Showing posts with label media. Show all posts
Showing posts with label media. Show all posts

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Julie Peakman's "The Pleasure's All Mine": Book Review

Last May, the new DSM-V, the standard for medical and psychological professions in classifying sexual disorders, admitted that there now exists "a subtle but crucial difference that makes it possible for an individual to engage in consensual atypical sexual behavior without making being labelled with a mental disorder". This shift away from deviance accompanied a rejection by the American Psychiatric Association of a new category of "hypersexual disorder"; but pressure groups, London-based historian Julie Peakman reports as she introduces her survey of what has often been called perversion, had managed previously to finally remove homosexuality from the list of diagnosed disorders. This struggle to define what is acceptable and what is deviant comprises this study, promoted as the first one-volume summary of "perverse sex".

Following Peakman's scholarship on eighteenth-century British prostitution and pornography, this European-centered presentation peers beyond English shores to look back to classical and biblical reactions to varieties of sex, and--given the limits of firsthand evidence for much of history, often relying upon court testimony and scientific or religious examination--personal accounts when a few dare or boast or are coerced into admitting their own indulgences. Peakman's argument remains clear throughout a dozen thematic chapters. "Normal" does not always equate with heterosexual, male-dominated activities. Standards keep changing. The abnormal alters over time and space.

Despite the unreliability of much of ancient literary or artistic evidence, and the scarcity of trustworthy medieval and early modern accounts for, understandably, a topic prone to secrecy more than display by many of its adherents, the sexual practices uncovered do reveal a similar pattern. For instance, as Peakman lists early on, "oral sex, masturbation, homosexuality, lesbianism, transvestism, flagellation, exhibitionism, voyeurism" all have been accepted by ancient peoples, then condemned by Christian societies, and denigrated by those who in recent centuries began to replace the labels attached to such behaviors. As Western culture secularized, these actions were not so much "sinful" as "irrational"; the medical profession rushed to prevent the acceptance of such activities as normal.

Changes in the past few centuries show this process unfolding. Around 1710, Onania was published. This purported to prove the harm of masturbation. A first, this pamphlet (which by its sixteenth edition tripled in length) warned women as well as men about the practice. Yet, two centuries later, the leading sexologist Richard von Kraft-Ebbing dismissed threats to females. "Woman, if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, has but little sensual desire." At the same time, Sigmund Freud purported to diagnose women and their orgasm with his own pet theory. After observation and interpretation by Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson by the middle of the last century, masturbation by either sex became classified as normal again. What Greek or Roman doctors recommended to patients, what Christians condemned, what Enlightenment-era or Victorian physicians diagnosed as a physical or mental disorder, and what modern counterparts judge as "a healthy and necessary alternative to procreative sex" typifies the "life cycle of a sexual perversion".

Peakman examines same-sex male and female sexuality, and she distinguishes differences in social or cultural reactions. Men tended to, in the ancient world, be accepted if they dominated the homosexual coupling, while the passive partner was seen as weak, often a slave or a boy trapped, perhaps in a power differential. Women were also regarded as passive, and therefore dismissed as subservient. For lesbians, the sanctioned intimacy many females of any sexual preference tended to demonstrate among themselves allowed women to pursue same-sex relationships with less scrutiny by authorities and less danger than homosexuals. In 1921, an act of Parliament banning lesbianism was never passed. It seemed better to overlook the practice rather than to draw attention by prosecuting it.

A provocative chapter on bestiality enlivens the range of invention. Peakman muses whether this practice was more a question of preference or of opportunity, for what until the last century was a European population with many people growing up much more closely in contact with animals next to them on farms or nearby in villages. Size mattered. Men worked in barns, dairies and fields. As meticulous court documents support, they tended to be caught with their breeches down among mares or sheep, which fit with the males more neatly. Women snuggled in their own rooms in town, cradling smaller cats or dogs. As with homosexuals and masturbators, those who clung to critters were often exposed by peeping Toms and Tammies, who spied through holes in the walls or windows upon their misbehaving neighbors. The crime was often punished by death, both to the creature and the human.

One legendary spin on this, when the fear of the hybrid half-animal/ half-human persisted over many centuries, was the case of Mary Toft. A serving girl of twenty-six, in 1726 she gained the notice of the king's surgeon, who came to investigate. "In search of fame and fortune, she had inserted various rabbit parts into her vagina with the intention of duping her doctor. She had called in her local physician, claiming to be in labour, and, to his astonishment, out popped the various bits of rabbit." Understandably, doctors were puzzled and amazed. She later confessed; she served four months.

Peakman returns at the conclusion of many chapters to the need for consent. This proves the crux of the matter. Partners may be assumed to agree, but in BDSM, can one legally go along with one's own assault? If an animal is a participant in sexual activity, can that creature be said to agree? If so, what does that mean, and how could such consent be determined? As for necrophilia, the dead partner certainly lost any say in the matter. Pedophilia has had its recent advocates who claim consent exists by those who perhaps may be at the legal age of consent (which varies), but as Peakman notes, attempts by that faction to come out and gain acceptance during the 1980s in the wake of gay rights movements only resulted in more persecution, as child-lovers were marched back to the closet.

The Marquis de Sade emerges as an inevitable spokesman in this debate. In his epigram to Juliette (1797-1801), "he defended its publication stating that he saw 'unnatural vices' as 'the strange vices inspired by Nature'. 'Natural' for Sade were all the perversions he described." Peakman sums up this twist: Sadeian philosophy asserts natural origins for all our actions, so they all logically are natural.

But, as the words sadist and masochist capture for two centuries since, those men who originated these terms celebrated a brutality and an exchange of power where consent may not always be arranged. Peakman reminds us of the Roman males who took sex rather than asked for it. She turns to the plight of the Victorian or Edwardian child unable to resist the predicament of his or her exploitation. "Men had no need to rape starving victims; they merely needed a few pence in their pockets and an eye for a starving child." As with the desperate or lonely, the inventive or deluded who sought release or comfort in grasping a horse or a cat, so Peakman draws the reader's attention to those who have been at the receiving end or found a blunt slap regarding bold sexual relationships.

With exhibitionism and voyeurism, the question of victimization now recedes; ironically, Peakman shows how until very recently with the advent of the Internet and mass-media, these two activities often depended on the lack of consent of those on display for the delight of Peeping Toms. Their female equivalents in public (and here we can include printed material--this book itself is illustrated with many period examples--and the media) may increasingly show off their vaginas and labias, Peakman finds, but the respective amount of depictions of the erect male phallus lags far behind. The gender imbalance, she mentions if only as an aside, as to who is looking at whom appears throughout much of the West; one limit of this book is that it does not examine global cultures to offer a broader perspective for comparison and contrast. This is admittedly a hefty volume as it is, yet her coverage for all its lively details rushes by, leaving the reader wanting much more than her many casual remarks when the need to interpret material and not only to collate and paraphrase it arises so often.

As these contents testify, millennia of visual arousal certainly continues to stimulate, even as market demands change and new interests bloom. Research opportunities beckon. "'Chubby-chasing' became a hobby for those obsessed with fat. Whether this has to do with the after-effects of post-Second World War rationing or with the current preoccupation with diet has yet to be ascertained." For all the inherent verve in this subject matter, Peakman keeps a firm control of its impacts, and its contexts.

Near the conclusion, this cultural historian of sexuality wonders if any taboos are left. I learned a new one. Forty or so people, it is claimed, have "loving relationships with objects" and call themselves "objectum sexuals". Two of these "OS" women fought over who deserved the Berlin Wall, and they, being polyamorous, agreed to share the wall "as a lover". Amy had fallen for both the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, "and grieved the loss of the latter as one would a lover". Peakman records that these women had in common trauma, rejection, and types of dysfunction.

Therefore, as definitions of (arguably) accepted practice expand to include buildings as objects of affection, the challenge for scholars to comprehend sexual behavior which is not nowadays accepted also grows. Peakman avers how it is "now reasonably common for people to incorporate fellating, fetishism, infibulating or fisting (or at least one of these activities) into their usual role play". When (nearly?) no part of the anatomy, the natural realm, or inanimate objects may appear beyond the embrace of somebody needing a catch and release, are any areas out of bounds?

In a too terse but necessary epilogue, Peakman considers harmful sex "to the degree of death or bodily harm between consenting adults (sexual cannibalism or sadomasochism); second, vulnerable adults [e.g., those with learning difficulties or Down's syndrome]; and, third, the age of consent." As I hinted above, the final category has always varied. While she does not delve into some of these areas with sufficient detail, Peakman advises more monitoring of institutions against abuse, and better support for those who may be at risk of coercion or manipulation.

Finally, as procreation at last appears to be "no longer a sexual necessity (or hazard)" for more men and women, sexual acts themselves gain parity. Peakman judges that any kind of sex becomes a matter of preference. We now enjoy freedom of choice, extended and abetted by a mediating Internet. We redraw intimate boundaries, beyond those of one's own body and a willing partner (or two?) close at hand. (PopMatters 12-9-13; 11-19-13 to Amazon US in shorter form)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Alain Badiou's "Cinema": Book Review

Thirty-one essays and reviews comprise this collection, translated well by Susan Spitzer to convey this French political philosopher's applications of film study, from his student days in 1957 up to Clint Eastwood's A Perfect Heart in 2010. Badiou, I have found in his theoretical efforts, can daunt the reader by his immersion in qualification and enumeration. He pokes a bit of fun at his "Chinese" tendency for the latter penchant in an opening interview.

