Friday, July 30, 2010

Small picture: newsboys

I'm here to post a little drawing from earlier today, but I also have a favor to ask. If you're reading this, can you comment that you're doing so? I'm curious to know if I have any readers besides Kate. You can comment anonymously; I just would like to know. Okay, on with the newsboys:


Thursday, July 29, 2010


I took these images of my bookshelves, meaning to post them--and I'm finally getting to it now. Why? I don't know, I felt like sharing what was in my collection. They appear in descending order of importance, and I'll explain why. Click on the photos if you can't read the titles--the images are large enough.

First shelf: This one is the closest, and reachable from the couch. I was only able to take a picture of the top half as a result. The top shelf is mostly an assortment of Greene, Maupin and noir masters Chandler and Macdonald. The second shelf is the first part of my anthropological/museum/historic preservation collection. Below this, not pictured, are the large architecture books and the collected "Love and Rockets." And of course, there is the deer skull, which I found and cleaned myself.


Second shelf: This shelf is of equal importance to the previous one, and is also reachable from the couch. It has my historic books, some really great literature (Beattie, Barker and Waugh), my Rivers collection, and my China collection with Guy's book signed to me. Boy, is that geeky! There are more China books and some L&M readings not pictured below.


Third shelf: Some of these books I like, and some of them I could do without. Classmate Dan thought having Foucault next to Neil Gaiman was funny. Percival Everett is on this shelf, and he rocks. On top, you can see a large piece of obsidian which I pilfered from Mono Lake on the border of California and Nevada, and a couple of other desert rocks. There are also two old Mickey Spillane paperbacks.


Fourth shelf: Some of these are pristine history books which I didn't like the first time around, and might never read again... but you never know! Of course, there are a few old favorites. And then there's the coyote skull up top, obtained in New Mexico, but found and cleaned by someone else. Oh, and there's an old hand plane and spokeshave too. I put those there to redeem a lackluster shelf.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Arc of Justice

How shall I describe this book? After cleansing my palate with a 50s Ross Macdonald noir (The Ivory Grin), I decided to jump right in to this book which has made it onto several faculty core lists, despite the subject matter being out of line with my own field interests. With Arc of Justice, Kevin Boyle has given us a compelling and sometimes manipulating narrative history. As soon as I began, I could see why this book won the National Book Award (you know, the other NBA. Although, as an aside, I wonder a little at some of the past winners of the National Book Award, don’t you?).

Anyway, the book is incredibly readable. I sat down this morning, and finished it this afternoon. It is this kind of writing that attracts annoying comments like, “so facile,” when clearly a lot of painstaking work has been done. But I suppose that’s the ultimate compliment: “you make it look easy.” And it’s a lot easier to make it look easy when you write a narrative history. While reading narrative history is often fast, it holds certain irritations for me. One of them is the tendency of the author to draw my conclusions for me. Of course, authors always do this—but non-narrative histories are so littered with questions and complications that it’s sometimes possible to ignore the path the author is trying to lead you down.

Not with Arc of Justice. Boyle gives us a complicated portrait of the people involved—make no mistake—but the meaning is unquestionable. Boyle sets the stage of a Detroit almost on fire with racial and ethnic and economic tensions in 1925. A place where a mob of 500 people could descend on a Black resident’s house and wrest the title of the house from him without facing any legal repercussions. In this environment, Dr. Ossian Sweet bought a bungalow and proceeded to defend it—and the book tells us that story, and the story of his trial ahead. In and amongst that story are other, smaller stories: Sweet’s family background, Detroit’s ethnic and political atmosphere, the NAACP’s work, and a bit of Clarence Darrow’s background, among others.

When you read this story (as it is written) you want to say to Sweet: “Hell, why are you going to Detroit? Go anywhere in the country but Detroit—what are you, crazy?” But if not Sweet, then someone else—and possibly not someone who would have garnered the legal defense of Clarence Darrow. What I took away most of all from this book was not the legal, the political, or the organizational work around the problems of race, economy and housing . . . but the simple observation that hundreds of people in a neighborhood would allow themselves to be complicit in a crime of racial violence. I think this is a theme that is repeated often, and yet it needs more repetition: the ability of “ordinary,” “average,” even “innocent” people to become part of a large, violent injustice—and then to proceed to lie about it; to feel justified in it and not ashamed.

Also of interest in the narrative is the colorful depiction of the legal system, especially as used by Darrow. If I were a defense attorney, who better my role model than Darrow? He was not always a winner of cases, it’s true. But tactically, he was amazing. (In this book, Darrow and Murphy are heroes—nothing here to sully them) Most of his work is completed before the case even starts. The judge (Murphy) was a lucky stroke—but not the jury selection process. And it was clearly not for Darrow to proceed by the book. While law is no doubt different, today, I’m certain that his jury selection and cross-examination processes are oft-studied and imitated.

