Thursday, July 9, 2015

empty utah (the suburban turn away)

we are staying with my parents in utah this summer. every day i feel two sorts of emptiness, one i crave, the other i detest. the emptiness i hate is the controlled emptiness of house fronts and front yards. it is just display without welcoming, showing off without any compensatory flair or friendliness. blankness is the ideal, erasure of uniqueness and difference. if one has to venture out to the street, one hopes one doesn't have to run into other people. humans are just bothersome here, unless of course one knows them. with the high turnover in this suburb, strangers are pretty common. if only one could totally ignore them -- and one does as often as possible -- but when they are very close, well, it looks un-nice to not look or say something to the pitiful things. 

i recall our first summer here, in 2012, the people across from us succeeded in going the entire summer without once looking at or saying anything to any of us. well, i think one of them finally broke -- was it the old man who slept in his car, or the mother? anyway, it was remarkable. eye contact here and in the walmart we often shopped at was significantly less than in the connecticut suburbs we had come from.

if people's demeanors are closed tight, people's yards say nothing about them either. every yard, a tightly managed, anonymous grid of sprinklers, grass, mulch, shrubs, and flowers, is more or less like the others. how did this nation fuelled by freedom come to detest difference, even trivial differences like the sort of grass one grows, so much? i don't think it is because everyone has the same tastes. it must have something to do with the historical growth of the housing market after world war 2, when house values were tightly rigged to sameness (including racial sameness -- no black folks in levittown). so to enforce and maintain this value, an unimaginable rigidity is complacently agreed to. people from the HOA come around with cameras, scanning for weeds, brown patches in the grass, any sign that one's discipline is slackening. and then they send letters.

it is only because mom and dad, in their 80s, received a warning letter recently that i have begun pulling weeds too, in odd moments tending the kids outside. 'weeds.' yes. infiltrators from nature.

the two little boys hang back from the wild emptiness of sky and skyline -- they're not used to it, especially pax, his first time in the US, stands on the porch unmoving, staring out at the valley. does he see the mountains beyond the lake, darkening blue under clouds, the lake a milky grey green? or just the sun-blasted blankness of grass and asphalt?

but i love this emptiness, total exposure to the sky, i can see for miles and miles. thank god there are a few empty lots left -- they are filling up fast in saratoga springs -- for here i can admire the wild plants that occupy them. this morning i suddenly realized i was standing near a thistle bush taller than myself! it was magnificently prickly, older leaves withered and grey with dust, purple heads nodding from thirst, an incredible life force in this dry place. gazing over their many colors in the waning light of the sun as my boys play in the sand, my eyes lift to the yards around us and wonder at their utter drabness and uniformity, flat green, sharply defined boundaries, all 'weeds' promptly eliminated. at least here and there these extravagant and spiny and fragrant 'weeds' may still flourish, in every hue.

and the sky. oh it wells with massifs, from horizon to horizon an ever-shifting array. clouds that touch, frighten, beckon. wild winds whip up, and i love that too -- a brown bag whips over a rooftop, a trash can booms to the ground. i feel for the people seatbelted in those gleaming silver tubes that pass unceasingly overhead -- but down here the sky and wind is a glory i feel deeply. if only i didn't need to look down at those closed-tight houses and pinched faces. even kids -- skateboarding, riding scooters -- only allow themselves furtive glances. we're  a free people indeed: free to maintain property values, free to keep our yards absolutely weed-free.

if i could buy a house it would be one of those tiny square ones in provo built after the war, so charming, i don't believe builders today would ever allow themselves to think humans could actually survive in such confined space. we americans have ballooned not just in body but in spatial expectations. back then these little houses were just 'houses,' an ordinary living room and ordinary kitchen, space enough to do what needed to be done, and that was enough. it's all anyone really needs, right? . . . . gradually class gluttony set in. cross the lake back to where i stand, and the result is clear: massive houses beyond any real need.

and a turning inward that allowed reagan and his (non) conservative values of selfishness to triumph, a revolution whose repercussions reverberate even now through this cruel society, a society which in huge living rooms before huge televisions can allow itself to imagine that all those black men languishing in prison and shot down by police must have deserved it, whatever violence was done to them. they're violent people, right? the suburban turning away from others -- especially different others -- furthers this cruel indifference. invading foreign countries on the pretext that they 'threaten' us is another dismal result of the suburban revolution. it's always the same excuse: we feel scared! doesn't that just justify everything?

but it is a fear that is only sustainable by not knowing about the world beyond, by fearing the poor and weak enough to avoid them -- and so believe them dangerous. the emptiness between us is politically crucial to our empire. without this emptiness and separation, no ignorance, without ignorance no fear, without fear, well, i am afraid budgeting priorities would, what can i say, shift a little, right? at least during the cold war the USSR was a real rival, a powerful enemy. now bands of ragtag terrorists here and there, with a combined GDP in the territories they rule generously estimated at that of wyoming, can fuel -- with the addition of that amazing additive, fear -- weapons systems worth trillions of dollars that run over decades and do nothing to stanch our fear!

this emptiness is not mine. but for seven weeks before going back the way we came, to china, i'll drink in the wild emptiness that remains above me, swirling, conspiring, soaring -- brooding. this sky, this dear utah sky, sky that is my religion.

Friday, June 19, 2015

on charleston and the self-defense lie

when i bought the gun to guard against other drug dealers ripping me off my intention was to defend myself.
when i bought a gun to scare george zimmerman with a warning shot on the highway, i meant to defend myself. he had threatened me. i felt in danger. therefore my shooting at him was an act of standing my ground. my lawyer thinks i have a case.
when i bought a gun to not be pushed around and then shot someone talking smack about me, i was defending myself. myself and my reputation.
when i bought a gun to feel safe on the walk home from work and shot a homeless man, i was defending myself.
until the moment i realized i had made a mistake.
when i bought a gun to stop the black invasion and pollution of our pristine white culture, i was defending myself. and all of us!
when i bought a gun to protect myself in church and shot a white person who walked in, a white person who it turned out was hoping to hear our choir, i was defending myself.
they said i was a hero, an example of self-defense. i had set a precedence, even if the target had been mistaken.
i didn't feel like a hero. i felt like i had let go of Jesus and let myself be taken in by idol-worshipers. people who believe possession of an archaic instrument is proof of individual existence and power.

everyone who buys a gun is doing so to defend themselves. and everyone defines 'defense' differently from the next person, as well as what is so valuable it requires defending with guns. and in the heat of the moment (of fear, of rage, of jealousy), an act of violence can be justified as an act of defense. what counts as defense entirely depends on the mood, the situation, the mindset. murdering people in the next car can be defensible -- if you are feeling defensive. isn't that easy?

