Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rest in Peace Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, militant pundit, dies at 62

No doubt this is one of many similar entries all over the blogosphere right now. So be it.

I don't know if I should admit this, but I've actually read very little of Christopher Hitchens. (The only book of his I've read cover to cover is "The Trial of Henry Kissinger".) I find his verbose style a little bit hard to swallow in writing, and I much prefer hearing him speak than reading him. This probably says something about my limited intellect and limited reading abilities.

But I love hearing Hitchens speak. There was about a 2 year period in Japan (when my social life was a bit slow) when I became addicted to listening to him on youtube. In fact over a two year period I spent more hours watching his debates on youtube than I care to admit. Agree with him or disagree with him, he's got a razor sharp tongue and it's always a pleasure to see what biting comeback he will have to whatever remark is thrown at him.

I don't think there's anyone out there who agrees with Christopher Hitchens about everything. He's made a career of not towing the party line, and probably everyone has some dearly held issue he's trampled on.

I passionately disagreed with him on the Iraq War, and wondered how someone so smart could advocate for such a stupid war.
I've heard him recite his reasons for supporting the war ad infinitum, but I never really bought them. I know totalitarian Islamic societies have their problems, but Hitchens has forgotten Robespierre's quote

"The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician's head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign country to make it adopt their laws and their constitutions. No one loves armed missionaries."

Call me cynical, but I still suspect Hitchens was motivated to support that war partly just because of a love off all the attention it brought him. It's the only explanation I can think of to explain the motives behind a man who, in his earlier writings, appeared to clearly understand just how little genuine humanitarian concerns motivate foreign wars.

On the plus side, I found Hitchens thoughts on Jefferson and Trotsky fascinating to listen to. I loved his take downs of Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. And I loved listening to him debate on religion. In fact I think hours of watching Hitchens talk about religion have helped me to move from an ambivalent agnosticism to a more militant agnosticism, so I can claim him as an influence on my own thoughts. I'll miss hearing about him.

Update: Back in this post, I stated that based on my own personal experience talking to Brits, many of them don't even know who Christopher Hitchens is.
At my new place of work, this continues to be true. When news of Christopher Hitchens' death went around the office, all the Americans and Australians knew who he was, but none of the British people I talked to did. Granted this is a completely unscientific survey, but it just may indicate that Christopher Hitchens was much better known across the sea than in his native land.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky at Occupy Boston

Sunday, December 11, 2011

I Yell at Someone in the Streets over a Chomsky Article

Yesterday I was eating lunch with a friend at restaurant in Phnom Penh at a table out on the sidewalk. Another expat walked by and handed us a small little magazine booklet ("This Week" [LINK HERE] published by Lady Penh [LINK HERE]).
I leafed through it. Most of the booklet consisted of advertising. There were movie times for the local cinemas, and a calendar of events for local expat bars. The content of the magazine consisted of two articles: the best places to get coffee in Phnom Penh, and an editorial on Chomsky.

The PDF for this publication, including the article in question, can be read online [LINK HERE].

I read the Chomsky article first, and just sighed. “Look at how terrible this article is,” I said, pushing the booklet across the table to my friend.

“It is pretty bad,” my friend agreed.

Just around that time, the guy who had given us the booklet in the first place came back down the street. “You guys need another one?” he asked us.

“Look at this,” I said, calling him over to our table. “You’ve got an editorial here on Chomsky by someone who admits she hasn’t ever read any Chomsky.”

“So?”

“So it’s a waste of paper! Why would I want to read what she thinks about Chomsky when she hasn’t read anything by Chomsky.” (I may have raised my voice at this point.)

“Okay, wow, um…”

“Look, there are about 3 or 4 articles Chomsky wrote on Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge time. You can find them all on-line. Go look them up and read them. Chomsky didn’t say any of this.”

“That wasn’t actually me that wrote that article.”

“Well tell her then. She’s got her facts all wrong. Chomsky never said any of this.”

“He has.”

“No he hasn’t”

“Yes he has. Recently.”

“No he hasn’t. Get your facts straight.”

He tried to change the subject at this point. “Okay, well you should check out her website. There are a lot of other interesting things there.”

As he walked away, I called out after him, “Go and read the original articles.”

After the guy walked away, my friend looked at me, put his drink down, and said, “Wow.”

“Was I a little bit too hard on the guy?” I asked.

“You sir, are a history bully,” my friend said to me.

“I probably was a bit over the top just then.”

“In that guy’s defense, there was a picture right above the article of the girl who wrote it, and it clearly was not him.”

