Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

 (Book Review)

And so I continue onto the next book in John Updike’s Rabbit series. This next book, Rabbit Redux, is one of those rare examples of a sequel that is arguably more famous than its predecessor because it works both as the continuation of the troubled domestic life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the former high school basketball star who never was able to settle into life once he left his basketball glories behind, and as a time piece from the 60s. In this next book, Rabbit ends up living together in a house with Jill, a teenage hippy who has run away from her rich parents, and Skeeter, a pseudo Black revolutionary.

I never experienced the 60s myself. Although my ex-girlfriend was fond of saying to me, “You know more about the 60s than most people I know who lived through it.” And (if I can say this without sounding arrogant) my conversations with baby-boomers have led me to believe that’s probably true. At least as far as big news events or historical facts go. But I don’t have a sense of what it was like to actually be alive at the time.

I think there are two fallacies we often fall into when we try and picture the past. One (as I mentioned in my review of the first Rabbit book) is the tendency to assume previous generations were never alive as vibrantly as we are, or didn't experience the full range of emotion of modern civilized man.

The opposite fallacy is to romanticize the past, and think that is when the excitement really happened. I often find myself thinking, “My generation has been raised on cable TV, video games, computers and the internet. These days everyone just sits in front of the TV at home. Back in the day people actually used to have lives. They would actually go out and do exciting stuff in their free time.”

What was most interesting to me about “Rabbit Redux” is the portrayal of how boring suburban life was even back in the 60s. The demonstrations and inner city riots are all stuff that happens on the TV, and might as well be in another country. Rabbit and his family waste just as much time sitting around the TV as people do today. There was just less on back then.

Of course the changing times are represented by Jill and Skeeter and the new community they form in Rabbit’s house. But neither of these characters really came alive for me as well as the characters in the original Rabbit story. In the hands of a less skilled writer, they would easily have become walking 60s stereo-types. It’s hard for anyone to write about the 60s without resorting to stereo-typed characters, and apparently it was just as hard at the time. I think John Updike manages to avoid this trap, but just barely.

The thing about the 60s, like any decade, is that the scope of human experience is broad enough that you can write about it in several different ways and have them all be correct. For instance Jill is portrayed as a spoiled rich kid who likes to repeat revolutionary slogans she doesn't really understand and still expects people to clean up after her like her parents’ maids used to. Skeeter comes off almost just as scatterbrained, plus sex crazed and egotistical. And I’m sure there were people like that back then. I've met a lot of scatterbrained people at protests these days myself. (Maybe people say that about me when I’m not around). But there were also a lot of intelligent, articulate people in the movement who made a lot of sacrifices. It just depends what you want to highlight.

I remember a Calvin Professor once talking about how brave John Updike was because he supported the Vietnam War during a time when intellectuals were supposed to be anti-War. That kind of bravery doesn't really impress me, but to each his own I guess. At least both sides look equally stupid in “Rabbit Redux”. The pro-war jingoism of Rabbit and his father doesn't come off any better than the anti-war slogans.

Also, by the second book I’m definitely coming around to Phil’s contention that John Updike writes the worst sex scenes in literature. It could be because now Phil has planted the idea in my brain. Or it could be because this book is a lot more sexually explicit than its predecessor. A lot more.

In particular the sexual descriptions of the teenage Jill made me feel like I was reading some sort of male fantasy about sexual teenage girls often found in Japanese literature. Shoko once said of Murakami Haruki’s “Norwegian Wood” that the women characters didn't seem like real woman, but rather what the male fantasy of a woman was like. I couldn't help but feel that Jill seemed like a middle-aged man’s fantasy about what a free love hippy was like. She was so incredibly eager to get into bed with the middle-aged Rabbit, and wouldn't take no for an answer.

Addendum: Once again Navis and I are one the same page. He recently reviewed this book in his blog as well.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The book "Bambi" was translated from German into English by Whittaker Chambers, who needed to supplement his income while working at a Communist newspaper. The story was made into an animated film by Walt Disney Productions . The company took the liberty of changing the species into a white-tailed deer, and of putting him into an American forest. Additionally, the tone of the story was significantly lightened; the original book was much darker and more brutal.

Link of the Day
Yet another one for the history buffs:
This video of the Japanese Student Movement contains fighting between police and protesters concerning Narita airport in the early 70s.

The farmers opposed Narita Airport because it forced them to give up their ancestral farming land. The students sympathized with the farmers, and were also upset because the proposed airport was supposed to be large enough to land American Airforce planes during the Vietnam War. This was the only time during the Japanese Student movement that an alliance was formed between the students and the farmers, and the students were able to enjoy public support.

The airport ended up being built in the end, but several people, both police and students, were killed in the fighting in the meantime. Watching this video, it's easy to see how.

This video was originally part of a larger documentary on the 20th century produced by NHK (the Japanese version of the BBC or PBS). Given that, I've always thought it was strange that they include "The Who" soundtrack at the end when the Molotov cocktails are being thrown. I know it's cliche to have 60s music against footage of protests, but it seems like they're trying to make the violence look fun.

Rabbit Redux by John Updike: Book Review (Scripted)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kissinger in Grand Rapids

Well, as many of you have already noticed, my ugly mug was on the news last night (Click here to watch Video) in connection with Henry Kissinger's visit to Grand Rapids.

Henry Kissinger, who worked as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under the Nixon and Ford administrations, is one of the greatest war criminals in the 20th century.

But you don't have to take my work for it. The case against Kissinger is thorough and well documented. You can start by checking out this media mouse article which summarizes Kissinger's atrocities. And you'll notice the media mouse account is filled with hypertext links to various other sources which you can also check out.