this (il)logic works for national policy too. our attacks on panama, grenada, iraq, vietnam, were all defensive in nature -- if one considers an act of violence based on paranoid fear to be 'protecting oneself.' once you are occupying another country, the need to defend yourself so constant and wearing you might actually forget that it was your act of aggression in the first place which invited the counterattack. but that is all too complicated. what matters is not how the other person (in this case, the iraqi who just fired at me) felt: what matters is how i feel, me, me, me! and i feel in danger. that's it. wonderfully simple.

we're americans. no matter who or how many we kill, we are always just defending ourselves.

with defense like this, who needs aggression?

all we have are 'laws' such as stand your ground which depend on the scientific standard of 'feeling threatened.' that's it! feel threatened, and you can let loose. feel the victim, and do whatever you like. the law lets me! it incentivizes victimhood. HE pushed ME. so of course i drew. i felt scared.

so when the sikh taxi driver pulled up alongside me, calling up images of osama bin laden in my mind, and causing my palms to sweat, what i did next was just defending myself.

supporters of the law may say: but the judge will never buy your explanation. clearly the taxi driver was no threat. ah, but it is irrelevant: the man is already dead. the absurd law had already planted its seed in the uninformed mind.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

water delivery

today i held open the door a little listening for the water delivery man. he stopped several times on landings. when he got to the top i saw he was a woman, in calf-length jeans, sweating and hefting the two huge jugs down onto the doorstep. she had delivered to us once before. she was muscled but not as massive as the average man in such work. she did the same work with fewer muscles: she is tougher. i asked if anyone had referred to her as 'nu hanzi,' something like 'female tough guy.' she laughed and said, maybe one or two. when i handed her the money, plus two extra yuan for the five floor climb, a tip we have pushed on the delivery people, she wiped her forehead and said, 'i feel bad.' (bu hao yisi). no, i said, that is tough work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

suburbia, segregation machine?

suburbs are machines for segregation in two ways: one narrow sense, a racial and class sense which could potentially be overcome with enough political will, and one wider sense, built into the structure of the suburban form itself.

growing up in Madison, CT, i was well aware that the poor and colored were excluded from our grassy, shaded suburban world. a token few urbanites were selected from New York City to attend our high school, a charitable gesture which salved some guilty white consciences, i suppose. but i never linked this obvious residential exclusion with the triumphal narrative we had learned in school, that the civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s had broken down color lines and brought an end to Jim Crow.

it is only some book-learning of the last few years that has made me conscious of the fact that as society was desegregating its lunch counters, hospitals, and schools, it was re-segregating residentially. and as towns segregated -- suburbs, i should say -- using seemingly race-neutral tools like local zoning authority -- schools followed, resegregating in fact even if legally, whites-only schools had been prohibited.

sometimes it takes a book or two to see one's own experience in a new light of understanding. our segregated lifestyle was so evident in the attitudes of me and my classmates. i will never forget bussing down to NYC to watch Cats (the musical) in 6th grade, driving through Harlem, and the snickering from some boys over the black woman standing on a sidewalk, in mini skirt and high heels. 'hooker,' one said. one word, two snickers, three knowing looks -- not much, maybe, but kids are not dumb. even if i didn't quite know what 'hooker' meant, a kid could tell there was a world of contempt behind that simple word, and a world of history behind that contempt. so what if it took me 30 years to begin to comprehend?

'consumer's republic' but lizabeth cohen, about new jersey's suburbanization, really opened my eyes to how the country was re-segregated in ways even worse than jim crow. for one thing, suburbs found legally safe ways to exclude. they didn't need covenants that said, 'no blacks, no jews.' they just said no apartments, minimum lot size of one acre, and voila, no blacks need intrude. all perfectly legal. older cities had been unequal, with rich and poor, black and white neighborhoods -- but at least they were under the umbrella of one city hall, so negotiation could take place between factions and groups, and rich neighborhoods couldn't utterly segregate themselves off from the rest of the city.

it is clear that from the start, suburbs were meant to keep out black folks, and other undesireables. it wasn't just the william levitts and other developers. it was real estate agents and the federal government itself, whose agencies steered mortgage money and guarantees to white suburbs and steered them away from cities. if the house became ordinary people's most valuable consumer item, and as housing prices appreciated from the 50s all the way to 2008, then clearly for most americans, owning a suburban house was like an escalator riding up floor after floor with each passing decade, making their owners wealthier and wealthier. if one is kept off the escalator on the first floor and trapped in poor neighborhoods as renters, then guess what? 50 years later, one's family and descendants are going to be far poorer than those who were allowed onto the escalator.

or you could ignore this history and simply say that black people are innately lazy and inferior, always looking for a handout -- ignoring the ways white people benefited from government largesse, the largesse that built white-only suburbs back in the 50s and 60s. so blacks gained the right to be served lunch at woolworths. at the same time they were kept out of suburbs. which one matters more? woolworths may be important symbolically, but the suburban house matters more economically.

suburbs don't have to be racially and class-exclusive. they could be more fair. it would be difficult, since the underlying premise of home values is that proximity to poor or colored peoples hurts the value of one's home. this twisted sense of value would have to be overcome for suburbs to be more fair. but it is possible.

but even if we overcome this racial and class segregation, i believe suburbs as an urban form are still deeply segregationist.

suburbs in general put a premium on spatial separation. the further we are from our neighbors and from cities, the higher the value. distance is the highest value.

but most of the world does not work that way. in most of the world various classes, tribes, sects, and races negotiate resources through contact. this contact may be troublesome and even violent, but at least there is contact. suburbs represent a sort of retreat from contact.

how can people ensconced in this sort of retreating mentality be expected to understand people who are different, much less embrace difference? it is not impossible. i don't want to say an urban form totally determines individual thinking. i grew up in the suburbs, and i enjoy contact with different sorts of people and cultures. but i had to break out of the suburbs to do so. the whole form, unfortunately, is premised on separation, control, exclusion. it is an apartheid system that does not announce its apartheid logic. code words like 'small-town character' and 'lot size' are used instead.

actually, small towns used to have people of various classes living in one place. postwar suburbs were not so accepting of different classes.

suburbs indeed became machines for segregation. and they still are.

it was overwhelmingly people living in suburbs who bought into the national security state, who bought into the lie that we could invade iraq, destroy its state, and produce not chaos but freedom and harmony. only suburbanites nurtured by reaganite fantasies could believe removal of goverment could result in utopia. only people totally removed from social reality -- whether at home, in troubled cities locked out of progress, or abroad, in places like south africa and iraq and palestine -- could believe that military or police force could magically solve social conflict.