“Yeah, I know, I just wanted to yell at someone and he was right there. But he was distributing a magazine in which the only other article was about coffee, so he’s got to take some of the responsibility.”

“You’re probably going to call him back and yell at him about the coffee article next?”
He added, “You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you get upset. And it’s over a history article. Well, I guess we all have our buttons. Some people yell at bad waiters or bartenders, you apparently like to yell at people in the streets over Chomsky articles.”

Okay, so I was probably a bit over the top. And it is always counter productive to yell at people. Calm, well reasoned arguments win people over to your side, not raised voices. If I ever see that guy again, I owe him an apology.

So let me take a few minutes to calmly explain my specific objections to the article in question. The Chomsky article in question appears on her blog here [LINK HERE]. If this was just someone’s blog, I wouldn’t bother. The fact that a print version of this article was being handed out up and down the streets of Phnom Penh makes me more motivated to write a rebuttal.  (The print version of this article is slightly different than the blog form, but I’ll get into that more below.)

Let me start with a bit of background. Among the expat crowd in Cambodia it’s impossible to mention Chomsky’s name without someone bringing up the Khmer Rouge. I was recently discussing Chomsky’s theories with a co-worker, when another woman 3 desks down (who wasn’t even part of the conversation) yelled out, “Never forget he supported the Khmer Rouge. Never forget that.” And this is fairly typical.

Figuring out what Chomsky actually said about the Khmer Rouge is a bit of a headache. On the internet you can find lots of articles attacking Chomsky for his supposed support of the Khmer Rouge, and lots of articles defending him. For example you can read any number of articles by David Horowitz accusing Chomsky of supporting the Khmer Rouge. You can also read Christopher Hitchen's article "The Chorus and Cassandra" [LINK HERE] which defends Chomsky against Horowitz. Then you can read this article "The Chorus and Cassandra: A Response" [LINK HERE] rebutting Hitchens. There's also a very detailed article here which appears to go through everything Chomsky ever said on Cambodia with a fine tooth comb, "Averaging Wrong Answers" [LINK HERE]and Chomsky's response to that article [LINK HERE] and the author's response to Chomsky's response [LINK HERE].
Reading through all these articles and trying to figure out what Chomsky said when, what footnotes he used, and how reliable Chomsky’s sources were is a big mess. I was really having a hard time trying to make heads or tails about it.

Until I got a simple idea: go back and read the actual articles that Chomsky wrote about Cambodia during the 1970s. These articles are all available on line and easy enough to find, and in a couple hours you can read everything Chomsky ever wrote on Cambodia during the 1970s. You can read for example, “Cambodia” (1970), [LINK HERE] “The Cynical Farce that is Cambodia” (1978) [LINK HERE], and the one that Chomsky’s critics most frequently mention, “Distortions at Fourh Hand” (1977) [LINK HERE].  As for recent statements, you can find this 2009 interview with Chomsky on the Khmer Rouge [LINK HERE]. This blog here, which simply reprints without comment articles Chomsky has wrote on Cambodia over the years, is very useful [LINK HERE].
Once I had actually read these articles, I had a much clearer understanding of what Chomsky’s position had been.

You would be surprised how few people actually do this. 99% of the time whenever someone is going off about how Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge, they’ve never read the actual articles by Chomsky. They just read in somewhere in a Wall Street Journal editorial that Chomsky once supported the Khmer Rouge. (And the Wall Street Journal writer himself never read any Chomsky either. He just read somewhere that someone else said Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge and on and on it goes.)

Not surprisingly, this is the way distortions happen over time. The accusation goes from “Chomsky was insufficiently critical of the Khmer Rouge” to “Chomsky actively supported the Khmer Rouge” to “Chomsky still supports Khmer Rouge and believes they never did anything wrong.”

This last position is the one taken by Ms. Greenwood in her editorial. Despite the fact that Ms. Greenwood has not actually read anything written by Chomsky, as she admits in her 3rd paragraph.

I have not bothered to read any of Chomsky’s work previously, and judging from Thayer’s description of his opinions, I doubt I will do so in the future.”

Okay, so she gets points for honesty by admitting this upfront. But why she would then feel the need to write an editorial on Chomsky I can’t fathom. And again, if this were just her blog, I would let it go. (I’m not proud of it, but if you search the archives of my blog, you’ll find me frequently spouting off about topics I’m ill informed on.) But this article was in print form as part of a professional publication being handed out on the streets.
Look, we’ve all talked jive about topics we were ill-informed on. But who takes the time to write up and distribute on the streets an editorial that essentially begins with “I’ve never read anything by this guy, but based on what so-and-so said he sounds like a real jerk.”