But, back to the subject. The narrative is defined by its beginning and end (says William Cronon in “A Place for Stories”) and the beginning sets the stage with the hot, tense fear of being trapped in a bungalow with an angry mob outside, and ends 35 years later when Ossian Smith shoots himself in the head, on the eve of the civil rights movement. Here is the one silent place where the reader is allowed to let the vast, troubling expanses just sit . . . and to wait for his own questions to form.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Spitting Image

A brief foray away from China, for a moment, to talk about The Spitting Image, a book by Jerry Lembcke about myth-creation around the returning Vietnam veteran. This is a slim book and a quick read—and while I’m not in love with the writing, I think Lembcke has a point which has eluded a lot of Americans. For this reason alone, it’s worth reading and assigning to students (especially high schoolers and undergraduates).

The main premise behind the title is that the idea of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran is a myth, of sorts. The myth has many origins, and several intents. But Lembcke’s most important point is that the portrayal of ill-treated veterans took the emphasis away from the US losses in Vietnam. Furthermore, it placed the guilt for the loss squarely upon the American public, and away from government or military decisionmaking. Lembcke has the right credentials to write this book, which might be considered incendiary from a civilian. Lembcke is a Vietnam veteran, however.

The myth of the spat-upon veteran comes from a couple arenas. First and foremost, it seems to be a political invention, meant to bring people in line with policies they don’t agree with—by suggesting that the people fighting the war have been demoralized by protest. It also may have arisen from misunderstandings—such as the egging (by pro-war demonstrators) of veterans participating in anti-war marches. Lembcke finds no evidence of spitting incidents, save in second-hand reports, films, and dubious claims.

He suggests that this doesn’t mean it never happened, only that it’s been inflated to encompass the entire experience of homecoming for the Vietnam vet, just as homecoming for the WWII vet is pictured, erroneously uniformly, as the tickertape parade with the kissing, etc!

Lembcke spends a chapter talking about veteran homecoming as portrayed in film (from the early years of the war through the 1990s). In most of these examples, the veteran is portrayed as: hated or downtrodden, incapacitated, or mentally unstable. He includes a discussion of PTSD, as it emerges in the DSM, to accompany this analysis. While he’s very, very right about portrayal in film, I wish he had looked at a couple of television programs as well. Specifically, “Barney Miller,” and “Hill Street Blues.” As you may recall, Wojciehowicz and Lt. Calletano are both well-adjusted Vietnam vets on these two shows. Possibly there are more examples like this.

What colors the conclusions of the book is Lembcke’s association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. While it’s true that many veterans were at least skeptical of our intentions, and at most outright protestors, veterans still would have felt the class tensions at work in society. While spitting seems to be mostly an invention, surely there were divisions even between protesting veterans and protesting civilians.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Party and the Arty: Normalizing Nudity

Alright, a radical shift away from Vietnam/America politics, to a discussion of mid-century to contemporary Chinese culture and art. These chapters from The Party and the Arty will appear out of order. Kraus spends this chapter writing about the uses of, and the controversies over nude art in China in the latter half of the 20th century. Most of the analysis is of the time just after the Cultural Revolution (late ‘70s) and the early 1990s. A crucial point seems to be 1989, the year of the Beijing Massacre—but also a focal year for art exhibitions including the nude figure (usually female).

The main point of the chapter is to suggest that there was a trajectory in the purpose of nude art—from (ostensibly) criticism of the work as obscene, to an only nominally contested and mostly accepted art. This occurs not as a smooth progression, but in fits and starts, with quite a lot of backtracking.

This chapter provides an interesting contrast with some of the same issues occurring in America at the same time. Though I’m sure that whole books have been written about nudity in American art over time, and response to it—I would not be terribly inclined to read them. What might be nice is a slim chapter like this one, with which to compare it.

China’s nude art seems to have reproduced power structures within gender and ethnicity in almost exactly the same way as the west has for hundreds of years. That is to say that even amid communist-inspired gender equality, the model in nude art is female, passive, and maligned . . . and the artist is male. Furthermore, the model is often either an ethnic minority (non-Han Chinese) or a western woman. Here there are elements of exoticism, power relations between the Han and ethnic minorities, and the sense that Han women would be violated somehow by being the subjects of nude art.

The politics of the displays of nude art seem remarkably similar to American controversies. Some of the comparable events I thought of were these . . . there was the famous statement of Justice Potter Stewart about obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” This appears to have been the Chinese model for decades. Local officials, the public, and artists themselves seem to have applied inconsistent standards based on general consensus at the moment—or even personal judgments. Similarly, I’m reminded of the controversy over public funding of “Piss Christ” (you remember that). Some of the natural comparisons that I made between China’s understanding of obscenity versus artistic nudes, and America’s political relationship with art and obscenity segued nicely into the next chapter about censorship.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Vietnam Wars and Nixon

I don’t really know where to begin talking about the Nixon administration’s war in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia). Let me just say simply that it was primarily about deception. If Johnson purposefully ignored what people were telling him, in favor of ‘loyalty,’ Nixon worked even harder to fabricate a story, and surrounded himself with people who were willing participants in deception. This is not news, of course. Interestingly, I think most people in the US associate Nixon with the Watergate burglary, and perhaps with illegal wiretapping . . . but it’s seldom mentioned in popular conversation that Nixon was behind the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia. The US involvement in Cambodia during the Vietnam War created and exacerbated the problems which led to the nightmarish rise of the Khmer Rouge.

