing tells the story of the gangsters who helped carry out the killing of up to 2.5 million alleged Communists during the early years of the Indonesia’s military dictatorship in the mid-1960s. But its focus goes far beyond that country’s corrupt and horrific history. Using the unique concept of having these men recreate their crimes, it forces them to truly confront their actions for the first time, and becomes an unprecedented exploration of the human capacity for evil and the coping mechanisms needed to deal with life as a mass murderer.

The film provides us with four friends, each responsible for hundreds of murders and much else besides. I saw them as four archetypes for evil: the true believer, the psychopath, the beast and the fool. Each in their own way, they offer a way to investigate the blurred line between personal and public responsibility – the age-old debate that arises every time a foot-soldier with blood on his hands claims he was ‘just carrying out orders’.

The four men believe they are taking part in a fictional film that will glorify them as outlaw heroes in the mould of James Cagney or John Wayne, who they idolized themselves at the time. They recreate their past lives willingly – boastfully – and they visit the locations of their real crimes, eagerly seeking to refresh their memories for inspiration.

The true believer is Anwar Congo (above). He gleefully recounts how he used to emerge from the cinema hall, still high from the escapist excitement of a film and cross the road to a terrace where he would torture and kill Communists, usually strangling them with a wire to limit the blood. “We were in such a good mood from the film … we would do the killing happily,” he says, with a grin, and goes on to demonstrate his cha-cha-cha dancing skills on the spot where he killed as many as 1,000 people.

Anwar is a true believer because he bought into the propaganda campaign of the day that depicted Communists as evil, bloodthirsty maniacs out to destroy Indonesia. As the film progresses, and he is forced to act out the brutalities he committed for real many years ago, his comforting rationalisations start to erode and he begins to understand why he suffers terrible nightmares. Particularly in scenes where he plays the victim, he starts to see for the first time that his own victims were not some abstract enemy to be destroyed, but real human beings like himself. The dawning realisation of his own evil – often faltering and ambiguous – is one of the greatest narrative arcs in film history.

In stark contrast is the psychopath, a man Adi Zulkadry (above, left). In one of the key exchanges of the film, he and Anwar discuss an anti-Communist propaganda film that was repeatedly forced on every adult and child during the 1960s. Anwar seems to believe in its message, or at least needs to believe in it. Adi knows full well that it is a lie, and is not afraid to say so. He suffers no nightmares, has no feelings of guilt over what he has done. He sees himself as a winner in the political game of life, and his victims as losers. The powerful dictate what is right and wrong; any claims to universal morality are hypocritical and naive. “When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right. Now it is wrong,” he points out. He is a psychopath because he appears to lack all compassion, but even here, we see signs that he still relies on political rationalisations to justify himself.

The other two protagonists are simpler and more brutish, especially Safit Pardede, the beast (driving, below). He is a true monster, a man who gloats over fond memories of the 14-year-olds he raped. He is a classic thug – devoid of charm or basic human decency. He, too, lacks compassion but he has no need to rationalise. He is a primitive brute, and also irredeemable.

The final member of the group is Herman Koto (below). He is presented as a fool – a fat slob who seems content to be the butt of the jokes, often dressed up in the most ridiculous costumes as a woman or a gaudy spirit. It is not surprising, perhaps, that he is the one who, midway through the film, gets approached to be a politician, and happily relates his excitement over all the money he will be able to make in bribes. He is the dupe that can be controlled by more calculating minds. At times, he seems like the one most aware that they have done wrong. When the others start debating whether it’s a good idea to present all of their crimes on film, he fails to see the problem – if it’s the truth, then why hide it, he argues. But he is a follower, easily swayed by his friends, too cowardly to listen to the voice in his head that tells him what he is doing is wrong.

There is so much more to appreciate in this film – the genius of the conceit is matched by its beautiful visuals and morbidly humorous tone. It also presents a terrifying picture of the ongoing problems in Indonesia, since all these gangsters are members of the paramilitary Pancashila Youth which continues to operate as an essentially criminal branch of the state. It has three million members and is involved in everything from smuggling to gambling to extortion, while also suppressing any political dissent to the military-dominated government.

