Monday, March 30, 2009

the bureaucracy america loves

americans claim to hate bureaucracy, but isn't it interesting that the institution that gets the most respect in national polls is the military. which, i shouldn't really need to point out, is a bureaucracy. americans love its professionalism and efficiency and dedication to goals. and yet, most americans myopically claim that the state cannot do anything well. except, apparently, for running this magnificent bureaucracy.

why is it that people who love and respect the military are unable to see it as the arm of government that it is? why are these people unable to believe that the government that created this incredible institution (with lots of money) can create other, just as excellent institutions? they answer: just look at other government bureaucracies. they run terribly.

but this is selective reasoning and self-fulfilling prophecy. these other bureaucracies are badly funded and demoralized. of course they are no good. their awfulness is no proof that government cannot do anything well. in these areas, government (with the people behind it) has not been allowed to do things well. if the people in charge the last 30 years (including the clintons) believe government cannot do anything well, then the political will to do well does not exist. it is just expecting, and planning for, failure.

ever since reagan, the one part of bureaucracy and government that was believed in was the military. and guess what? it was well-funded, praised, and supported. and voila -- it functions well. this is the real lesson of what governments can and cannot do: they do what people want them to do. this simplistic idea that government is either "good" or "bad" regardless of context is absurd. it is what we will it to be. and for the last 30 years we have elected people who willed it to fail. and guess what? it did fail -- except in the military.

here's hoping that we will it to succeed in more important ways, such as health care and education. it is not fair that only soldiers get the benefits of a well-running bureaucracy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

last day in baltimore

we spent a delightful, exhausting four days in baltimore (and DC) with mom and dad. we cooked dumplings, prune pie, curry chicken, and a few more things.

DC in plum blossoms

paca house, annapolis

in the irish pub, annapolis

a beautiful murder

seen in baltimore's walters museum, a rennaissance painting by a french artist (the candlelight master, whose name i cannot remember) of a bible story of a woman (judith?) who saves her city by getting the general of the besieging canaanite army drunk and cutting off his head.


baltimore church

white christmas

last week sara and i watched this 1954 nostalgia piece with my parents in Baltimore. it was interesting to see the many set song and dance routines, especially the climactic one in which the old general's former soldiers, gathered from around the country, line up and sing "we love him, we love him," and submit to his "inspection."

psychologically, there is a powerful desire for the authoritarian but caring father figure: the general walks between the two rows of men, barking "you're soft! you're no good!" but when he mounts the stage and turns, he says, "and i can't think of a more wonderful sight."

there was a longing for the order, hierarchy, and intimacy of wartime, both for soldiers and civilians, if i read this film and its popularity right. and spectacles of order such as "white christmas" fulfilled this desire. it reminds me of the popularity among older taiwanese people of carefully choreographed spectacles such as the Ciji Buddhist organization's various ceremonies and meetings. these meetings always feature lines of monks, nuns, and volunteers garbed in various uniforms, moving about in orderly ways. the 90s was quite stressful for these people -- society went nuts, often literally, with the media in the lead.

back to "white christmas," several other dance pieces are modernistic las vegas-type acts, with many synchronized dancers, mainly women, dancing in lines or formations, almost in a mechanistic (if frenetic) way. the effect is one of abstraction and coldness. i am reminded of the odd 'dream dance' sequence in "singin' in the rain." these pieces seem to be aesthetic claims for modern mass culture on the cusp of tv, but represented on stage. but they are emotionally dead. the viewers yawn (at least we did).

contrast these cold pieces with what was, for me, the most affectively charged mass or crowd scene in the film: seeing the ex-soldiers piling off the train in Pine Tree, Vermont, to surprise their old general. the scene is one of delightful chaos, of shouting and backslapping, collisions and recognitions, happy noise and camaraderie. the freedom in this scene is almost primal, and points to the homoaffective draw of the military experience. contrast this scene not only with the modernistic (feminine) dance sequences, but also with the mock inspection carried out by the general later on. the loving chaos is brought to order by the stern old man.

there are plenty of fun scenes in this movie, but those were the culturally striking ones for me.

Monday, March 16, 2009

our torturers

this is the end of an article by Mark Danner about the torture carried out by this great country against suspected terrorists. the accounts come from confidential red cross interviews held with the men.

