Monday, May 29, 2006

Syriana - A Review of the Reviews

Syriana, the George Clooney movie, was off my radar until yesterday, and although on the back of my mind, I gave priority to Brokeback Mountain, Crash, and a whole host of other films. If it hadn’t been playing in a local theater long after fading elsewhere, I might not have seen it yet.

It’s based on the memoir by ex-CIA operative Robert Baer, See No Evil, and the central character is allegedly Baer himself, played by Clooney. An old time operative in a new, colder, meaner and more bureaucratic CIA, he is hung out to dry. Clearly Baer wrote the movie to get even.

But more than the CIA, it’s the oil industry titans and their lawyers who are the bad guys here, and still other baddies, Gulf State emirs, Pakistani terrorists, and corrupt U.S. congressmen are mere also-rans in nefariousness by comparison.

The only good guy, Nasir, is a Gulf State emirate prince who is pushed aside by his corrupt brother, Meshal. Nasir wants democracy, rights for women, investment in a national infrastructure; Meshal wants the money for himself. The Americans support Meshal because democracy would cut deep into oil profits.

That’s already too much of the story, although there are several other subplots and I haven’t really spoiled the ending, and there are some first-class actors involved, including Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Matt Damon, Chris Cooper, and Jeffrey Wright.

As with Brokeback Mountain, I am fascinated with how the movie plays to audiences, since movies, I think, are the heart of popular culture and keys to social attitudes, values and preoccupations. The first thing I noticed is that most of the Rotten Tomatoes critics, at least, got it. Ebert, especially, nailed it, as he so often does. Here are three portions of his take on the technique of flooding you with more facts from more subplots than you can possibly take in at once:

...Syriana is a movie that suggests Congress can hold endless hearings about oil company profits and never discover the answer to anything, because the real story is so labyrinthine that no one – not oil company executives, not Arab princes, not CIA spies, not traders in Geneva, understands the whole picture.... I liked the way I experienced the film: I couldn't explain the story, but I never felt lost in it.... The more you describe it, the more you miss the point. It is not a linear progression from problem to solution. It is all problem. The audience enjoys the process, not the progress. We're like athletes who get so wrapped up in the game we forget about the score.

Another reviewer, Robert J Hawkins, has this to say about it:

It [will] certainly [resonate] with anyone who spends $3 a gallon to fill a gas tank and anyone who now understands that the war in Iraq has always been about one thing: oil.

Where Hawkins saw the movie the audience was made up mostly of Middle Easterners, “who were still clustered in small groups animatedly discussing the movie in their native tongues” when the last credits rolled off the screen.

Now this is where things get interesting to me. While the story takes place in the Gulf States, for a while only Egypt released it and it looked as if the startlingly frank portrayal of corruption and greed and Islamist terrorism would keep it from being shown elsewhere in the Arab world. But now, it turns out, Dubai is willing to show it after the screenwriter agreed to cut two minutes in which police savagely beat Pakistani workers looking for work. I take it this works because Dubai is breaking loose as an almost anything-goes state (in comparison to much of the Arab world, at least) and the emir and his sons suggest Saudis rather than emirate princes to anybody familiar with that part of the world.

That said, it nonetheless means audiences will have the chance to watch Arabic speaking actors portraying a struggle between emirate princes, one of whom wants to build democracy in which women participate as equals, and loses out because of American opposition to self-determination.

And that said, I’m curious about whether this could also backfire, since apparently the Arabic is pretty bad, as is the Farsi, and the Urdu is, according to one blog I just looked at, Hindi and not Urdu. I look on all this as a glass half full, since I was raised with “Ve haff vays to make you talk!” accented English in foreigner characters. Here, at least, there are efforts made to create a more realistic setting, at least to those who don’t speak the languages of the Islamic world. Whether they will overlook the lack of language sophistication and focus on an American portrayal of a very sinister American imperialism, where the real leaders of the world are Texas oil men and American presidents and congressmen are their lackeys, remains to be seen.

With the possible exception of the environment, no other issue effects the future of the planet as much the current confrontation between American neoconservative ideology and its many opponents, from anti-imperialist voices within the modern Western world to Al Qaeda and the full range of outraged Muslims from Morocco to Pakistan. No wonder there were Middle Easterners “still clustered in small groups animatedly discussing the movie” well past the rolling of the credits.

And what do we get from American film critics? Some of them, like Ebert (who gave it four stars) and the majority, actually, are aware of the import of this treatment by America’s leading popular cultural medium of this life and death struggle. Others missed it.