A bit of levity is needed, for this is usually a very serious study. The "seventh art" takes in all the rest, he notes, and it shows us as possibly no other art form can a sustained exhibition of fluid (or must it be fixed?) sexuality, for instance. He watches Antoinini and wonders if cinema is "an art of love" or desire or lust. He muses whether love is "human or non-human," and how cinema can display it, either way. He, called now a "Platonic communist," looks to Plato for direction, too.

Such asides, for me, resonated more than the pronouncements of his Maoist phase. He denounces revisionist film and the French Communist Party in any of its forms, and his late-1960s period captures the confidence and the hard-headed utopian demands of that era. He inveighs against "big-city journalism" when reviewing Volker Schlondorff's Circle of Violence purportedly about Lebanon: he compares the self-absorbed Westerners depicted as its protagonists to the Jesuit chroniclers who popularized the efforts of an earlier "imperialist domination."

I relished such analogies in his comments, however predictably leftist: again, these remained foremost in my mind more than his more laborious, now dated manifestos. Often his reviews get tangled up in making political or theoretical points; although I expected this, I would have liked these points to have been made more tersely, as when Badiou lets us look through his eyes at what he sees, the results can be more valuable, decades later.

Still, this collection of over half-a-century shows the evolution of Alain Badiou. And he watches in a way that, although ideologically separate, can credit such forebears as Andre Bazin and later, Gilles Deleuze (he nods to both, especially the latter, whom he regards as an influence more than perhaps any other for his reflections). The core of his insight arrives in an untranslatable bit of wordplay. "After all, cinema is nothing but takes and editing." That is. the film exists only as "an idea come to its take [prise]"; the wonder or pull of the film comes in "how it is overtaken [sur-prise]."

Five ways of thinking about cinema characterize Badiou's argument. Enumerated. of course, 1) Image, its ontological basis. 2) Time. 3) Historical succession of the arts. 4) Art vs. "what is not art." 5) Ethical or moral perspectives. As with sex and editing, Badiou returns to cinematic sums of discontinuity and continuity. He assimilates impurity and he finds that cinema, out of "infinite complexity" can purify this material into the "modern social imaginary" to make it our era's art form. (Amazon US 10-9-13)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

James Wolcott's "Critical Mass": Book Review

In Lucking Out, his memoir of dropping out from a rural Maryland state college in 1972 to come to New York City to make it as a writer, James Wolcott surveyed the magazines which employed him, the films he reviewed under the guidance of Pauline Kael, and the music he heard at CBGBs as Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, and the Talking Heads began their careers. Finally, Wolcott's recollections shifted into ballet and literary criticism as he looked back at the start of his long career at, in turn, The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.

Readers of his articles have long praised or damned Wolcott's confident, acerbic tone, and his use of metaphor and the polished phrase to sum up or put down the figures and films he covered. Those familiar with his memoir will find certain episodes repeated from CBGBs or his movie reviews, and within this five-hundred page anthology of his past forty years, perhaps inevitably,  stylistic tics ("Whatever." "nowhere fast") appear more than once. The payoff is finding Wolcott engaging, irritating, and insightful.

Over six-dozen entries defy easy summation. Working through the galley proof (which limits my ability to evaluate Wolcott's style, as this hampers my scored rating), my attention did not flag, a testament to the author's commitment to record his reasons, his emotions, and his insights, honestly and determinedly. While my wife--whom I have urged to persevere through Lucking Out-- avers that the only reason I find Wolcott more amenable is that I share his curmudgeonly manner, I counter that Wolcott (to steal a phrase from one of his preening subjects, John Lydon) means it, maaaaaan.

Wolcott explains he selected pieces able to stand up long after the cultural moment had passed. He leaves out those needing footnotes by now, he keeps those relevant decades later, and he even lets go some that while they "still have a bop to them" might have further damaged their targets. He laments that criticism, dulled by the medium by which you and I connect for this review, has lost its clout compared to the heyday of the underground as well as popular cultural and music magazines.

Nothing monopolizes the conversation, as "mainstream dissent" in The New Yorker under Wallace Shawn once did. "Although we live in a culture of uncircumcised snark, it actually seems a more deferential time to me, the pieties and approved brand names--Cindy Sherman, Lena Dunham, Quentin Tarantino, Junot Diaz, Mark Morris, Judd Apatow, John Currin (feel free to throw other names into the pot)--more securely clamped down over our ears." Anyone taking on a "major reputation" does so more out of self-referential deference, he adds. Critics these days watch their own Twitter and Facebook feeds, fearful of their own status, careful not to upset those whom they cover.

Therefore, Wolcott, while not going soft, learns from the four decades of shifts away from critical punch to online tweets. He arranges this anthology with nostalgia. "But there's solace in knowing I learned and stole from the best", and his college dropout status keeps him studying more. That aspect, considering the amount of literary as well as cinema and music and media critique this collection amasses, attests to Wolcott's largely autodidactic training (compared to many of the critics he at a doleful 1980 Skidmore conference on the decline of American culture sits through and here sends up) puts him in the tradition of many of the cultural critics he praises from mid-century, when a Ph.D., tenure, and sabbaticals might not be the prerequisites for holding forth on novels, film, and poetry.

Let's look at some of the highlights of Wolcott's holding forth. "Talking Furniture" begins with television reviews. Mary Hartman, Dennis Potter, the local NYC crank Stanley Siegel (an exception to the footnote needed, but a special case close to Wolcott's curdled affection), SCTV, and The X-Files fill the chapters. Examining Vanessa Redgrave in the Holocaust melodrama Playing for Time,  he concludes with a balanced look at her controversial political stances, given her role here as a Jewish prisoner. "Perhaps Redgrave's political passion and her passion as an artist spring from the same rich source; perhaps the gall and the energy which propel her all over the globe to spout Marxist rubbish is also what enables her to enter so deeply into a role that she becomes transfigured--luminously possessed." Wolcott remains sensitive, open to Redgrave's own reactions onscreen.

Similarly, he watches for cant, complacency, and stasis. Designing Women, in its Clinton-era cant of feminist bromides, languishes by its seventh season in its own lame-duck predicament. "The characters seem sandbagged to the set, baying to each other from the far reaches of the Naugahyde." Yet a punchy observation like that can be followed by this: "[Delta] Burke settled into the sofa as if were her baby bath. The echo in her features of Elizabeth Taylor's suggested a luxury fund of food-libido." The odd metaphors sag--bath, echo, fund, libido--and bob about each other, soggy.

Turning to comedy, I admit that while the passing reigns of late-night t.v. hosts never interested me, I followed Wolcott's eager depiction of Johnny Carson closely. Wolcott drew me in. Citing fellow transplanted Burbanker Bob Hope as claiming comedians thrive on their own "insincerity", Wolcott applies this to 1979 Carson: "he has a gift akin to David Bowie's for copping from others and yet appearing totally self-invented." I doubt if a television critic other than Wolcott, equally attentive to rock, would make such a comparison. By 1992, the "nonstop" drummer Carson endures as the "comedy's last practitioner of white jazz", his "steady pistons" pumping on from the "bachelor pad of passé legend". Staring back at David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien, Wolcott pounds away, before switching to Jerry Lewis' hectoring marathon years to typically delightful, coy, and wry effect.

Music follows his memoir's subjects settled in New York City, but he looks beyond CBGBs (and ballet not at all). David Byrne's shtick by now feels at best as rehearsed as Carson's golf swing, but in a Village Voice review of his band, we see him as in 1975, fresh. He "has a little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo voice and the demeanor of someone who's spent the last half-hour whirling around in a spin dryer. When his eyes start Ping-Ponging in his head, he looks like a cartoon of a chipmunk on Mars."

He decries a few whom many worship. By 1976, Lou Reed's own stage patter had worn thin: "though he probably couldn't open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence". Patti Smith, whom Wolcott early on idolized, gets in a 1996 retrospective a more reflective veneration, updated in a postscript for 2013. Noting the coverage given Smith's handshake with Pope Francis, Wolcott weighs this elevation of her as "high priestess of lost bohemia" as "a testament to our own sense of loss--our bereavement over the death of the counterculture, of any hope of new rebel energies rising through the thick sediment of money, snark, accreditation, and digital distraction". There's "snark" again as our own era's characteristic, post-Occupy, post-Letterman. 

Furthering this look back at icons, a defense of Albert Goldman's often derided The Lives of John Lennon demonstrates Wolcott's appreciation of a principled analysis of how to fairly counter the smug platitudes, sung or paraded, of the counterculture. As for smug, the Rat Pack contrasted with the remake of Ocean's 11. The original, filmed in Vegas when the sun was high, after the Pack had lounged away each night, makes them "look like sirloin in the atomic light of day".

As expected from a protegé of Pauline Kael, much of Wolcott's volume scrutinizes movies. Brian De Palma and Woody Allen gain multiple exposures in related reviews; Sam Peckinpah, Alfred Hitchcock, New York noir, and an eager endorsement of "the greatest film Billy Wilder never made", The Americanization of Emily, show Wolcott's range. He captures as he did in his memoir the glare of his adopted city, refusing soft-focus. "You'd ride the New York subway just hoping to reach your destination, hell, any destination, suffering claustrophobia from the graffiti-sprayed windows, the lights blinking on and off like a submarine under attack, staring impassively ahead as predators loped from car to car, stalking prey." The feral rhythms of his longtime home, as he peers back at the B-movie antiheroes of the 1970s, cement his credibility as a critic who has met his subject personally.