But its greatest gift is to reveal with such unprecedented clarity these four aspects of evil, and the humanity that allows them to exist. As director Joshua Oppenheimer said in one interview: “the big question is whether people have … the courage to see a small part of themselves in Anwar.” These are not strange human anomalies, they are distressingly common. Authoritarian regimes can count on a huge supply of brutes and fools, but they can also count on good men who convince themselves to do wrong.

As a final point, it’s worth noting the indictment of Hollywood that runs as a subtext throughout the film. These men are able to regale in their status as gangsters and outlaws in large part because such characters have been lionized in the American movies they watched with such relish before carrying out many of their crimes. If anyone wonders how they could so happily depict themselves as killers, torturers and criminals, just recall how the Italian mafia has been presented on film. We love the horse’s head in the bed, and the eyeball popped out in the vice; we feel a warm, familial love for Tony Soprano. Real-life maniacs love them, too.

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Why does Europe hate GM food and is it about to change its mind?

Demonstrators stage a sit-in to protest an experiemntal …

Here’s an article I wrote for AFP a couple weeks ago on a very controversial topic. I went into it believing that those who oppose the science of GM food are not so different to people who deny climate change. I tend to trust the scientific method and there seemed little reason to believe that mutations by humans are necessarily any more dangerous than those caused by nature or radiation (which is common).

That’s very different from trusting the agri-business companies who market designer crops around the world. As Greenpeace says in this piece, GM crops are part of a shift towards mass-farming techniques that are problematic. 

From a hack’s point of view, it is hard to get a clear answer on any of this – partly because much remains unclear, but also because everyone seems to be working for someone with a vested interest. The scientists often turn out to have “Monsanto” or “Bayer” in their email addresses, while people pushing for GM foods to be labelled as such often turn out to be working for the (hugely lucrative) organic food lobby. 

Anyway, I tried to stay as objective as possible…


While the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and China and many other countries have warmly embraced genetically modified crops, Europe remains the world’s big holdout.

Could this be about to change? New European Union rules now seek to clear up years of internal deadlock that could, in theory, lead to widespread cultivation of GM foods. But the fight is far from over.

The EU’s great GM debate pits two powerful forces against each other: green campaigners concerned about the effect of the crops on health and the environment, and the agri-business lobby, which argues that Europe, by resisting a technology that boosts yields and rural incomes, is losing its place at the forefront of agricultural innovation.

Only five EU countries grow GM crops at all — Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia -– and in such tiny quantities that they accounted for less than 0.1 percent of global GM cultivation last year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, which monitors the industry.

Europe’s fragmented politics, diverse landscapes and smaller scale farming traditions have made it less compatible with the mass-farming techniques in the Americas and China. Only one type of modified crop – a pest-resistant maize – is approved for cultivation in the EU, compared to 96 commercial licences granted in the United States since 1990, although Europe does import more than 30 million tonnes of GM grain for animal feed each year.

“Europe has perversely condemned itself to importing crops which its farmers could grow locally and banished thousands of bright scientists to other shores for reasons that are scientifically bogus,” claims Brandon Mitchener, a Brussels spokesman for Monsanto, one of the US agribusinesses leading the push for GM crops.

Hoping to find a way out of the deadlock, EU environment ministers last month approved new rules that would permit individual countries to make their own decisions on GM — allowing them to use “ethical” or “public order” rationales to ban crops even when scientific advisors have ruled that these strains are safe.

The compromise was the result of a fraught battle, says Frederic Vincent, health spokesman for the European Commission: “Everyone was blocking the agreement for different reasons. The UK said not enough was left to science, France said too much was left to science, Germany was a mix of both thanks to its complex coalition.”

- Mad cow impact -

Genetic modification technology was not always so controversial in Europe. Even France, now one of its staunchest opponents, grew GM maize well into the 2000s until green protesters pressured the government into a ban.

But Mitchener says the seeds of Europe’s aversion to GM were sown in the 1990s, thanks to two factors in particular: the strength of the Green party in Germany at the crucial moment when the technology was first emerging, and then the scare over mad cow disease in Britain.

“Mad cow disease caused a loss of public confidence in science. You had the British government saying beef was safe, while the EU said the opposite,” he says.

Unlike the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which commands widespread respect in the United States, equivalent bodies in Europe are often treated as pawns of industry or simply ignored, Mitchener adds.