Also of interest is this Henry Kissinger page which contains many articles and books on Henry Kissinger, including large excerpts from "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" by Christopher Hitchens, "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House" by Seymour M. Hersh and "Sideshow
Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia" by William Shawcross
. All of these books can probably also be found at the library if you want a hard copy in your hands. (Regular readers of this blog may remember I linked to these books 2 years ago as well).

If you don't like reading, you could watch the documentary "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" (based on the book of the same name). The movie should really be watched in its entirety to fully grasp its implications, but parts of it are avaliable on Youtube. This short clip near the end summarizes some of the movies main points. And this longer clip shows Kissinger's complicity in the Genocide in East Timor.

Some people from media mouse tried to get tickets for the talk in an attempt to raise these issues with Kissinger in person, but there was some confusion (perhaps intentional) about the reservations, and so we could only protest outside the Amway Grand Hotel where Kissinger was speaking.

We met a couple times before hand to plan and make signs. Not being an artistic person, sign making has never been my forte. My signs always end up looking like they were made by kindergartners. So I hung back and waited for other people to make the signs. But, as sometimes happens in these kind of meetings, everyone was hanging back and waiting for someone else to start. So, since we needed good signs, I decided to give it a try. I tried to make a sign that said, “We Remember Cambodia”, but the spacing and lettering turned out all wrong. Fortunately an art student jumped in and saved me by redoing most of it.

I felt slightly guilty afterwards because I personally was too young to remember the bombing of Cambodia. But I figure we as a people remember it. I think it works.

I didn’t end up carrying that sign anyway. I figured (rightly) that extra people would show up and we would need extra signs, so I made another one that said “Genocide in East Timor”, and let someone else take the Cambodia sign.

We had about 30 people turn out maybe. Some of our number went “undercover” by dressing in nice clothes and handing out pamphlets that mentioned some of the highlights of Kissinger’s career. This went pretty well. They were able to talk their way past security guards, and many of the guests thought they were actually part of the Kissinger event instead of protesting it. Hopefully once they read the information in the pamphlet they’ll get a different idea.

The rest of us walked around and around the Amway. We chanted (partly at my suggestion), “Hey Kissinger, you can’t hide! We charge you with genocide!” (I didn’t invent the chant obviously, just suggested it as one we could use.) Everyone got pretty sick of it after a while, but unfortunately no one had any new ones, and “Kissinger” doesn’t rhyme with too much. We tried, “Kissinger out of Grand Rapids! U.S. out of Iraq!” But that proved to be such a mouthful that we soon gave up.

I thought the cops were pretty professional. They did their best to be friendly, and I understood they were only doing their job. They kept a pretty close eye on us, but they didn’t interfere with us too much. Their rule was we couldn’t stand and block the side walks, but as long as we kept moving we could march around the Amway Grand as many times as we wanted.

The only thing I would criticize was once when we were stopped to discuss our next move, they came over to tell us we had to keep moving. Jeff from media mouse asked, “Hey, we’ve got a question for you.”
“Sure thing,” said the cop.
“You’re job is to enforce the law, right?” Jeff asked.
“Right,” said the cop.
“So if you knew that there was a mass murderer somewhere, would you go arrest him?”

Perhaps seeing where this was going, the cop responded, “First I’ve got a question for you guys. And you can’t answer,” he said pointing to Jeff. He then turned to one of the girls holding a sign. “Can you tell me what position Kissinger held in the government?”

“He was secretary of state,” the girl answered.

“Okay, just checking,” the cop said.

“Do you think I would come all the way down here to protest if I didn’t even know who he was?” the girl asked.

“I think a lot of people would probably think that,” the cop answered.

Most of this was done in a friendly tone and was a lot more civil than the banter you usually see between protesters and cops. Still, I thought it was funny that the cop assumed the girl wouldn't know who she was protesting. I wonder if he would have asked the same question to one of us guys there.

Media Mouse also has an article here recounting the protest, as well as an analysis of the media coverage.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
When the Scarecrow receives his diploma from the Wizard, he immediately exhibits his "knowledge" by reciting a mangled version of the Pythagorean theorem: "The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. Oh, joy, oh, rapture. I've got a brain!" It is convincing but totally inaccurate. Perhaps a joke by the script-writers, this is the only statement by Scarecrow that is not true in its context

This is parodied in the Simpsons episode where Homer finds Kissinger's glasses in the toilet and recites the same thing. He is corrected by the person in the next stall.

Link of the Day
Some one has uploaded to Youtube the entire documentary "Manufacturing Consent" about Noam Chomsky and the media. If you have the time and interest, the whole thing is well worth watching. But of particular relevance to Henry Kissinger and the genocide in Indonesia (and the Media response) are parts 4 and 5.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Video Interview

I mentioned before I might be heading back to Japan for one more year because of the girl. Actually the past couple months I've been keeping busy filling out job applications and even going to one interview down in Chicago. I haven't been posting a lot about this because of the obvious reason that it's always a bad idea to blog about a pending job.

But I'm going to bend this slightly here. One company, in lieu of an interview, wanted a "video introduction" sent by e-mail. I didn't have the equiptment to do this, so I went over to Brett's place to use his digital camera and editing equiptment.

The directions from the company were rather vague. Simply: "send video introduction". But what did that mean? How long was it supposed to be? They had all my pertinent information from my resume, application, essay and other materials I had already sent. Did I just repeat all that on the video? Or do I just say hi and wave and have it be 30 seconds long?

Anyway, Brett did some taping of me basically just repeating stuff that was on my resume. Then we decided that this video needed a little something extra. Especially since I was applying for a teaching job that requires a fair amount of extraversion, and so far we felt I was coming off as pretty reserved, we decided to add a little Karaoke segment to it. I know I don't have the greatest singing voice, but the idea was just to show I can do all the silly things that are involved with teaching kids classes, etc.