He can also roam, in a less wary, more urbane pose. In a postscript to a 1993 piece on John Updike, Wolcott apologizes for his own snark about that writer's love of Doris Day, which he comes later to appreciate, as Wolcott's carefully observed 2000 article on Rock Hudson and Day diligently affirms. Such a reconsideration reveals Wolcott's ability to remain alert, to re-examine his own prejudices.

In the literary section, he opens up, with asides and instances taken from his own study of the classics, old and new. He can drop a reference to War and Peace in as nimbly as the Cowsills or woefully as Pauly Shore. He dismisses the posturing of bad guys in print as he has on stage or on screen. A protagonist of the much-praised (by others) Richard Ford keeps "dropping clichés into the slot until he gets the click of a dead phone". Critic Marvin Mudrick's glee at being credited by a student as "the funniest writer I have ever read" is as touching as is Wolcott's sharp notice about critic Seymour Krim: "In a couple of his books he even reprints his letters to the editor, a sure sign of a crackpot". Wolcott includes none of his own; doubtless his entries generated hate mail galore.

But maybe a few of his detractors had a point, or a persnickety prick. Wolcott (beyond any glitches of this galley proof) may be faulted for his own fumbles. Reviewing Martin Amis' autobiography, Wolcott introduces it confusingly. "Marketed as a literary hullabaloo so frank and blazingly humane it has to be kept in a Domino Pizza's carrier, Experience is a Lazarus act of self-resurrection. Contradicting Amis's cold-fish image, it's a confessional strip search, personalized with schoolboy letters and family-album photos--a portrait of the artist as a battered man reborn." Hullabaloo is a term that I struggle to picture as so fiery in its intangible humanism that a pizza box could hold such a phenomenon. Let alone that Lazarus did not raise himself from the dead: Jesus did. Maybe He could explain how a strip search is confessional, given Lazarus' own sorry post-mortem, tomb-smell state.

When Wolcott takes on mournful Joyce Carol Oates for her own forays into the grave and the Gothic, "wonders of reckless energy and dishevelment", the resemblance to scattered passages in Critical Mass persists. Yet, on the next page in the Amis article, Martin's dissolute. portly, and almost constantly drunken father Kingsley "toward the end" resembled to Wolcott "a pickle jar with a stuck lid": a quirky but accurate caricature, one suspects. Wolcott, with his own wry eye, can reduce a novel or author to its essential gift or flaw. After citing an errant passage: "That's what John Updike's naturalism in Rabbit is Rich comes down to: telling you every dumb thing that is on Rabbit's mind."

However, as I referred to earlier regarding Updike on Doris Day, Wolcott resists pouting, at least now and then. "Since Updike knows intimately every blade and pebble in Proust, he can alight like a robin and spot the worms in Pinter's adaptation, removing them with a few light tugs." Even Ayn Rand earns grudging respect for her pop-culture pull. He sees her "as the last industrial novelist, the last to lyricize the urban might of stone and metal". For whomever he analyzes, Wolcott shows patience.

Jack Kerouac's minor works resemble "listening to a musician tune up, only words are more than notes and sounds; they signify and convey meaning". A commonplace comparison in some respects, but relevant by Wolcott's context and placement for it. When he corrects a writer, he also commends, or at least shows us how to regard him or her with more generosity than we might have. He parenthetically closes his essay on Kerouac: "(he's the deadbeat dad everyone's decided to forgive)".

Near the end of this hefty collection, Wolcott approves Gore Vidal's put-down of professorial "scholar-squirrels" who dig among the detritus of a writer's life and texts to find a petrified scrap. Wolcott, who never gained "accreditation", sought to emulate Norman Mailer, the New Journalism, and "mainstream dissent". He made it in the Big Apple by hard work, with a dash of luck.  

Critical Mass testifies to his ability to avoid "academic robot-speak" and to convey his critiques of high and low culture, transmitted on stage, in print, on television, and at the movies, in a winning way. His own small slips make his achievement more accessible to us. We look on, over his shoulder, as he directs our eyes and ears to the intellectuals, entertainers, performers, and/or celebrities who have graced, cursed, or captivated him ever since he quit Frostburg State and hit Woody's Manhattan. (Altered and shortened for Amazon US 10-15-13. As above 10-21-13 to PopMatters)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jonathan Green's "Murder in the High Himalaya": Book Review

Two months after a 17-year-old Tibetan nun was murdered by the Chinese police, this reporter for London's paper The Mail on Sunday followed her footsteps, and those of the 70 surviving refugees who made it across to Nepal in 2006. His coverage here sums up what became a fine account of what to my knowledge has not received attention before: the intersecting paths of mountain climbers from the West, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to scale Cho Oyu or Everest, and the desperate Tibetans attempting, under increasingly brutal conditions in their homeland and progressively more invasive surveillance by spies, technology, and soldiers, to find freedom on the other side of the Himalayas. Green writes movingly of the contrast between such climbers as famed guide Luis Benitez and the photographer Sergei Matei (who filmed some of the shootings of the refugees that his climbing party saw from a distance) and Dolma Palkyi, in exile now, the best friend of the murdered girl Kelsang Namtso.

I heard this story on an audiobook. William Hughes reads it fluently, with at least to my untutored ears an accurate rendition of the many Chinese and Tibetan names and places. His rendition keeps the slightly distant tone adopted by reporter Green, who strives to find out as much as he could despite a fearful tendency of the Chinese to suppress protest and squelch dissenters in the West not to mention the East. Yet, Hughes' voice and Green's style also strive to discover the conflicts beneath the initial press flurry of attention to this story.

Its comparative rarity lies in the fact it's the first time since the Dalai Lama's flight in 1959 during the Chinese conquest that documentation has existed of a murder by the communists. As Matteo Pistono has revealed in his own eloquent book, "In the Shadow of the Buddha", getting out hard evidence of atrocities from Tibet is next to impossible. Both sides engage in propaganda, and hearsay inflates the real suffering perpetrated. As Green himself is told by the Dalai Lama when he visits him in Dharamsala, the need to stay "honest" is difficult advice to follow when telling of Tibet.

Lots about Tibet is interspersed with mountaineering and Everest-variety lore, and while to me this was integrated well, it does demand close attention as the points of view shift between Benitez and climbers, historical background, and the lives of Dolma and Kelsang and their band of escapees. Green, in the penultimate section of this necessarily expansive book, delves (for me too briefly but this may be due to Chinese spin doctoring at home and abroad of pro-Tibetan voices in print and online) into how complicated the whole issue has become. What the East denounces as feudalism and the West often romanticizes in Tibet clash with the political ramifications and economic realities of a superpower determined to crush dissent and to, in the times during and after the 2008 Olympics, to squelch the truth. Small wonder, Green finds the Dalai Lama bursting out into anger as he laments how the death of Kelsang represents the true face of Chinese power, and how we in the West acquiesce as readily as did the mountaineers (who symbolize perhaps this accommodation) to favor.

Green considers, near the end of his narrative, how the Romanian photographer's choice to document the killing that suddenly erupted below the slope came from his awareness of oppression under totalitarianism, and how to him, freedom meant more than personal security or safety. Yet this same bold individual tells in the presence of his own meeting with the Dalai Lama a markedly off-color phrase to show how his photos and video "embarrassed" the Chinese! Green to his credit keeps his own objectivity, even as he naturally cheers on the choices of the Westerners who felt, finally, they had to tell the world what the majority of the climbers did not want to reveal about Kelsang's death.

Benitez, an American guide, contended with his own reputation as a driven, perhaps self-aggrandizing (to his many critics among fellow climbers, a contentious lot) Westerner, torn between the love of the mountains and his duty, reluctantly and imperfectly realized, to tell the world what he and his clients (who felt they could have done nothing and did not want to anger their Chinese upon whom they depended for permits and access and patronage by bribes) had seen. Dolma in India finds herself, along with many refugees, ironically comparing the more modern Lhasa (under relentless colonization by the incoming Han Chinese and tourism now by rail) with the backward conditions of her asylum in India, even if she is nearer the Dalai Lama whom she and her companions had longed to meet. No one here seems to have found a truly happy ending.

I cannot help but compare what I and billions heard about the Olympics against what I never heard in 2008 about this one woman's murder from afar at the Nangpa La pass. The imbalance, despite Green's commendable work, grows more and more against Tibet and on the side of a Maoist Nepal all too willing to support its watchful neighbor, the dominant and implacable China. One closes this thought-provoking, ambitious, and ethically relevant book soberly. (Amazon US 4-20-12)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Tim Johnson's "Tragedy in Crimson": Book Review

This follows the stadiums full of cheers for the Dalai Lama's righteous but perhaps quixotic cause by many Western supporters with an insistent voice of reason. As an experienced China-based journalist, sympathetic to the underdog but determined to tell the truth, Tim Johnson's well placed to hear the Mandarin side of the debate and the PRC's position as it crushes dissent in Tibet and abroad. That is, post-2008, few articles and fewer books have emerged to date chronicling the shift towards heavier suppression and heightened surveillance as Chinese bullying escalates and as the rest of the world capitulates to the economic superpower's demands for cooperation with the anti-Tibetan crackdowns.