“The tragedy of biotech in Europe is that no one listens to EFSA,” he says, referring to the European Food Safety Authority, a scientific body set up partly in reaction to the mad cow disease confusion. It has consistently stated there is no risk from GM crops.

Pro-GM scientists argue GM is not inherently more dangerous to either the environment or human health than any other method of crop mutation — whether through selective breeding or naturally through evolution.

Or, for that matter, by blasting seeds with radiation, as humans have been doing for decades through the process of “mutagenesis”, hoping to create mutant seeds with useful properties. More than 2,500 crops have been created in this way, including a premium barley used in Scotch whisky and disease-resistant cocoa in Guinean chocolate.

“In fact, GM is actually safer than most forms of breeding because we know exactly which properties are being implanted — it’s much less random,” argues Huw Jones, a GM scientist at Rothamsted Research in the UK.

- Science consensus ‘myth’ -

But Greenpeace, one of the most vocal opponents, dismisses the idea of a scientific consensus on GM safety as “a myth”.

It argues that continued gaps in knowledge about gene manipulation should raise alarm bells, especially as the technology moves beyond single-gene transfers and into more complex experiments.

It also portrays GM technology as a symbol of all that is wrong with modern mass-farming techniques.

“GM crops are presented as a solution, but they are part of the problem. They are a product of a wider agricultural system that is destroying our environment. They lead to more uniformity and even greater economies of scale, when what we need is greater diversity,” says Marco Contiero, EU agricultural policy director for Greenpeace.

That ties in with familiar concerns about the way GM crops are commercialised. It costs the big agrochemical firms such as Monsanto or Bayer around $200 million (140 million euros) to develop the simplest GM seed, Greenpeace says, and that gets recouped through aggressive marketing and monopoly ownership of seeds that have made Monsanto in particular the bête noire of the green movement.

All this means that the newly minted EU deal — due to go before the European Parliament and Council by the end of the year — still faces major obstacles.

Environmentalists such as Jose Bove, a French Green MEP who went on hunger strike in 2008 to force France’s first GM ban, complain the agreement will give gives biotech firm a direct role in lobbying governments, threatens single market principles and does nothing to protect cross-border contamination from GM seeds planted in neighbouring countries.

With the EU still poring over the results of May Euro-elections, it is unclear how the looming political battle will pan out. Even if the GM directive passes, will national governments court the ire of environmental campaigners by permitting large-scale GM cultivation?

“We’re creating organisms that haven’t been created in the whole of history,” says Contiero. “We are not opposed to GM in principle, but this technology is only 20 years old. For that reason, we need to be absolutely cautious.”

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Is fantasy fiction actually any good?

Some friends are responsible for a beautiful new magazine called Holdfast about a subject that I find very difficult to like – fantasy and sci-fi novels – which they call ‘speculative fiction’.

Since most of my experience in this field stems from viewing a few episodes of Game of Thrones (which strikes me primarily as a masturbation-aid for the type of people who have to hand over their lunch money when asked) and what felt like 45 hours of watching Lord of the Rings in the cinema, I am clearly not the natural audience for this stuff. But they gave me a column called The Unbeliever in which they tried to win me over by having me review a trio of their favourite books.

In the end, the competition was a tie. I thought the first book was gibberish and disturbingly rape-obsessed. The second – by Neil Gaiman no less – was pleasant in a trite, Richard Curtis kind of way. The last one – a classic of sci-fi – was actually good.

Here are some links and snippets:

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

… I was more surprised with how obsessed Tender Morsels is with rape. Is this common to a lot of fantasy? If so, I’m not sure I could handle much of it. The book opens with a pretty repulsive account of a midget having sex in a field, which turns out to be the most pleasant sex in the book. It’s followed by an extended discussion of a father’s violent sexual abuse of his daughter. A  couple of aborted fetuses later, and the reader is treated to the same girl being dragged out of a chimney and brutally gang-raped by five adolescents… read more (if, for some reason, you want to)


Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

…What surprised me, then, was that I was not annoyed with the fantasy elements of Anansi Boys – indeed, they tended to be more satisfyingly rough around the edges (e.g. Fat Charlie’s brother gets his tongue ripped out at one stage). What bothered me instead were the overly neat plotlines and tidy conclusions that are a common feature of farce. So this book has warmed me a little to fantasy, but perhaps only because I’ve discovered an even deeper hatred for a whole other genre of fiction… read more