maybe i am pessemistic. but i am not pessemistic about people. only certain institutions and systems. people can overcome the bad legacy of bad systems. but it takes effort.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

dark morning blooms

it  is something else the way a day born in tense darkness, when one lies awake not wanting to wake, can bloom into something bright and rich. 6 hours of sleep seems to be my destined limit, between me going to bed too late and the kids waking who knows when. i brought them downstairs reluctantly after 9. then a 6-year-old girl just back from England with her parents and little brother, appeared and treating pax like her same-aged brother, took charge of play. she comandeered him, placing him in front of her on the peanut-shaped 'niu-niu che' (wiggle cars, roughly translated), and zoomed about. one of his feet dragged. he was ecstatic. toby, on his own niu-niu che, was quickly drawn in. i egged him on, telling him to chase her, go faster, catch up to her!

i said they were taxis. toby tried taking on pax as passenger. toby and carrie (her english name) raced here and there, colliding, veering, swerving.

no, i remember how it happened. carrie started by bringing out a beanbag, which she gave to pax. who threw it in a puddle. she began putting it on his head, which he quickly threw away. soon he was laughing each time the beanbag appeared from behind, and we were laughing. then she actually spoke some english to me for the first time. i had kept using it with her sometimes, figuring she had to be understanding me, in england for 2 years. then toby began grabbing the beanbag from her, and she threw it at him, and he at her, and oh how perfect it was, toby laughing and running and pretty soon, racing the wiggle bike after carrie. grabbing things from other kids is a skill they have been teaching toby at an an, the school for autistic kids he attends half-day five days a week. he literally did not know that this could be a form of communication or play.

this is the second time in 2 or 3 weeks that toby has really played with another child in the yard. i could put it another way: this is maybe the fourth time in 2 and a half years that toby has played with another child here. at one point during their play, maybe when carrie picked up pax for another ride, toby turned to me and said, 'this is a little game!'

then in the afternoon, when we came back from the park, carrie appeared again, and more racing of the niu niu bikes, which roar their solid plastic wheels on the pavement. he was so happy.

i had wondered this morning whether the wiggle bike makers would export to the US. except for that thunderous noise. then a couple of hours later, at the park, i saw a kid rolling by on a niu niu che with soft-rubber-rimmed wheels. purring by. look at that, i said to sara.

i don't know if it was the wiggle bike racing, but when i brought the boys to the photo shop for residence permit photos (once a year), toby was relatively calm. i had been dreading it. last year was awful. he couldn't stand still. the photos show him nearly in tears. luckily the embassy rejected them (the wrong size), and they didn't end up as his passport photo. today he still fidgeted, constantly scratching his head or ear, but at least he was not losing it. pulling toby's wiggle bike across the street in a break in the traffic while pushing pax's stroller with the other hand, i was in a beautiful mood. 'let's go get a scallion pancake,' i said as we negotiated the awful sidewalk, an obstacle course of parked cars, missing paving stones, and odd inclines. toby had begun saying 'wanna eat something?' while in the studio, and even though it is something he says when he wants to avoid something, it is also true that sometimes he is in fact hungry. he just begins shouting it when there is something else he doesn't like.

we made our way home, toby munching the greasy thing in one hand and me feeding pax little bits. the crowded, badly planned streets felt comfortable, woven and interwoven complexly with people and vehicles of all sort, and i was happy, far from the predawn tenseness.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

black lives matter. except when they are flawed. in any way.

black lives matter, roars the voice of a movement.

large portions of white america respond: no they don't!

not if they were wearing the wrong article of clothing (trayvon martin's hooded sweatshirt), had a previous rap sheet (freddie gray), a warrant for child support payment delinquency (walter scott), had ever smoked pot, was walking in the street, had been suspended from school, was taller and bigger than average (automatically incriminating evidence to many white people of a generalized guiltiness), was selling loose cigarettes, was running away, was disrespectful, was carrying a toy gun, was the sister of a kid carrying a toy gun (yes, tamir rice's 14 year old sister was tackled by police after her little brother was gunned down). and on and on.

in short, the message is: unless the dead man was a paragon of virtue who never so much as spit bubble gum onto the sidewalk, even in rough neighborhoods where looking like a nice kid is to invite victimization, their life was not worth much.

surely not worth the trouble to figure out a different way to approach the situation than aggressively attacking. not worth thinking about a better way to do things. apparently, if one is black and has ever made any mistakes, small or large, one forfeits one's right to being treated as a human.

the movement hears these responses loud and clear. and rather than shutting down the movement, they only confirm what the movement is saying. which is that to most of america, black lives do not matter. all that digging for dirt to spread over the dead man's name is simply a thin attempt to justify the violence done to them.

but if white americans found that being suspended for school, talking back to a police officer, walking in the street, not paying for child support, wearing suspicious clothing, etc etc, was sufficient to be gunned down (or, as with gray, deliberately given a 'rough ride' while cuffed and without seat belts), i predict everyone would join the movement.

so far, since white people rarely have to face such brutality, it is 'better you than me.' being black means deserving a nasty end, since living in rough neighborhoods, there is always some dirt, some scrape, some skeletons to be dug up to justify the end of murder.

but even pot smokers, jay walkers, ex-cons, cigarette peddlers, men too big and tall and scary, and suspended students are loved. by someone.

i'm white. but i'm part of the movement. because no american should have to live in a police state. i wouldn't want it. so why wish it on anyone else? i don't care if they smoked pot or walked in the street or made me feel nervous because they were big. they are humans, and they should have the right to be treated as such.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

electric wave

last week i got an email from the school (shandong u, my employer) announcing yet another official 'scholarly conference,' and inviting papers for submission. the topic: 'the legacy and innovation of qilu culture.'  qilu is the province's nickname, taken from the names of two ancient kingdoms. rather than deleting the email right away, as i usually do when confronted with such officialistic hot air, i paused. could i find some way to plug my pet cause, tiny electric cars, at this conference?

i have researched traffic and how people negotiate the streets and sidewalks here. maybe i could find a plausible angle leading from that to my pet cause, and turn this propagandistic 'scholarly conference' into something interesting, even useful. . . my family and i have driven a little 3 wheeler for more than a year, logging almost 7000 kilometers so far. it is of crappy quality. the door hinges rusted to the point that a 3 year old pulled one of them off. but it is so handy, so practical, that i watch people here clog the narrow streets with SUVs with disbelief. they are chasing a 1950s American dream -- big cars, wide highways -- in the ever-more perilous, crowded, 21st century. and it just doesn't work well. sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, any empty space, is jammed with cars parked pell mell. and a minority of households own cars. these tiny cars are 1/3 the size, or less, of regular cars, yet can carry up to 6 people. and some of them -- not ours -- are solid quality.

the inspiration was an article on huffingtonpost last week which laid out the view of some american transportation experts that the future of city-center transportation is tiny electrical cars, someday driverless and not privately owned. apparently people will be able to 'call' one over, and tell it where to go, pay electronically somehow, and that is it. i thought: the city and provincial government are constantly threatening to 'do something' about the menace of these tiny cars, which are blamed for creating all sorts of problems. (a shortage of taxis makes these cars a sort of gypsy cab for the poor unemployed or retired, and they cluster near bus stations and such plaecs). but this nascent industry, which has shown impressive improvements in quality and function, could become a world leader away from the obsolete pomposity of the 1950s American dream.

so today while waiting for toby at his school, i typed away and completed almost 1500 characters. the target is 5000 or so. i will need someone to polish it, of course. my written chinese is 'rough' at best. but when i ranted on the topic in my urban anthropology class on monday (our topic was the development of the american suburbs in the 1950s), they got it! with a laugh. these little cars are ridiculous. and surely face-deflating. but they are fun and practical. you can park underneath a UPS van, practically.

so, while i doubt i will be lucky enough to present my paper to just the right official, or even anyone paying much attention, at the very least i may be able to meet some academics or officials interested in this issue. and know that i have done something to advance the electric wave.

if only i could find some time to research the topic more deeply . . . no. not going to happen. not with two small kids.

so it's settled: a paper presented at a windy, propagandistic conference on the eternal glories of confucian culture will have to do.