What happens is that China lobbies in American corridors of power for a narrow view: any pro-Tibet stance legislators may adapt equates for a return to barbaric theocracy and despotic feudalism. This contradicts, of course, the Dalai Lama's reiterated position for a truly autonomous Tibetan entity, if not the desperation of a marginalized people who, as the internal exile poet Woeser laments here, find it now impossible to change their own destiny, as marginalization accelerates and the environment, ecologically and culturally, faces irreparable damage. He shows how discrimination against Tibetans continues in universities and jobs, and how as in Lhasa Han and Hui Muslim immigration weakens the native culture and their means of making a livelihood in an increasingly desacralized tourist trap. Full of brothels, many owned by government, party, or military, this symbolizes Tibet's subservience.

Johnson visits Tibet, on a tourist visa; he tells how as a blacklisted journalist, media access is denied those considered pro-Dalai Lama--a sign of the PRC's success in propaganda bent on repairing its image. Activists have their human and cyber networks hacked; academics toe the Chinese line or face funding cuts and loss of student tuition from a lucrative market of immigrants; He opens his account with a warning: "Today it is the Tibetans. Tomorrow, those harmonizing about the glorious blue skies of China could be you or me." (26) As China rises in power, the fate of the Uighurs (suspected post-9/11 as subversive, their ancient cities bulldozed into featureless flats) or Mongols (not too long ago, outnumbering the Han Chinese 5:1, they now find their language and culture fading under relentless resettlement of the Mongol homeland by the Han majority) now is that of Tibet.

As one activist laments, among those contemplating fighting back, "We are going to be wiped out in another thirty years. It is now or never, do or die." (113 qtd.) Johnson examines those who differ with the patient, non-violent, nearly invisible pace of resistance commended by the "god-king," and he explains how the eminence of the Dalai Lama overshadows that leader's encouragement that the exile government (itself well-described in its comparative modesty in half-trendy, half-slurried Dharmasala) seek democratic consensus to move alternatives forward. He also reveals how ghosted systems installed by the PRC obtained many internal documentations and communications among the pro-Tibet networks worldwide, and how the Chinese use their clout to get their way to keep "trade."

Johnson, capable of relaying the views also of the Chinese as leaders and followers, does take pains to show their perspective {contrary to what some reviewers and commentators assert at Amazon}. As a skilled reporter, his tone may not captivate as much as those who rhetorically root for the Dalai Lama, but he in a quieter fashion builds a balanced presentation, afforded by his position within China for so many years, and his own contacts there and overseas. He shows how the Chinese cleverly commented on how Obama claimed in 2009 to have learned from Lincoln's Civil War role. Surely, the Chinese lectured America's first black president, such a man must admit that the racist Confederacy could be compared to the "splittists" blamed for, as with other minority populations in today's PRC, agitating against the fatherland's benevolent wish for unity. However, it is undeniable that China funds many who speak on behalf of its own hardline policies.

Sowing discord, as with the "Shugden affair," and the diplomatic and well-financed business efforts to sway leaders abroad away from pro-Tibetan statements let alone action demonstrates how the Chinese operate. Even among Buddhists drawn in China to study in Tibet, they obey largely the dictates of their government and party rather than their spiritual mentors, and Johnson's visit to a vast complex near Serthar in remote Tibet shows this conflict, or lack of such, in intriguing detail.

This book sits on a small shelf of recent coverage; I also reviewed Jonathan Green's "Murder in the High Himalaya" (on the murder of a fleeing refugee near Nangpa Pass mentioned in passing by Johnson if unnamed by him on p. 104), Matteo Pistono's clandestine coverage "In the Shadow of the Buddha,", and Stephan Talty's conclusion,  "Escape from the Land of the Snows." Johnson's dispassionate tone, more akin to journalism than advocacy, may be less gripping than Green's conflicted mountain climbers and desperate devotees, or Pistono's dramatic eyewitness testimony, but as with Talty, Johnson provides valuable interpretations of why Tibet matters to at least a few of us.

Other chapters feature the impact of the rail line to Lhasa, the forced relocation of Tibet's herders into housing tracts, the unrest in border areas beyond the Chinese T.A.R. boundaries, the Karmapa and the Black Crown intrigue, similar complexity around the Southern California prep-school educated, pampered daughter marketed as "The Princess of Tibet," and the Dalai Lama's own articulation of his own challenging array of roles he has to play. What happens after his demise, of course, overshadows the predicament of Tibet's future. The good will conveyed by the present Dalai Lama may not survive his death, and Tibet may be relegated to the comparative neglect of Uighurs and Mongols in the attentions of the rest of the world, which already pays its situation little heed outside a few circles.

As Johnson titles a telling chapter, "Hollywood vs. Wal-Mart," it appears that we Westerners "might adore the Dalai Lama, but many love their high-paying jobs and their cheap Chinese-made products more." (289) For all the proclamations passed in the world's legislators and fundraising dinners acclaiming the Dalai Lama, China blocked in 2009 his attempt for a South African visa to attend a gathering of Nobel Peace laureates.

In closing, this sobering book merits attention; I came across it only by chance. If its comparatively modest profile is indicative of the reception of his necessary call for more action and less talk about Tibet's crisis, perhaps this promotion of its message will be one small step forward. It's well documented and carefully end-noted. A telling indicator of the gravity of its contents is that many names must remain anonymous, given the mortal threats many of his informants live under. (Amazon US 5-11-12)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pico Iyer's "The Global Soul": Book Review

I liked Pico Iyer's debut collection of essays "Video Nights in Kathmandu" and his recent "The Open Road" on the Dalai Lama (the latter reviewed 10/08). A friend of mine leaving the U.S. to live in Ireland over a decade ago recommended this exploration of globalism from Iyer's perspective. I found it predictable, better read perhaps in its original version as magazine form rather than as seven essays.

The reason is, as a passing phrase such as Iyer claiming to be "middle-class" despite coming from an academic family in tony Santa Barbara who sent him to boarding school and then Cambridge, or his "whenever I attend an Olympics" about his reporting on many of these events, betrays his privilege. That alone cannot justify a critique of what he conveys in his journalism, but it does repeat a note of what he finds in Toronto as "rootless cosmopolitanism" and this note sounds on nearly every page, until it dulls the senses. 

He works hard to evoke his settings: the house on fire and amid flood atop a Santa Barbara hilltop; the hideous LAX where an Ethiopian arrives to find herself surrounded by her former enemies, the Tigreans, in a city where nothing matches the movies seen abroad of the palm tree celebrity paradise; his friend in Hong Kong who roams the world as, of course, a management consultant; Toronto's similar megapolis of new arrivals and "visible minorities" in a "postmodern Commonwealth"; Atlanta's Coca-Cola sponsored Olympics amidst a sprawl that's the "urban equivalent to bottled water"; London as seen through his semi-deracinated perspective; and finally a graceful depiction of his home in the Japanese locale of Nara.

Not to say moments emerge of insight or wit. "One curiosity of being a foreigner everywhere is that one finds oneself discerning Edens where the locals see only Purgatory." So he sums up Toronto (159), although naturally this could be anywhere he visits. I wish he'd tightened, as Toronto compared and contrasted with Los Angeles begs for an extended treatment, the connections between essays. The one on Toronto and the one on Atlanta drag on endlessly, when a revised version of these articles might have looked at all three, cut many of the vignettes and conversations, and focused on the best examples from the dozens that stuff each chapter.

That way, his identification as "full-time citizen of nowhere" might have sharpened, as the closing chapter shows best, when a customs officer as he comes back to Japan grills him: "What prompted me to bring antihistamines into a peace-loving island?" (277) Lighter, more streamlined, moments such as these in more abundance might have lightened the load of an ambitious but ultimately predictable array of observations on the global soul. (5-3-12 to Amazon US)

Monday, December 19, 2011

David Machacek & Bryan Wilson's "Global Citizens": Book Review

This collects scholarly articles on Soka Gakkai's Japanese, reformed Buddhist ethos and worldwide expansion. Most of the pieces, therefore, examine its growth in the later part of the 20th century. Emphasizing cultural (and also political) contexts, it combines theory with narrative histories, and then multicultural, sociological case studies.

Jane Hurst's "A Buddhist Reformation" cogently parallels the Protestant rebellion with the Soka Gakkai movement's rejection of a "priestly" for a "pragmatic" religious form (85-6). Collective ritual gives way to individual faith, and sacraments to practicality. Traditions recede while mysticism fades. Scripture trumps tradition. While a lack of authority may diminish an engaged, lay-led system's clout, and while ideological purity can be diluted, a global and rational enterprise gains by harnessing individual action to achieve progressive, egalitarian goals in a time of technological transformation and humanistic engagement.

David Machacek studies with Kerry Mitchell how Japanese immigrants spurred initial growth of Soka Gakkai in America. This began as war brides took the movement overseas after WWII. (259) The authors note how declining zeal of those raised in a such a radicalizing version of a faith often occurs, contrary to their parents who may have been converts, but they record how second-generation members appear to be steady with, if less diligent towards, practice. Unlike "world-rejecting" religions, Machacek and Mitchell see in SGI a heartening engagement with repairing social and environmental problems that bodes well for its future sustainability. (279)

In a related article, Machacek studies how "isomorphism" accounts for why SG sparked little controversy as opposed to other Eastern imported varieties of religious experience: SG parallels better the social bonding expected of hard-working Americans, even as its celebration of happiness and success appears to be at odds with Judeo-Christian practices oriented towards self-denial and otherworldly reward. (282) It looks legitimate, it acts respectably, its members keep a low profile. They do not undergo outwardly dramatic or exotic changes; the movement's progress, along often volunteer and now totally non-clerical lines, continues.

