Monday, December 27, 2010

from John Mearsheimer

a quote from an article he recently published (i think in 'Public Interest'):

Finally, the ability of terrorists to strike the American homeland has been blown out of all proportion. In the nine years since 9/11, government officials and terrorist experts have issued countless warnings that another major attack on American soil is probable—even imminent. But this is simply not the case. The only attempts we have seen are a few failed solo attacks by individuals with links to al-Qaeda like the “shoe bomber,” who attempted to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001, and the “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in December 2009. So, we do have a terrorism problem, but it is hardly an existential threat. In fact, it is a minor threat. Perhaps the scope of the challenge is best captured by Ohio State political scientist John Mueller’s telling comment that “the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s . . . is about the same as the number killed over the same period by lightning, or by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

small government death spiral

first principle: government, any government, is bad. the founding fathers were men of god, but (somehow) the government they created is evil. always. the country itself is stronger with small government. it became a superpower during and after WW2 because it had a weak government.

step two: continually deride anything the government does (exception: anything the government does to foreigners is wonderful).

step three: elect people to government office who claim to hate government. they will strip it of revenues, and do everything possible to demoralize it (except the military, and the spies, and their corporate friends, who get all the 'big government money' they ever want).

step four: sit and wait. the government will work less and less well. continue to preach government's essential iniquity. more people believe your pessimistic message. you are a genius, a prophet.

step five: elect politicians with increasingly virulent hatred of government. they will do all they can to ruin it, all the while proclaiming their heartfelt patriotism. everyone awaits the small-government utopia that will magically arise once no one is regulating the banks, food safety, labor practices, etc etc.

step five: look forward to social instability, poverty, violence, corruption, class resentments, environmental degradation, plutocracy, and other things typical of countries (haiti, kenya, nigeria) enjoying the benefits of small government. hey wait a minute! aren't we seeing some of those phenomena already? we must be even closer to the promised land.

congratulations! you have successfully proven yourself right.

[until people begin to wonder if maybe their nightmarish society and bad government are really a product of bad policies and dishonest, cynical politics -- and if maybe the prophets of small government were really in that gig for the money]

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

quite a name!

one of my wife's chinese language students goes by the name 'Thora'! i looked at it, puzzled. what kind of name is that? 'Thor' came to mind, and i mentioned to her Thor was the Norse god of thunder.

guess what? her Chinese name, or nickname, is 'Lei Lei,' or 'thunder thunder'!

i busted out laughing. apparently the little girl is super cute. and named thora!

just an example of Chinese people's craziness -- or creativity -- in choosing names.

i remember my students Dove and Dolphin. they were a couple. Dove was the man.

a new way for palestine?

from an article posted by the Jerusalem Fund:

There is a way out for Abbas - and the Palestinian people - of the trap of endless negotiations as the ground is pulled out from under their feet: To work for an end to the occupation before going into negotiations. What would this involve? The Palestinians would state that they are committed to living in peace and security with Israel, but will not negotiate until it withdraws its soldiers and settlers from the occupied territories, finally applying the principle that underpins United Nations Security Council resolution 242 of 1967 - "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war."

Thereafter, Palestinians and Israelis would negotiate final status issues, including a just resolution for Palestinian refugees, security and water. International peacekeepers would be placed between the two sides, including around Gaza, to maintain security for both sides until a final status agreement is signed.

This approach is gaining strength with Palestinian analysts. Amman-based analyst Mouin Rabbani recently wrote for the congressional newspaper The Hill that Palestinians should "agree to negotiate only the mechanisms of a permanent end to the Israeli occupation" before turning to final status issues. Ramallah-based businessman Sam Bahour, who blogs at e-palestine, says that trying to solve final-status issues "while the boot of occupation is still on our necks is hallucination at best and a crime at worst."

Friday, November 26, 2010

rising intonations: time-saver? or gender-bending?

since when did people begin using a rising intonation when talking casually, telling stories?

'so, i was at the store? and there was this crazy-looking dude over by the egg nog? and he was freaking me out, cuz one of his eyes was glowing green? . . "

i've found myself doing it occasionally. is it a replacement of the so-called 'tag question'? 'so i was in the store, right?/ya know?' if so, it seems to be a more efficient method to get the same intonation. spoken language is like water, always ready to flow toward easier, more effortless channels.

or is it an invasion by previously 'women's speech' (of some region or age group?) into general talk? if so, it is a significant breach of former gender boundaries. women, as the inferior caste, are allowed to freely borrow men's symbols of speech or dress -- but the opposite, men borrowing women's things, is highly charged with stigma. i associate it with an uncertainty common to young women. maybe that is why i still avoid it.

it is usually used in story-telling. in that context, i think it has another function: a place holder as i finish a sentence. it seems to say, 'ok, i'm not done yet, hold on, i'm telling a story.' i would love to know where

american monarchy in our midst

taken from "what to do about guantanamo?" by david cole in the new york review of books, october 14, 2010.

'even the physical design of the guantanamo courtroom is shaped by the desire to conceal our own abuses. a soundproof glass wall separates the onlookers from the trial participants, so that the only way an observer can hear what is going on is thru headphones with a 40 second delay. the reason, according to denny leboeuf, an ACLU lawyer advising on the defense of several detainees, is "the Rule: detainees are forbidden from speaking about their torture." remarkably, the US government has declared 'classified' anything that the detainees say about their torture, and has required the lawyers, as a condition of access to their clients, to keep secret all details of their clients' treatment at the hands of their interrogators. but of course, the US cannot compel the detainees themselves not to speak of the unspeakable. the only way it can keep them from telling their stories is by keeping them detained, behind bars, behind glass, silenced.'

one cannot claim to revere the founding fathers and at the same time support what has been done at guantanamo. above all else those men advocated the rule of law, a law which transcended the power of kings and princes to exercise arbitrary power. what bush accomplished in establishing guantanamo was to wield power much like the monarchs our founding fathers supposedly banished from american shores: the men interred there were to be there not based on objective evidence and legal rulings, but on the say-so of the executive branch. from the word of the king, in other words.