This is either a really brilliant idea for a job application, or the worst idea ever. We'll find out. In the mean time, Brett thought this video was funny enough that we should post it on-line, and I'm inclined to agree. Maybe this is just our bias towards our own creation, but Brett said he couldn't help laugh when he pictured a room full of Japanese business men watching this video and trying to be serious as they watched it. And then afterwards asking each other, "so, do you think he has what it takes to teach at this school or not?"
Anyways, enjoy.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Dylan reportedly premiered "Hard Rain" at the Gaslight Cafe, where Village performer Peter Blankfield was in attendance. "He put out these pieces of loose-leaf paper ripped out of a spiral notebook. And he starts singing ['Hard Rain']...He finished singing it, and no one could say anything. The length of it, the episodic sense of it. Every line kept building and bursting." Dylan performed "Hard Rain" days later at Carnegie Hall as part of a concert organized by Pete Seeger. Seeger was so impressed by "Hard Rain," he covered it himself in his own set

Link of the Day
Another treat for the history buffs:
Here is the original news footage of the 1968 demonstrations against U.S. Aircraft Carrier Enterprise by the Japanese All Student Federation.

This was of course during the height of the Vietnam War, so U.S. military ships docking in Japan were unpopular to become with. To add insult to injury, this was nuclear powered, which was another touchy issue in Japan following the atomic bombs.

This protest, although it did not stop the Enterprise from docking, is significant for a number of reasons. For one thing, as you can see in the footage, the police went a little overboard with the clubbing, and the TV cameras were there to capture it all. This resulted in a lot of negative plublicity for the Police, and meant that for the next couple years public and media sympathy would be largely for the students. (When the Japanese student movement got increasingly violent in the 70s, sympathy would eventually go the other way).

Friday, October 20, 2006

Japan E-mails August 12, 2001


The first few months I was in Japan I was very prolific with the e-mails. Here are bits and pieces cut and pasted from various e-mails I sent to various people on August 12, 2001

Yesterday I went hiking around through some mountain trails. It was good fun, and turns out the peak is only about an hour walk from my apartment. I met some young Japanese people on the trail. They were about my age (I think all three of them were 22) and they were very surprised to see this American tromping around through the trails out in the middle of nowhere. They were very nice. They showed me the way down the mountain, pointed out a few interesting sites, and even gave me a lift home. I’m finding out that I get a lot of special treatment around here just for being me.


It turns out there is only one other JET in my town, Ryan, a New Zealand guy. I met him briefly at the orientation. But aside from that many other towns are within driving distance. Last night another JET drove over from the neighboring town to hang out with me and Ryan. It was nice to be able to speak normal English. Usually I have to speak English very slowly and use a lot of gestures. The other guy, Aaron, is from Wales, and has been here 3 years already. He was saying that sometimes it is hard for Americans to make friends because many of the other JETs have resentment against Americans, but I haven’t encounter this yet. {ED. Note: Nor would I}.

Things are going good over here. They don’t have too much for me to do around the office just yet, so I can write e-mails and study Japanese. After my work-aholic life style in the United States, it is hard for me to just sit around and not do much of anything, but I’m getting used to it.

No car just yet. There seems to be some confusion about it, so I’m trying to get that straightened out. The school board has been generous enough to loan me a bike, which is a very nice gesture, although the bike is a little small for me. My knees are almost hitting my chin when I ride it. And, for some weird reason, there is apparently no bathroom at the Board of Education office. So no place to change clothes. I have to wear my nice clothes while I bike around the town. {Ed. Note: In fact there was a bathroom on the first floor. This turned out to be a misunderstanding. I tried to use my Japanese-English dictionary to ask where the bathroom was, and ended up asking where the bathing room was. They told me I had to attend to that at my own apartment, and I thought this meant no one used the toilet at the office}.
Anyway, I’m sure I look pretty silly, picture me riding around town this Japanese town on a small bike in my nice slacks.

I see a lot of things around here that remind me of you Bear. Mostly Anime actually, but people over here really take their Anime seriously. In particular I’ve been hearing a lot about “Princess Mononoke, which I believe was one of the Anime’s you used to talk about. It must have been a big hit over here, because everyone knows about it. I’ll have to check it out someday. Actually I’ll probably wait till I’m back in the States so I can see it with English subtitles.)


Dear Mom, I don’t have a phone number yet. That still needs to be set up, and I was told it would take a few days. (Which seems reasonable. I’m sure it would take a few days to set up a new phone line in the States as well.) Maybe I can use the phone card to call from a public phone, although the time change would be a bit of a pain in the neck. I don’t know my address yet, but I’ll let you know of it when I find out. I’m already thinking of a few things it might be nice to ship over, but nothing urgent.

I’m having a good time over here, although a lot of the differences are interesting. Japan is not, shall we say, on the forefront of the feminist movement. Maybe it would be different in a big city, I don’t know. I haven’t seen any major injustices, but I’ve picked up on a lot of little things. The way the woman always serve tea to the men at the office, and then clean up after them. And the way boys are always called on first in school and stuff.

I’ve modified my no-drinking policy over here to a two drink policy. I figured it was the only way to have a social life, since so much of Japanese culture revolves around drinking. And I figure two drinks never hurt anyone. The only thing is I still haven’t acquired a taste for Alcohol, so the beer tastes bitter going down, and I have to hide my reaction from my hosts. Oh well.

Dear Brett,
How are things going? I’ve been doing alright. My supervisor here in Japan took me around to see the sites this weekend. It was very nice. They have a lot of hot springs here in Kyushu, and the supervisor asked if I wanted to go to one, and I said yes. I went with his family (his wife, and 17 year old son). I was a little nervous about changing into my suit in the locker room, because I thought it might be awkward to see my supervisor naked, and because he was older and I thought he might be like those old guys in the YMCA locker rooms who strut around naked and have a conversation with you while you’re naked, and don’t really seem to care.