Instead of Jan Nattier's claim (qtd. 301) that evangelical Buddhism best defines SG, David Chapell substitutes "socially inclusive" (325) as distinguishing the notable presence of Americans and immigrants of European, African, and Asian descent in its ranks. Unlike the overwhelmingly white presence in Zen, Tibetan, and vipassana "elite" or "ethnic" Japanese cohorts, those involved in SG in the U.S. represent great diversity. Social development, he concludes, accounts for this prominence, as solidarity grows among members encouraged by welcoming and supportive circles of five or six, these in turn answerable to a district, a local chapter, and so on up a pyramidal structure, all led by laypeople (303-4). Abilities are encouraged, and while materialistic or selfish goals may seem to be accepted as legitimate reasons for initial practice or chanting, these are channeled with time and maturity into transformative skills better suited to one's lasting improvement, and that of those around one's self, in the faith and in the wider community. (324-5)

"Changing one's karma" rather than being bound by it distinguishes SG from other forms of Buddhism. Peter Clarke shows in Brazil how SG's third president, Daisaku Ikeda, in 1960 explained for the first time this notion to a Japanese immigrant, recently widowed, burdened with children. Her adversity was instead inspirational; her predicament became a way to overturn adversity rather than be a victim of fate. (337) Using a Nichiren Buddhist concept of "ganken ogo," Ikeda interpreted this as a method of turning difficulties into a vocation to change one's life by one's reaction to karma, and to overcome fatalism by committed action.

In postwar Britain, Bryan Wilson explains, a post-Christian residue of an "ascetic" outlook was overturned for a few by SG's appeal to a consumerist, individually flexible ethos. How traditional Buddhist discouragement of material accumulation squares with SG's "licensed hedonism" (369) puzzles me, but it redistributes restraint with reward. (353) He lauds the compassionate and secular approach that aligns SG with a community open to members allowed to seek happiness and enjoy fulfillment. A quarter of British adherents, from forty countries, were born overseas, a remarkable fact; some informants were introduced to SG by an encounter at a pub or a nightclub or an astrology class. (361) 3/4 of newcomers were not "seekers," and did not belong to another religion at the time of their first encounter. (363) As in America and Japan, the tilt upwards towards the more educated and professional cohorts appears over the decades to be accelerating, although economic, class, and cultural diversity remain hallmarks of global SGI.

Maria Immacolata Macioti looks at comments by guides and visitors left by those attending a 1990s human rights exhibit sponsored by SGI in a Roman museum as part of a chapter on Italian contexts; Metraux pursues the movement's spread into Southeast Asia. Whether into Buddhist, Protestant or Catholic nations, it appears a few committed members manage to convince thousands of others of SGI's advantages. Even in Islamic Malaysia or Indian communities abroad, a few decide to make the commitment to change and chant.

The remaining essays merit mention: Noriyoshi Tamaru on the historical perspective; Dayle Bethel on Makiguchi's educational message; Hiroshi Aruga on Japanese political ties; Daniel Metraux on the Komeito party; Atsuko Usui on women's roles; Takesato Watanabe on Japanese media coverage; Karel Dobbelaere on the "pillar" organization of SG.

Intermittently, I sensed re: SGI an uncritical bias. The generosity of many members is credited; these scholars support the movement's aims. This may not be a drawback for some readers, but I register how criticism of SGI here remains minimal. These scholars examine the evidence, assert their arguments, and defend SGI.

A few authors roamed into side topics or current issues (as of the year 2000) which neared indulgence or stridency. The results can be dry at times, but essays such as Chapell's despite statistics convince by their incorporation of interviews and testimonial enthusiasm. Overall, this is an accessible (if expensive even by university press standards) volume, aimed at the academic with a sociological slant, but newcomers (such as myself) needing an overview will also find this beneficial. (Oxford UP site.; Amazon US 11-18-11)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Occupy L.A.: Two months, gone

Well, it's over after the LAPD gave the protesters lots of time to get ready to move on out. Over 300 arrests, and lots of cleanup, two nights ago. Protesters vow as they have elsewhere to continue; some say next spring and better weather will spark an "American Spring."

As for seasons, one blessing is that the tents came down right before "hurricane-force" Santa Ana winds roared in. I couldn't have left home even if I had to today as an enormous jacaranda branch blocked the driveway, and a pepper tree one the garage door. The local train line was shuttered, a disaster zone declared where my son goes to school, and another at the school he goes to tutor. Our version of a snow day, if more blustery than powdery. Hope it's not earthquake weather.

My younger son was able to go to tutoring and to school yesterday. So, by train, he who had been there a few times at OLA again stopped off from the Red Line in the aftermath. He reported a chain link fence around the site kept a few screaming protesters from those who were starting to haul away the mess left when the campers were forced out, if comparatively in polite fashion by a LAPD chastened by its public image and private machinations over the past--how many years or decades of "codes of silence"?

Over at John W. Smart's blog, I've weighed in plenty about my own observations and those of many others, locally, nationally, and abroad, who'd watched Occupy L.A. and its sister sites. Some remain, many vanished. Here's a representative array of JWS blog reactions by left-leaning if dissident, largely progressive sorts, to one enthusiastic OWS report. Lots of pro, con, black, white, and, if me, gray.

Back in mid-October, I'd sent our mutual correspondent, Tamerlane on JWS and at his True Liberal Nexus, a list via Nation of Change's alternative media site the twelve demands of Occupy Chicago. He analyzed each one and weighed in with his political acumen. He'd been active organizing in the same Northern California town where my wife's niece lives. He blogged on the likelihood of their wish-list's fulfillment.

Speaking of wishes, demands were only organized for presentation to the local honchos at City Hall on Thanksgiving, after the LAPD announced OLA's impending shutdown. I wondered if its general assembly should have taken the city’s offer of office space, farmland, and an alternative to too many tents in a City Hall “park” (never that bucolic or verdant, but I feel sorry for the ficus tree now to be removed) turned dirt? 
My family was split over the dinner table. My wife figures the Occupiers (my Latin declension favors Occupii, as in Elvii or Winkelvii) were predictable if principled in turning down City Hall’s offer. My 16-year-old grumbled after seeing it himself more than once that if they wound up inside a building, who would care, three years on, what Occupy had stood for. My 19-year-old rolled his eyes and dissed them for their pothead antics rather than their practical actions. As I’ve weighed in here, I sympathize and I donated, but I also lament their ultimate lack of pragmatism. It came down to claims of public health, and what could have been a political force to educate the city became more, at least locally, a place for more and more people to kickback, waiting for The Man to deliver change, hope, reform, or a stash or six-pack. Those who, like a 20-year-old young man of my acquaintance (in junior college, not employed), lived at OLA to make a stand, and not to make a score, resided next to those who were there for the buzz and the smokes.

This was commented upon in the L.A. Times, maybe not in the beginning, but as of month into the occupation:  Riot is not political and says most of the other homeless people at the camp aren't, either. "The majority of the people don't know why they're here," she said. After a while, she wandered over to the drum circle, where dozens of people beat madly on instruments late into the night.

When day broke Saturday, there were beer cans on the ground but no food.

A group of men were hawking bottles of malt liquor for $2 and cigarettes for 25 cents, but the volunteer at the food tent said there had been no donations for breakfast.


Here are two excerpts from Thanksgiving coverage in the L.A. Times on the final phase of OLA:

“For much of the day Thursday, demonstrators did exactly what they’ve been doing for so many weeks: occupy the once lush Civic Center park. One bearded man twisted into yoga positions as another danced to rancheras and another drowsily yelled out from his tent, “Dude, where’s the pot?”‘

In the “spirit of the holidays.” a non-Thanksgiving “International Day of Giving Thanks” (how does reversing the words change this into a PC-approved version?) was celebrated, with two turkeys donated by the police. Typical of the spirit, for better or worse: :

The Utah native moved to the City Hall lawn from skid row after he heard he could keep his tent up all day. “On skid row, the cops would make me take it down at 5 a.m.,” Gregory said. “But here, it’s cool.” He took part in a few marches, he said, but mostly he steered clear of Occupy meetings because “they argued too much and never got anything done.” 


Over at JWS, this complaint echoed. On leftist sites, more sympathetic spin on the lack of cohesion allowed many to defend the Occupy movement's inability to pin down who was in charge, or why. It also enabled other dogged journalists to burrow in with those on the ground, and to champion "alternative" perspectives.


Skylaire Alfvegren blogged for the L.A. Weekly as an observer-participant of OLA's last stand: With dawn breaking, a CNN reporter whines, "There's an incredible amount of filth -- dog food, medicine, toilet paper." The mayor made a statement that Occupy had to go when he learned that "children were living at the park." A sanitation official talks about compromised irrigation and dead grass, and how it could take "months" to re-landscape: all bullcrap.

I opened the L.A. Times this morning to find this counter-statement, of $400,000 to repair the lawn, of a tree needing removal, and a million (not sure if LAPD overtime gets factored in) in costs to the city, which is us. Compare this with the $260 million or so in tax breaks given by the mayor and City Council to the billionaire investor for L.A. Live's complex, and the shoo-in for his Farmer's Field football stadium with 40 digital billboards proposed--free of any environmental impact report--a couple miles south of this encampment. LAT tells of the massive cleanup, with hazmat-clad workers (see photo above) looking like extras in a post-apocalyptic flick, roaming the remains of the 1.7 acre "park." The local paper (note our LAW blogger's remark about which media had access by the LAPD) reports 30-tons of debris left behind at City Hall tent-city, including a vinyl LP by "the punk band X."