Gateway by Frederik Pohl

…Gateway seems to capture the fading of the hopes and dreams that characterised earlier science fiction. Its protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, is very much a mid-twentieth century kind of hero – practically Woody-Allen-neurotic. No longer excited about man’s quest into space, which had done nothing to alleviate the feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and sexual confusion within… read more

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Lest we remember: the hypocrisy of D-Day celebrations

To criticise the D-Day commemorations is, I discovered the other day, to attract the sort of looks one would reserve for people who kick puppies off tall buildings. Any criticism of D-Day faces an impenetrable line of defence in the form of the veterans, who are unwittingly deployed by world leaders to discourage anyone who may wish to stick a pin in the pompous hypocrisy and self-serving grandiosity in which they indulge at such events.

Let us not pretend all the fuss is just about veterans when the TV coverage spends the majority of its time ruminating about royal costume changes and watching various dignitaries drag children along red carpets.

Politicians have hijacked D-Day, and no wonder. The Second World War is our favourite war in the West. It fits a neat historical narrative of good versus bad, complete with a villain of such exquisitely evil proportions that he seems almost mythical.

But let’s be clear – this was a war to defeat an imperial opponent. It was not a war to overcome the evil in humanity and bring an end to war for all time.

It has become impossible to separate our modern conceptions of evil from Hitler and the Nazis, to the point that the words often lose any real meaning. Nazi analogies get tossed around like confetti. American right-wing commentators are particularly offensive on this point, playing the Nazi card on everything from Obama’s healthcare policies to the closure of car dealerships.

Just as the term ‘Hitler’ has become an abstract concept, so has the Western victory. Particularly in Britain and America, it now stands as proof of our inherent righteousness. For all our faults, for all our many dubious foreign adventures, there is this shining example that shows we are capable of being on the right side of history – plucky underdogs winning the day.

So world leaders love the opportunity to address the D-Day ceremony, wrapping themselves in past glory. Clinton used his speech in 2004 to re-energise his flagging presidency. Obama will be hoping for the same. “Whenever the world makes you cynical – stop and think of these men,” he rather wishfully demanded in Normandy, just as a tsunami of cynicism was building back home over the desultory foreign policy speech he had given a few days earlier and his awkward handling of the Taliban prisoner-swap.

But remembering the good war requires an awful lot of forgetting, not least the fact that the battle against German imperialism was carried out alongside Britain’s battle to protect its own imperialism – then brutally enforced over a fifth of the world’s population.

Hitler’s greatest crime, in the long run, was that he was so evil that he diminished all the other heinous crimes being carried out by the rest of the world’s powers at the same time. Like some sort of monstrous anti-Jesus, he died for our sins (though only so that they may be conveniently forgotten).

Since nothing the British did was as bad as the Holocaust, we are able to dismiss awkward details like the fact that Churchill purposely diverted relief supplies away from India during the Bengal famine that killed between 1.5 million and four million people. Churchill’s racism (“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”) does not quite match up to Hitler’s, so it is white-washed from the pages of history.

“These men waged war so that we might know peace,” Obama said of the veterans last week. How disappointed they must have been, then, to find that Britain’s military was back to work just weeks after the end of the war, this time to help recover the imperial possessions of our Allies. There are few commemorations for the tens of thousands of British forces who invaded Vietnam in September 1945 to crush local resistance and put France back in control, triggering decades of devastating Vietnam wars in the process.

World leaders don’t gather in Indonesia to pay homage to the brave British fighting men who stormed the beaches of Indonesia in December 1945 to restore Dutch colonial power, bombing the hell out of the city of Surabaya and evicting 100,000 people from Bandung before burning between a third and half the city to the ground. (See John Newsinger’s excellent The Blood Never Dried for more on this).

Then there was Britain’s 12-year war starting in 1948 against rebels in Malaya who threatened its lucrative rubber trade. It was during this war that Britain came up with the neat idea of herding tens of thousands of people into internment camps (euphemistically known as ‘model villages’) so that they were unable to fraternise with the enemy.

And then there was the brutal crushing of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. And the plot to seize control of the Suez Canal from Egypt. And on and on and on. Oh, how proud we can be of the lessons learned from D-Day.