Anyway, I changed into my suit as quick as I could, and then they told me to take off my suit, and I was a bit confused, but I took off my suit and followed them. It turns out everyone goes to these Hot Springs completely naked. (That’s not as nice as it sounds though. They have separate hot springs for men and women, so all I saw was naked Japanese men). They have a hot naked pool you can go in, and a cold naked pool, and then an outdoor naked hot pool, and a naked pool that has flowers in it. I felt really awkward at first. I didn’t know whether I felt more comfortable hanging out with my supervisor, the old naked man, or his son, the little naked boy. I ended up spending some quality naked time with both. We went into a naked sauna, and it was really hot, so we went into a cool naked pool afterwards. Then there were these showers, where everyone sits naked on a stool, and there is a mirror, and soap, and a hand held shower head, and everyone soaps up and cleans. It was a good time. I saw many Japanese butts.

Anyway, I think we should start up our own hot spring back in the U.S. Maybe next to our “Communist Pizza” shop. I think it would be a lot of fun for people. We could call it, “the back to nature bath.” Think about it.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The multiple sections of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" would inspire Radiohead's three part epic Paranoid Android on OK Computer.

Link of the Day
I'm often asked about Japanese TV. These days, thanks to the magic of You Tube, it's a lot easier to show than it is to tell.
You can check out this: "Say the tongue twister correctly or you get hit in the balls" clip. (Thanks to Sharda for this one)

Or there is the: "Be quiet in the library well doing stupid pranks" clip.

And my personal favorite: "Porto Potty Prank" clip.

(Also don't forget the links at the bottom of this post).

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer

(Book Review)

“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true green cat. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellectual, with all the resources , if you will, of a wealthy government –which, however, has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
I’ve often been accused of having bizarre or esoteric interests, and Dr. Fu-Manchu probably falls under that category. 60 or 70 years ago Dr. Fu-Manchu was a house-hold name. Originally a series of books, Fu-Manchu became a radio show, newspaper comic strip, comic book, television show, film serials and feature films.

But you don’t hear too much about Fu-Manchu these days. The series is so politically incorrect that, unlike contemporaries such as Tarzan or Dick Tracy, Fu-Manchu has not passed the test of time. (Although Marvel comics is apparently still using a variant of this character in their story lines.)

My first encounter with Dr. Fu-Manchu was during a Calvin Interim course entitled “Western Perspectives of China.” As the title of the course suggests, we looked at some of the various ways China has been portrayed in Western books and media. As part of this course, we read some of the old Fu-Manchu comics and watched some clips from the movies. It was so incredibly cheesy that I’ve always wanted to return to the world of Fu-Manchu just for the sake of curiosity or a laugh. I just never got around to it until now.

Dr. Fu-Manchu is actually not the main character of the series that bears his name, but rather the villain. The hero of the series is a British government agent named Nayland Smith. The series is narrated from the point of view of Smith’s trusted friend and confident Dr. Petrie, in a manner very similar to the relationship of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Fu-Manchu represents the yellow peril incarnate who, with the help of his Oriental henchmen, plot the doom of the white race. To say this book is politically incorrect is an understatement. In fact even simply calling it racist wouldn’t be doing it justice. Every page contains something blatantly offensive. Examples are simply too numerous to mention, but include Nayland Smith’s assertations about the cruelty of the Chinese race. Or comments about the ease with which Oriental women form attachment to men. Or the simply assumption throughout the book that there is a constant race war, and lower races are always looking for ways to plot the doom of the white race.

What makes the book readable is that all of this is so over the top it becomes self-parody. It’s like “Mystery Science Theater 3000". You can’t help but laugh at our unenlightened ancestors as you read the book.

The only thing that sobers me a little bit is that anyone who was reading this book when it came out in 1913 might get the impression that all Chinese people were plotting the destruction of Western Civilization. And it makes me wonder if this book might have been the cause of violence against Asian immigrants in England or America. Which wouldn’t be very funny.

But perhaps those people back then weren’t as dumb as we like to think. I think that I can read this book because I’m intelligent enough to discern it wisely, but maybe people in the good old days also knew how to distinguish between entertainment and reality. I don’t know.

Although the Fu-Manchu series has dropped off the pop culture map now, during the 50 years or so he was popular it was not without its impact. For example, Ian Fleming claims to have been inspired by Fu-Manchu, and for this reason the Fu-Manchu series is often called “the literary link between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.” Fu-Manchu was also the inspiration for a lot of other yellow-peril characters, like Ming the Merciless from “The Flash Gordon” series, and “The Mandarin” from the Iron Man comics.
(Apparently The Mandarin is coming to the big screen as the main villain in the upcoming “Iron Man” movie......as unbelievable as that seems in the 21st century).

So, if you’re interested in the history of pulp fiction, this book is worth reading from that perspective as well. It is roughly contemporary with the Sherlock Holmes series, and reads in the same sort of Victorian prose which is somewhat stilted and jolting for modern readers. But if you have the patience, it is highly readable.

The entire book is a battle of wits between Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu-Manchu. At some points Nayland Smith will be just about to capture Fu-Manchu, and then Fu-Manchu will slip through his fingers. At other points, Fu-Manchu will capture Nayland Smith and Petrie and they will have to escape from one of his diabolical death traps.

In a world of trap doors, secret liars, and a cunning super-villain, it is easy to see how this series became the inspiration for James Bond. On the other hand, half-way through it I began to loose my patience with all the near misses. Maybe television has ruined my attention span, but I just wanted them to get to the final face off with Fu-Manchu and be done with it. And yet the climatic ending was really great.