"Not all of the stories on display here are as relevant or interesting as others," says Jeff Vice of Deseret News in Salt Lake City. "Overly ambitious and too complicated," says Betty Jo Tucker, of Reel Talk Movie Reviews. A well-meaning, yet meandering and confusing political thriller," says Collin Souter, of (all references from One can only imagine how this perspective would strike any of the millions of Arabs, folks on the receiving end of American military invasions and manipulation of their governments. “Overly ambitious? You mean Hollywood should stick to Tom Cruise and War of the Worlds? Confusing? You mean because it took place in a foreign country?”

I’m not saying there’s no room for criticism of the acting, cinematography or structure of the film, but where the hell is the perspective of these three reviewers? Makes you think they’d find fault with the autobahns in Hitler’s Germany for not having decent signage.

Ebert gave it four stars. I’d give it five.


1. Ebert review:

2. Hawkins review:

3. Other reviews: See

The DaVinci Code

The DaVinci Code opened here Friday, as it did everywhere else in the world, apparently, and since I’m free to attend matinees these days, I felt the call.

I assume you read it and you agree with me that the book is the kind of thing you feel you ought to feel ashamed to be reading but can’t put down. The movie was similar. A thriller that has you sitting back in your seat. And enjoying. Hard to concentrate on because you’re wondering why Tom Hanks has such bad hair. Audrey Tautou is marvelous to watch, as always. Ian McKellen is laughing all the way to the bank for being given a role in which he gets to be a clown of a character, an actor capable of good Shakespeare playing bad slapstick. Bad bad churchmen. Albino madman. Heroic figures chasing through the countryside only inches ahead of bad cops. What’s not to love? I upset people next to me when I got into a near-laughing jag at the line, “But you’re the last living descendant of Jesus Christ!” delivered deadpan. Apparently, they were afraid they might not learn of the location of Mrs. Christ’s tomb. Mrs. Jesus, nee Magdalene, to be more accurate, since the Church, turns out, is wrong about his being the Christ. She is buried either in France or in England. One should not scoff when learning is taking place.

Read Frank Rich’s editorial in today’s New York Times about how the Christian right has been duped by the makers of this film into supporting it, not unlike the way they were suckered into trashing Abramoff’s Indian casino rivals for him. What a romp, this latest whack at the clueless. They’ve finally done it — or so it would appear — the Republican rats are leaving the sinking ship and hanging these morons out to dry. O tempora, o mores. O Pity they couldn’t have done it with more panache.

On the surface, DaVinci Code’s object of scorn is Opus Dei, that group some like to call a fascist organization that illustrates how tradition in the Catholic Church can glove an iron fist of power, abuse and arrogance, and put the church on the wrong side of humanity right into modern times. Whether it, like Legionaries of Christ, is a cult or an innocent, if secretive, lay organization is highly controversial, inside as well as outside of the Church. Its detractors love to point out its support of Franco. Its supporters will tell you only 8 of some 116 ministers in the Franco government were Opus Dei folk, and it was more that Franco supported Opus Dei than the other way around. In any case, Opus Dei’s stance against divorce, abortion, euthanasia, gay marriages, and contraception, its insistence that one’s beliefs must be reflected not only in observing the sacraments but in working in the world to further the Church’s power and influence have raised lots of suspicion and opposition. Whether those positions are “just another opinion” or sinister as hell depends on whether you’ve been whacked as a gay man or woman or as a woman forced to have a child or whether you’ve had to watch someone live out a life of agony against their will.

The film (and the book’s) great weakness to some is its strength to others: its geeky complexity. There is so much information that requires exposition that the film is like watching one of those dumb-ass commercials where Mrs. Homemaker asks her grocer a question about a laundry detergent, listens to the answer and then ends up continuing the explanation for the audience. Endless periods of talking heads punctuated by a chase here, a horror flick appearance of a bad guy there.

Actually, there is one terribly clever thing about this whole business. While the movie makes you think the bad guys are bad guys within the Church and not the Church itself, you soon realize that’s only a ruse, and the real aim is a Gnostic attack on the patriarchal power of the Church. The subterfuge is carried out right in front of you, in other words, mirroring the many double-thinks of the plot.

Anyway, Opus Dei takes it in the ear in this movie. Unfortunately, as one critic put it, the whole treatment is so uninspired they may end up making recruits instead.

