Sunday, December 21, 2008

When You Are Engulfed In Flames

"Given the state of my Japanese it seems unfair to criticize some of the English I've been seeing. ... What gets me are the mass-produced mistakes, the ones made at Lawson, for example. A huge, nationwide chain of convenience stores, and this is what's printed on the wrappers of their ready-made sandwiches: 'We have sandwiches which you can enjoy different tastes. So you can find your favorite one from our sandwiches. We hope you can choose the best one for yourself.'

"A book in our hotel room includes a section on safety awkwardly titled Best Knowledge of Disaster Damage Prevention and Favors to Ask of You. What follows are three paragraphs, each written beneath a separate, boldfaced heading: 'When you check in the hotel room,' 'When you find a fire,' and, my favorite, "When you are engulfed in flames.'

When You Are Engulfed In Flames was my favorite too, my favorite essay in the book by the same title. For some time, I haven't been sure if David Sedaris's writing has gotten a little limper and darker, or if I've just tired of it the way I do magazines after a couple of years of subscribing. But in the book, he mentions quitting drinking, then drugs, before, finally, smoking. So perhaps a lot of things have changed.

At any rate, the title essay is much improved by its transcriptions of Japanese-into-English translations. I love that kind of thing -- I get such a kick out of the Chinese food restaurant in my neighborhood that also serves Puerto Rican food and advertises "chicken fried banana" on its marker board. (after a bit of head scratching, I discerned that "chicken fried banana" is a meal of chicken and plaintains ... ) I love it, I guess, because it allows you to follow what the hell, exactly, the translator was thinking. It would appear that unlike languages that use our alphabet and evolved with European cultures, Japanese reflects an entirely different way of thinking and communicating -- one that English words are not suited to express.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Items that must be discussed

• Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, the essay as well as the book it is named for

• When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris, really just the essay. (I love bad Japanese-to-English translations.)

• Watching old episodes of Sports Night on DVD and the ensuing nostalgia for my newsroom days. The writing was exceptional; the show lasted for two seasons.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

This from my LJ:

"... Spitzer was Mr. Clean, a crusading reformer -- and, further, not even just any crusading reformer, but one who targeted rich, entitled people, mostly white, many living in Manhattan, who thought they were above the law. Well look who fits that profile now. Bill Clinton is a run-of-the-mill sleaze. This is a downfall of Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser-like proportions. I've heard the words Elmer Gantry tossed around a lot in the past few years, thanks to the legions of right-wing preachers who have met Spitzer-like fates. But still, being the kind of person I am, that's the first thing I thought about. In college, when Ray Carruth (former NFL player, go on and wikipedia it and I'm sure you'll recall) was accused of killing his girlfriend, the first thing I thought of was 'this is just like An American Tragedy! Ripped from the ... well, not headlines exactly ... ripped from the English lit course!' "

Sigh. I actually believed in Eliot Spitzer. He was no Howard Dean, but, in my view, he went after the right bad guys.

In another case of reading material imitating life, I shall board the Greyhound this weekend and head back to my ancestral homeland (rural Pennsylvania) with a copy of "Braving Home" by Jake Halpern in my bag. We'll see if I get through several chapters or if bumping along down the two-lane country highways + reading = seasickness and I have to stop.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The best article ever?

The point/counterpoint in the latest edition of Bitch (no. 39) isn't really the best article ever -- but, like the book I wrote three posts on below, it puts its finger on something that bugged me but that I couldn't articulate.

The topic: "Is To Catch a Predator bad for us?" I've never seen the show, but it always struck me as exploitative and sleazy. I couldn't say why -- it's not that I feel any sympathy for the online pedophile predators that they catch. Lindsay Paige Hoffman, though, is able to ferret out why it's exploitative with regard to girls, not just criminals.

>>> Predator, above all else, is contributing to the way an entire culture increasingly sexualizes young girls.<<<

It's like the term "jailbait" -- it implies it's a normal masculine urge to be attracted to a child and this whole system is just set up to trap those who can't help but give in to their lust for the sexy, sexy 13 year olds. The men on the show aren't disordered, just weak. Where oh where is a portrayal of a girl over, say, TEN, that isn't about sexuality? Where is the acknowledgment that by some generally accepted adult standard, children are NOT SEXY??

It's disgusting enough that adult women are sex objects first and people second, or, if we are unattractive, failed sex objects first and people second. (Something, by the way, that I realized only recently. With a high IQ, a law degree, ten years of bylines, a penchant for NPR, a tendency to be judgmental and serious and a moderately conservative wardrobe, wouldn't you think I'd be a weirdo braniac first and a sex object at least, you know, second? But women are defined first and foremost by hot-or-not and everything else flows from that.) It's even more appalling that girls as young as 11 are beguiling, deliciously forbidden sex objects first and people second.

I'm pretty sure that the moral of the story in Lolita wasn't "It could happen to any man if he let his guard down." For heaven's sake, people. I'm not always the biggest fan of men, or masculinity anyway, but I give men more credit than that.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Tolerance is a virtue, but tolerance coupled with passivity is a vice."

That's the way Hedges concludes American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I don't disagree, but I do think the turn of current events since the book was written less than two years ago means we have less to be worried about, at least in the short term. Events like the death of Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson endorsing Giuliani and in general the failure of the Christian right to coalesce behind any particular presidential candidate shows, in my mind, that they're losing cohesion and influence.