From everything we know, many or all of these men deserve to be tried and punished — to be “brought to justice,” as President Bush vowed they would be. The fact that judges, military or civilian, throw out cases of prisoners who have been tortured — and have already done so at Guantánamo — means it is highly unlikely that they will be brought to justice anytime soon.

For the men who have committed great crimes, this seems to mark perhaps the most important and consequential sense in which “torture doesn’t work.” The use of torture deprives the society whose laws have been so egregiously violated of the possibility of rendering justice. Torture destroys justice. Torture in effect relinquishes this sacred right in exchange for speculative benefits whose value is, at the least, much disputed.

As I write, it is impossible to know definitively what benefits — in intelligence, in national security, in disrupting Al Qaeda — the president’s approval of use of an “alternative set of procedures” might have brought to the United States. Only a thorough investigation, which we are now promised, much belatedly, by the Senate Intelligence Committee, can determine that.

What we can say with certainty, in the wake of the Red Cross report, is that the United States tortured prisoners and that the Bush administration, including the president himself, explicitly and aggressively denied that fact. We can also say that the decision to torture, in a political war with militant Islam, harmed American interests by destroying the democratic and Constitutional reputation of the United States, undermining its liberal sympathizers in the Muslim world and helping materially in the recruitment of young Muslims to the extremist cause. By deciding to torture, we freely chose to embrace the caricature they had made of us. The consequences of this choice, legal, political and moral, now confront us. Time and elections are not enough to make them go away.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


my friend hojun's son Elliot, coming in the door, with mom Sujong behind him. we fed them pizza and strawberry pie. Hojun is in the last painful stretch of his dissertation.

curious house, new haven

snowy east wharf

march came in like a lion.

gram and water

jaimey's grandma, at friendly's in north haven.

Friday, March 13, 2009

the nastiness of bodies

the other night sara and i were watching a comic named Retta on comedy central. one of her routines was on her call for men to shave their armpits -- or at least to use aerosol deodorants. this thought occurred to her years before when she attended an LL Cool J concert and he, shirtless, raised his arms. she recoiled at the sight, not of the hair, but of the caked up bits of deodorant dangling from the hairs. how she described her disgust was to resort to food comparisons: J had "crumbled up a double-stuf Oreo" and mashed it around; he was indulging in "feta cheese." the cheese comparison closed the piece, and was meant to hit us in the gut with the utter nastiness.

sara, next to me, said, "you americans and your food thing." we often turn to food comparisons to magnify and describe the disgusting nature of the human body. she had mentioned this to me before, and it makes me wonder what is at work culturally. saying a woman has "cottage cheese thighs" is not only meant to depict a woman as fat but to make the fact of fat utterly nauseating to the listener. i am sure there is also a moral element to this all, something maybe from the puritans, a disgust for the body in general but especially for a "lazy" body (as if fat people do not work).

feta cheese, oreo cookies, and cottage cheese do not cause revulsion when mentioned in normal contexts. but a strange alchemy occurs when they are used to describe the body.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

lady to woman

as one grows up, there are all kinds of shifts in word usage, some subtle, others fraught with awkwardness and even anxiety. these shifts are done to signify maturity. i remember at a certain age, probably between 11 and 14, growing aware that the word "lady," which i used to refer to adult females, indicated childishness. but i felt strange saying the word "woman."

i don't know why this was so. is it because i did not feel myself a "man," woman's counterpart? was i unwilling to take on the role of adult? did use of the word "woman" indicate, at least implicitly, an adult sexuality i was loathe to admit?

over time i forced myself to use it, and got used to it.

there are all kinds of words for which one can recall an early pang of oddity or novelty -- words one thought were always only meant for other, older people, but which all of a sudden were on the tip of one's tongue. "wonderful," "delightful," and such words, i can recall viewing with some disdain for their gushing sentiment, their softness, their overripe adulthood. but then i used them in time. although, to be honest, i will still rarely use them in speaking -- "wonderful" still strikes me as overblown, a cheap plug, too soft for meaning. on the other hand, i use "nice" which is even more vague than wonderful. but "nice" is more reserved, laconic, which i feel more comfortable with.

with slang, i am always suspicious of words that take everyone by storm: awesome, grody, wicked at various times in the 80s. "sweet," "rockin" in the 90s. but it seems that once the tide passed, i was (am) only too eager to snap them up and use them myself. maybe this only shows that my disdain for the words is false, indicating in fact a secret desire to be like everyone else. and once it is fading, my secret desire can be fulfilled.