At this point I’m not sure if I’m going to bother continuing on with the “Fu-Manchu” series. At the very least I plan on taking a break before going on to the next volume.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
James Meredith, the civil rights pioneer who was the first Black to attend the University of Mississippi and about whom Bob Dylan wrote the song "Oxford Town"....
later became an arch conservative and spent several years on the staff of Senator Jesse Helms.

Link of the Day
You may soon be able to get a shot of “anarcho-syndicalism” with your mocha Frappuccino, if the Cambridge City Council has its way.
In its meeting last night, the council passed a resolution supporting the right of Starbucks employees to organize under the aegis of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or "Wobblies," a union made famous in the early 20th century for a brand of radical socialism known as “anarcho-syndicalism.” The IWW advocates “aboliton of the wage system” on its website.

The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer: Book Review (Scripted)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Oh The movies I’ve Seen Part 4

(A continuation of Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

I really am trying to make an effort to watch less TV and read more books, but I do backslide every now and again. But I figured as long as I was watching some movies, I would post some thoughts on this blog.

1. “FahrenHYPE 9/11" and “Michael Moore Hates America”
It probably goes without saying that I’m not in the target audience for either of these movies. But I do like exposing myself to the other point of view every now and again. And I don’t mean that as a chore or something I have to make myself do. If you’re a political geek like I am, there’s something invigorating about watching something you disagree with just so you can gear up your brain to think of all the reasons why it’s crap. Or there’s the human fascination with a train wreck; perhaps the same impulse which makes some people enjoy bad movies makes us enjoy bad arguments.

I realize this isn’t something unique to me. I read once in a newspaper article the theory that a fair percentage of FOX news viewers were made up of liberals who loved to hate it. I’m not sure if any studies have been done to support this thesis, but antidotally it seems true. I know of several liberals who get a perverse kick out of watching FOX news or listening to Rush Limbaugh, and I count myself among them.

(Now, the big question is: is this true for conservatives as well? Again, antidotally I’d hazard a guess at no. Most of the conservatives I know seem to take pride in the fact that they get all of their news from FOX or Limbaugh. And I have yet to meet a conservative who sat through a volume of Noam Chomsky just to see what he had to say. Or went and watched “Fahrenheit 9/11" just to expose themselves to that point of view. In fact many conservative reviewers actually bragged about not having seen the movie they were criticizing. And remember that conservative movement that tried to prevent “Fahrenheit 9/11" from playing in theaters?
But maybe that’s just my liberal bias making selective examples. If anyone can make the case that liberals are just as close minded, you’re welcome to try and convince me.)

Anyway, I digress....The point is these two films.

Ideally, I’d say every liberal should watch these movies, especially if you’ve already seen “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Although I realize not everyone has the time, interest, or energy to sit through all this stuff.

If it makes it any easier, much of “Michael Moore Hates America” is on Youtube. (FahrenHYPE 9/11 unfortunately not so much.)

Both of these movies actually make a lot of good points as far as their criticism of Michael Moore. I thought I was a pretty intelligent viewer of Moore’s movies, but its amazing how much of his stuff that I believed at face value is actually mis-represented. It makes me feel used.

You’ll notice that even in my original review of “Fahrenheit 9/11" I put in a lot of caveats, but after watching these other two documentaries, I’m wishing I would have distanced myself even more from the film.

The problem with “FahrenHYPE 9/11" and “Michael Moore Hates America” is that they both don’t content themselves with simply correcting Moore’s factual errors. Instead they use this as a way to get their foot in the door, and then they go into a bunch of flag waving patriotic crap about how great America is and how well the war is going in Iraq.

I guess I’m mostly thinking of “FahrenHYPE 9/11" now, which included a speech by Zell Miller about how he found a nest of poisonous snakes under his porch, and he took unilateral pre-emptive action against them without consulting the United Nations because he knew the snakes were dangerous.
(First of all Zell, that has nothing to do with the film. Secondly, that’s a stupid analogy. Thirdly the Japanese already tried that argument in the Far East Military Tribunal to justify their attack on Pearl Harbor. Would you like to guess what the court decided?)

But still, you’ve got to admit Michael Moore himself opened the door for all that himself. If he had made a tighter movie with less misleading stuff in it, then the right wing wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to use this “bait and switch” technique.

“Michael Moore Hates America” on the other hand, actually tries to out-Moore Moore, by using a lot of the same dirty tricks that made Michael Moore famous.

For example, the frame of the movie revolves around this young film maker trying to get an interview with Moore, a la “Roger and Me”. And of course Moore doesn’t grant the interview, so he looks like the bad guy just like Roger Smith does in Moore’s film. But Moore is never going to agree to an interview for a film titled, “Michael Moore Hates America.”

Another example is this scene here. When Moore is being interviewed on MSNBC, and is asked if he’ll agree to sit down for an interview with Wilson. Moore responds, “I’m not in anybody else’s movies but my own.” Immediately, a list of film titles scrolls across the screen, naming several movies the notorious liberal documentarian has appeared in that do not bear his directing credit.
Interestingly, though, one of the titles listed is Fever Pitch, a 2001 short film in which actor-director Willard Morgan stalks his idol Moore, and fails to obtain much more than a brush-off. If that counts as one of Moore’s credits, then you can add virtually every film at the first annual Liberty Film Festival to the list as well

You could argue that Moore is just getting what’s coming to him, but I’m not sure we the viewers deserve to be caught in the middle.

What would be nice is if someone from the left would make a balanced critique of Moore which would point out where he was wrong as well as where he was right. I’m still waiting for that film. In the meantime I guess there’s always Spinsanity. (I know they’ve retired, but you can still read their critiques of Moore in their archives).

2. American Black Out

A very interesting documentary on the disenfranchisement of Black voters in both the 2000 and 2004 elections. It also dove tails this story with the story of Cynthia McKinney and the harassment she got from Republicans. Their website is here, and you can watch a preview for this film here.