In the final chapter of American Fascists, Hedges says that if there's another terrorist attack, or a wide-scale environmental disaster, that's when we should really be concerned, and that's hard to argue with considering what happened in 2001 and 2002 in this country. It's pretty much the sole reason I voted for Barack Obama and not Hillary Rodham Clinton -- when dissent was unpatriotic and the Democrats went along with Bush's, to put it kindly, highly questionable agenda, she did the easy thing, not the right thing. Obama was not in the Senate then, true, but he spoke out against the war and he certainly had aspirations to seek higher office, so it's not like he didn't have to be concerned about his viewpoint being used against him.

Anyway, the American electorate seems to be drifting a bit leftward and, bar some sort of disaster, the influence of the Christian Right is fading. I think that this quote from Vasily Grossman, a Russian novelist, that Hedges uses sums up my viewpoint pretty well:
"Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer."

When it comes to women's rights, civil rights, gay rights or any other cause, the forces of intolerance can and have won some of the battles. But ultimately, they never prevent progress. They just slow it down, and sooner or later, they always lose and history marches forward.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

"The Crusade"

I've been out of town a lot lately, which means less time for posting, but a little time to read on the Greyhound at least.

More from Hedges:
"When people come to believe that they are immune from evil, that there is no resemblance between themselves and those the define as the enemy, they will inevitably grow to embody the evil they claim to fight. It is only by grasping our own capacity for evil, our own darkness, that we hold our own capacity for evil at bay. When evil is purely external, then moral purification always entrails the eradication of others."

Emphasis mine.

Here, Hedges again revisits the themes of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Us versus them, They are oppressing us, and because They are the oppressors, we can do no wrong. I'm not sure what to take away from the need to grasp our own capacity for evil -- unless by "our" he just means "people who are generally in our camp about things." If someone who I respected intellectually was revealed to be a pedophile, or an embezzler, or who knows what, it wouldn't shake my foundation in their ideas. But if their ideas were more like "We are morally superior to Them" -- I can see how that would be a different story. I don't have this epic good v. evil world view in my day-to-day life, so when people go bad within the movement (feminism, the Democratic party, whatever) it's no great surprise.

This healthy skepticism may also have a lot to do with why there's not much of an atheist movement. Eradicate the believers? Ehn.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America

First off, this is only the second Chris Hedges book I have read, but I can say, without hesitation, that he is one of my favorite authors. The other one, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, fundamentally shaped my view of human society. In War, Hedges wrote about how the us v. them mentality that war requires gives people a cause, a goal, a sense of fulfillment. It's the same sort of mentality that the oh-so-often-quoted 1984 demonstrated in its extreme: leaders can control people if the people are in a constant state of conflict, united against a common enemy. It sounds kinda obvious, but it's so much better than I'm making it sound. Hedges worked for years as a New York Times war correspondent and he is able to answer the question "why?" that comes up when we see the bodies strewn in the streets in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Sudan. He knows why. And since I've read the book, so I do I.

In American Fascists, Hedges turns that same eye to the Christian Right. Being a person of faith, he's much more credible than I would be when he writes, "Radical Christian dominionists have no religious legitimacy. They are manipulating Christianity, and millions of sincere believers, to build a frightening political mass movement with many similarities with other mass movements, from fascism to communism to the ethnic nationalist parties in the former Yugoslavia." This is not hyperbole. It is an assertion that is fleshed out throughout the book. This man does not pull punches.

He writes about radical Christians' "ecstatic belief in the cleansing power of apocalyptic violence" about the way that church members pray on the troubled, cult style, as they go in search of converts, about why radical Christian men demand the oppression of women and gay people in order to be secure in their masculinity (I never got this before and now I do). Another central point is that in order for leaders to control people, the people need to feel victimized and persecuted by the "them" in us v. them. This comes up in War and in American Fascists. "The war on Christmas" anyone?

It's eye opening. It's scary. I tend to dismiss religious wackos as harmless, partially because I was so influenced by Thomas Frank and the late Molly Ivins, both of whom felt the Christian right had been taken for a ride by politicians who took its votes and did not implement its agenda. (and partly because I do believe in people's freedom to believe whatever they want) This is true to a large extent but with Mitt Romney saying crap like "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom" (I'm going with false on both counts there skippy), the Bush administration funneling tons of money into abstinence-only sex ed, which studies have shown does not work, and other related nonsense, it's good to get the old outrage flowing again now and then. I'll need it come November.

I've only read five chapters of American Fascists so far. I'm really looking forward to The War On Truth, which begins with scenes of a "museum" that shows people and dinosaurs co-existing, Flinstone style. Ha ha funny, until you realize that with homeschooling and Christian schools, some kids really don't know any better. They have not been exposed to any other ideas. War on Truth indeed. If it sounds like an Orwell cliche, it's only because Orwell was right and Hedges is too.

Inaugural post time

Soooo ... for anyone who may be in the habit of reading my LiveJournal, this is my new venture. I'm off Buffalo blogging for the time being and writing about my favorite books instead. I may branch out into other media as well -- there's a thesis about how Sex in the City isn't about men at all brewing in my brain and I have oh so much to say about Six Feet Under -- but I'm starting with books for the time being. Due to my choice in reading material, this may well become a blog about feminism and politics. We shall see.