600 former prisoners there have been released -- without charge, without apology. what does that fact say about the judgment of our presidents-in-chief, our presumptive monarchs? supposedly, everyone put there was already judged guilty of crimes. if that is so, why were they then released? it can only be that there was no evidence against them. but there will be no apology or compensation to the innocent because that would open up the collective amnesia our power structure has decided is necessary to, in the cliche, 'move forward.' but anyone who has read history knows, there is no such thing as wiping away the past thru willful effort. it always returns.

i say, why not stick to our hundreds-year-old legal system? isn't the law smarter and fairer than bush, obama, and their lackeys? isn't the law better than any particular government? why aren't those who revere the founding fathers on the Right making these same arguments? why the silence? could it be that the founding fathers are revered merely as religious symbols, shorn of the actual legal concepts they laid down? mere decorative knick-knacks to make us feel better about our own complicity in the crimes of power?

i don't understand the contradiction of hating excessive government power ('big government') and avidly supporting the monarchical tendencies of the executive branch (guantanamo). this is an intellectual schizophrenia from which we must awaken. the sooner the better. old secrets resurface with the most pain.

so far, i have not seen encouraging signs even from so-called libertarians newly-elected. their libertarianism, apparently, is decorative in nature.

Monday, November 22, 2010

stealing other people's land -- with US help

This is a portion of an article posted on The Jerusalem Fund's website. Read it and judge for yourself whether the US can both assist this type of theft and make peace in Palestine/Israel. By the way, we should stop calling that fictitious 'process' a 'peace process.' What is needed is an 'independence process,' since Palestinian occupation is the issue here. Can you think of any other place in the world where independence of a colonized land was discussed as a 'peace process'? Did the US achieve independence by setting up a 'peace process' with one of England's good friends? Peace will come only when Israel gets off the land it stole in 1967, and makes a good-faith effort to deal with the theft committed in 1948. The phrase 'peace process' euphemizes the power imbalance between the two sides, making it seem as if the problem is just a general 'violence' between two equal groups. Wake up, America: Israel -- with our help -- is the bully, the thief, the occupier. For fair-minded people like Americans, such an immoral position (standing against the underdog) can only be maintained through large doses of deception and self-deception.

Ethnically Cleaning Silwan

Silwan is an Arab village adjacent to Jerusalem's Old City, extending along the Kidron Valley alongside the eastern slopes of Jabal al-Mukaber, another Arab community. Home to about 45,000 people, it's one of 28 Palestinian villages incorporated into East Jerusalem. For years, settler encroachment fueled controversy and conflict. So does the area's historical importance, archeology used for displacement to legitimize Jewish claims.

Excavations have already claimed large tracts of Silwan land. The militant right-wing settler group Elad, funded largely by US donors, controls them. Its web site tells its own version of history. It also conducts tours to convince visitors of its Jewish origin.

For their part, Palestinians are contesting, explaining their important history. Different versions fuel conflict, Haaretz writers Nir Hasson and Jonathan Lis, on October 12 headlining, "Life in Silwan: Unbearable for Jews and Palestinians alike," saying:

"The pattern of Jewish settlement (there) is unlike anywhere else, with some 70 Jewish families (around 500 people) in 15 locations, islands among tens of thousands of Palestinians. The resulting friction requires the presence of dozens of security guards and surveillance cameras."

Palestinians complain about their presence and heavy-handed police tactics. The Association of Civil Rights in Israel said settlers carry weapons, Jewish/Arab relations thus tense over shootings, deaths and arrests. Moreover, Palestinian homes are being demolished for planned parks, open spaces, restaurants, boutique hotels, and Jewish-only housing.

Al-Bustan is a Silwan neighborhood, across from the Jerusalem's Old City. Home to about 1,500 residents, they're threatened with displacement, the Municipality of Jerusalem claiming no permits were issued to build in areas designated for open space and a archeological park.

On February 22, 2009, they were ordered out in 72 hours to make way for expanding Israel's City of David archeological site, a Jewish heritage project involving removing Palestinians whose history goes back centuries. Residents contested their right to stay, the Al Bustan Popular Committee (BPC) working with lawyers in Israeli courts. Nonetheless, demolition orders are issued and in other city neighborhoods, part of Israel's systematic Judaization process.

Monday, November 15, 2010

the roar of money

the roar of money overwhelms reasoned voices, hijacking some for its own purposes, simply drowning out the rest.

the recent documentary film about charter schools, 'waiting for superman,' is a great example. just as with the health care industry (and health care reform) previously, the floods of money pouring into education (as a profit-making investment) seize control of the agenda and give an appearance of a groundswell of support for certain policies. it is unfortunate that the filmmaker, a man with an elite private school background, should be suckered into bashing public schools. he magnifies slivers of truth (that a small percentage of charter schools, for example, do an excellent job teaching kids) to create a perception of inevitability and reasonability around his proposed goal of taking the wrecking ball to whole swaths of the public system. and the beneficiaries: investors. the other national systems he praises in the film -- finland, for example -- did not amputate their own system, firing teachers wholesale and opening it up for profit, the measures he advocates. rather, that country strengthened the teaching force, investing in it long term.