They make a very strong case that there was a coordinated effort to prevent minority voters in battleground states during both 2000 and 2004. Of course, just having seen those critiques of Moore, I’m a little more wary of documentary films. Maybe 2 years down the road I’ll read a critique of this film.

Off hand though, it looked pretty solid to me. The only thing I thought was a little strange is that the film was up to date with the 2006 primary election, but not a word about McKinney’s controversy with the security guard. They just gave the impression that McKinney lost the primary because of Republican cross-overs during the primary. (And of course you always wonder, for everything mis-representation I caught, how many slipped by me.)

3. Starship Troopers
I saw this movie once long ago, but after recently finishing the book, I though I’d re-watch the movie.

If you rent the DVD, the director’s commentary is particularly interesting, because they talk a lot about their theories on Fascism, and how Fascism is related to human nature. Over the course of 2 hours, they repeat themselves a lot, but they ask some interesting questions. For example, is Fascism something that is inherently in human nature, and that we have to rise above? And does war make everyone a fascist? They also mention how they tried to incorporate Noam Chomsky’s theories on media into the film. (And you thought it was just a stupid action flick).

Another theme is how many of their critics misinterpreted the film, and thought that they were actually advocating Fascism instead of satirizing it. Although I have to admit I myself was left scratching my head a bit when this film first came out.

4. The Life of Brian
This is another film I’ve seen before, but I haven’t seen it in a long time. I could never find it in any of the video stores in Japan. Sometimes humor doesn’t translate well across cultural boundaries. Comedies like “Dumb and Dumber” do well in Japan, but not so much Monty Python, and especially not “The Life of Brian”.

I think this has got to be my favorite film of all time. Or at least in my top ten. (I haven’t sat down and seriously thought about it yet). No matter how many times I see it, I never get sick of it. It’s one of those rare films that I actually like more and more with each repeated viewing. (And this doesn’t happen often. I love Star Wars, but I got sick of the original trilogy a long time ago. And after junior high school I can’t stand “The Princess Bride” anymore. It got shown at one too many church lock-ins.) But “Life of Brian” each time I watch it I appreciate the satire even more.

And the DVD edition has lost scenes, and a double commentary track with Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Michael Palin. Well worth checking out again.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"It is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo."--Angela Davis

Link of the Day
If you need a good laugh (and you probably do), check out this "Neko" video on You tube of cats doing funny things. It got me laughing pretty hard. ("Neko" is Japanese for cat).

FahrenHYPE 9/11 and Michael Moore Hates America: Movie Review (Scripted)

American Black Out: Movie Review (Scripted)

Friday, October 13, 2006

New Job Finishes

So last night we finished up the community education program for migrant workers. And if it seems like I just got done blogging about the start of this program............... well, it seems that way to me too.

Because of too few students and other funding issues, the program finished a couple weeks early this year. But it was only supposed to be a two-month program to begin with, and I knew that when I was hired. It was never supposed to be a career builder.

It did perhaps give me a taste of what English as a Second Language education is like in the U.S., which is something I’ve been interested in ever since I did my student aiding at Pathfinder’s school for Immigrants and Refugees.

Granted I spent the past five years teaching ESL in Japan, but it wasn’t the same. I spent many days teaching to a class of junior high school students who didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to learn, didn’t have any immediate use for English, and many of them didn’t plan on ever leaving Japan.

By contrast, teaching at Pathfinders I felt that the people I was teaching really needed my help. And that I was teaching them something useful, and that they wanted to learn. Which is why I later volunteered to tutor English on Saturdays at Eastern Church, and continued to tutor some of the Pathfinders students on my own time after the student aiding was finished.

So I was really looking forward to this migrant education program. And it was a really great experience for me. I had no idea what life was like for migrant workers, or what conditions were like at their camps, or any of that stuff. And I felt like I was doing a lot of good.

But with any job to a large extent once you actually get into it you get bogged down in the day to day kind of stuff and the ideals take a back seat. I spent a lot of time worrying about if we had all the paper work filled out and if the students were registered correctly. Or worrying about what I was going to teach that night, and feeling that I had used up all my good ideas last week. Or angry at myself because the previous night’s lesson hadn’t gone well.

(I always think I want a job I believe in, but there’s something to be said for working a job you don’t care about. It makes you feel less guilty when you screw up. I would really feel awful when a lesson didn’t go well, because I figured the migrants had been working hard all day, and I had wasted their time with a bad class).

The other thing about teaching is you always have something hanging over your head. Even when you’re not working and trying to relax, in the back of your mind something is telling you that you should be preparing for the next class. (But maybe that’s just a feature of any sort of real job. No matter what you do, You always end up taking your work home with you.)

On the other hand, when things went good it was beautiful. In that respect it was just like teaching in Japan. When a class went bad, it makes you feel terrible, but when everything is going good, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. The nature of education I guess.

The paper work was a bit overwhelming, especially since it was the first year for both me and my partner. We were never sure we were doing it quite right. And the last two nights of this program were dedicated solely to filling out paper work. (Making sure all the students were registered, all the attendance hours were added up, all the test scores were recorded, etc). Which is probably another fact of any sort of career in education. Or probably any sort of government job. Or perhaps any sort of real job. It makes me discouraged about my future career path. Often it seemed that most of our energy was going into the paperwork and not into the teaching.

But here I am focusing on the negatives, when I should be saying how much I learned and how great the students were, and what a real privilege it was to be part of this program. I would easily have done it for free. (Well, not the paper work part).