Monday, February 23, 2015

some murders are better than others

the sacred right . . . to parking

taking them out

america is a composite structure, at the bottom a nation-state occupying a certain territory; above, an empire stretching across the world. the fact that the two are commonly lumped together tends to confuse these two entities in the minds of citizens. this confusion is very convenient to the pillars of empire -- arms makers, security subcontractors, the 'intelligence community' (sounds so benign!), transnational corporations, and the politicians and government institutions which service the whole network of power. the 'military industrial complex' described by eisenhower.

the empire is in many senses distant from the lives of ordinary americans. without a draft, the empire is freed to fight many long-running wars with little intrusion onto daily routine. the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a direct response to american imperial power, but people since the Cold War were so tuned out of the existence of empire -- in the very decade it expanded by leaps and bounds across previously Soviet-dominated or allied regions -- that the attacks seemed no more explicable than a sudden execrescence of evil itself.

no rhyme or reason. such (supposed) surprise was, again, very convenient to the empire politically: the more unpredictable and mad these foreign opponents of empire can be made to seem, the more likely will americans unquestioningly support the imperial structure, much as Russians foolishly cling to Putin, even though a rational view would hold that he is ruining Russia in the long run. like the empire, Putin also benefits from terrorism -- especially since most people don't care to know the context of this terrorism, particularly the state terrorism of the US or Russia.

as distant as empire is, our culture is colored by it in subtle and blatant ways. our language, for instance. the phrase 'take them out' has gone from being a tough-guy military phrase to one so mundane that even news anchors and house wives use it. let's compare it to how killing is described by arabic-speaking terrorists. they often use the word 'slaughter,' highlighting the brutal character of the killing they are about to undertake. the victim is turned linguistically into an animal awaiting the knife, the fire. 'take them out' is quite different. it downplays the violence of killing. this downplaying, this deadpanning, is in keeping with the modern american culture of cool, or emotional control. we get a sense of detachment, which is also in keeping with how we wage wars -- from a distance, by drone or by professional military (and attached mercenaries). the terrorist language does the opposite, emphasizing the physical, gory closeness of killer and killed. at least the word 'slaughter' is honest.

after all, people blown apart by drone are as slaughtered as are those killed personally by men in masks.

the macho detachment in american culture turns my stomach; it nourished me growing up, but i can't stand it. especially when it refers to killing. if we -- and here i mean the 'we' of people unwittingly upholding an empire operating against our long-term interests -- are going to kill, we might as well be honest about it. those targets we took out? we slaughtered them.

'take them out' is hypocritical at a deeper level: by evading the full impact of what was done, stylistically at least (we simply removed these enemy units from action, clinically, dispassionately and without hatred), on the one hand, and by embracing and celebrating it -- look how calmly i can throw around the thought of killing, weave it into daily conversation! -- in tone on the other hand.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

when a language is submerged

my mother-in-law gave me an example of what happens when a language loses its own existence and becomes an adjunct of another, more powerful language. she says lots of young people use a non-taiwanese word for the word 'telephone pole.' it should be 'electric -- talk -- pillar.' (i can't remember how the words sound). but lots of people say 'electric-line-post.' in fact, they are simply using the chinese word, and shifting the pronunciation to taiwanese pronunciation.

a fatal weakness in taiwanese is its lack of an independent and widely used writing system.

even older people's speech is peppered with words that sound to me like chinese, with readjusted pronunciation. i have no doubt that older generations used different words, or maybe did not have a word for the particular thing being named. so this process of sinification has probably been going on for some time.

day two of the new year 初二

day two of the chinese new year is usually when married women can go back to visit their parents. if their parents are dead, they will often go to see their siblings. traffic was terrible that day as we drove to great-grandparent's house; it seemed everyone was on the road, double parked and buying last minute gifts, turning in the wrong place, stopped to buy a late breakfast, whatever. i had never seen tongxiao that busy.

today is day four. people are sort of tying up loose ends, making visits they couldn't do before. one of sara's cousins, now married with kids, stopped by. this morning as i pushed pax out in his stroller a merry group stood in the road, leaving or coming i wasn't sure. the two men, father and son, held beer cans. the father asked if pax would like some beer. the son asked if i had a taiwan residence card.

taiwan is more similar to the US in the ease of talking to strangers. one reason it is easier is lines of separation are clearer, a paradox i struggle to understand.

sara tells me the taiwanese word for gift, 'danlao,' or 'wait in the road,' comes from an old new year's tradition. the married woman returning home would be met halfway by a party from her home. she would bring gifts for them, and then they would lead her there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

final exam, shandong University

last semester i was forced, finally, to give an official final exam.all the students' names, numbers, and photos are provided to the two test monitors; during the test, school-level inspectors entered the room to check on the monitors. the photos are meant to prevent substitute test-takers.

a seating chart dictates where each student will sit.

  the monitors cut open the official brown sealing strip (red stamp across the seal) and remove the roll of school-printed test forms, as well as forms for the monitors' use (for listing cheaters, for example). i brought my own test question sheet, having modified some questions; the other monitor said i could hand it out as well.   

leaving port

it is funny, sort of, thinking back to my leaving taiwan last year to return to shandong in late february. i decided to try the ferry, which i had heard about from one of sara's friends. a four hour sailing to fujian province across the strait. i was so nervous on the way to taichung harbor. i had not travelled alone in quite a long time. the day seemed fine, a slight wind; on facebook i had written that it seemed a good day for sailing.

the slow movement out of port elated me: the stately ships and loading cranes sliding sedately by. the sun shone, i stood on the ferry's stern, some staff chatted with me; the worst part -- leaving sara and the kids behind and getting on the ship, alone -- was behind me. then the staff person next to me commented, 'it is going to be a rough sail.' really, i said, taken aback. 'just look over there,' he said, pointing to the long break water protecting the harbor's mouth from the north. it had just come into view.