but money is impatient; it roars with vibrant energy; lately its feeding ground, financial 'services,' has been reduced; it leaps against the remaining barriers to its wriggling movement. long term does not interest money or its elitist managers.

moneyed interests similarly took over health care reform, either emasculating strong positive measures or enshrining frankly profit-oriented measures. in one respect, GOP criticism was correct, if made in bad faith: the resulting measures do little to bring down costs. but the GOP would never agree to the one thing that would really (as opposed to incrementally, as in limiting lawsuits) bring down costs: establish a national health care system. the GOP is protecting private profits while pretending to protect the public interest. unfortunately, key democratic leaders are in the same ball game. Chuck Schumer is one.

hear the roar of money! from a little distance, through the TV playing in the other room, it almost sounds like democracy, the voice of the people! no. no, we are in a new guilded age, assisted by a pro-money supreme court and a pro-money senate. hear its deafening roar, a turbulence we'll grow accustomed to over decades to come.

Friday, October 15, 2010

envy's hidden virtues

i can understand why envy has long been frowned upon: it is dangerous to social stability. but recently i have wondered why it has not only been feared, but seen as a moral failing.

i think calling envy a moral failing to be laughed at -- 'oh he's just sour grapes,' for example -- is just a way to justify inequality. isn't envy a natural reaction in situations, such as the transition from foraging to agriculture 10,000 years ago, where equality is slowly replaced by hierarchy?

but who am i to let 10,000 years of civilized history stop me from trying to rewrite the rules? after all, far more of human existence was lived in situations of equality. envy in such societies would be seen as a natural and useful bulwark against self-aggrandizement.

but as highly ranked as we now are, with the super rich like olympian gods circulating in the clouds and skyscrapers high above us, envy is naturally denigrated -- it is an unwelcome reminder of earlier times. we are to regard the rich piously, as people better than we are, endowed with talents and virtues which were rightly rewarded.

except that these virtues tend to begin with selfishness and rapacity.

and i don't like not having what others have.

the other night i found myself making fun of a writer, nicole krauss, who has recently found acclaim. i was not making fun of what she was saying, or the passages she read: to the contrary, she was eloquent and wise. why, then, was i mocking her limp, nasal, weak voice? why did i say, 'try breathing!' to the radio?

yes, dear reader, i was envious. i was not trying to denigrate her writing. i was only protesting my own writing's obscurity. everything she read, almost everything at least, i am capable of writing. and yet there was i driving home from a night ESL class while she recorded a radio interview. it is not just that i do not have her money and fame. it is worse than that.

i don't have the freedom she has to write. this morning on the train to new haven i began a poem -- actually, an ending to a long poem i've already mostly written. it was the first time i've written in a couple of months i think. i wrote a few lines, and felt tears in my eyes. storms and tornadoes are swirling in there wanting to tear free. i wrote a few lines, and then gathered up my bike and backpack when the station neared.

i'm not ashamed of being envious. for one, i protest the structure of society that lifts up and exalts some while grinding others down. for another, i do not look to tear Nicole down: i acknowledge her writing. i just want a shot too. and finally, i proudly admit my envy.

unfortunately, my proud attempt to go against society's grain is doomed to fail. after all, what is the urge to competition so beloved in our dog eat dog system but envy? it is just masked and repackaged to be capitalism-friendly. as long as one wants to possess something, and does not murder anyone to get it, envy is fine. it just ought not to speak its name. rather, we call it the go-getting, getting-ahead spirit.

in other words, envy (called by other names) is harnessed to the economic system for the benefit of our masters. it is allowed in a narrow, individual sense: to get what is mine. not to make all equal.

but isn't individual envy really a signal to something wider? isn't individual envy only telling us something about society as a whole? so i will call my envy by it's name. i do want to possess what she has. but i want more than that: more equality, less deference, less pious reverence before power. i am an individual. but i am also a part of a larger organism. our social organism is unhealthy. inequality is a large part of that illness.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


how life hard becomes when sleep doesn't come. how fragile i get! i lie there, wondering how i will be in front of my students.

last week was bad. i had been sleeping badly all along, but only last week these experiences accumulated into an awful certainty: a consciousness i felt as soon as i lay down that i wouldn't sleep well. and then i didn't. it was a hard week. i teach 15 hours a week which, with all the commuting, is like a full time job. worst of all, i teach 3 nights a week, so that recharge time at night is mostly gone.

this week was better. S made sure i was able to focus on my two free afternoons, Monday and Wednesday, and to go out for a bike ride. i found that even a short bike ride made my body feel good, even if i didn't sleep well. and i slept a little less badly. in any case, that iron sense of a prophecy that is bound to come true every night has diminished.

for me, every time i wobble -- a flat class, a fit of nerves as i search for a focus in front of 30 pairs of eyes, or wait for students to enter -- terrifies me and puts pressure on me. i think: oh my god, will i do worse the next time?

my fragility is evident this semester. and next semester will be even worse: 3 different classes, with 3 separate reading lists. now i prep 3 of the same class.

but at least i am teaching. i feel good. i see their eyes follow me, pulling in my argument. i'm pretty sure they are with me, even though they probably could not summarize what i said 10 minutes later. i am amazed at how little they know; i forget that everything i know about the world rests on a thick foundation of facts gleaned from decades of newspaper reading. things like the IMF. and i think: did i know what the IMF was at age 20? maybe not.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Toby by the Sofa

Your hand intruded
like a careless bird one day
into that block of sun
tipping over the sofa, and you paused
in your work to see
it so changed.