I posted about this media discrepancy via a mutual friend on FB (at Occupy Providence) who'd shared the LAW piece. Skylaire Alfvegren herself promptly responded:  The idea that was pushed by City Hall--that the lawn was being suffocated--was pretty shallow. I will say that Occupiers complaining of their belongings being thrown away--where that 30 ton figure comes from--are their own fault as they had plenty of time to move their tent to La Placita, etc... but the Hazmats suits were a bit much, c'mon. There had been a flu outbreak, but news mentions of staph infections were I think bogus. It was sooo clean the night the LAPD came back, no trash anywhere, and recycling was of paramount importance.

It was orderly when we'd dropped off our gauze, books, granola, bottled water, and cereal. I blogged about this at  "Occupy L.A.: One month on". I wonder where our three-person tent wound up. The north side, a small section, was nicknamed "Westwood" for its first aid tent and library tent.  The fascination of this local movement, and its frustration for me, was its lack of organization to push aims forward, as well as a lot of discontent and disgust which I heartily share for our "corporatocracy."

Of course, OWS began mid-September with an intent to raise outrage and make a stand in a logical urban setting. I first heard about it a few days in, as I taught an ethics in the workplace course and we watched clips from the corporate avengers The Yes Men, who later showed up at the nascent OWS. I found out about OWS only when Irish friends posted on FB links to the Guardian--it took a while before the media noticed it here, and it became a tag line on Comedy Central, a debating point to be mocked by the GOP or glossed over uneasily by Obama, and then a viral parody of Pepper Spray Cop (who makes $110k/year) last week.

What happened was that a half-public performance, half-ragtag movement set on drawing attention to a variety of injustices became, at least in my city, one that de- or evolved from 30 tents on Oct. 1 to 350 mid-month to 500 a month later, then 780. That influx came from the homeless more than activists, and the fact that at OLA, unlike Skid Row, tents could stay up all night. Handling the problem of the homeless is part of a complex situation, but this situation per se was not what the Occupy movement was formed to solve. I compared it early on more to a Bonus March, not a Hooverville, if you can see the overlap and distinction.

One overlooked situation in the OLA response to the LAPD shutdown–the park could have been used for peaceable assembly, but not overnight camping. The prospect of camping free of hassle is what led so many to walk a few blocks up from Skid Row to OLA to set up their tents–or to get one donated, I suppose.

The elephant in that park was the homeless occupation, as at many of the sites. The media sometimes downplayed this; OLA appears to have morphed into a greater proportion of homeless overnighters compared to activists who visited daily. City Hall park is a symbolic but poorly chosen place if you, this being L.A., want to attract a mass movement. While across from the L.A. Times & the L.A.P.D. h.q., it’s not the heart of today’s downtown. The Financial District (where the BofA plaza attracted an attempted sit-in on the “Day of Solidarity” Nov. 17th before arrests were made on what was owned by the same managers as Zuccotti Park--I blogged on Bunker Hill, banker mentality) would have been more fitting a capitalist target.

Better yet, a space to stretch out in, near another train station, plenty of open air, just north of Chinatown a couple of miles from the Civic Center, the state park recently opened as the Cornfield--which is today proposed as a new site, along with some at another symbolic if miniscule one, La Placita near Olvera Street. That historic parish has been a radicalized "refuge" for "undocumented" people for decades. The danger is that removed from the cops and press cattycorner from City Hall, marginalization may occur, but I suggest that the Cornfield might prove more pleasant and less gritty. Near City Hall, parking's near non-existent although the subway station's adjacent; I reckon that this discouraged donations and marchers who might have come down to make this less a homeless encampment and more representative of diverse L.A.

While this homeless contingent in part’s proper “solidarity” with the ultimate casualties of downsizing, full of drifters and dreamers, it also shows how the idealism of OWS & its largely Millennial-gen offspring (led by one radical vet and pal of our mayor, a "media liaison" whose leadership of CP-USA here was oddly never mentioned in the frequent LAT quotes from him I read) encountered, and failed to deal with, so many showing up to hang out, get high, and get grub. They might have joined General Assemblies that tried at least early on to generate some hand-jive human-mic action, if not only GOP-but-banker-bashing, Obama-opposed, anti-"Citizens United," principled pragmatism. When this "horizontal decision-making" consensus itself dragged, momentum did. Many waiting for Occupy (note Boston's parallel situation with the homeless) to take the struggle not to downtown parks but to the streets--of the powers-that-be (funded by fatcats in their billion-dollar fundraising campaigns for the Oval Office) in our Nation's Capital--wearied.

The Occupy movement, as at City Hall, represents a symbolic protest, but it needs to become more real.

One telling anecdote is that pasted above. OLA’ers woke to no breakfast as donations had run out, but the malt liquor was doing steady business in the “underground economy” along with the pot. When we had donated granola and cereal, as no cooking was permitted, we were told at first aid they needed gauze and at the food tent that they'd had no water for awhile. We returned dutifully with both in abundance, but what if we had not come, or come back, that cold night? My views on marijuana legalization aside, this decentralized, ad hoc manner of living off the kindness of us strangers, while pot wafted, didn't sell its populist goals to a Middle America given the mockery of Comedy Central, Fox News, and the usual pundits.

Not sure how much one can blame Wall Street for this end to OLA; but I’m sure progressives would use this to prove how drugs pacify the proles and muffle the underclass. Or, do I risk “blaming the victim”..?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bunker Hill, banker mentality

I watched the Occupy LA protests six hours live-streamed Thursday, four miles from my house. The progress of the Day of Solidarity can be seen from the videotaped standoff near 4th and Hope after the occupiers set up tents in front of the Bank of America tower. Then, inevitable late-afternoon arrests. The LAPD lined up in front of admittedly privately-owned (Brookfield-Trizec, same as Zuccotti Park) tiled promenade disheartened me: police (with lord knows how much cost to taxpayers like me in this decaying city) lined up to protect the powers that be. Some of the protesters appeared callow, but I could tell many were sincere. Their "supporting" unions, contrary to LAT coverage, seemed to melt away by mid-afternoon.

I asked myself: why don't I take the subway down there? But, I had to earn a living (paperwork online), while I waited for my wife and son to come home. By then, even though I mulled over trying to head by the protest site first, these arrests were already in progress. That area was locked down around Bunker Hill. How could I support this national November 17th Day of Solidarity? I'd found out about this live-stream, globally, from Evie in Dublin; then Mouse via John W. Smart's blog told of the Zuccotti Park crackdowns. I then shared the OLA live-stream on FB and JWS, as well as with a Boston writer-activist who'd been to OWS often. I worked, and I began a massive novel assigned for review, Peter Nádas' Parallel Stories; a footnote for we English readers explained the revolt against the Soviets in Hungary, as if already forgotten.

How long would my children remember the encampments here? My older son demurred, until my wife reminded him that similar marches had ended a war once; my younger son had accompanied my wife and myself, and he wrote a report about it for school. I get the sense lately it's already receding into nostalgia, book-deals, a movie pitch or three, Obama's re-election spin, teleprompted jokes, all by way of The Onion.

Later that night, I'd take supplies downtown---not to OLA as before, but for concessions to Silverlake Children's Theater Group to support them by sales at performances starring my son and a cast of dozens. My weary, generous, volunteer (no less for SCTG than those for whom she'd sent granola and gauze, cereal and water, a tent, our books--those who marched downtown, for a better society, in our microcosm) wife had loaded the car with drinks and supplies. I hauled it and my son past a few dense or dismal, destitute and dreary blocks from the encampment and the BofA. The plays this season will be featured at a fittingly titled Inner City Arts center, albeit a spotless, squeaky new edifice. Near The Midnight Mission and a Greyhound depot, Skid Row adjacent's full of the homeless. Their tents or boxes, lacking signs, aren't on a live-stream.

Driving down, I listened as NPR aired a program that noted about Occupiers the need to shift from "the symbolic to the real." The host concluded that "occupation" had meant having a job; now it meant "political protest." I added one tiny part to a big project yesterday to help someone's dreams of acting on stage, or seeing their child or sibling perform in one of three (!) plays this weekend, while I watched a protest that on an amateur's wobbly camera appeared more visceral than the clean soundbites fed us by the MSM.

I found its live-stream "journalist," who labeled himself as an occupier and protester on his UStream site, a bit disingenuous, as he claimed there to be at a camp for three weeks at OWS and now at OLA, but when asked by the LAPD on camera, he distanced himself, saying he was "press" and that he possessed a "letter from a magazine" as credentials, which failed to convince the officer. But I sympathize with this young man's subterfuge. I commend him for his day-long diligence under trying circumstances. A FB feed could be seen alongside the stream, with generally supportive comments (that he often responded to via his voiceover) but with a lot of snark tossed in, as this was the Net. I also listened to this young man comment all day long, and I wondered how many of the students I taught would have the inspiration or stamina to do this for free.