As with Johnson, this book doesn’t really investigate Nixon’s motives (or the motives of the people he surrounded himself with)—that is the stuff of biographies. But I find it difficult to reconcile the multiple pictures of Nixon. With Johnson, I don’t see such a huge personality discrepancy based on his actions—but I find Nixon troublingly complex. Young’s book characterizes Nixon’s outreach to China in the early 70s as a strategic move to ensure that China would put the right kind of pressure on Vietnam. To some extent, this strategy worked—but ultimately didn’t fulfill US goals. On the other hand, having read China-centric works about this first meeting between the US and the PRC, I’m not willing to believe that his visit was only strategic with regard to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Furthermore, we have an oddly sympathetic picture of Nixon in other areas. Young describes a “hallucinogenic” moment when Nixon couldn’t sleep, amid the demonstrations and killings at Kent State, Jackson State, and the capitol, when he and his valet Manolo Sanchez took a walk in the middle of the night out to the Lincoln Memorial. He talked casually to the demonstrators there (described on pages 249-251) about the broadening effect of travel. Young turns around the common phrase to suggest that this is the “evil of banality.” I’m still not sure what to make of this, and of other personal and political details about Nixon that seem in such contrast to his apparent lack of scruples or compassion in other areas. I suppose that while all heroes have feet of clay, the converse can be argued: all villains have moments of humanity.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Vietnam Wars, 1963-1967

For those who are tired of hearing about the Vietnam War, I am coming almost to the end of this series of posts—and then I’ll be starting in on a new book, I daresay! Young’s discussion of the years between 1963 and 1967 seems to be more of the same situation that she describes prior to 1963. This includes:

1. Willful US government (State Department, advisors, and CIA) ignorance—particularly about US mistakes
2. Layers of complexity and paranoia added to US strategizing, coming from little or no evidence
3. Disconnect between government and US public understanding of the conflict
4. Insistence upon US interest in negotiation, while actions say otherwise

About each of these, taking us into and through the Johnson presidency: the NLF insurgency in the south was very large, and worked both within and around the US-chosen government. It was related to a greater Vietnamese nationalism, but was not entirely funded or supported by the north—in fact, much of the resistance in the south came entirely from within. The CIA and the State Department apparently ignored all evidence and warning signs about the detrimental nature of the US role in the country. In what seems like a haze of paranoia and unwarranted layers of complexity, the US government strategized itself into escalating the conflict into all-out war.

As events occurred, and the news of the events made their ways back to Washington, layers of lies, misunderstandings, spins, fantasies, and interpretations seem to have been added. Particularly unsavory was the unprovoked US attack in the northern/international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, which was somehow translated into an act of retaliation against a North Vietnamese attack—at least, that’s how it was sold to Congress.

Young writes, tellingly: “Years later, as the lies were exposed and Congress tried to distance itself from the war it had sanctioned in 1964, many senators claimed that had they known the facts, they would have opposed the resolution.”(120) It sounds distressingly familiar.

What may not be familiar is the type of US presence on the ground. Westmoreland’s strategy of “search and destroy,” as it was employed by actual troops, appears to have been searching and destroying at random. Young provides lots of evidence that the US troops found ways of justifying attack on any population. In effect, the strategy on the ground was no strategy at all. After the destruction had occurred, the US and South Vietnamese troops would return to bases and southern strongholds, rather than staying in the villages. This allowed the NLF to return after the destruction, and recruit, rebuild, and govern among the remains. I am not sure how US strategy works today—it would be interesting to know if the US made any adjustments to this strategy in its modern maneuvers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another interesting note is how the US public seemed to see the conflict with much more clarity than US agencies, politicians and advisors. Whether the public in question wanted to end the war, or whether they wanted to win—either way, the public acknowledged that this was a war—not a negotiation; not a diplomatic action, and not particularly a defense of American democracy.

Another feature of this section are the actual words of Lyndon Johnson on multiple occasions. This narrative isn’t particularly kind to Johnson—after all, it’s not about his social liberalism on the domestic front, but about his rather hawkish behavior abroad. The book really highlights just how incredibly sexual Johnson’s public comments were. I had heard some of them before (he’s quite inappropriately quotable), but his comparison of infiltration and bombing of the north to seduction and rape was disturbing.

One of the questions that was raised for me, and remains unanswered, is this: what were the actual intentions of Johnson, or the US advisors? And furthermore, what was there understanding of the conflict 10, 20, 30 years later? This is the stuff of biography, and sometimes autobiography—but even if I were to read these, I think I would remain skeptical. I would like to know if the people involved really believed what they were selling to Congress and the American public, and I would like to know if their opinions changed. If so, when and why? But personal motives and the interior life are extremely difficult to locate. Anyone who is living has something to gain or lose through his story, and there’s really no way of knowing the interior regions of the heart.