Meanwhile, in the Real World, Opus Dei has reared its ugly head in the person of an “Equality Minister” in Britain, making you wonder whether we’re witnessing the last death throes of the Blair government. Could there ever be a better example of the fox appointed to guard the henhouse? Actually, there was one Italian bounced off the European Commission for something similar. Ms. Kelly, however, is still hanging in there and the debate is on over whether that’s a good thing.,,17129-2173603,00.html (for the article),,564,00.html (for the debate)

If you’re still reading, you’ll note I’ve wandered from The DaVinci Code entirely and gone on to the topic of the Opus Dei. That’s as it should be. There’s nothing in the movie except a good romp if nothing is worth watching elsewhere, you don’t have enough money for a good meal out and you’re tired of sex. Opus Dei, now that’s another story. Keep your eye on these people.

Frank Rich’s review wandered in the same way. Something about the DaVinci Code that suggests even while you’re focused on it your mind is elsewhere.

May 29, 2006

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Steven Spielberg's Munich - A Review

Some things can never be understood outside of their historical context. The film story of Steven Spielberg’s film, Munich, begins with the Black September attack on the Israeli Olympic Team in 1972. The context of the story begins much earlier.

I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.

That’s what one Christian had to say about the Jews in the 16th Century. This fellow’s name was Martin Luther.

Three hundred years later, in 1892, L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, writes of the pogroms going on in Russia against the Jews:

...the rather heavy-handed blow that the Muscovite Empire has aimed at the children of Judah has played into the hands of Judaism, for it has engendered compassion for the Jews...

Not long before this official blame-the-victim view from the Throne of Peter was expressed, the French were putting some of their enlightenment notions of liberté and égalité into practice (the same nation would later bring you the Dreyfus Affair), and freeing Jews from the ghettos where they had been forced to live in the Italy of the Papal States. But no sooner had Pius IX been restored to power in Rome after losing control of these enormous territories, when he pushed them back in. For his ardent defence of the faith, this man (also the author of the infallibility doctrine) was beatified by John Paul II in 2000, which means he’s on the road to sainthood.

If you don’t understand the foundations of Jewish desire to get out from under a worldview in which men like Pius IX are still rewarded, you probably have not read enough history of Western Civilization.

And if you don’t understand the roots of the Zionist conviction that Jewishness can survive only in a nation-state (Jewishness, not Judaism), then you’re likely to miss the existential agony portrayed in Munich, and it will come across as just another shoot-em-up. And you’ll miss the heart of one of the more far-reaching treatments of one of the more intractable tragedies of our time.

* * *

Munich is the story of five men recruited by the government of Golda Meir in an eye-for-an-eye decision to avenge the deaths of the eleven members of the Israeli Olympic Team in Munich in 1972. More narrowly, it is about the ever increasing threat of disintegration of the personality and character of Avner Kaufmann, the leader of the counterterrorist assassination team and central figure in the dramatization of the hunt for Black September terrorists.

Avner was born to heroic parents, a father imprisoned for his political activities (and therefore absent from Avner’s life), and a mother portrayed as a woman of stunning personal strength and dedication to the state of Israel, with expectations perhaps even harder to live up to. Avner’s wife reveals her view of the consequences when she tells him, “Your mother took you to the kibbutz and abandoned you. Now you think Israel is your mother.”

Based on the 1984 novel, Vengeance, by George Jonas, Munich will draw at least four types of possibly overlapping audiences: adventure film buffs, especially those looking for high tension (and no small bit of violence), those curious to see what Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame has pulled off this time (he finished off the screenplay started by Eric Roth ); and those who follow the endless struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Hopefully, the audience for whom the film is seriously intended will also find their way to the screen, those interested in the question of what it means to be a Jew.

Despite the fact that you know going in that the assassination team was successful, Munich still works as a thriller. And as psychological drama. How much John Williams’ score has to do with it , how much good acting and directing, how much is cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s and editor Michael Kahn’s doing, is for more serious film buffs to go into. Tony Kushner and Eric Roth’s screenplay is, in my view, as good as it gets. The dialogues are totally convincing, even the ones between Avner and his wife and his mother which are virtually entirely about stage-setting and exposition. But where the movie leaves the merely excellent and enters the exceptional is in the accumulation of profound questions which haunt you for days afterwards.

What is a Jew? Where is the line between Jew and Israeli? Where does Israel’s responsibility to itself and the world’s Jews stop and its responsibility to the world of nations begin? Do Palestinians have any less a love of home than Israelis? How do ordinary men become cold-blooded killers? Is Israel’s Realpolitik its survival mechanism or its nemesis?