But since none of this quite matches up to the total evil of the Nazis, we are still able to construct a historical vision of ourselves as the good guys. It creates a dangerous sense of righteousness that when we go to war – even imperialistic wars for conquest or control – we are doing them somehow for the right reasons.

It is not only the West, of course, that abuses the memory of the Second World War for contemporary advantage. Also on the podium last week was Vladimir Putin, who has emerged as the grand master of exploiting its legacy, constructing a world in which all competitors are Nazis and Russia is forever on the verge of returning to the glorious victories of the 1940s (victories that allowed it to conquer and brutally control half the European continent for half a century, of course).

So it is with the utmost respect to the poor men forced to run at Nazi machine guns on that fateful day in 1944 that the D-Day commemorations leave a sour taste. There is something unpleasant about picking out the one morally sacrosanct victory from a long list of imperial aggressions for special attention, and a sadness that this festival of remembrance demands that so much be forgotten.

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When Muslim radicals DON’T become terrorists (!)

A couple of recent stories have demonstrated the confusion that reigns over the question of Muslim radicalisation in the West.

In the UK, there has been an unseemly scandal about supposed extremism being promoted across a few schools in a heavily Asian area of Birmingham. It has received plenty of high-pitched coverage and political reaction that has brought us nowhere nearer to finding out if there actually is a problem at any of the schools, or whether the schooling just reflected some of the more socially conservative attitudes of its parents, or whether the whole thing was just stirred up by some crackpot with an axe to grind.

In a stupefyingly ill-considered move, the government appointed the former head of counter-terrorism Peter Clarke to look into the matter. As a governor at one of the schools pointed out: ““You cannot blame parents for being upset. The Department for Education ­suspects their children of being ­terrorists.”

Here is the classic case of confusing Muslim social conservatism with potential terrorism. A belief has become deeply implanted in Western policy that thinking radical or even conservative thoughts makes you a possible suicide bomber down the line. The problem with this theory, of course, is that it fails to explain how there can be so many millions of socially conservative or radical Muslims in the world and only a handful of terrorists.

There were more positive developments in New York last week when the police announced they were shutting down one of the products of that belief – a controversial unit that operated a huge spying ring targeting mosques and community groups and bookshops in a desperate bid to find anyone who might say something radical-sounding, who could then be locked up in a Minority Report-style thought crime scenario. In six years, the unit generated precisely zero leads or terrorist investigations: an indication of just how efficient it is to have police investigate people who have yet to commit a crime.

An excellent new book – The Muslims Are Coming! by Arun Kundnani – explores this problem. I reviewed it for the latest issue of The National’s Review magazine. It highlights some of the absurd and worrying reactions of US and UK law enforcement to the belief that conservative Muslims are on a conveyor belt to blowing themselves up.

As I argue in my review, Kundnani’s tone goes a little far. These policies that conflated radical thought with a potential for terrorism were not a conspiracy to demonise Muslims. Rather, they were part of that post-9/11 panic in which few people really understood how the many complex strands of globalised Islam might be linked to this new and poorly understood threat. Many academics and activists were drawn into looking for tell-tale signs of a would-be terrorist – it seemed better than blaming all Muslims. But in the end, it was a fruitless task that tried to fashion an artificial, ‘acceptable’ Islam out of thin air and demonised those who held the ‘wrong’ beliefs.

People are drawn to violence for all sorts of reasons. Religion can be a powerful factor. But Muslims – even the most radical – are far from exceptional in this. There’s a reason the government doesn’t go around interviewing or spying on everyone in the country to find out if they will become murderers at some point in the future. It doesn’t work.

Read my review of Kundnani’s The Muslims Are Coming! in The National here.

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Unfounded hopes and fears in the Indian election


thesigers logo

Here’s a briefing on the Indian election which I prepared for Thesigers


  • Structural reforms to address corruption and unemployment are unlikely regardless of the winner. Frontrunner Narendra Modi promises more effective administration rather than reform.
  • The Congress party’s ambitious legislative agenda has been undermined at the implementation stage, and by the stranglehold of the Gandhi family.
  • Although sectarian groups may be bolstered by his victory, Modi’s Hindu nationalism will be tempered by the need to appeal to a diverse audience.
  • Identity politics remains a major factor, acting as a further brake on reform prospects.