on this side of the cement barrier, placid green water. on the other side, an angry ocean, churning grey. not ten seconds after he had said those words and ducked inside, the 700-seat ship began to rise and dip. and then to heave. a minute later, a huge wave crashed against the north side of the ship and splashed down over me. i staggered inside, dripping, holding onto seat backs.

a miserable-looking snack counter staffer handed me a packet of tissues without a word. there would be no sales at the snack counter. people hunkered down over puke sacks.

thank god, a half hour later or so the captain had mercy and slowed the ship, saving us the terrifying sensation of the vessel taking air off large waves and crashing back down, the shock shuddering loudly through the entire superstructure and nearly knocking us from our seats. but the horrible hong kong police movie didn't let up, the same arrogant, wronged tones of the villain speaking, hour after hour it felt, the same slow enunciation, the same heroic violence, depressing underworld, sadistic cruelty against hostages for their children to see, upscale bar, women threatened and saved. . .

it was getting dark by the time we finally docked next to a huge building on a desolate coast.

naming alien foods

the so-called 'columbian exchange,' in which species from old and new worlds crossed to the other side after 1492, brought new crops to all parts of the world. in China and Taiwan, their names sometimes reflect this alien provenance.

green onion, which is native ('cong'), has a 'foreign' (yang) added to it to mean 'onion' -- 'yangcong' 洋葱 (foreign cong).

tomato has two names: one, 'fanqie,' 番茄 is something like 'savage eggplant,' with the 'qie' 茄子 meaning eggplant. the other, 'xihongshi,' 西红柿 used more in North China, translates something like 'western red persimmon.' persimmons are native there, and do look somewhat like tomatoes.

'potato' has three names that i know of; 'tudou' 土豆 or 'earth bean,' is used in North China, 'malingshu,' 马铃薯 whose origin or meaning i don't understand, is used in Taiwan, and 'yangyu,' 洋芋 or 'foreign taro,' is used in Taiwan when naming potato chips. finally, sweet potato is usually called digua/地瓜, or 'earth gourd,' but sometimes in Taiwan, 'fanshu' 番薯 or 'savage shu' (i suppose 'shu' is a class of tubers).

there are many other foreign-origin plant foods whose names do not reveal foreign origin. pineapple, for example, is called 'fengli' 凤梨 ('phoenix pear') in South China/Taiwan and 'boluo' 菠萝 in North China. corn is called 'yumi,' 玉米 or 'jade rice.' Sara heard corn on the cob referred to as 'clubs' at a market in Jinan, Shandong.

The book '1493,' by Michael Mann, has a fascinating chapter on how New World crops impacted agriculture in China, allowing cultivation of marginal hilltop lands (corn, sweet potatoes), which increased population, deforestation, and flooding -- problems to this day.

aboriginal tv news

north america and taiwan were settled at roughly the same time, beginning in the early 1600s -- one from northern europe, one from china. both streams of settlers encountered people already living there. colonial americans largely revolted against royalist attempts to constrain their movement, most notably in bacon's rebellion in virginia, setting a pattern for elite attempts to prevent friction by protecting marginal groups, and popular efforts to break these cordons and target the land and livelihoods of 'the other,' whether indian, black, or mexican. we see this dynamic today. china's imperial government was more successful in cordoning off aboriginal territories; it was only the japanese colonial government (1895-1945) which militarily subdued these highlanders. today, these 'mountain comrades' (so said the paternalist nationalist dictatorship) have renamed themselves 'original peoples,' or 'aboriginals' (yuanzhumin), and engage in electoral politics.

yesterday i saw a bit of the news being read in a native language. their languages are austronesian, a family stretching across the pacific from hawaii to madagascar -- scholars think this expansion came from or through taiwan. i think there are at least nine major aboriginal languages in taiwan, so only certain viewers could have understood it. when people were interviewed about a stretch of road threatened by landslides, all answered in chinese. like english for american indians, chinese is the lingua franca of taiwan's aboriginals. they worry about losing their language; an anchor speaking formally about local affairs in a native language must be a powerful sight for older people once banned from speaking their home language at school. but can such a sight get young people to speak it?

a fascist echo, in taiwan

on tv yesterday i saw a group of officials taking their oath of office: they stood, heads bowed, facing a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the 'father of the nation,' one arm held straight out, palms down, toward the visage of the long-dead man. wait: were their heads bowed? am i mixing up what i saw with other images? like the two black athletes, carlos johnson and who else, in their gesture of protest in mexico city, 1968? heads bowed or not, the sight reminds me that the nationalist party (KMT) which led the early Chinese republic, modelled itself on revolutionary leninist parties, as well as on fascist parties. in the 20s and 30s both communism and fascism seemed to promise a sort of order to societies roiled by invasion, warlordism, and predation of all kinds. it didn't seem possible to wait for such a massive, rural country to just evolve toward modernity: iron-willed cadres were needed. taiwan is now democratic, and the nationalists trade power with the Democratic Progressive Party. but remnants of that turbulent past, and the longing for stability, remain: arms raised en masse, pledging loyalty to a man standing for a nation.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

vegetable truck at night

last night as i carried pax toward home in a dark lane we heard music -- a jaunty popular tune, reedy and wavering out of speakers, the sort of tune older people here might associate with more optimistic times when taiwan was on the upswing. the music got closer. probably an advertising truck like the one broadcasting for an eyeglass store the night before ('you shi,' or 'superior sight,' punned with the english 'yours'). when the blue japanese truck's headlights flooded us, though, i could see i was wrong. the truck bed was stacked with open containers holding broccoli, bananas, apples, bok choy, you cai, even tofu, swaying gently along under flourescent lights. as the truck squeezed past us i even saw an electronic scales, lit and ready to weigh should an old person in flip flops emerge from a dark doorway, calling. a stack of plastic bags rustled in the breeze, a string of sausages swung side to side. the glowing truck disappeared around the next turn, cheery tune subsiding.