On a hunch you drew back the
hand -- that went dark,
the hand that -- flapped now
(for you knew now)
flashing – flickering -- bright fat bird
in furious flight -- before
returning to
your business
of moments,
little scientist of shade and light.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Islamic Center and the "Pearl Harbor" analogy

by Scott Kurashagi

In May 2007, George W. Bush welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to the White House, hosting a ceremony attended by 7,000 guests followed by the first white-tie state dinner of his presidency. If we abide by the twisted logic of some “Ground Zero mosque” opponents, we must now view this affair as controversial, explosive, and offensive.

With Bush and the Republicans in charge, our government honored the monarch of a nation that once invaded America and destroyed much of our capital city. When Bush remarked that the UK had “written many of the greatest chapters in the history of human freedom” he neglected to point out that British invaders had burned down the White House itself—with the First Lady inside of it.

The enemy forces also torched the Senate. House, Treasury, and Library of Congress. The result was a still unprecedented occupation of Washington, DC by a foreign power.

Try as I might, I cannot find any evidence that Newt Gingrich, Charles Krauthammer, or the other self-appointed guardians of our national honor and dignity did anything to stop Bush from letting the royal family set foot on the hallowed ground the British once savagely desecrated. (Bush the Father also invited the queen to the White House in 1991.)

Do they not consider our government’s most cherished structures, our highest symbols of freedom and democracy, to be sacred spaces worthy of their patriotic protection? What message are they sending to the descendants of the 20,000 Americans whose lives were lost (as a direct result of combat or an indirect result of disease) to the War of 1812?

This contradiction speaks volumes to the use and abuse of historical analogy in the service of contemporary political debate. Gingrich and Krauthammer have been two of the most prominent opponents of the proposed Islamic center two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. Both have drawn parallels to the suffering of the Holocaust and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In the former case, the atrocities are directly attributable to the “Nazis”—leaders of a distinct fascist group that rose to power with Hitler and whose contemporary allegiants are rightly viewed as extremists. Thus, as Gingrich argues, “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washingtion.”

There is, however, no parallel term in American discourse for the latter case. Gingrich didn’t say “the Taisei Yokusankai, a fascist grouping which took control of Japan in the lead up to World War II, has no right establish a monument at Pearl Harbor.” He said, “we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor.”

In his view, we affix permanent blame for the attack to “the Japanese”—a term which blurs the distinction between people, “race,” and nation.

While we can forgive the British royal family for the tyranny of its ancestors, Americans can seemingly never forget that “the ‘Japanese‘ attacked Pearl Harbor.” This is despite the fact that Japan has been one of America’s most vital and trusted allies for over six decades, that its entire system of government was designed by American overseers, and that its constitution is unique in the world in its dedication to pacifism.

In large measure, as historian John Dower has argued, this attitude reflects the racial discourse of World War II. While the U.S. always believed there were “good Germans” who could be allied against “the Nazis,” the Pacific Theater enemy was routinely labeled “the Japs” and “the Nips”—a savage race marked for extermination because its treachery was part of its blood.

Domestically, the U.S. government upheld the notion that “a Jap is a Jap” as it forced both immigrants and American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. Many politicians argued that the most highly assimilated Japanese Americans professing the greatest loyalty to America posed the gravest danger because they were best positioned to launch a “sneak attack” or a “second Pearl Harbor.” Mass public suspicion of Japanese Americans ran so deep that even babies in orphanages were held behind barbed wires.

It took the actions of the U.S. military itself to begin to cut down the “race war” discourse, which played into imperial Japan’s efforts to rally all of Asia against American white supremacy. Reversing its policy of excluding Japanese Americans from the military, the U.S. inducted Japanese American soldiers to serve in both Europe and Asia. Only by going against popular racist sentiment did the military wind up with the Nisei soldiers who became the backbone of the war’s most decorated American unit.

Had the populist mob carried the day, Japanese Americans would have endured even more than continued internment and a ban on military service. Some political leaders portrayed the American-born Japanese as the product of a 50-year plot by Japan to attack American from within. They called for stripping them of birthright citizenship and even shipping them all off to Japan. Fortunately, this was not carried out even at the height of wartime hysteria.

If the madness surrounding the rapidly degenerating debate over the “Ground Zero mosque” must serve as another one of those “teachable moments,” let it serve to expose the contradictions that rest at the heart of our national identity and history.

We can go back to the “race war” logic of the Pacific War and see ourselves in a clash of civilizations with Islam. But in doing so, we allow our greatest fears and prejudices to triumph over our most democratic ideals and Constitutional rights. We blur the distinction between the 9/11 attackers and an Islamic organization that is a longtime member in good standing of the Lower Manhattan neighborhood and dedicated to promoting interfaith harmony. We stereotype Muslims in America as an inscrutable and untrustworthy group, so that law-abiding behavior and peaceful intentions are less relevant than the future possibility (as Krauthammer suggests) that the Islamic center could one day harbor proponents of terrorism. And we commit ourselves to strategies that are divisive and self-defeating.

Or, as we wrestle with global economic, political, and environmental crises, we can view our struggle to build a democratic, multiethnic society as a pillar of strength that positions us to build harmonious relations with the international community. Just as Japanese Americans died on December 7, Muslim Americans died on September 11. Just as Japanese Americans played a crucial role fighting fascism during World War II, Muslim Americans are integral part of our community and our struggles for peace and justice.

Finally, as we memorialize the World Trade Center, let us not forget that its chief designer was a Japanese American, Minoru Yamasaki, whose international renown as an architect and advocate for world peace symbolized a new spirit of tolerance being born out of the tragedies of war.