A common discourse around the Indian elections sees the opposition BJP as a right-wing, pro-business party that will return the country to growth, contrasted against the welfare-focused, anti-reform Congress party whose decade in power has allowed the country’s rapid growth rates to wane and steered the country towards economic crisis.

But questions of economic policy are not relevant to the Indian election. Right/left definitions do not apply to India’s political parties, which lack distinctive economic ideologies. Rather, the election has been fought over which party can govern effectively – as measured by the ability to allocate resources for tangible projects with minimal waste and delay. As a result, much-needed structural reforms currently appear unlikely regardless of the victor.

Although the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has generated huge support by speaking the language of empowerment rather than patronage, his party is committed to continuing and even expanding on the Congress party’s welfare programmes, including huge subsidies for food, housing and fuel. Modi has only sought to differentiate himself in terms of his ability to effectively administer these programmes, contrasting himself with the often inept and corrupt handling of welfare schemes – as well as natural resource projects – under the Congress government.

Markets have already factored in a Modi victory, which may lead to disappointing post-election economic results unless his administration takes surprise decisions not included in the manifesto or campaign.

Modi has been helped by the continued stranglehold of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty over the Congress party, which has become a symbol of Delhi’s venal politics, has prevented the ascent of more able young leaders, and has saddled the party with a deeply reluctant and uncharismatic leader in Rahul Gandhi.

The decade of Congress rule has nonetheless left an impressive legislative record, with landmark laws passed on the right to information, land acquisition, forest land rights and much else. Belatedly, it has taken steps to rein in spending and encourage foreign investment – at times in the face of stiff opposition from the BJP. However, implementation has often been a problem.

Modi has not presented any major reform proposals, preferring to concentrate on uncontroversial areas, particularly plans for new infrastructure such as high-speed rail links, increased internet access, and the development of ports and rivers.

It is unclear whether he can address the root cause of delays and corruption, which lies in the continued discretionary power of officials, and the lack of clear and transparent regulatory frameworks. Of late, these have increasingly left honest officials afraid to take decisions for fear they will be accused of graft. Modi has argued he will be able to cut through these delays through sheer will, but he will face a far more complex regulatory mess at the national level than he did in Gujarat.

Neither party has discussed perhaps the most fundamental challenge facing the country – the lack of employment. Highly stringent labour laws have prevented the creation of a large-scale manufacturing sector – vital to absorbing the one million Indians that reach working age every month. Employment remained stagnant during the five years to 2010 when the economy was booming, yet no political party has offered structural reforms to address this central concern. Privatisation, which helped unleash growth in other areas, does not feature in the manifestos of either the BJP or Congress.

Foreign coverage of the election has often focused on Modi’s history of sectarianism, particularly in relation to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat shortly after he became chief minister. Although his accession to the premiership might empower Hindu nationalists, Modi’s desire to appeal across India’s hugely diverse population and build trade ties abroad, will act as a brake on sectarian impulses.

Despite the rhetorical focus on development and governance, the primary consideration in many areas will remain identity – in terms of ethnicity, religion, caste and regional affiliation. At the local level, parties have largely selected candidates that can deliver blocks of voters along these lines. This explains the continued strength of regional parties, who display little interest in structural reform and may act as an obstacle to legislative change or efforts to curb corruption.

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Kurt Cobain and the fatal shock of accidental success

To mark 20 years since the suicide of Kurt Cobain on April 5, 1994:

When In Utero, Nirvana’s last studio album, was released in 1993, it caused an immediate uproar among the easily offended. Walmart sold the album in a plain cover, so appalled were they by the angel on the cover with her intestines exposed. The company also took ignorant offence to the song Rape Me, which they retitled Waif Me.

At the time, Kurt Cobain defended Rape Me by explaining it was an anti-rape song. In his description, it was something like a (much) edgier alternative to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive: “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it,’” he told Spin magazine.

But at other times, he described the motivation in a way that fits more closely with the enduring image of Cobain as the quintessential reluctant rock star. “I get tired of people putting too much meaning into my lyrics,” he told MTV. “They make no sense, so I decided to be really blunt and bold.”

Of the two explanations, the second has always sounded more convincing. Cobain may have wanted to write about people and problems out in the world, but by this stage in his career, he was increasingly drawn inward towards his own personal anger and frustration. What tortured him had little to do with the concerns of real people – he was dealing with the extremely rare problem of being labeled ‘the voice of his generation’.

