Author Archives: ALP

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Landscapes of Power – Moscow

Peter the Great Statue, MoscowBy Alexander Leo Phillips

On Tuesday 28th September Yuri Luzhkov was sacked after 18 years as Moscow’s mayor.  Given the secretive nature of Russian politics, the ongoing spat between Luzhkov and Putin/Medvedev was unusual  not only for its viciousness, but also for the publicity it received.  Accused of mismanagement and corruption he was offered a simple choice – jump or be pushed.  The charges against him have yet to be proven, with supporters claiming that it was his popularity which saw him removed, as he was seen as a threat to the Kremlin.

Luzhkov came to power as the Iron Curtin fell and since that time oversaw the massive redevelopments of Moscow’s centre and the establishment of a new financial district.  These changes attracted a great deal of praise, but also their fair share of criticism due to the destruction of historic landmarks that the redevelopments left in their wake.   However, the most visible legacy of his power is doubtlessly the ‘300 years of the Russian Fleet’ monument, more commonly known as the Peter the Great Statue (pictured).

Standing taller and heaver than the Statue of Liberty the monument has been voted the 10th ugliest structure on the planet and become a symbol of Luzhkov’s  power. Now that he has finally been ousted plans are afoot to dismantle it and move it away from the public gaze.  Such a move can be read simply as the removal of a controversial work of art, or as something more sinister as the power of Kremlin exerts itself beyond its traditional boundaries. After all, Muscovites have been left with little doubt that their new mayor will be someone with a little more official approval.

The role architecture plays in the domination of landscapes is nothing new to Human Geography.  Across the globe Geographers have studied how the design of buildings has been implemented to give an unrivalled physicality to the power relationships which dictate the political, economic and cultural structures which inhabit our built environment.  In Transactions’ current issue Maria Kaika has explored London’s changing skyline and how its shift from the traditional to revolutionary designs like the Swiss-Re tower (the Gherkin) is symptomatic of the recent institutional reconfigurations of the Corporation of London.  She argues that “the internationalisation of London’s economy after the 1970s challenged the Corporation’s insular character… [And responding to the threats from ‘foreign companies’] the Corporation reinvented itself with an institutional reform [strategy,] and re-branded its identity… as an outward-looking institution, open to London’s new transnational élites” (2010:453).

Kiaka, M. 2010. ‘Architecture and crisis: re-inventing the icon, re-imag(in)ing London and re-branding the City’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 35 (4), pp. 453-474.

Profile of Yuri Luzhkov.

More information on the ‘Peter the Great Statue’.

Political Coverage

By Alexander Leo Phillips

As I write this I’m watching David  Cameron deliver his first Conference speech as Prime Minister.  This is naturally a big event for him; not only is it the first time a Conservative Prime Minster has addressed the Party Conference since 1996, but it also comes at a difficult time for the party itself and wider Britain.

Over the past few weeks of ‘conference season’ we’ve witnessed the Liberal Democrats confuse themselves as they struggle to reconcile the problems of finally tasting power, along with the poisonous knowledge that power has been achieved through the betrayal of many long-standing principles.  Similarly we have seen the alleged death of New Labour and the general bafflement of MPs as they try to comprehend just how they’ve managed the elect the ‘wrong Miliband’.

The Prime Minister’s problems however, are intensified by the burden of government.  The coalition has upset many in the party’s right-wing and has pushed the party too far to the political ‘centre’ than many would have liked.  As a result it has been alleged that the Conservative Party could be on the march towards a state of civil war, which could see the coalition strained not by blue/yellow splits, but by blue/blue splits (see Rawnsley).

Conferences themselves have numerous functions (most of which hold little interest to non-members).  However, one of the most significant is the opportunity to transmit their policies to the wider public in the hope of securing votes.  It is at this point where the power of the media becomes paramount.  Each conference is almost guaranteed to lead the nightly news headlines along with networks like the BBC and Sky offering live rolling coverage and analysis throughout the day.  Geographers Smeltzer and Lepawsky address this point by investigating the important role “[m]ainstream and alternative media play  … in circulating powerful narratives within and often beyond a country’s borders” (2008:86).  Although they’re work focuses upon the Malaysian elections of the last decade, they’re argument and conclusions can be applied just as interestingly to the UK or elsewhere throughout the political calendar. The rise of political blogging through sites such as this, along with countless others; has provided an ever expanding platform of expression upon which people can spout their political views and read the ramblings of others.  A quick look to America and the success of groups like ‘The Young Turks’ provide and effective example of this, as the views of their videos and blogs rival that of the major news networks.

Such coverage raises important questions about ‘framing’.  In the battle for viewers/readers many media organisations have become increasingly partisan in the way they chose to frame their political coverage.  Smeltzer and Lepawsky address this issue of framing by focusing on the relationship between ICT and the electoral process and question the political implications of this framing activity.