Monday, February 9, 2015

plane in the river (1)

The first image we saw of the TransAsia flight was on the TV news in a noodle shop in Tongxiao. It was still, part of the fuselage sticking out of the shallow Jilong River in Taipei. Not a big deal, we thought; soon holes will be opened up and the people let out. It takes a while for the media to create a sense of crisis. It was strange how long it took to pry open the plane, and doubts began to appear in our minds: most of the plane was under water, after all. Soon enough the treasure was found: a dash-cam video of the plane veering earthward, clipping a taxi and shearing off part of its wing on its way down into the river. This video clip became the center of the media work, and quickly we began to realize how terrifying and fatal this flight was. I found myself trying to imagine sitting in that plane as it skimmed the bridge, or as it struggled to gain altitude out of Songshan Airport. Interviews with survivors helped, but their words paint few pictures.

plane in the river (2)

The realization that the plane had deliberately followed the river led to an emotional celebration of the pilots' heroism. They had saved Taipei from a much worse disaster. 'He. . . did his best,' said gravelly-voiced Taipei mayor Ke Wen Zhe, the pause indicating a welling emotion. The third type of image is computer-generated video, which satisfies our fear fascination more fully. Now we can view the white prop plane banking this way and that up the Jilong River, and see its final plunge, after it disappeared from the dash cam video.

plane in the river (3)

Information has been added from the black boxes, and suddenly the pilots are no longer heroes: who turned off the second engine after the first one failed, and why? We no longer see the pilots' families; we only are told 'someone' turned off the engine. Somehow this human failure is more frightening than the purely mechanical failure we first imagined. The mundane sight of a small plane resting in a river after a low-altitude descent has turned into something much more dangerous in our minds.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunday morning, Yuanli

The north wind was gusting something fierce this morning but I didn’t feel like millet porridge and eggs, so I bundled up the boys and headed out for some Taiwan-style American breakfast. There are probably as many versions of ‘American-style’ as there are countries in the world. And the Taiwanese version gives the original a run for its money. The wind was so strong for once Pax didn’t try pulling off his hat. The place was packed, but mostly people taking out. We got a table on the sidewalk, arcaded like lots of older Taiwanese buildings. Sort of outside and inside at the same time. There was white pepper on the scallion pancake I got for Pax, so I fed him Toby’s noodles instead – a challenge using chopsticks. Bits of noodle fell onto his fuzzy black ‘ape suit’ jacket, onto my jacket, onto the sidewalk. Sometimes he bit down hard and I had to really pull to free the chopsticks. Usually I use my fingers to feed him, but I’m trying to be more careful about germs, probably infected by my in-laws’ protective ways.

Yuanli (2)

A kid sat at our table. Studying history in college, like I did. I laughed telling him how useless I thought anthropology was as an undergrad – and here I am now teaching it. A customer told me Pax’s shoe had fallen off, and helped me put it on. On the way back we took the ‘secret way’ through the middle of the block, half of whose homes are abandoned and falling into ruin. Fuelled by caffeine no doubt, I suddenly felt it would be a great place for the kids to play. I’ve always been intrigued by empty houses – that burned one in Eagle Pass, Texas, in college, where I picked up a ring of blackened keys, and kept them. I put Paxy down on the broken roof tile fragments and found a bit of tubing for him to play with. There was a bathtub outside, filled with earth and growing weeds. A small mirror unit with a drawer and cabinet door was placed on the floor, empty. Walking that alley we had passed brick, mud brick and cement-walled houses, roofs gone or caving in, some intact, others with plants growing from the floors. These vacant frames are soothing somehow, the shells of unknown lives since moved on.

Yuanli (3)

We left and walked back under the train tracks, and from there passed some fields and irrigation ditches. Toby always stops to examine the putrid water at one spot, trashy and black of mud. I saw two dead fish last week. I sat Paxy next to a smaller ditch and lined up pebbles for him to throw in, which he did, avidly. Then I brought him over to the bigger canal, where the water is deeper, and found things for him to throw in. Toby looked at the retractable gates. I guess before the local water resources bureau built the current system of cement ditches, villagers themselves would have organized to build and maintain canals and allocate watering times. The march of modernization.

Yuanli (4)

I dragged Toby away – the wind was not letting up, even though the sun was out – and I let them play briefly on the old people’s exercise equipment installed next to the canal. There is a sign, ubiquitous in Taiwan: ‘such and such district wishes to thank legislator X and mayor Y for allocating the funds to construct this exercise area.’ There is grass planted, strewn with wind-dried dog poop. Pax and Toby played with various wheels on the equipment. Autistic kids are enthralled by round things, especially ones that move. I saw the 4 black goats munching weeds across the road last week (only the billy goat tied) were no longer there. Toby had said ‘doggies,’ when I first asked him what they were. Elated by the sun and caffeine, I even tried explaining how electricity went through the overhead wires and powered the trains we saw stopping at the station.

Yuanli (5)

There was a black cat in an empty lot. Too bad there are no cats tame enough for the kids to pet. They always watch them creeping and running with interest. The folded red envelope we saw a couple weeks ago by the lane was gone. Probably the family of the dead girl had given up, and tried another location for a spirit groom. Sara tells me families of unmarried girls who die will toss an envelope, with money and presumably the girl’s name, by a roadside, hoping a man will pick it up, open it, and hence be made the dead girl’s groom, giving her a place to rest. Apparently the ghost bride doesn’t get in the way of the man marrying a living woman. Does anyone pick these envelopes up these days? Is there anything in it for the man? Sara had said there probably wouldn’t be enough in the envelope to make it worth any man’s while. But what if the girl could help the man find riches somehow? I had joked with her.

Yuanli (6)

Before reaching home I saw Pax craning his head from the stroller, trying to see the excavator where I often take him, so I let them play in the dirt there until wind kicked it up swirling, getting in their eyes. I was happy, though, because much more than Toby at that same age Pax will often resist playing, no matter how good the rocks, dirt, mud, plants, or water looks to me. He’ll scramble up me like a determined monkey. Not this time. He sifted the sand through his fingers. I felt like a zombie physically, but kicked alive by the wind and sun and as soft and pliable from the fatigue of fatherhood as a wadded up newspaper.

Yuanli (7)

Our last stop was to look at a dog in a cage, kept next to a neighbor’s vegetable patch. It saw us and barked. The outrage I used to feel about such things has diminished with time, but it still makes me sad to see, and I toy with the idea of asking Chen Taitai (like ‘frau’) if she could let the dog out for the boys to see. What a change from 08, when I stuck a leaflet in a neighbor’s doorway my last night here (keeping away from the security camera), claiming to be a notice from a fictional animal rights group, requesting that they allow their chained dog sufficient exercise time off the chain. I doubt it did any good -- although they no longer have a dog chained up. The wind probably blew it away before they even saw it. I say nothing to the woman, and instead hurry the boys home and wash their hands. I tell Sara we ate a hot dog at 7-11, not wanting to disappoint her for missing a real breakfast. It’s already 11, but I’ve still got a little juice in me, so I try revising that paper I’ve been writing for, oh, a year now. . .

Friday, February 6, 2015

Helicopter story and the sadness of Brian Williams (1)

Recently anchorman Brian Williams has been exposed as having lied about an incident in the Iraq War. For years he had claimed to have been in a helicopter which was forced down after sustaining damage by Iraqi army fire. In fact, he was riding in a later helicopter, and viewed the damaged helicopter and spoke to its pilots when he landed. I do not know whether Williams really lost track of what really happened, mistaking media imagery for his own memory (though I sometimes find myself wondering whether a mental image is a direct sedimentation of personal experience, or a picture I saw of it), or deliberately lied about it.