Three women frame Avner’s reason for being. His wife represents his home, his “soft” extreme, and the cost of his personal sacrifice. She is outweighed two to one, however, by his two mothers. When the Golda Meir character is introduced, one of the first things she says is, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Shortly afterward, we see her laying hands on Avner, as on a lamb about to be sacrificed for the state. When Avner’s work is apparently completed, he confronts his birth mother, who hits home the message of his mother the state. “When I arrived (in Israel),” she tells her son, “I walked up to the top of a hill in Jerusalem and I prayed for a child... And I could feel every one of them (the family that all died in the Holocaust) praying with me. You are what we prayed for. What you did you did for us... (You gave us) a place to be a Jew among Jews, subject to no one. I thank God for hearing my prayer.” “You want to know (what I did)?” he asks her. “No,” she tells him. “Whatever it took; whatever it takes, we have a place on Earth at last.”

Avner is thus abandoned three times. One time is by Israel in the person of Golda Meir, who, after setting him up for the sacrifice, leaves the room without saying goodbye. She (and Moshe Dayan and the others involved in the creation of the assassination team) makes him work outside of Mossad, the Israeli CIA, because of the need for plausible deniability, and her abandonment has to be total. By his own mother, he is abandoned as a child to a kibbutz, and again when she wants no details of his struggle to hold on to his sanity. Why, we want to ask, could Israel not find a ready-made assassin instead of turning a child of heros into one? One suspects it has as much to do with the need to enoble the deed as with finding someone it can trust.

There have been angry detractors who claim the film is anti-Israeli for this suggestion it consumes its own children. How you stand on this question will show where you stand on the conviction Israel must survive at all costs. And those who would fault Spielberg for being soft on terrorism must ask why he chose to end the film in New York with the Twin Towers etched in in the background, surely a challenge to any soft response on terrorism.

Three of the other four members of the team, ordinary men all on some level, have the stuff it takes to carry out the assassinations. One, a toy maker and conscripted bomb maker named Robert, falls down at the end. In a scene just before a particularly odious killing, Robert confronts Avner:

R: All this blood... Eventually it comes back to us.
A: Eventually we will beat them.
R: We’re Jews, Avner. Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong.
A: We can’t afford to be decent anymore.
R: I don’t know that we ever were that decent. Suffering thousands of years of hatred doesn’t make you decent. But we’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish. That’s what I knew. That’s what I was taught.

Christianity’s driving force, it has been said, is love; Islam’s is peace, Judaism’s is justice and righteousness. The first two religious bodies have worked their way into a large number of societies where failure to live up to their ideals has been of little consequence for the states in which they reside. Israel is a different story. If, as Robert implies, Israel has lost what made it Jewish, what is left of its claim to be be a place to be a Jew among Jews?

May 27, 2006

Friday, May 12, 2006

Allegro and Ottavio

The California Senate has just agreed that it’s OK to mention gays and lesbians in the state’s history textbooks, having reached this conclusion about blacks and Hispanics and women some time ago. Opponents are enraged, arguing that this will amount to nothing less than “full support of homosexuality.”

It has yet to pass the Assembly, and even if it gets that far, it still has to have the approval of our good buddy Arnold, and who knows how this politico will rule, once he has stuck his muscled finger to the winds and decided what is right for California.

But as for this “support of homosexuality” they’re so concerned about, don’t you love it that these mostly evangelical folk are now committed to picking out facts of history which support their religious views and censoring out those which do not, rather than leaving the whole business up to writers who might look for some other points of salience in choosing the narrative the next generation of California kids are bound to tell.

The debate over what goes into textbooks, if you get to see it up close, rivals the best of Mission Impossible adventures. We’re all postmodernists now, so there is no use any more in hoping we might find neutral positions. We take stands and we beat the hell out of the other side and the winner gets to tell the tale of what happened.

But here’s a bit of history. Not California history. Possibly not even gay history. But just in case you’re looking for a filler somewhere on a page that still has some room...

Once upon a time there was this Jewish fellow named Allegro. Father’s name, Jacob, so I guess today he’d be called Allegro Jacobson. He had a Christian friend named Ottavio Bargellini.

Allegro and Ottavio were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were arrested for destroying a number of sacred Christian images along the roadside near Bologna. They were found innocent of this crime, but during the interrogations, the boys revealed something about their relationship that led to their arrest on a second crime, sodomy. To guild the lily, Ottavio was charged with the crime of being “Judaized” from being entirely too friendly with his Jewish friend.

The punishment for this crime was death. Allegro quickly converted at the last minute and was baptized at 8 in the morning of his execution on May 22nd, 1553. That was not sufficient to warrant a reprieve, though, and the two were marched into the Piazza Maggiore and decapitated. The baptism was recognized, however. Allegro was renamed Paolo Orsini and his head was stuck back on his body and he was carried with pomp and circumstance into the church of San Domenico for burial. Just in time, since notices were already appearing all over the city telling Jews they had to leave the city limits.