Smeltzer, S. and Lepawsky, J. 2008. ‘Foregrounding technology over politics? Media framings of federal elections in Malaysia’, Area. Vol 42 (1). pp. 86-95.

Andrew Rawnsley’s Political Commentary: The Guardian/Observer

The Young Turks website

Undergraduate Fieldtrips

Student Interviewing Gun Shop Owner In 2006

By Alexander Leo Phillips

By the time of publication I will be nearing the end of assisting upon a human geography undergraduate field trip.  Not a great deal has changed since I took the trip as a (slightly less) naive undergraduate back in 2006; which has led me to wonder about what tools we now have available to enhance the experience?

Some may cynically claim that their main justification is to act as a recruiting tool (and many would say their right); after all what kind of enthusiastic A-level student wouldn’t be tempted by a trip to New York or New Zealand. Details of such trips are often included as main open day themes as a result.  On the other hand they provide students with an important opportunity to employ various practical research techniques and link ‘textbook’ examples to the ‘real world’; something which can be easily lost in the lecture hall.

With the ever increasing virtual possibilities made available to us through various technological achievements, its likely that Virtual Field Trips (VFTs) will play a greater role in university curricula in future years. Stainfield et al explored the value of such trips back in 2000 and given the increasing economic stress placed upon students and universities, along with the ever improving technological capabilities, its likely that supporting VFTs will become increasing common place.  Few would suggest that they will ever replace the actual trips, but it would be interesting to explore their potential to enhance what we currently have and how things have changed since the 2000 paper.

Stainfield, J. Fisher, P. Ford, B. Solem, M. 2000. ‘International Virtual Field Trips: A New Direction?’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education. Vol 24 (2). pp. 255-262.

The Rise of Hate and the Battle for Understanding

By Alexander Leo Phillips

Those of us who follow the news will be no strangers to the controversy surrounding the proposed Park 51 Community Centre in Lower Manhattan.  Also known as the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (despite being neither a Mosque nor located at ‘Ground Zero’), the project has led to numerous claims that its a signal of the ‘victorious Islamic take-over of America’.  Given it’s true nature, the project is  naturally supported by President Obama; or has a member of the Tea Party Nation likes to call him as a result the “Muslim crypto-commie usurper”.

Emotions are running high this week as Saturday marks the 9th anniversary of the 11th September, 2001 terrorist attacks, which so painfully defined the last decade.  To the mark the occasion a small Florida church known as the Dove World Outreach Centre (DWOC (an ironic title as we’ll see)) has propelled itself into the media spotlight by holding an ‘International Burn a Koran Day’; after all little invokes the image of doves and outreach quite like a good old book burning, just ask the Nazis!

Their intentions have rightly sparked a sense of horror and disapproval from many Americans, with General Petraeus stating that the action “could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort [of American foreign policy]” (BBC).  Sadly, along with the Park 51 project and the rising levels of ‘ hate crimes’ like the Jacksonville Mosque pipe bomb perpetrated in the US, this action appears symptomatic of the wider issue of Islamophobia which fails to go away.  As a direct result of the DWOC’s plans the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have recently launched a new campaign to battle what it terms as the “growing anti-Muslim bigotry in American society”. This ‘bigotry’ is indeed widespread amongst a vocal minority and is increasingly backed up by elements of America’s right-wing media outlets, politicians and fringe religious organisations.

In the current issue of Transactions, Dr. Nick Megoran details how the ‘Reconciliation Walks’  project has acted to transform the “deeply entrenched geopolitical understanding[s]” (2010:395) of those who participated in them. Furthermore, it demonstrates how just the simplest acts of genuine outreach and understanding work to easily destroy pre-existing feelings of fear and mistrust.

As many geographers with an interest in politics and religion would argue, both are often inseparable.  Indeed religious groups can act as a positive force as Dr. Megoran’s paper implies; but I feel its equally important to remain mindful that the opposite is often just as true as the DWOC so shamefully demonstrates.  Furthermore, I suggest that our work is largely wasted if we don’t in some way conduct some ‘outreach’ activities ourselves, in order to help end these circles of hate, lies and fear.

For more information on Park51: http://www.cordobainitiative.org/

For more information on the DWOC: http://www.doveworld.org/

For more information on CAIR: http://www.cair.com/ArticleDetails.aspx?ArticleID=26609&&name=n&&currPage=1

N, Megoran, 2010. “Towards a geography of peace: pacific geopolitics and evangelical Christian crusade apologies”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 35 (3). pp. 382-398.

You expect me to talk? No Mr Bond I expect you to buy

SIS (MI6) Headquarters, London

By Alexander Leo Phillips

We were reminded today about the grim realities of life in the global intelligence community, with the discovery of a thus far unidentified body in a London flat.  Such stories have become increasingly  common place since the end of the Cold War, as many governments have opened up (relativity speaking) and comment more regularly upon matters of state intelligence.  So much so in fact, its now often forgotten that the British Government only recently publicly acknowledged the very existence of SIS. Now they even have an official website.