Brian Williams (2)

I believe Williams’ false memory/lie was due to desire, a sad desire: a sense that his own labor as anchorman is somehow less real or authentic than that of men who do ‘real’ work such as soldiers, policemen, and builders. In addition, it reflects the fact that within this realm of ‘real man work,’ soldiers occupy an especially privileged position (a working class prestige increasingly accessed by women). The humble, hero-refusing ‘grunt’ of earlier wars has been replaced since 9/11 with a ‘warrior’ who feels entitled to social reverence. As America has increasingly enshrined an image of itself as ‘victim’ (the reason I dislike the national memorialization of the 9/11 attacks, as opposed to proper memorials held by those directly related to those who were killed), the soldiers seen as defending the nation against encircling barbarians have morphed into ‘warriors.’ I acknowledge the dangerous nature of soldiers’ work, and the courage that such work requires. However, I reject the common notion that the United States is essentially a victim, and the related idea that these tiny terrorist groups actually threaten the existence of our massively powerful country. In rejecting these false ideas, I also reject the blanket use of the term ‘warrior’ for all military combat personnel. There are heroes, in the military and in other occupations, but just as not every academic deserves to be called a scholar nor every politician a public servant, not every soldier can be a hero.

Brian Williams (3)

In short, I believe Williams grafted soldiers’ experience of being shot down into his own memory and made it his own due to an unconscious habit of hero worship. To use a popular term (without wanting to echo its derisive sense – I kind of feel sorry for Williams), he is a ‘wannabe.’ A society with a word like ‘wannabe’ is a society in which some professions or experiences are more real than others, and attract imitators. ‘wannabe’ is used to police the line. His mistake/lie is not his alone, though: society as a whole has increasingly viewed the military as a bastion of virtue and power deserving of admiration even as other institutions of government and religion are viewed with cynicism.

Brian Williams (4)

I make my judgment about the cause of Williams’ false memory/lie based on the words Williams uses in his written apology. Specifically, at two points he uses the term ‘bird’ to refer to helicopter; at another point he uses the military jargon ‘mech,’ which I suppose is short for ‘mechanized.’ Why would a famous journalist deliberately imitate the speech of soldiers? Why wouldn’t he wish to use the proper terms ‘helicopter’ and ‘mechanized’? Because, I believe, he wants to share in the sense of glory and brotherhood that surround the soldiering profession. In fact, it is telling that the accusation of lying and his apology follow a very public event, a hockey match, at which Williams appeared alongside an Iraq War veteran he met the night the helicopter was shot down. With thousands looking on, Williams repeated his false memory, feeling again that special glow of having shared the threat of death with a warrior those many years ago. Williams paid tribute to that veteran, to be sure: but he also gave himself a secret promotion to the brotherhood.

Brian Williams (5)

I object to what Williams did not because I believe soldiers are all heroes ordinary people can never match, but because it is a sad, mistaken view that only certain jobs are real, and only certain sorts of actions count as heroic, and only imitating someone can show real admiration. Think about getting ready for a live newscast. How terrifying it would be, to me or most other people! The thought of one’s tongue tangling on hard-to-pronounce words, Addis Ababa, al-Kasasbeh, and the like, all in full view of millions of people!

Brian Williams (6)

I also object to the romantic notion that only physical labor is real labor, and that by extension only working class people are living ‘real’ lives. This sort of romanticization can only be carried out by people living secure, middle or upper class lives. This romanticization is only possible in a larger sense under conditions of industrialization and marketization. I feel the pull of this romanticization, which is why I think I understand Williams and feel kind of sorry for him at the same time. Like other people who does not make a living with my hands or my gun I have romanticized more ‘real’ lives – those of peasant villagers in exotic lands, soldiers, and the like. In fact, my growing up years were one long imagination of being a soldier, something I shared with Mike Higgins in our many battles fought at recess and in the woods of Hickory Lane.

Brian Williams (7)

But I suppose I have come to the realization that, while there is a certain loss in not everyone having access to experiences of physical labor and danger, anyone in any profession can demonstrate heroism. Maybe not physically but morally: by standing against bullies, and popular forms of violence; by defending those weaker, whether those weaker be Christians in Muslim lands, or Muslims in Christian-majority lands. By defending the truth against lies, even if the lies are popular ones, told about objects of general hatred (a common one in recent years is that Iran intends to ‘wipe out’ Israel, a fabrication based on a willful mistranslation of remarks made by Ahmedinejad. Note I am not defending him, but the truth).

Brian Williams (8)

In short, this moral heroism requires intellectual ability and courage, bolstered by learning about the world. Chris Kyle did his job as sniper well, and showed physical courage: but did he show any sense of understanding Iraq, or wanting to understand it? Did he wish to protect its people? Or just his own ‘brothers’? Real heroism, in short, requires a courageous and knowledgeable mind, not just physical guts. Real heroism entails being able to reach beyond one’s own band of brothers to protect the other that one does not fully understand or even fully approve of. It entails understanding one’s own fears and hatreds, deeply, in line with the ancient Greek injunction to ‘know thyself.’ There are soldiers who reach this level of heroism. As there are people of every occupation and walk of life, even newscasters. It is true there is something more real about combat and other forms of physical labor, and it is natural to be drawn to that, to romanticize that. But moral courage, even sacrifice, is not limited to such forms of work.

Brian Williams (9)

I wonder whether the endless compromises Williams must face every day, the necessity of hewing to the politically correct fictions of America’s establishment (ie, that the US is a victim and never a victimizer, that terrorists pose an imminent and overwhelming danger, etc), has a demoralizing effect which causes him to long for some simpler form of courage. I wouldn’t be surprised. I hope he can find some integrity. Or is it impossible as a celebrity in the mainstream media? No one wants to remain a wannabe.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

haunted by fire (1)

i spent yesterday with sara and the kids on a day trip to her childhood hometown of tongxiao. we visited famous hole in the wall snack joints in front of the goddess mazu temple, walked to her old elementary school, and climbed up tiger's head mountain, where japanese observers caught sight of russia's baltic fleet steaming north toward battle against japan in 1905. but through all this i was haunted by fire -- the fire that consumed the jordanian pilot, weeks ago, but only made known through a gruesome video provided so helpfully by the killers that did him in. i compulsively imagined and re-imagined the scene i would not let myself view: his awful death. isn't this compulsive need to consume horrific news part of the american system? isn't this habit a dark, subterranean mass response that feeds compliance with our foreign policy?

haunted by fire (2)

it is in the essential separation or empty heart of a modern nation (ie, the fact that we are not directly connected to other americans but through imagination) that media can dwell, inhabiting our minds. but it is the controlled nature of our lives within this national system -- the suburbs, the work discipline, the surveillance of all sorts -- that makes us need to imagine, to consume, unimaginable horrors. and this addiction, which i don't believe exists in less separated societies, societies where the everyday violence of daily life, the need to kill animals, for instance, was not hidden from us -- this addiction is used to manipulate us american people into imperial wars. wars against distant countries become wars of defense.