Ottavio’s body was unceremoniously dumped in a hole.

Come to think of it, maybe this is not appropriate for textbooks, lest some 14-year-old Catholic kid draw the conclusion from it Jews are sexy.

May 12, 2006

Friday, May 5, 2006

Lights On/ Lights Off: A Dance in Four Parts

I. Many years ago I read for the first time about Japan’s “untouchable” class, the burakumin, in a book edited by a UC Berkeley anthropology professor (now emeritus), George A. deVos. It was called Japan’s Invisible Race. One of the aspects of the issue which stuck with me was his claim that Japan couldn’t deal with this troublesome minority because it problematized the myth the majority of Japanese lived by, that Japan consisted of a single race of people. That was before I ever went to Japan and before I came to know intimately how successful Japanese can be at not talking about anything which might cause offence or make people uncomfortable.

I was never good at doing as the Romans do while in Rome. Too Calvinist. Too American. And here’s a case in point. I had a class once in comparative culture (which topic justified, I thought, the raising of ‘troublesome’ issues). I asked students to research the status of minorities in Japan. Books are out in great number now on the topic and you don’t have to dig very deep to discover what a myth this myth of Japanese homogeneity is.

Obviously, we couldn’t stop with statistics. How are they faring, all these groups, I wanted to know. What about the Vietnamese refugees? (Very few. Most got pushed back out into the water in their boats.) What about Filipinos and Thais? How many are nurses, how many prostitutes? How about “returnee children” (Japanese kids raised abroad, the group that comprised the majority of the class and which divided evenly between those shocked to be called a minority group (but I’m Japanese! How can I be a minority!) and those shocked that others were shocked. What about burakumin?

Burakumin? I’ve raised this topic a dozen or more times over the years with groups of students and never failed to get the question, “Who are the Burakumin?” My stock response to the admission of ignorance was to ask who in the class was from Kansai (the Osaka, Kyoto area). There were always at least one and they inevitably knew about the burakumin. Students in the Tokyo area were a different story.

One day a student came to my office to talk to me. She was quite upset. “I’ve been talking with my mother and she says I should talk to you. I think you’re doing something wrong in talking about the burakumin,” she said.

This absolutely floored me. I’d never seen or heard of anything remotely like that challenge to a teacher’s authority, and I became all ears instantly.

“Your problem (referring to Americans) is that when you see a problem, you want to turn all the lights on it and probe it with a stick. (Yes, she was this articulate.) We Japanese believe it’s better to turn the lights off. In most cases, problems evolve themselves away.”

I was really quite excited about this challenge. It is probably one of the great examples in my career of learning from students what I was supposedly teaching them – that there are ways of doing things associated with cultural attitudes and values, and rather than judge them in isolation, it is often useful to map out a larger context.

I decided to challenge her back. In our discussion she made it clear she thought I was being a kind of “cultural imperialist” by trying to do things “the American way.” I gave her an argument. Although it may be true what she says about Americans generally wanting to turn on the lights and Japanese generally wanting to turn them off, there is nothing inherently American about the practice. The practices of majorities are just that, practices. Not religious codes carved in stone. And national cultures inevitably contain both those practices as well as counterexamples. The question really ought to be, I suggested, not whether we were doing things the American or Japanese way, but whether in a university environment we were doing something which most of us might see as an educational endeavor. Turning the lights on was not in this case American, I said, so much as what university education was all about.

“American education, maybe,” she said, refusing to budge.

I did not persuade her, as I recall, and she lost interest in the class, a cost which challenged my sense I had had a great moment in learning. That was many years ago. I have become, if anything, more convinced these claims one has to have the finger on the pulse of a national culture are often and largely bogus. I am as easily persuaded, as a more recent student of mine said to me recently, that we pick our side in an argument with our emotions and use our reason to justify the choice. Sifting through for the truth of these claims is a never-ending job.

* * *

II. Yesterday, I sent out a description of an encounter with a man in a coffee shop who in my finer moments I describe simply as a man more inclined to talk than to listen, and in my more everyday moments as a wacko (5/4/06 - Talking and Listening (Relearning America). One person wrote back to me but said nothing about the encounter. Instead, he commented on my description in passing of a group of black students shouting obscenities at each other. “Why did you mention that they were black?” he challenged me.

My answer is that it’s because they were black. I know the next question: Would you have said, “I passed a group of white students shouting obscenities at each other,” and the answer is probably not. But that would be missing the whole point of the comment. It was a large group of black Berkeley high school kids, and it was exclusively black and very hostile. People were clearly caught up in groupthink. There were two groups, one clearly united shouting at the other clearly united. There was no individuality and no crosstalk. And the anger suggested to anybody passing that these were not groups to be messed with.