Friday, August 20, 2010

words' lingering life

wednesday: on the phone a couple weeks ago a retired man from -- where, PA or NJ? -- shocked me. he: 'so i'll get back to you by tuesday or weDnesday.' he kept talking but i was grinning to myself, amazed: someone actually pronounces the first 'd' in wednesday? he didn't pronounce it as i used to as a kid to remind myself the spelling -- wed-nes-day -- but more like 'wed'ns-day,' like a 'day for weddins'. is there some spot in the US where, 60 years ago when he was little, people used to pronounce the 'd' in that word? how mysterious, unexpected. otherwise his speech is completely normal from my point of view.

deck, stoked: recently, now i forget where -- maybe at the pond at chatfield hollow state park? -- we overheard some sophisticated pre-teens squabbling. amidst their charges and counter-claims, i heard one say 'i'm so stoked!' and another say 'i'm gonna deck you.' 'stoked' surprised me the most. i associate that with my sister Janice who graduated high school in, i think, 1980. i never used it myself. so how did this word 'leap generations'? how did this young brat get hold of this venerable piece of slang? has it been revived by the media, like 'that 70s show'? or did kids my age pick it up without me? now that i think of it, i can kind of remember kids my age maybe using it. and 'deck' i thought was just used in my age cohort. though who knows, it may have risen decades ago. maybe what this incident tells me is that adolescents are frogs in a well, and everything they can see in their little circle of sky is unique to them and their time. an illusion.

swell: for toby's 6 month check up, the doctor, with a big head of hair a la the beehive, said 'swell,' in response to one of our comments. how can swell, that dead word of the 1920s thru 40s, be coming to life through this one female doctor? is the word a fashion statement for her? are there hipster subcultures somewhere busily rehabilitating it?

a month of linguistic surprises indeed.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

burning fields

when we got out of the hospital at Xintian, where we had taken baby T to be treated for bronchitis, most of the rice fields in Yuanli where my in-laws live had been harvested. instead of bowing heads of grain rustling in gold-green fields, there were clumps of stalks shorn near the earth. everything was dried out, and a pleasant hay-like smell hung in the air. but some of the farmers still burn the fields after harvest, an old practice meant to fertilize it for the next planting. this burning hangs over the landscape and penetrates the nose.

i had not paid it much mind before, but with T recovering from a severe cough and me and my in-laws all developing new coughs, i realized the practice was making our conditions a lot worse. the government is pushing people to curtail or end the practice of burning spirit money, either at temples or in front of residences, because of its harm to air quality. i thought, field burning may be even worse. my wife's cousin told me it has been legally banned, but there is no enforcement. however, one can call the local district representative (lizhang) to issue a complaint to the Dept. of Environmental Affairs. unfortunately, here there are no fields adjoining us, and since smoke hangs and drifts far from its source, it would be hard to really make a complaint. i am just hoping, in these waning days of our stay in taiwan, that we recover to the point that a 10 hour plane ride won't be too awful. and then the clean american air (relatively, of course) can flush through our lungs.

3 cheers for government regulation!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

hearts of gold, gone

this past week, two people with hearts of gold died: my aunt kathryn and ben floyd, a friend of my dad's for decades. i knew both of them when little but whether memory is too weak or childish perception too shallow, i only really got to know and appreciate them in the last 10 years or so.

it was only a bit over a month ago that i knocked at aunt kathryn's door, at the old yellow-brick house on 3rd south in provo, utah. she was not home, and we did not have time (so i thought then) to go back for another try, to my deep regret. when i pressed my nose to the screen, peering through the glass and the translucent curtain for her figure coming out from the kitchen, i smelled something straight out of childhood memories. it is a smell i associate with grandma's house (just a few blocks east, also on 3rd south), and was amazed to find it in the screen door of aunt kathryn's house. like most memory smells, i cannot really describe it. it is not anything obvious -- apricots, say -- but at the same time it is very specific. and, to make it even more mysterious, or at least hard to isolate, it is embedded in particular memories such as eating white-bread toast with jam in grandma's kitchen.

as hard as it is to describe a smell (and i haven't really even tried to describe it, have i?), in some ways it is even harder to describe a person: to really describe, not in the shorthand we usually use (such as 'heart of gold,' 'thin,' or 'spiritual'), but in sharp specifics. one reason it is hard is that these people we love(d) are holy, somehow, and we do not want to get them wrong. aunt kathryn's voice, for example, is just like that slightly sweet smell on her door, unique from all others and highly specific. so what we do in these situations is to fall back on general preferences or hobbies. she loved children. she loved to feed people. she was quite fat when i was little, and once i really got to know her as an adult, quite thin. her suffering (back pain) condemned her to walking, a perpetual motion that eased the pain.

as for ben: he was barrel-chested, and carried himself like a big man, although he was small-statured. it was only when i was an adult that i realized how loving and tender he was. he was an expert and hilarious story-teller, which is not surprising, since to tell a story well requires a big and sympathetic heart. he used his eyes, and hand gestures, and expressions, and hard-hitting words, to convey a particularly sharp impression, like his imitation of the person catching a ball by chance in the stands at yankee stadium -- the finger tracing the ball arcing through the air, accompanied by a whistling sound to convey the descent, the arm flipping up almost robotically, a 'pop' sound for the ball landing in the palm, the eyes huge, fixing on the (imagined) ball in the hand. actually, i don't even remember who was catching the ball -- was it him? a stranger? his joy (and ours) was in conveying that physical moment, embellishing and exaggerating it to make it in the telling even funnier than the original experience! another moment i recall (and will my whole life, i think) is of his son (and my childhood friend) christian taking ill at night. he described hearing christian whimpering, creeping into his bedroom, touching his leg to wake him, and him sitting straight up in bed and throwing up all over ben. the comic moment that he played and replayed just for the pure delight of it was christian sitting up in bed -- again, the automatic, robot-like 'click' of the body, conveyed by his forearm shooting up to vertical, the use of the word 'jacknife' to emphasize the out-of-control nature of the act, the opening of the mouth, becoming his miserable son in performance. he threw up again, once he was in the bathroom. of course, through his son's misery and his own exasperation, anyone could see how he loved his son. oh, ben. you were too young!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