haunted by fire (3)

separations make the american system both incredibly efficient, powerful, and also brutal. this brutality manifests in so many ways, from the mental illness and domestic violence and suicide that isolation breeds (the dark side of 'individual freedom'), to the solitary confinement and executions and prison rape of our prison system, to the concentration of foreign policy knowledge in elite hands, leaving the masses to be manipulated to emotionally charged support for wars that kill and expel millions of people. this primary evil is well-buffered from citizens, allowing us all to go about buying bread and pumping gas and steaming broccoli as if nothing were wrong, no one being tortured, no one being exploited or left on the street to die. in fact, the buffering processes themselves are a second and enabling form of evil which allows the original evil deeds to flourish.

haunted by fire (4)

what the IS killers have done with these horrific executions is to confront us with a form of evil we had intentionally left behind: face-to-face sadism -- knowing we would project it through our media to all corners of society. they are like the horror/suspense movie villain, using security cameras to mock the police captain helplessly watching as the villain prepares to torment his (usually female) captive. i believe that IS emerged in part -- in large part -- due to the controlling and distancing inherent in the global system. first, in the existence of the twin dictatorships of iraq and syria, sustained by the global system of alliances and trade and nourished by cold war blocs. these dictatorships bred a kind of latent extremism, as citizens were held in the suffocating embrace of the state but without a corresponding sense of usefulness or belonging. and secondly, in the american invasion which brought the state structure of iraq crumbling down, a violent process into which the disaffected and disempowered elements moved swiftly.

haunted by fire (5)

IS seems to be deliberately aiming at a key feature of our global imperial system, the paradoxical mix of buffered distance -- how we can let loose war and mayhem (how many nations' skies are patrolled by drones?) without ruffling society's calm operation -- and voyeuristic obsession with everything excluded from the system's controlled confines -- murder, massacre, rape, destruction. the voyeurism is directly related to the control and distance, i believe, offering the controlled (us) a way to participate in the frightening forces of mayhem and violence without getting our hands dirty or interrupting our daily routine. but what is new about IS is how it tailors media content in a direct way for our media machine. rather than incidental coverage of atrocities being committed for other purposes (a dictator massacring protestors, for example), which doesn't feel so dirty in consuming because we didn't cause it to happen, there is the sickening sense in looking at these images of orange clad victims that their murders are deliberately done for us, our media eye has been hijacked by savvy men who know exactly how it works. our watching eyes, in some sense, were the condition that allowed the murders to be done. we are like suited, middle class men who for years got off on peeping at unsuspecting women through windows, only to find a woman turning directly to where we are hiding outside the window -- knowingly performing, eliminating our pious denials and forcing us to admit that we are somehow implicated in the performance, coercing a response from us. the one controlled has found a way to control, even if this control operates only in one direction: inciting our rage.

haunted by fire (6)

of course, their doing so is intended to amplify their strength. time will tell whether they succeed. a lot depends on the ability of americans to remain cool-headed and keep a sense of perspective. however, a harnessed people (harnessed to the discipline of the 'free market') fed a daily dose of violent imagery and periodically finding release through ritual violence against an external satan (noriega, milosevic, saddam, bin laden, IS, the list goes on and on), a people tricked repeatedly into believing tiny panama or battered iraq actually threatened the existence of the mighty united states -- i doubt their ability to do so. our long addiction to horrible news -- our need to feel haunted by death and cruelty vicariously -- makes it unlikely americans can choose to believe facts -- a rational approach to dealing with this strictly regional force. instead, i fear we will see what we have seen since the end of the cold war, but with this twist: IS, the target of our war, is deliberately manipulating our propaganda machine to make us attack it, to incite our moral rage (based on voyeuristic love of violence) as a weapon against us. how so? the more we widen this war, the more we nourish and strengthen them, growing these killers into a real enemy. for now, obama seems determined to not let this pyschic escalation occur. for the future, we'll see.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

the terrorists' weakness, and ours

terrorists are politically weak. they must rely on the enemy society to nourish them -- first, by transmitting and amplifying their violent acts, and second, by vengefully overreacting, and in so doing, expanding their base of political support. the obama government cannot do much to avoid the first, in part because the national security state itself relies on threat propagation to justify continued high budgetary allotments.

maybe because of its inability to stop nourishing the terrorists in this way, the government is strenuously working to avoid the second form of feeding: overreaction. i don't believe senator graham or any other national politician is so stupid as to really want a religious war against Islam, or 'radical Islam.' there may be some americans, politicians and media figures as well as ordinary people, who want such a war for their own domestic purposes -- in other words, the accomplishment of what they claim already exists, America the Christian Nation. they want to undo the secular basis of the republic and establish a state religion.

but for graham and his ilk, attacking obama for being 'weak' and 'unable to say the words 'radical islam' is simply an easy, cynical schoolyard form of point scoring. any real consideration of the consequences of naming a religion, or part of a religion, as the enemy, must lead to the realization that such a move is exactly what the terrorist groups want, for it nourishes them politically. the proponents of religious war on the american side seem to think that adding 'radical' to 'Islam' dampens its inflammatory potential. hardly.

i would challenge graham or any of them to tell us all: what is 'radical Islam'? and more importantly, who decides who is a 'radical Muslim'? and if such a person be determined to exist, is he or she automatically an enemy of the state? such a label, upon examination, reveals people and practices all over the map. does a person who grew up in a Muslim family, does not practice Islam, but who hates american support for israel qualify as a 'radical Muslim'? and how so, if their opposition to israeli occupation is essentially an anti-colonial stance? does a religiously observant Muslim who passively supports terrorist attacks against western targets within war zones (such as afghanistan) but not in western countries, qualify as a 'radical Muslim'? if so, what exactly does it have to do with this person's entirely mainstream religious observance?

these two examples are enough to show the absurdity of attacking 'radical Islam.' simply put, it is a fictional category made up by americans; the heart of the concept is not religious at all, but political, and yet the label makes religion the central point; it is a supposed ideology which does not map at all onto the real world. were the US tomorrow to declare war against this ideology, these weak terrorist groups would suddenly be joined by tens of millions of people, in every nation of the world, as the target of a truly global war. in short, america would be voluntarily growing their enemy from weak to strong.

all of a sudden, people around the world who identify as Muslim but not as terrorists would begin to think, hey, am i their target? am i the enemy now? if even a percentage of the people who respond in this way decide to throw in their lot with the terrorist groups, they would see massive growth. if one really thinks about this issue, the current alternative -- to identify as the enemy only those specific groups which have self-identified as enemies -- and not a religion, or blurry subset of a religion -- makes excellent sense.

the chicken hawks may think that using this supposedly non-PC term of radical Islam shows their toughness. but it really shows their reactivity, their complicity, in the terrorist aim: to fool americans into starting a religious war.