I was not intimidated. This was Berkeley, and not some inner city where street gangs have a history of street violence. These kids were far more exploding with energy and hormones than with rage, and there was no sense they were looking for a fight with strangers. They were secure in their numbers and they were more loud than mean, despite the hostile remarks. My feelings at moments like these, which happen with some frequency, are to wish there were more civility, more consideration for outsiders to the group, some other place for the energy to go. Kind of like watching thousands of dollars go up in smoke in firecrackers that I wish could be spent on school lunch programs or something.

Black kids still gather in groups with other black kids, white kids with white kids, Asians with Asians, I’m told, in school cafeterias. Breaking through color lines at that age is tough. They aren’t yet out in the world where they have to encounter others; they can still select for like-mindedness and supposed like-experience.

Eight blocks from my house, 1610 Oregon Street is a crack house. It’s owned by an old lady who takes care of her invalid husband. She doesn’t sell; her grandsons do. The city has been dealing with this problem for fourteen years. A bunch of neighbors got together a couple years ago and sued. They won. The house is a public nuisance, the court says, and grandma has to pay them all $5000. The only way she can do that is to sell the house and move out.

And there’s the rub. Her lawyer is arguing – and arguments like these resonate in Berkeley – that the once 12% black population is now down to 8%, since the cost of housing has now long since passed the half million dollar mark in average house prices (it’s twice that in other places) and this shows you it’s the white yuppies trying to push a black family out into the street. Grandma’s black, you see. Never mind the gunshots, the killings, the syringes on the neighbors’ lawn every time there’s a raid. Never mind the cops’ frustration at not being able to do anything but raid from time to time. Never mind the fact that more than one of the grandsons are in jail for dealing crack. It’s white yuppies against black victims of capitalist institutional racism.

This is the kind of story which turns the most liberal of folk into Attila the Hun types, especially when they read of witnesses afraid of testifying against the drug dealers and of firebombings of the house of one person who complained (the person eventually moved away). A horrible story of injustice and the inability of folk to clean up their neighborhood.

Here on the East side of Shattuck (Oregon runs East and West two blocks south of my house) black and white people live in harmony, from all appearances to my eyes. I leave it to others to say whether the fact it is a whiter and more upscale neighborhood is an explanatory factor. There is a race issue, though. There is lots of vandalism, lots of broken windows, and we’re not supposed to talk about the race of the children throwing the stones as they walk through to their homes in the part of town I’ve just mentioned. We are supposed to talk instead of the wisdom of the policy of making kids walk some distance to keep the schools racially balanced, a policy I’ve actively supported, by the way, and still do. Here we turn the lights off of racial identity.
* * *

III. I can’t fix the race problem. I don’t even have suggestions, much less answers. I did when I was young. I thought we should have enforced intermarriage and we ought to make laws requiring every neighborhood to have houses matching the cheapest housing in the city as well as the most expensive housing in the city. And I thought we should all drive cars which run on ethanol and speak three languages minimum. Today I know not to suggest micro solutions to macro problems.

I’ve got lots of friends (well, OK, three) who regularly write me, “Will you please STOP with this bad news. It only depresses me. Get on with you life. Play music. Dance. Smell the flowers. Leave this raking around in the crap of life alone, you poor silly naive fellow.

And then I turn on the television and I see George Clooney and his father talking with Oprah from Darfur and I reflect on the idea that maybe it is personality. To them who want to dance, I say dance. My applause will be sincere if you get to dance with Mark Morris and I will love you for the beauty you create even if you don’t.

Meanwhile I want to think about my friend’s comment that we start with feelings and wrap arguments around them.

Consider this list of facts from a race perspective. (All facts are from Juan Enriquez’ The Untied States of America, although I’ve shuffled some of them around.)

1. Chances a Hispanic vote is more likely to be lost to spoilage than a white vote: 500% (five times more likely)

2. Chances an African-American vote is more likely to be invalidated than a white vote: 900%

3. Number of white senators representing the 2.7 million people of mostly white Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana: 8 (all Bush supporters)

4. Number of black senators representing the 40 million black voters of America (who vote mostly democratic): 1 (Barack Obama of Illinois)

5. Number of black senators representing the 2.4 million black voters of Georgia, 1.2 million of South Carolina, 1.2 million of Alabama and 939,000 of Mississippi: 0

6. Number of white senators representing the 2.4 million black voters of Georgia, 1.2 million of South Carolina, 1.2 million of Alabama and 939,000 of Mississippi: 8 (but they vote with the Bush administration, rather than with the democrats, whom the overwhelming majority of black voters support).