The album that earned him that unwanted moniker, 1991’s Nevermind, remains an enigma precisely because it’s not clear what exactly made it such a global phenomenon, how it could ever have sold 30 million copies worldwide.

In the end, that question killed Cobain. In his suicide note from 1994, he wrote: “The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me.” He never understood his popularity, or why Nevermind should have been so much better than all the other underground bands from which Nirvana emerged.

In many ways, In Utero was a better representation of the singer’s vision – its serrated production style, its visual imagery of disease and death, and Cobain’s direct lyrical attacks on the music industry, the critics and his own anxieties. But its self-consciousness gives it away, often sounding like a band desperate to stay outside the mainstream, while knowing that this is no longer possible in a world where Nevermind had redefined the mainstream in its own image.

As great an album as it is, In Utero is shot through with the bitterness of this realisation. It’s there in the opening line of the album: “Teenage angst has paid off well, Now I’m bored and old” and it reaches its peak at the midway point, Dumb, with its disingenuous claim – “I think I’m dumb, maybe just happy”. Cobain was neither dumb nor particularly happy – this was him sneering back at all those who had placed him on a pedestal as a prophet of adolescent turmoil.

Step back to Nevermind, and for all the screaming, wild abandon, it is notable how little bitterness or genuine anger is present in the song-writing. In fact, there is remarkably little to read into any of the lyrics at all. Of all the great leftfield anthems in rock history, few can match Smells Like Teen Spirit for sheer meaninglessness. For almost the entire record, the words emerge as little more than doodles, fragments of teenage rambling – half-baked ideas and contrasts that go nowhere and mean nothing: “I’m worse at what I do best”, “We can plant a house, we can build a tree”, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you”, and finally, towards the end of the album, Cobain just gives up and admits: “What the hell am I trying to say?”

If Nevermind is about anything, it is about the raw, unbridled energy of youth – an energy that is inchoate and confused and looking for somewhere to unleash itself, but has no idea where or how. It coincided with a time when youthful rebellion had few avenues left to explore – Communism had failed, the rampant capitalism of the 1980s appeared unstoppable, people were living far more comfortable lives. Unlike the hippie movement of the 1960s or punk in the 1970s, Nirvana’s music contained no hint of politics – it spoke to a generation that had no plans to change the world. Instead, it turned rebellion inwards, stripping it down to its core components of emotion and group belonging.

Because it was about energy, and not lyrics, Cobain created a very different persona to other ‘voices of their generation’ such as Dylan or Bowie or Morrisey. Cobain was more a conduit for the feelings of his generation than their poet laureate. The result is that Nirvana’s rise appears like a historical fluke – a brief flash in which a number of ingredients came together suddenly and spectacularly, and ignited something much greater than could have been predicted.

Some of those ingredients are easily recognised – Dave Grohl’s thunderous drumming, or the immediately catchy chord sequences and melodies (“like nursery rhymes”, Cobain once said). But what actually turned Nevermind into a global phenomenon – and what made it impossible to reproduce despite millions of attempts over the next decade – was something which was basically pure luck: the voice.

Somehow, Kurt Cobain’s voice mainlined directly into the restless, desperate energy of the young in a way that made every other band seem artificial in comparison. Quite by accident, he had just the right amount of scratchiness and breathiness, just the right touch of girly squeal and gravelly roar. His voice caught on just the right notes. It could sound sad and excited and sarcastic and honest all at the same time, and when he screamed, it went straight into your stomach and twisted your intestines in a way that released every bit of tension your adolescent insecurities had built up.

That caught Cobain unawares, and it eventually led to his demise. His voice was not manufactured – it just came out that way. And when the world reacts to something as arbitrary as the timbre and cadence of your vocal chords by turning you into a global icon, and that in turn creates a marketing phenomenon that goes against every principle of rebellious, underground music you believe in, it is no surprise that he felt so undeserving, and ultimately, a fake and a charlatan that could not live with himself. The irony is that his death only added to the myth that surrounds that voice, so that, all these years later, for those of us who heard it for the first time in the right time and place, it can still twist our stomachs into a knot and release that youthful excitement that comes from feeling totally uncertain about the future but absolutely free as a result.

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