Understandably, "Jordan" appeared to dance around the drama of how much he wanted to capture on tape the mayhem that some wanted to spark. Being in the crowd ("Mic-Check: Global Revolution and U-Stream have 11,000 viewers" he would call out from time to time to tell the crowd "the whole world [in part] was watching") but also wishing to capture it for those of us away from the front lines. After all, he needed to act as if a journalist, for survival. I wondered what 1870 Paris or 1917 St. Petersburg or 1956 Budapest would have been with such an eyewitness. And, he was a journalist, if one of the masses and not a professional.

As with many commentators, then and now, he sided against the authorities, appearing at times to rush towards a confrontation to record, but he did try to remain in control, chatting with Officer Braun when the camera appeared stuck on him ("man-crush?" one commenter jeered) for what seemed like hours during the standoff as arrests neared. I observed how often during scuffles or tension, "Jordan" recited badge numbers and surnames. I learned that the LAPD's green weapons held beanbags while those that looked like paintball guns had rubber bullets, again via the feed. "You are the 99%," "This is what democracy looks like," and "The people united will never be defeated" rose and fell as chants among the small crowd.

At one point, around 4:15, arrests were imminent after a fifteen-minute warning had been announced by the LAPD to clear the plaza when "negotiations" had ended between OLA organizers, police, and owners of the non-public space. His camera went black. An officer had been heard telling "Jordan" he was being arrested, but luckily this did not happen. He remained on the flat tiled walkway steps outside the tents set up on an elevated plinth-parklet where the police, after setting up a tarp to block the cameras seemingly as much in evidence as protesters, cleaned up the city in the name of private property instead of the First Amendment.

Point being: did I offer for "solidarity" a better duty that night by assisting in my clumsy manner a less-noticed portion of the L.A. community in a less dramatic way? Or, did I weaken OLA by my absence at a rally where I could not get near, as the BofA plaza was cordoned off? I tried later, when picking up my son, to steer towards the plaza, but 72 arrests had been made, the LAPD cleared the zone, and it was 10 at night.

Bunker Hill, ironically or not, is well-named in its L.A. setting: a fortress for the banks and the philanthropists who fund and name the art museums and Disney Hall that replaced the flimsy Victorians, the Native American neighborhood, the old cityscape that my blog shows at left in Millard Sheets' "Angels Flight" painting and in one of my favorite novels about my love-hate relationship with this hometown, John Fante's "Ask the Dust," which I read long before its film version, I proudly add, back in college in the early '80s. Bunker Hill, all gleaming steel and buffed granite, shines as the proverbial city on the hill, Reaganesque.

The annoying but accurate Mike Davis noted 20 years ago, pre-Rodney King riots (or "urban uprising" or "Justice rebellion" according to Davis and his cronies, whom I imagined influencing the glum bearded youth in a Mao cap who refused to applaud a spokeswoman's call for non-violence aired by "Jordan") in "City of Quartz" how this "urban core" keeps away the restive. This city is skilled, as a "carceral" setting that isolates those who resent the banks and towers. As I drove, and wound up going the wrong way in my diligence, I pointed up to my son to cock his head so he could see back over my shoulders a glimpse, awkwardly, of the BofA's massif, second highest on the skyline. Its logo shone in red and blue above the incoming whitish haze.

"Hundreds held in Occupy protests across nation"--this implies the SEIU as having more involvement all day, when the live-stream shows them leaving by mid-afternoon. Union reps served in vests as crowd control, which appeared to miff "Jordan" and his nearby marchers when they kept them off the street. I must say I side here with the authorities, for traffic was snarled that morning by the initial march on BofA. I have no liking for those who jam public thoroughfares, congested as workaday L.A.'s downtown core always will be.

"How will Occupy L.A. end?"-- the LAT wonders if it's time is up as a physical presence soon. Six weeks on, Lice infest, lawns die, and pot wafts, as my Occupy L.A.: One Month On previous entry had noted. This embeds many links, some updated since the original, to reflect media attention and competing reactions.

Photo gallery--shows the situation at the Bank of America, as well as OLA's home camp near City Hall and protests in NYC yesterday. This LAT online site did not feature my image, Arkasha Stevenson's print ed. photo of cops vs. sit-down protesters, but Pan African News blog site did. (So much for mainstream media.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Chris Hedges' "I Don't Believe in Atheists": Book Review

Don't trust leaders, to quote whom Hedges does not, Bob Dylan. "The refusal to acknowledge human limitations and our irrevocable flaws can thus cross religious and secular lines to feed both religious fundamentalism and the idolization of technology, reason and science." (16) Hedges, a Harvard Divinity School graduate and son of a Presbyterian minister, tires too of mainstream Christianity's pulpiteers, with their "habit of speaking on behalf of people they never meet." (4)

He harps on Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens for their advocacy of attacks against the Islamic fanatics. He mistrusts Richard Dawkins' or E.O. Wilson's faith that we will evolve into a more perfect human community able to alter its genes and improve its makeup. "Dreams of fantastic miracles and collective salvation, whether through science or God, will accelerate our doom, for they permit us to ignore reality." (32)

He cautions us to narrow our hopes, to mitigate disaster and promote cooperation rather than to incite conflict against a billion Muslims or another billion Christians. The Enlightenment may direct humanists into a futile expectation of earthly liberation equal to that preached by those following Jesus, Marx, or Muhammed. Hedges quotes Karl Popper: "It appears to me madness to base all our political efforts on the faint hope that we shall be successful in obtaining excellent, or even competent, rulers." (qtd. 39-40)

Instead, he urges humility, and counters a progressive perfection or fundamentalist salvation. He suggests that the Hindu or Buddhist cyclical distrust of linear marches to a better purpose may provide a better model than what some call the "Whig version" that we always improve upon our ignorant ancestors, and that we are smarter and wiser. Of course, Hedges acknowledges the move away from slavery towards women's suffrage and greater human rights, but he doubts the leaps in power that geneticists anticipate.

He goes on to explore literary and philosophical reactions to the modern enterprise. Conrad shrinks back from its horrors; Beckett's protagonists exist in a "perpetual middle" where we live--they see it better than we do from the fringes. Hedges distrusts grand narratives and epic schemes. For, no matter who is elected, "neither Christian fundamentalists nor the new atheists question the rape and pillaging of the country by corporations and the dismantling of our democracy." (87) Utopia by salvation or ideology or the free market's flatteners is always anticipated, promised to us while always delayed.

Anesthetized, we wait. The enemy first must be defeated. "The war on terror is another in a series of campaigns by those who practice barbarity and violence in the name of utopia." (I note that I learned yesterday that the US spends about half of all the military expenditures in the world.) However, while Hedges condemns our current war, he also dismisses pacifists, and this confused me. He reasons that in WWII they gave comfort to an enemy they sought to resist, but I remained puzzled about Hedges' own position regarding war. I assume for a just cause he's for it as a necessity to counter the inherent evil that penetrates our irredeemable selves, but this point became obscured.

These chapters jump around, and his chiding tone does weigh this slim book down. He tends to repeat and tends to generalize. I wondered if more nuanced thinkers whether believers or atheists might be better foils for him. See my review of a nuanced take, Michael Krasny's "Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest," for a 2010 study which many readers sympathetic but not swayed entirely by Hedges may appreciate.

Hedges near his conclusion poignantly cites Proust's madeleine, Schopenhauer's comparison of our personal past to a novel dimly recalled, and our ability to strive for goodness despite the failed pieties of fundamentalists and the arrogant hubris of those who'd change the world if only believers could be eliminated from it. He castigates us, who "sit for hours alone in front of screens. We are enraptured and diverted by bread and circuses. And while we sit mesmerized, corporations steadily dismantle the democratic state. We are kept ignorant and entertained." (175) (See my Amazon US remarks about his similar lament in "Empire of Illusion.")

Amusing ourselves to moral death and intellectual regression, for Hedges, Americans fall behind as the image-based culture advances. He may be a bit simplistic here, for if you read this review of him on a screen, it's full of words, but his larger point that literacy declines as diversions increase remains arguably true. He closes by reminding us how few who profess faith bother with dogma, and his illustration of Catholic dismissal of papal bans on contraception (and often abortion) speaks to this tendency. Hedges figures that post-Darwin, the churches have lost the battle to convince moderns that God's in charge of all creation.

But, he admires the broader religious contributions to moral inquiry. He regards their mission to "unfetter the mind from prejudices that blunt reflection and self-criticism" as admirable. (184) He aligns these with the Greek admonition to "know thyself." He rejects absolutism, and preaches awareness of "our limitations and imperfections" to counter the utopian dreams. Humility for humanity shows, he concludes, "the limits of reason and the possibilities of religion." (185)

(P.S. I've reviewed, among thousands of others on Amazon US, the authors he criticizes: Daniel Dennett, "Breaking the Spell"; Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" & "Letter to a Christian Nation"; Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great"; Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion." Posted to Amazon US 11-5-10 & Lunch.com 12-5-10. My reviews, more recently, on Krasny, and Hedges' overlapping "Empire of Illusion," also appear there.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Chris Hedges' "Empire of Illusion": Book Review

This dispiriting chronicle castigates our doltish nation (‘ours’ being ‘America’s’), ruled by corporations, dulled by entertainment, and stupefied by magical thinking. Chris Hedges repeats the mournful litany that dominates his previous books condemning the dumbed-down state, its media stooges, and its capitalist manipulators. While never pleasant and rarely the least bit optimistic, Hedges’ wide-ranging survey, with many citations gleaned from his fellow intellectual cadre, assures if nobody else the few literate citizens whom he believes may survive a slide into mediocrity and idiocy that awaits us as a probable American future.