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The history of food items which may have served as the roots of modern pizza can be traced to the ancient Greek colony of Naples in Magna Graecia (southern Italy). Such products arguably have their first written mention in Book VII of Virgil’s Aeneid:
Their homely fare dispatch’d, the hungry band
Invade their trenchers next, and soon devour,
To mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour.
Ascanius this observ’d, and smiling said:
“See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”

Link of the Day
The U.S. Coast Guard has proposed turning the Great Lakes into the world's largest freshwater live-fire shooting range. Citizens For Lake Safety was formed to oppose that plan, and it has established this website as a clearinghouse for groups and individuals who want to help. On this site you will find information about the Coast Guard's plans and information about what you can do to help stop this terrible attack on the lakes.

And an online petition can be found here:
We the undersigned object to the United States Coast Guard or any other entity conducting live-fire target practice on the Great Lakes, and to the designation of "safety zones" where the shooting would take place.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

 (Book Review)
So I was talking to the Bear, and I said, “Bear, remember that book you recommended to me 6 years ago? I finally got around to reading it.”

And the Bear said, “Well if you liked that book, then this one is even better.” And before I knew it, I left the Bear’s house with another reading assignment. (You’ve got to watch that Bear. He’ll try and take over your whole reading list if you let him.)

So, because of the Bear, I returned to the world of Robert Heinlein. As I mentioned in my previous review, Heinlein had some interesting and contradictory politics. “Stranger in a Strange Land” is a book that advocated free love and communal living. “Starship Troopers” is often accused of militarism and fascism. There are some tortured attempts on the internet to find a thread of consistency through his writings, or explain a political progression, but I find it easier just to take each book as its own.

Film critic Roger Ebert says when he was in grade school he read this book to the point of memorization. On the other hand Paul Verhoeven, who directed the movie version of “Starship Troopers” found the book so depressing he claims he never even finished it (which is why the film version of “Starship Troopers” was done as a satire on Heinlein’s views).

After reading the book, I find myself more on the side of Verhoeven. No doubt there are many elements of this book which would be extremely cool to an 11 year old boy, such as space commanders fighting giant spiders and what not. But like any Heinlein book, this one is really heavy on the preaching.

The book opens with a really great action sequence, but then flashes back to the decision to enlist and the first days of military training. There follows a lot of talk about the poverty of Marxist economics, the necessity of capital punishment, the importance of publicly flogging juveniles, and how social workers are destroying society.

Then graduation happens, the characters go off to fight for a brief interlude, and then go back to training to become officers. Which follows even more preaching on topics like why only veterans should be able to be citizens.

As Roger Ebert says, “Heinlein was of course a right-wing saber-rattler, but a charming and intelligent one who wrote some of the best science fiction ever.” Heinlein is a talented writer, and his action scenes can be really good when he finally gets around to them. I could have forgiven the right wing politics if they would have been a little bit more subtle or a bit more in the back ground. But aside from being book-ended by a couple action scenes this book is just talk, talk talk. And I didn’t particularly care for what it was saying.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Part of the criticism the Chronicles of Narnia series have received over the years center on the description of Susan Pevensie in The Last Battle. In the novel, the last of the series, Susan does not go to Narnia; other characters describe Susan as being "no longer a friend of Narnia" and as being interested "in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations". J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, while commenting Lewis' sentimentality about children, has said:
"There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex, I have a big problem with that."
Others read the passage more critically, including allegations of sexism. Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, who has been quoted as saying "I hate the Narnia books...with a passion...", interprets it this way:
"Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn't approve of that. He didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up."

Link of the Day
Another one for the history buffs: this is a clip from a new Japanese documentary about the Far East Military Tribunals. I watched this documentary with Shoko while in Japan, and it was fascinating from a number of perspectives. It was amazing how much Tojo and company resembled George Bush and his crew. They kept talking about how they were going into China in order to liberate it, and everything they had done was for the good of the Chinese people. And they defended Pearl Harbor as a pre-emptive strike.

But more relevant to this particular clip, another interesting thing was the Japanese were unfamiliar with the Anglo-American justice system, and didn't think the Americans appointed to defend them would give them an adequate defense. They were very much surprised when their American defenders actually gave them a good defense. They still lost of course, but it was a good argument. Watch the clip and see for yourselves.

Also this trailer for a Chinese movie based on the same events looks interesting. I wonder when it will be available in the U.S.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein: Book Review (Scripted)

Friday, October 06, 2006

2nd Grade Essay on Challenger Explosion


This was a 2nd Grade writing assignment on the explosion of the Challenger Spaceshuttle.

Yesterday a space shuttle exploded and seven people died. Now I want to tell you what I got for Christmas. I got Lion Voltron. I got the Transformer's Racing track. I got Webster. He's a He-Man action figure. He came with a rope, that he can go up. I got a book from my dad. I got a mobile car. I got a photo album, a clock a bookmark. I got clothes. The book my dad gave me is "The Black Stallion." My Dad was also the one who gave me the Lion Voltron and the transformers racing track. My sister gave me a Go-bot. My mom gave me the mobile car. My Grandma Swagman gave me a transformer and a nice sweater and a game called "connect four". It's fun. I got a squirt gun from a boy in my class. I got a Garfield eraser from my teacher. I got Webster from my Aunt Mary. I gave my sister "Crystal Castle" and my Dad gave her She-Ra.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Michelle Malkin occasionally posts hate mail she received, which often consists of racist or sexist epithets. According to Malkin, she has been "attacked as an 'Aunt Thomasina and a sellout and a race traitor' by liberals of Asian background".
In November of 2004, the Norfolk, Virginia-based Virginian-Pilot ceased running Malkin's nationally syndicated column. Fellow columnist Bronwyn Lance Chester explained, "I think [Malkin] habitually mistakes shrill for thought-provoking and substitutes screaming for discussion. She's an Asian Ann Coulter." Malkin responded "I'm not Asian, I'm American, for goodness' sake. I would take the comparison to Ann Coulter as somewhat of a compliment. I have a lot of respect for Ann Coulter."
(Looks like I'll have to eat my words from this post. I agree that Malkin is incredibly obnoxious, but in a perfect world she could be obnoxious without people responding in racist ways).