Before this time the complexities of international espionage were a mystery to the general public.  All we had to go on were the entertainment industries best attempts to turn this unknown world into an exciting (and often slightly camp)  two hours of fast cars, women and guns.  In such a world James Bond was never puzzled by the ill defined notion of the Britain he was fighting for, nor was he ever concerned by his carbon footprint.  As a result, many could be said to hold an overly romanticised image of this world; as something they can buy into for its ‘promises’ of thrills, excitement  and sex.

Stijn Reijnders has explored the increasing profitable world of James Bond tourism in Area’s September 2010 issue.  In it he details the journeys of 007 “pilgrims” as they visit various locations from Bond films across London and the wider world.  From a simple door way to SIS headquarters itself, these pilgrims relive their favourite Bond moments; wishing, if only for an instant, to be part of that world.  However, it seems unlikely to me that these same fans would find as much joy reflecting upon locations like Piccadilly’s Itsu sushi restaurant.

Reijnders, S. 2010. ‘On the trail of 007: media pilgrimages into the world of James Bond’, Area, 42 (3). pp. 369 – 377.

A Special Relationship?

By Alexander Leo Phillips

Originally coined by Winston Churchill in 1946, the ‘Special Relationship’ between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America has been tested in recent months. With splits in Middle East policy, the BP oil spill and anti-UK rhetoric by the US administration; it appears to some that maintaining the closest of ties to the US is no longer in the UK’s national interest.  So much so that a committee of MPs have even suggested that the term be officially dropped in all UK documentation.  They concluded that “the overuse of the phrase by some politicians and many in the media serves simultaneously to de-value its meaning and to raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the UK.”

It’s been clear for many years now that the balance of global power has shifted away from the once dominate United States to the emerging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies, who look set to dictate the course of the 21st Century.  The UK has embraced this transition with unrivaled vigor and sort closer links with these nations. India in particular has been the target of Britain’s new coalition government; exemplified by Prime Minister Cameron’s visit there last week where he stated his intent to “take the relationship between India and Britain to the next level. [He] want[s] to make it stronger, wider and deeper.”

Britain’s ever evolving relationship with the USA has long been of interest to Human Geographers, focusing in particular on how the UK has situated itself as a bridge between America and European states such as France and Germany.  This relationship has been charted by Simon Tate in Area, who suggests that the diplomatic failures of the former Labour government where the result of an outdated geopolitical strategy.

Tate, S. 2009. ‘The high wire act: a comparison of British transatlantic foreign policies in the Second World War and the war in Iraq, 2001-2003’, Area, 41 (2). pp. 207 – 218.


Islamic Finance

By Alexander Leo Phillips

Public confidence in the banking sector has been significantly shaken over recent years.  Given the turmoil caused by the global financial crisis, the depression and the public bail-outs of banks like RBS and Northern Rock; the raising levels of doubt and mistrust are hardly surprising.  Furthermore, such doubts show little sign of abating this week, as seven EU banks fail newly imposed ‘stress tests‘ by the Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS).  As a result increasing numbers are looking for an alternative form of banking in which to invest and Islamic finance could just fit the bill.

Unlike the traditional banking sector, Islamic banking is based upon a strict set of principles; the central of which is that “money itself has no intrinsic value. [Also] as a matter of faith, a Muslim cannot lend money to, or receive money from someone and expect to benefit – interest (known as riba) is not allowed. To make money from money is forbidden – wealth can only be generated through legitimate trade and investment in assets. Money must be used in a productive way” (IBB).  As a result of this central principle Islamic finance is considered more stable (as the temptation to risk in search of profit is reduced) and more ethically appealing to many private savers and investors dismayed by increased profits and bankers bonuses.  Moreover, Pollard (2010) suggests that many organisations like the IBB, are attempting to market themselves as ‘ethical banks’ in areas such as the EU and USA which could otherwise be sceptical of the Islamic name.

In a recent issue of Area geographers Bassons, Derudder and Witlox detail the global spread of the Islamic finance model in recent years, charting how Islamic financial services have moved out of their historical base in the cities of the Middle East and become “anchored in the more conventional world cities” (2010, 44) of London and Paris, challenging our pre-existing geographical imaginations of the global financial sector.

These changes should be of great interest of all Human Geographers, as they offer a potentially fruitful intersection between social & cultural, political and economic geographical research; as we explore how the actions and values of the individual impact upon these globalised networks.

Bassons, D, Derudder, B and Witlox, F. 2010. ‘Searching for the Mecca of finance: Islamic financial services and the world city network’, Area, 42 (1). pp. 35-46.

Pollard, J. 2010. Faith in Economic Geography: some reflections on Islamic finance. In: Geographies of Religion: a new dialogue, Newcastle University, 9th March 2010.