Hedges amasses interviews, citations, what he has read, and what he ponders about the collapse of democracy and literacy. The results here benefit somewhat from wider range of example than his standard journalism, which examines these topics relentlessly if intelligently. These chapters, which often resemble extended and sometimes discrete articles, sum up his cultural concerns, after his two decades as a foreign correspondent and now as a think-tank resident based in Princeton, New Jersey. Although a prep school and Ivy League graduate, his roots in a working-class Maine family widen his perspective. While one never forgets how his erudition and privilege has distanced himself from the common folks he includes alongside the professors and pundits whom he quotes liberally, in more than one sense of the term, Hedges tries to listen to the concerns of everyday people. He transcribes WWE pro wrestlers, porn stars, harried undergraduates, and the unemployed who line up at food banks.

His book opens with an examination of the cult of wrestling, the pull of instant fame, and the lure of “reality” t.v. upon the masses. Hedges decries magical thinking as a “currency not only of celebrity culture, but also of totalitarian culture.” He fights the seductive but blind faith in a secularized version of a born-again solution, which promises tough times never stay for long and recovery always awaits those who believe in themselves.

Next, he reports on the porn industry, stressing the latter term, the production and commodification of the human into the deadened, the corpse, the willingly debased and utterly compliant woman. Her degradation worsens as “gonzo” films for the Net replace the awkward scenarios of “adult movies” from a few decades ago with endless cruelty and graphic violence. As one producer admits, he “makes stupid content for stupid people.” For an audience with short attention spans, porn serves as a synecdoche for a fan base seeking necrophilia, however airbrushed, shaved, and shot. This chapter marks the nadir of Hedges’ dour encounters; he notes in his appendix but oddly does not cite in the chapter David Foster Wallace’s similarly exhaustive examination, published as “Big Red Son” in Consider the Lobster (2005). Both Hedges and Wallace by alienated scrutiny render porn into disembodied form.

This defines Hedges’ strategy: to defamiliarize by meticulous accumulation of facts, interviews, and block quotations. However, by chapter three, in his critique of the educational-corporate complex, this weighty approach threatens to dull the reader. Hedges prefers to lump great chunks of what he has admired by similarly astute observers into his reports. In his contributions to Harper’s or The New York Review of Books, Granta or Mother Jones, such topics in their magnified scale but briefer versions might not diminish one’s attention span. Over dozens of pages, with less variety in tone or perspective, even sympathetic readers may wish for some comic relief, some saving grace of levity.

However, Hedges’ grim recitals linger beneath the stolid prose that often resembles a strong if often impassive honors’ thesis. Now and then, passion breaks through the objective surface. Sadism, he laments, “runs like an electric current” through trashy tv, porn, the “compliant, corporate collective.” Proclaiming a false promise of social harmony for all, driven by markets towards affluence for a very few, today’s elite students prepare to shuffle numbers and negotiate contracts, but they have sold out to any hope of insight morally or intellectually. They fuel an endless war economy that funds so many research institutions. They feed the beasts of Wall Street and White House.

Those from the working classes trying to pay the tuition at lower-tier colleges gain much less notice in Hedges’ collegiate chapter, but they may face franchised dead-end jobs resembling that held by Anthony Vasquez, a UC Berkeley student who worked for FedEx Kinko’s. He describes his forced immersion into the coercive harmony of “positive psychology” peddled by management gurus in universities and before boardrooms. Vasquez regards happy talk as “a euphemism for ‘spin,’” for employees get so disoriented by this cult of work circles and mandatory group-think that “they forget they do the work of three people, have no health insurance, and three-quarters of their paycheck goes to rent.”

How can everyday workers in a crumbling economy off-shored and outsourced compete? Globalization’s leading commodity, furthermore, trades in arms and weapons. Across an increasingly securitized state, Hedges warns of democratic meltdown (this book first appeared in hardcover in 2009). He appears to almost welcome social collapse as a fitting reward for America’s imperial folly.

His final chapter wanders across an America gutted by the rich and lied to by its leaders, some elected, many more invisible to those who represent a citizenry fooled by free-marketeers pretending that deregulation and self-regulated markets (unless Wall Street or Detroit need a bailout) represent the post-Cold War fulfillment of our freedom. He fears that we may not “radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state.” Instead, his final pages explore how the Christian far-right may align with the capitalists to “employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent.”

This prediction may be dismissed as scare quotes by some. This book leaves it unclear how our bankrupt ethical, political, social, and financial systems can be saved from those who can patrol the nation. They may censor opposition, distort dissension, and mock protesters, if the media workers as he shows do control the networks through which nearly all our news emerges, according to Hedges.

“We let the market rule, and now we are paying for it,” he insists. He quotes Charlotte Twight’s summary of our charade of voting, where for many in our nation today, the winner of American Idol matters more than who wins an election, as “participatory fascism.” That is, the common people are given the pretense of entering a game in which the true winners are those who remain the real elite, hidden in the curtains, behind the glitz.

Decrying a “Peter Pan culture”, Hedges believes neither in a saving deity nor a secular system. He asks for his readers to trust in love, and simple verities that outlast chaos and the collapse of civilization. He returns to his favorite theme, that the true divide is not between red and blue states; neither is it between race, class and gender, nor rural and urban. What separates a saving remnant from the rest? A few will remain literate and marginalized, apart from those who have given into the illiterate masses.

This conclusion may leave readers wondering what readers can do. Awaiting the apocalypse, he finds no solutions, no twelve-step plans to salvation. He does not deliver any platitudes about hope and change.

Hedges despairs at the pain that awaits those of us who stand up and demand humane alternatives to the dystopian spectacle broadcast by the wealthy and funded by the corrupt. He forces us to tally up the damages for unchecked environmental destruction, diminished resources, and a decline in incomes, prestige, and lifestyle. America’s buy now, pay never mentality racked up debts financial, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional which demand reckoning. As in his earlier books, Hedges shouts a wake-up call after our long national binge. He ends with only a fragile defense of hope against all these power elites can summon against the human spirit, which stumbles blearily on a chilly morning after the party’s over.

[I also reviewed his "I Don't Believe in Atheists" at Amazon US 11-3-10 and my blog. Above review featured at PopMatters 2-3-11: "Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain"]: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/136018-empire-of-illusion-by-chris-hedges/. On Lunch.com 2-20-11 and on 2-5-11, in revised and condensed form, it's up at Amazon US with a lot of others divided on the book's merits.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Comórtas óraidíochta leis 'An Leamhan'

Thug muid breith deag duine a chiontú faoi láthair. Rug Léna agus mé orainn comórtas óraidíochta ina Loch Airgid De Céadaoin seo caite, an 22ú lá de mhí na Nollag. Chuir lucht iomaitheoirí isteach ar dhuais.

Tharlaigh sé ina gclub oíche 'na dTiarna' ina tséiléir mór. Shroich muid ar áit go luath, mar d'iarr muid ag thairg cuidiú le timire na cluichí óraidíochtaí. Bhí trí beirt bhreithiúna ag rogha go géarr ansin. There were three pairs of judges chosen quickly there.

Bhí an halla lán go doras go tapaidh. Chruinnigh ceiliúrai go leor agus lán tí níos mó ann. Thosaigh muid an céilí agus thug muid barúil i dtaobh sceáláí éagsúlaí faoi téama ainmithe dóibh na 'teacht abhaile'. Ní raibh ábalta eang a chur i mbata scóir is lú seacht sa chéad, mar sin féin.

Bhí teorainn ama na gcúig noimead, leis noimead eile chomh 'téarma na ngrást' ag achan cainteoir suas ansin. Mheas muid go raibh tríu deireanach na gcuid na gcainteoirí den chéad scoth, má tógtha de thaisme. Bhí maith linn ag éiste scéalaí faoi seach uncáil buile ag cóisir dinnéar na Nollag, greanntraigéide fir óg ar feadh ag díle báistí anois in ár gcathair, agus teacht ar ais chuig do thir dhúchais fir óg eile ag rugadh ach ní tógadh ina Vitneam é.

Cur cuairt an eolas chuig 'An Leamhan'. Téann siad in urrus comórtas. B'fhéidir, cloisfaidh tú amharclann seo féin (gan ghlór againn?) ar an Ráidió Náisiúnta Phoblachtach amárach. 

A "contest of eloquence" with The Moth.

We passed judgment upon ten people recently. Layne and I caught a 'contest of eloquence' (~StorySlam!) in Silverlake the past Wednesday, December 22nd. A group competed for a prize.

It happened in the 'El Cid' (~Spanish-Arabic 'The lord') nightclub in a grand cellar. We arrived at the place early, because we sought to volunteer to judge the speaking-games.

The hall filled to the doors quickly. The many celebrants and a very full house gathered there. We started the festivity and we passed our opinion on the various stories told about the theme assigned to them of 'homecoming.' We weren't able to tally a score less than seventy percent, however.

There was a time-limit of five minutes, with another minute as a 'grace period' for each speaker up there. We reckoned that the final three of the speakers were of the best quality, if chosen by chance. These speakers pleased us respectively with stories listened to on account of a mad uncle at Christmas dinner, a young man's tragicomedy during torrential rain here in our dry city, and coming back to one's native land by another young man born but not raised in Vietnam.

Pay a visit for information to 'The Moth'. They sponsor the contest. Perhaps, you may hear this very show (without our voices?) on National Public Radio in the future.