feifei in the tropics

fei fei is back to his happy self, now that we've been in taiwan 2 and half weeks. but in the heat it takes a lot of baths and a lot of naps to keep him happy. one of the pictures is with wild flowers in utah. there are 3 of him eating -- the food he wants (our food) vs. the food he doesn't want (apple sauce and bananas). and then the one big people's food he likes so far: carrot baby food. we can't figure it out.
we have this bad habit of going out to visit dozens of relatives, or them coming to our place, right about when little t is reaching his limit and needs a nap. so every poke to the tummy, every smile and look into his eyes, is likely to be met with an irritable squeal or an outright burst of tears. ugh. i don't like it. luckily there have been a couple of cool or coolish days, including my b-day, yesterday. the highlight i think was taking toby to the beach. yeah, he was amazed and a little afraid i think. i let the waves lap at his feet. i'm pretty sure i could have kept him there an hour. he's a baby with a big spirit: look at his eyes so big, devouring every new person or place! (and being devoured) i added in a pic of him in his first tent in west virginia, the first night of the trip.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

biting gnats

i drove out, with sara, her mom, and toby, to sara's maternal grandparents' house to give her gramma a ride to the doctor's. i got out when her grampa invited me in for a quick drink of xiancao, a cooling herbal drink. sara told me to open the windows and turn off the air. i went in the farm house's dim kitchen. suddenly her grampa was warning me about mosquitoes, since i had shorts on. no, i said, they're fine. but sara's mom was simultaneously bending down and pointing out little black specks on my legs. it's nothing, i said, probably just something left from walking in the rain. grampa was smearing a strong-smelling goop on my legs. i realized the little specks were indeed sucking my blood!

and when i got back to the car, they were already filling the interior. unlike the black mosquitos here, which are preternaturally cautious, as if sensing your hands waiting to slap and deliberately going back out of range for a little while, these little gnats just fasten immediately to bare skin and begin sucking.

the whole way back home we were killing them against the windows. i recalled a public tv show from 2008 discussing the effects of climate change on taiwan. the one i remember was this: with rising temperatures, mosquitoes and other biting insects once confined to the southern end of the island will spread throughout the island.

'i don't know what they are,' sara's mom said, 'they were never here before.' she grew up in that house! which means she is an authority on what bugs were or were not there before. has climate change pushed a species further north, into her father's house? suddenly, this mellow household with its green hills and fields and gardens turns in my mind from a refuge to a danger. i don't want to bring toby there. how awful for these two old people, around them 24 hours!

and then i think: i hope they don't spread to yuanli! i already have curtailed sitting outside the front door of my parents in law's house because of the mosquitoes. these biting gnats make them look like a piece of cake. all screening would suddenly be obsolete.

those gnats, which i kept smashing against the windshield, leaving little bloody smears, made me think of the biblical plagues brought against the pharaoh of egypt.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

melty, flirty, jiggly, toasty

since late last year i have caught on to a mini-trend in advertising: using -y ending adjectives most associated with children. (i remember my little brothers using the word 'coldy'). i think there are two reasons for this strategy: one, these words are visceral, physical words that conjure up vivid physical impressions. and two, they are linked to childhood in a comforting sort of regression advertisers love to appeal to. (melty is used about cheese, flirty i saw on a women's magazine re: high heels, jiggly a women's mag 'melt jiggly fat in weeks,' toasty probably re: sandwiches/breakfast sandwiches).

i find it insulting to be addressed as a child. but that is what advertisers do best -- treat people as psychological components to be manipulated. the best example i can think of is the subway commercial from late last year, of the husband and wife and child walking past a subway, when the father erupts in a childish tantrum. i think he uses the word 'melty.' the mother and son try to calm him down. melty. yeah. we're all just little babies looking for solace in our sandwiches. patronizing. worse than patronizing: stigmatizing! and pretty similar to how many politicians pander to regressive, childish emotions and the urge to escape adulthood altogether. government: bad. washington: bad. taxes: bad. leaders: bad. freedom: good. me: good! if we really bought into these infantile rejections of modern life and shared responsibility, there would be no america, no country, nothing. we'd be like somalia and haiti, poster children for the 'small government' fantasy!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

pimsleur's romance

at new haven library i found a pimsleur intro course to syrian arabic. having struggled with arabic over the years, it has become a white whale, never to be conquered, but never to be given up either. knowing that i might actually be able to use a few words with my iraqi friends, as they had lived a few years in syria, i checked the cds out. i really liked the method -- simple, repetitious, slowly building. totally oral -- which is how we learned our mother tongue, by the way.

in lessons nine and ten, the examples become laden with a gendered, even erotic dynamic. male voice: 'do you want to do something, miss?' female voice: 'not miss, mrs.' 'excuse me, maam. do you want to do something?' 'no, thank you.' 'do you want to buy something?' 'no, i don't want to. do you understand?' 'ah, i understand. do you want to eat something with me?' 'no, i don't.' 'at 9 o'clock?' 'no, not now, not later.' i found myself laughing there on I-95 in the chevy truck.