but i think that interest has passed. i cringed hearing my nephew say "its all good" a few years ago. phrases like this, whether derived from hip hop or country, disgust me as much as crazes for mediocre singers or "musicians." isn't it the same mad desire to love something along with millions of others, regardless of the quality of the loved object?

maybe after a certain age, that longing for connection with others has been satiated, and one turns a more chilly, discerning eye on the things being hoisted up for desire or admiration. most "sex symbols," frankly, make me gag (another past slang word) -- look at pamela anderson, britney, reese, angelina, whoever up close, and you see either bizarrely, grotesquely exaggerated facial features (pamela, angelina), or utterly common ones.

sweet potato pizza

yesterday my friend and classmate Hojun came to visit, with his wife Sujong and baby Elliot. i made pizza, using Janice's dough recipe (pioneered here by Scott). Sujong stood watching me make it, and asked me, "do you know koguma?"

"koguma, koguma," i said, rolling the familiar shape of the sound around and around my mind, but unable to recall the meaning.

"sweet potato," she said, remembering the english. "in korea, they make sweet potato pizzas." interesting.

in korea, as in taiwan, the sweet potato conjures up all sorts of down-home memories of poor childhoods, and has become symbolic of native authenticity and the down-to-earth. i remember a middle school student nicknamed "koguma" for the shape of his head. and like all of them, he bowed good-humoredly under this gentle linguistic abuse.

Monday, March 2, 2009

internet TV

ahh, the joys of internet TV. i say this not because i love watching TV but because i wandered the world in my twenties, learning (and partly learning) several languages. now that i am older, and more broke, and less brave, and married, those languages languish in my memory. i am unable to return to those countries to plunge once more into those languages. occasionally i will try to use reading to continue my study, picking up a korean newspaper or looking at an arabic website.

but reading is a brutally slow and solitary way to learn, especially with no teacher. arabic is the hardest, since to use the dictionary requires being able to trace a given word back to its three syllable root. once you have the root, you can open the dictionary -- but the headings do not contain all possibilities for each root. anyway, you get the picture -- it is torturously slow.

last year i discovered social networking websites dedicated to language exchange. but the one i joined seemed limited to text. if i can hardly read arabic, is it likely i can write it?

a few days ago i began investigating online tv. and by god i have found a pretty good site -- it has 10 arabic language channels, of which three reliably connect. i am in heaven -- here i am with no hope of going back to egypt, but i can sit back and let those odd words wash over me. i listen to language like some listen to music, or taste wines.

i have been trying sporadically to learn arabic since about 1993, when i first came into contact with it in indonesia. it is my white whale, a strange and senseless obsession. i forget about it for months and months, and then a glimpse of it on the horizon fires me up once more. i pore over several articles downloaded from -- last year i read the first 3 paragraphs of an article on obesity and cancer -- until my solitary learning condition weighs me down.

with internet tv, i may be technically alone, but the language is aimed at me like a firehose, and it comes from living people far away. it is the next best thing to being on the streets of egypt or jordan. hell, half the time i was overseas i was learning from tv anyway. the effort threshold is far lower -- i don't need fierce determination to put on the earphones, the way i needed when trying to read. i can just sit and listen, learning the way babies learn -- through the ear. and i chase individual words at my leisure. i have only been watching three or four days now but already numerous familiar words have emerged from the stream of alien sounds, some whose meanings i remember clearly, some i need to look up to remember. it is a beautiful feeling. after all these years, i can really make a sustained effort.

the internet leads to truly odd splitting of the self. tv lets you plug into a stream whose source is far away. this morning, for example, i watched an egyptian morning show's hosts discussing the Chronicles of Narnia films with a critic. next, on the russian channel, i watched a panel discussion about the rights of ethnic minorities -- russians and muslims -- in estonia. the host asked questions in arabic, and the panelists listened for translation through ear pieces and answered in russian which was translated into arabic for the viewers. i also watched a piece on pigeon breeders in russia. and finally, on the english "al-karma" channel, i watched, most bizarrely of all, a sermon from the Valley Baptist church in California, dubbed into arabic.

"savior" is "mukhallis," by the way.

what a weird, weird world.