Link of the Day
Congress has passed legislation sanctioning some of the Bush administration’s most controversial policies for handling military captives, but the move has not quelled the political battle over detainee treatment. Although supporters tout the bill as crucial for the prosecution of war criminals, advocates for detainees say it will further shred basic rights in favor of military impunity. (Complete article here)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Peace Breaks Out by John Knowles

(Book Review)

Like most people, I read “A Separate Peace” back in high school English class. And like many people, I didn’t really care for it at the time, but in re-reading it in the years since I have come to appreciate it. (I never reviewed it on this site because I try not to review books I re-read. The book reviews are getting cluttered enough as it is. But I have referenced it when comparing it to other books, such as here and here.)

"A Separate Peace” is the best description I have read of dormitory tensions and school life. (The book takes place in a high school, but unless you attend a prep boarding school I think most people need to experience the college dorm life first in order to truly appreciate the book.)

When in Japan, I was talking to someone else who also enjoyed “A Separate Peace” and she mentioned there was a sequel. “A sequel?” I said.
“Well, sort of,” she said. “It takes place in the same school a couple years later. None of the characters are the same, but there are a few passing references to the first book.” Personally I would have been a lot more excited about following the further adventures of Gene Forrester, Brinker, Leper, and the other surviving members of the first book. But any chance to return to the world of Devon High School was welcome, so now that I’m back in the U.S., I got this book out through inter-library loan.

It’s well known in the movie world that sequels always disappoint. I think literary sequels have a slightly higher success rate, but it is still difficult to pull off. The author has to capture enough of the original feeling without retelling the same story twice; a difficult tight rope to manage. This is easier with some books than others. With a fantasy book, you can just take the same characters and send them out on another adventure. Which is why so many fantasy books are part of a series. (Have you ever gone into a bookstore and tried to find a nice fantasy book that didn’t commit you to reading a whole series? It can’t be done, I swear).

But with a tragic story like “A Separate Peace”, how do you follow that up? I guess that’s why John Knowles made a fresh start with a new group of students. But even with this, he’s obviously struggling. In my opinion, he ends up with the worst of both worlds. He repeats enough of the story to give this book a “been there/ done that” feel, but he fails to re-capture the beautiful subtlety of the original.

There are only two brief references to the events of the original “A Separate Peace”, and a few of the faculty are the same (like Dr. Stanton), but other than that this is a completely new story. A completely new story which reads remarkable like the old one. Once again a school-boy rivalry that ends in tragedy, once again an accidental death resulting from pent-up aggression, once again a injured leg from a fool-hardy sporting attempt that turns into a major plot point, and once again a death scene in the infirmary with Dr. Stanton uttering his same shocked mumblings.

As with the first book, the war is a big back-drop. But unlike the first book, this is the class of 1946, not 1944. They have just barely escaped being sent into the war they had spent the bulk of their lives preparing for, and are not sure whether they should be relieved or disappointed. And like the first book, parallels are made between the death on campus and the destruction of the war.

But the magic touch is gone. Unlike the original, I didn’t get the feeling that these boys were people I actually knew. Perhaps because Knowles waited until 1981 to write the second book, he had lost the ability to accurately recreate school life. The Butt room conversations, which in the original sounded just like any group of boys trading jokes at Calvin, now sound stilted and too literary.

The main plot in “Peace Breaks Out” is the rivalry between Hochschwender, a Nazi admirer, and Wexford, a kind of young Joseph McCarthy/ evil genius. This in itself should be a good sign that all subtlety is out the window. In the original the rivalry is over nothing essentially.

After living through the dorms, I always thought the original “A Separate Peace” did a great job of recreating the natural tension between two roommates who have spent too much time together. Friendship turns into jealous rivalries, and innocent words are subverted in the mind of Gene Forrester until he is ruled by his own paranoia. Even the climatic moment on the tree top is such a subtle thing that afterwards Gene isn’t sure if it was a conscious action or not.

And now we trade that in for a Nazi admirer and an evil genius. I have a hard time believing that in 1946 it would be possible to walk around school openly praising Adolf Hitler. Wouldn’t he have gotten his ass kicked? During that time, didn’t everyone know someone who died in the war. But not until events have forced a crisis does violence actually occur. I would have thought it would have happened on the first day of school. But then, John Knowles actually lived through the period, I didn’t. Maybe people back then were a lot more diverse and tolerant than we give them credit for.

In short, I was disappointed by this book, but it obviously suffers from the problem of high expectation. If it had been any other book besides a sequel to “A Separate Peace” it would not be judged so harshly. It really wasn’t a bad little book by any means. And it was still fun to go back to Devon High School.

Like the original, this book is very short, and can easily be read in a couple days. So if you enjoyed the original, and this sounds slightly interesting to you, you can’t really lose anything by checking it out.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Roman Emperor Claudius introduced 3 new letters to the alphabet (a reversed C, a turned F and a half H). These letters did not survive after his death.
Support for the letters was added in the most recent version of Unicode, version 5.0.0

Link of the Day
Here's something for you history buffs: footage of the assassination of the head of the Japanese Socialist party in 1960.
In Japan, as in parts of Europe, Socialist party represents the head opposition party, and not some crazy leftist group. This was in the days before live TV, but the assassination of the Socialist Party Chairmen in front of TV cameras was still a shocking event.
The first wave of Japan's student movement was in full swing by 1960, but the youth who committed the assassination was a rightest, and so this is not properly part of the leftist student movement. It did however increase polarization in Japan, and add to the leftist protests, similar perhaps to the assassination of RFK or MLK in the US.
(Warning: Graphic scene, contains a real person getting stabbed, etc)

Peace Breaks Out by John Knowles: Book Review (Scripted)