no doubt part of my reaction -- titillation, laughter -- is due to having travelled once to syria, and feeling there that the farthest possibility was to talk to one of the beautiful women walking around. they would not let the tiniest sliver of an eye venture toward me. but in pimsleur's world, apparently, things are different! and according to my iraqi friend, men and women do talk there -- just not in ways known to me.

i tried out a few words with my friend's mom, who speaks 3 words of english, and was disappointed when she didn't understand some of them. syrians say 'behki' for 'i speak.' iraqis, apparently, say something like 'ah-chee'. say what??

old techniques

my wife told an iraqi woman friend of ours (moved last year as a refugee to here) about our difficulty in getting our baby to fall asleep in his crib. she told sara a simple, intriguing aid: when you put the baby down, place in his arms an article of the mother's clothing.

the idea was not only charming, an old piece of folk wisdom from a family-centric culture, it also has helped. i saw it work once, an amazing thing: a cranky baby, squirming in rebellion, suddenly quieted, stilled, by mommy's scent.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

juan cole: the story of 4 maps

i wish there was a way to link to a particular blog post, not the whole blog - this post by Juan Cole on Palestine's thwarted independence is a gem, using 4 maps (showing the successive dispossession of palestinians) to tell a simple story.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

two lesbians in chilly almost-spring

a few days ago when the temperature had nosed up to 50 or so, Sara and I and Dad strolled downtown, with Toby in his stroller. two young girls maybe 15 or 16 walked toward us, blonde, in form-fitting clothes, hand in hand, jacketless. they walked fast, as if with a purpose, and before we had reached the gas station they passed us from behind. apparently the purpose was accomplished. maybe it was to stir people with surprise: maybe they wanted to announce their love in brisk almost-spring, in this time when gayness is almost-normalized, but still in small towns like this not quite normal. their heads were down, they focused on what the other was saying, talking briskly in low tones, going somewhere, with something urgent to do. but they looked cold.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

toby discussing

i am sticking my tongue out for toby. a nurse in the hospital told us babies try to imitate people right away, and would try to stick out their tongues if we did it to them. he reacts with recognition each time i do it; sometimes he even sticks his tongue out at me, knowing i am the one who engages him in this game. sometimes he just grins; sometimes he really works his tongue around in his mouth, and flicks it gingerly out. here he has a lot to say about it. there are notes of . . .what? admiration? uncertainty? complaint? happiness?

Toby Feb/March 2010

Sunday, February 28, 2010

far right 'patriots'

Frank Rich quotes a Republican Representative in congress rationalizing the suicide attack on the IRS building in Texas:

Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, even rationalized Stack’s crime. “It’s sad the incident in Texas happened,” he said, “but by the same token, it’s an agency that is unnecessary. And when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the I.R.S., it’s going to be a happy day for America.” No one in King’s caucus condemned these remarks.

Besides justifying a terrorist act, what I see in such sentiments is an argument against government per se -- an odd stance for an elected official. Such people fantasize that 'America' could exist as a nation without a government. For without the IRS, there would be no taxes -- and without taxes, where would there be money for government, including the beloved military bureaucracy, the Pentagon?

The Right's anti-tax diatribe reveals a selfish attack on government itself, a wish for return to a (non-existent) Hobbitt-land of farmers and herders shut up in their little houses, with no connection to one another. There is no America there. From the start, 'America' was defined as a political entity. Without a government, there would be no America. An odd position for so-called 'patriots.'

Attacks on taxation in general are really attacks on participation in broad political units -- states -- and are calls for a selfish, do-it-yourself return to the woods.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

peanut butter

the other night my dad told me that when i was little and they took me to disney world (or land?) i had just learned the word 'peanut butter.' as we walked about the park, i kept repeating the word, sometimes shouting it out.

i laughed hearing this. glomming onto new words and then randomly and annoyingly using them in any possible situation is exactly how i learn them. i remember as a second grader annoying classmates with the teacherly rejoinder to whatever they said to me at recess, 'that's not necessary.' or with the neighbor kids one day, repeating over and over the 50's-english phrase, read in a tintin book, 'its a rum thing, mr. Mate, the longboat has vanished.' ('crab with the golden claws,' i believe)

i do it a lot in foreign languages when i am trying to learn them. and this habit leads to me usually learning the weird sounding, quirky words (like 'rum thing' and 'peanut butter), faster than the solid, useful words. like korean 'posong-posong hada,' for fluffy, or madurese 'apukulu-puk,' for flip and flop, or arabic 'kerkedeh,' for that deep red flower that brews into a delicious drink. . can't think of the name now. right, hibiscus. sara has regretted telling me some of her dad's crusty, crass taiwanese expressions, used inevitably to blast bureaucratic namby-pambying or absurd unreason. i grab up a funny sounding word with the delight of a little boy picking up a shiny new toy. and whatever it's meaning, i invest the very sound of the word with my own delight.

assassination cool

it is amazing how the mainstream media casualizes murder -- when the murder happens to be of someone seen, however vaguely, as 'anti-american,' or 'anti-israel.' murder is made casual, a sport to be chatted about calmly and indifferently, or with small appreciation for style and flair. these media personalities and the 'experts' they invite in pose in their special cool: look how calmly and emotionlessly we can regard murder, says their demeanor: look how rational, tough, hard-headed, ahead of the times. we'd make a good Jack Bauer, goes their vibe. imagine me in a leather jacket.