7. Number of senators (or representatives) representing the 60% black population of Washington, D.C.: 0 (D.C. has no senators or representatives).

Argument 1 against this blatant display of bleeding-heart liberal deliberately red-flag in front of bull waving biased selection of facts: There is no law or tradition in the land that one is entitled to be representated by a member of one’s race, any more than by gender, religion, sexuality or handedness. Anybody can represent anybody.

Argument 2: The Senators represent the whole nation, not particular constituencies, and black people have a significant number of representatives in Congress: 42 ¬– a record number, by the way. So shut up, already.

8. Number of black males between ages 25 and 29 in jail: 12.9%, mostly for drugs
9. Percentage of drug users who are white: 72%
10. Percentage of drug users who are black: 15%

Argument 3: There is a bias in the selection of these figures. You are suggesting that it’s the users who are the source of the drug problem, not the sellers. That makes no more sense than blaming the owners of SUVs rather than the Arabs!

11. Percentage of those in state prisons for drug felonies who are black: 58%
12. Chances of ending up in jail in your twenties if you are black: 1 in 3
13. Number of felons who are allowed to vote: 0

Argument 4: Whose fault is it that young blacks commit felonies and don’t vote? If all these felons voted instead, they would be able to have representatives in Congress that would speak in their interest.

14. Percentage of blacks who believe the corporations who employed slaves should apologize: 68%
15. Percentage of whites who believe the corporations who employed slaves should apologize: 32%
16. Percentage of blacks who believe they should be paid reparations for their ancestors’ enslavement: 55%
17. Percentage of whites who believe blacks should be paid reparations for their ancestors’ enslavement: 6%
18. Cost of reparations on the assumption of $40 million worth of unpaid labor between 1790 and 1860: $1.4 trillion

There’s no good defence against criticism about one-sided selection of facts to support a point. I’m not blind to America’s successes in fighting racism, as illustrated by the fact there are many white, Hispanic and Asian kids (adults, too) with black people as mentors or models, for example. I selected bits of information, however, to illustrate the filter through which many people view the world, people most white people don’t ordinarily talk to.

* * *

IV. I’m still operating on automatic pilot. This is a kind of final exam question to a seminar I’d be teaching if I had not retired. I am amused at my unwillingness/inability to disengage. Don’t fret; it’s just a question of time.

Meanwhile, here’s the (take home) exam:

1. What would you have said to the student who argued against opening up discussion about Japan’s untouchables (whom families hire detectives to root out when their daughter or son comes up with a marriage partner of uncertain parentage)?
2. How do you feel about the gap suggested between blacks and whites in Sections II and III?
3. Is it racist to comment on gangs of black kids on the street when you know you would not comment on those same kids if they were white? If so, what makes it racist? If not, what is your definition of racism that makes you say no?
4. Is it racist to mention (or mix in) the racial aspect of the crack house and the alleged move on the part of white yuppies to get blacks to move out of the neighborhood?
5. Is there such a thing as a “black perspective?” Should it have separate political representation (should there be some kind of ‘affirmative action’ in political representation)? Or should it continue to be represented as it is now by political agendas and party platforms?
6. Is the listing of alleged injustices in political representation a kind of “reverse-racism”?
7. Are the “lights out” Japanese on to something? Is it better to stop “picking at wounds” and allow these problems to be resolved through indirect means and through evolution?
8. Is it really that Japanese are "lights out" and Americans are "lights on" people? Or are Americans only "lights on" people when looking and people other than themselves?
9. What do you really think is gained by a lights on approach to problem-solving? (If you prefer, you can restate the question and look at lights out instead.) I mean really get into the pros and cons here!

The exam answers, I should note, are evaluated on the basis of clarity of articulation, obviously, since “feelings” are sought and not facts. And the “success” of an answer (as opposed to correctness) is determined by the amount of discussion generated by subsequent discussion. For that reason, the exam is due two weeks before the end of the semester.

That’s enough playing school. My feet are tired.

May 5, 2006

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Talking and Listening

I was sitting in a coffee shop yesterday, talking to the guy at the next table about the books we were both reading. He was telling me about Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. I know Berman’s Twilight of American Culture, but I haven’t read Dark Ages yet, and I was intrigued.