today Wolf Blitzer and a woman now working for Baker Botts (?) and previously in government discussed the killing of the Hamas agent in Dubai. Blitzer, as is his wont when referring to people the media (implicitly) judges guilty and deserving of death without trial, referred to the team of killers 'taking out' the Hamas man. (why doesn't he just use the term 'offing'? if he wants a really cool pose, might as well go all the way). then, in a stunning switch away from the facts of the story, Blitzer proposed that the Hamas man is analogous to Bin Laden. the rest of their discussion revolved around this absurd conceit, which rests on the assumption that we = Israel, and al-Qaeda = Hamas. and, of course, anything is justified, damn the laws. the woman proved her tough credentials by lecturing Blitzer on the fact that 'all the world's intelligence agencies do this kind of thing,' so we ought to just get used to it and take the British government's protestations with a grain of salt.

i don't care how bad this Hamas man might have been, i object to the immediate assumption that we = Israel. we are not. our country is not reserved for one ethnic group. and i resist the erosion of civilization that accompanies occupation of other's lands, as is happening in israel. they are progressively turning themselves into immoral brutes the longer they persist in their stupid game of land-grabbing (from which, like Brer Rabbit with the Tar Baby, the further they push the harder it is to extricate themselves). it is instructive that neoconservatives and liberals who fall in love with the Israel pose (tough, sexy, no-illusions, like the woman on NCIS) also swallow the lie that indifference to human death makes for sophistication.

it does not. it leads to barbarism. and i don't care which expensive law firm you work for.

if the moral argument means nothing to these people, then how about the historical argument? israel has been murdering since before it gained independence, and they are no more secure than when they began murdering. this one fact ought to speak volumes. but i assume neither wolf nor Baker Botts have read any books of history.

as for our country: whenever our government aligns itself with governments or movements which endorse extrajudicial murder and torture -- or when we ourselves do it, a rare moment of not outsourcing -- our country gradually becomes defined as 'the enemy' by citizens of countries so victimized. argentina of the 1980s, iran of the 1970s, pakistan of right now . . .

no lawyer can really argue persuasively that making ordinary people hate us with our illegal and extralegal murders advances the national interest. one militant dead = 100 middle class citizens galvanized by our turning our backs on the rule of law.

we have lived (and continue to live) by the sword. and we are falling by the sword: slowly, inexorably, the cruel steel of militarism pierces our guts. and even as the titanic slides beneath the waves, weighed down by the massive 'defense' costs that never decrease, those Mossad wannabes -- yes, the lawyers and bureaucrats who have never held a gun in combat -- cannot give up the cool titillation and chic of extrajudicial murder. it must be like a perfume for these people. i wonder how many call themselves Christians.

go, wolf, go.

Monday, February 15, 2010

the rigidity of 'security' paranoia

the security imperative takes the simple-minded idea that certain things -- words or objects -- are in themselves dangerous. while seeming to be merely a rigidly equal approach that avoids ethnic profiling -- 'we confiscate all sharp objects, not just those carried by ethnic-looking men' -- in fact this rigidity opens the door to utter paranoia and unreason, stoked by ethnic fear.

there have been several instances where men speaking a foreign language on a plane (israeli business men, in one case) or doing anything that appeared vaguely 'muslim' -- have been hauled off the plane. people seem to forget that if someone really wanted to hijack a plane, they do not announce themselves as different: don't you remember the bland polo shirts and forgettable appearances of the 9/11 hijackers? only in the cartoon worlds of '24' or 'NCIS' do bad guys oblige us by playing the part, announcing themselves via menacing facial hair and accents.

last week i read of a college student not allowed to board his plane because he had arabic flash cards in his bag. the foreign alphabet itself was thus invested with a magically dangerous power. and paranoia can hide behind vague pronouncements about 'an abundance of caution.' but no one ever takes responsibility for these panicked absurdities.

facial hair, arabic alphabet, ritual prayers: the presence of one or all of these things does not indicate terrorism. but panic in their presence does indicate terror. the terrorists have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams -- rather than us having the confidence in our own good judgment and alertness (that young nigerian guy, jittery and hiding under a blanket, seems suspicious), we resort to absurder and absurder bans on particular acts or objects. therefore, a child may not hold a teddy bear in his lap. passengers may not use the bathroom -- even that grandmother with the Readers Digest -- for the last hour of flight. are our 'guardians' determined to make flying completely intolerable?

let's hear it for alert, reasonable, flexible responses. 'flagging' certain objects, words, or people as inherently dangerous, regardless of circumstances, is worse than stupid -- its insane.

na'vi in bilin?

a few days ago, palestinian protesters at the village of Bilin dressed as the blue people from the movie Avatar, attempting to claim that narrative of resistance as their own.

pasta, passion, and pistols

this is the name of a mystery/detective game i saw in the local Goodwill store. the things you can see in a Goodwill -- all the failed, bizarre stabs at entrepreneurial success.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ehud Barak uses term 'apartheid'

It takes oppressors a long time to use the most proper term for what they are engaged in -- not due to lack of intelligence, but to lack of moral courage. Or maybe they can only open up when they have painted themselves into the most desperate of corners, as this regime has certainly done. After all, they could have accepted Palestinian statehood 15 years ago, when less of the West Bank was stolen by settlers. Taken from a news story posted on a blog:

Israeli leaders rarely use the term "apartheid" in connection to the Palestinians. The term, however, has been used by Israel's harshest critics to accuse it of using apartheid tactics against the Palestinians.

"The simple truth is, if there is one state" including Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, "it will have to be either binational or undemocratic. ... if this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."

The use of the word 'harsh' is funny. The word 'apartheid' is not harsh but merely descriptive. The reason this article feels compelled to call the word 'harsh' is simply due to the delicate, pro-Zionist sensibilities of the mainstream (even much of the liberal) media. Let me say this: if Ehud Barak can use the word, then its reasonableness can be assumed.