I had just that moment finished Juan Enriquez’ The Untied States of America. Both books, we discovered, are making the same claim that we’re falling apart, we’re overstretched, governed by fear and greed, and in many cases no-doubt-about-it stupidity – especially in our dumbed down black-or-white inability to handle complex thought, including patient interaction with those who disagree with us.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the guy at the next table flies into a rage, “You smug intellectuals, you think you have all the answers. Where were you when Stalin was mowing down his people by the millions!”

Wow, I thought. Not very Berkeley! (Actually, it’s very much Berkeley.)

“I’m free choice. I’m for gay marriage,” he said, as if reading my mind. “And I voted for Bush because he’s the only one around with the guts to take on the enemy which you guys want to sell out to,” he continues.

“I was just trying to tell him what this book was about!” the guy next to me says to him. “Well, I want to know what YOU think!” Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “You think you have all the answers. You guys make me want to puke, the way you blame America for everything! OK, tell me – yes or no – was the fear of communism real?”

“Yes, but...” I said. And that’s the last word I got in. “You can’t answer my question, can you! All you can do is come up with excuses for beating up on America!” The rage went on and the entire coffee shop went into a panic. The owner came over and asked us to take it outside.

The guy next to me packed up and walked out. I followed him and we continued our conversation about this latest of many “collapse of empire” themed books, on the street.

I couldn’t leave bad enough alone, of course. “If you want to have a real two-way conversation sometime, I’d be happy to talk with you,” I said to the angry man as I left the table.” He gave me the finger without looking up from his computer.

I walked home down Shattuck Avenue, past the gangs of black high school kids shouting astonishingly hostile obscenities at each other and the lowest rank street people by the score who don’t have the signs and the smooth delivery of the higher rank street people who sell papers or “Maybe on your way out” you as you enter a restaurant or a movie theater. Pretty sad and ugly, the Shattuck street life.

Still, Berkeley is getting quite pretty. I absolutely love the new construction along Shattuck and elsewhere. In the parts she’s pretty, she’s gorgeous. In the parts she’s rough, she’s very rough. The neighborhoods are still lush with greenery and thick old-growth trees and there is a blaze of color in the flowering plants after the rains.

Berkeley isn’t supposed to represent America in any real way. It’s far too one-sided, I’m supposed to believe, too full of wackos. I wanted to talk to this pro-choice, pro-gay pro-Bush denizen of coffee shops who wasn’t up to anything but putting us down without a hearing. I could look at the glass as half full and say at least Berkeley has coffee shops where strangers meet, even if they do treat each other like shit some of the time.

And as for the gangs of kids who claim the ground they’re walking on as their own personal corner of the jungle, especially the ones that always make me think of Ralph Wiley’s Why Black People Tend to Shout and wonder at the almost total absence of modesty and reserve in junior and high school kids these days, black and white (still less so Asians), and what it suggests about the possibility of an early trip down the path to being a stranger in a coffee shop who will rage at you and then give you the finger and poke his earphones in his ear when he’s said his piece.

Where is the two-way talk? The discourse across the lines? I read till my eyes hurt. I go to lecture after lecture where the audiences are Berkeley folk providing choirs for preachers and the questions are almost all about confirming the general view and not about exploring the complexity.

Is it true what they say (at least in the current political climate nowadays, not with less controversial topics, necessarily), that people who do listen already agree with others who listen, so there is not much to talk about? That that’s just another way of saying we’re totally polarized, and that’s nothing new? And those who only talk at you and not with you don’t have the mechanism to become listeners? Is it really something you acquire early or not at all?

“I guess I’m not going back there!” I mumbled to myself as I left the coffee shop. No reason to expose myself to a ranting wacko. Much better to go to the one across from the campus I went to the day before. It was packed, as most coffee shops are, Suddenly over the normal din of conversation this voice shouts out, “You are a FUCKING ASSHOLE, Mr. President!”

It takes an instant for people to realize it’s not a crazy and there is nothing to be afraid of. Just a momentary raising of a voice in some conversation across the room. More rage. This one lasted only a second or two and whoever it was – I couldn’t identify him – went back to normal conversation. When it was clear the outburst was over, a woman near me spoke up, “The voice of Berkeley,” she said.

Everybody was already chuckling. Yes. The voice of Berkeley.. Everybody already on the same page and no discussion across lines.

I know, I know. Coffee shops are for people who go there to work on their computers or read or visit with friends. Nobody seriously goes there looking for a place to meet people and exchange perspectives and opinions with strangers. (People to pick up, maybe, but that would require avoiding controversy.) 19th Century Vienna, maybe. But not 21st Century America. For a real discussion with your fellow citizens across ideological lines, you have to go elsewhere.

Wonder where that might be.

May 4, 2006