Then, based on her interpretation about what some other guy said about Chomsky, Ms. Greenwood goes on to make following claims, “He [Chomsky] still believes the Khmer Rouge atrocities were a mass fabrication, and he still believes that a vast media-and refugee?- came together to demonize the Khmer Rouge.”
Speaking as someone who has actually read what Chomsky wrote on the Khmer Rouge, I think if Ms. Greenwood were to actually read Chomsky she would find he had written nothing of the sort.

And then there’s the headline to this article. Noam Chomsky: “The Khmer Rouge Were Actually Pretty OK, Guys”

Now, this is serious. This would actually be a pretty damning quote if Chomsky had actually said this. But a Google search for these exact words indicates the only place they appear is on Ms. Greenwood’s blog. Which means this isn’t an actual Chomsky quote. This is her interpretation of what she thinks Chomsky believes (based on someone else’s editorial) which she decided to put in quotation marks next to Chomsky’s name.

To be fair, there is actually a difference here between the print version and the blog version. On her blog it’s not in quotation marks. In the print publication being distributed on the streets, it is. I suppose the charitable explanation would be that this was a mistake the printer made.
The less charitable explanation is that Ms. Greenwood does not understand that it goes against the ethics of journalism to make up quotes and attribute them to someone else.

Now this kind of mis-attribution is how rumors get started. Given how few people seem to read Chomsky’s actual articles, it means that there’s going to be several people on the streets of Phnom Penh who believe Chomsky actually said this. And perhaps will take Ms. Greenwood’s opinion that Chomsky is not worth checking out, and never read anything by Chomsky themselves. (Again, if this were just a blog article I would let it go. But this is in an actual magazine being actively distributed.)

It is true that Chomsky has refused to apologize for his media analysis articles written in the 1970s. That is, Chomsky still believes that in specific incidents reporters fabricated or exaggerated information about the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. And Chomsky still believes that the specific incidents of fabrication he mentioned in "Distortions at Fourth Hand" have not yet been proven false. This is what Chomsky is referring to when he says to the best of his knowledge no errors have been found in his writings.
This may be debatable. In some of the articles linked to above there are some questions raised about the accuracy of some of Chomsky's sources. (Go and read the articles yourself and make up your own mind.) But this is a separate discussion.

Ms. Greenwood misinterprets this to mean that Chomsky believes that the Khmer Rouge atrocities never took place. And this is plain wrong.

If a prominent intellectual did still believe that no Khmer Rouge atrocities took place, it would be quite something. This is the type of accusation you would think a person would want to double check very carefully before printing it off into fliers and passing it out to random people in the streets.

So what did Chomsky actually say about the Khmer Rouge? Well the best thing to do is not to take either my word or Ms. Greenwood’s word for anything, but to go read the actual articles Chomsky wrote at the time. To a certain extent I would only be adding to the white noise on this controversy by putting in my own opinion instead of simply redirecting people to the original articles.

However, that being said, my own reading of the whole controversy is as follows: when the Khmer Rouge were actually in power, Western journalists were not actually allowed into the country. Therefore Western Media had to rely mostly on second hand accounts and speculation as to what was actually going in the country. Noam Chomsky was critical of what much of the Western Media was reporting, and of their methods of obtaining information. He believed it was popular to exaggerate atrocities in Cambodia as a way to retroactively discredit the anti-war movement, and that at the same time the media was ignoring comparable atrocities going on in East Timor.
When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 it turned out that the reports had not been exaggerated, and that things had actually been worse than people thought it was. So Chomsky was wrong.
But if you actually read the articles Chomsky wrote at the time, you will not find an endorsement of the Khmer Rouge. Read, for example, “The Cynical Farce that is Cambodia” and you’ll find him acknowledging that things my well be as bad as everyone says they are. Or if you read his much criticized article “Distortions at Fourth Hand,” you’ll find he has a lot of good reasons for being skeptical about the media reports. In the light of history we now know he was wrong, but he was wrong for some of the right reasons.

But don’t listen to me. Go and read his actual articles and form your own opinion.

The gentleman I met on the streets asserted to me that recently Chomsky has been saying all the things Ms. Greenwood has attributed to him. If so, I can’t find any examples on the Internet. If either of them are reading this, I would be happy to revise my position if you can show me where he Chomsky has actually said this. But don’t point me to an editorial someone else has written about Chomsky. Show me the actual Chomsky article or interview where he says all these things you’re attributing to him.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Speaks to Occupy: If We Want a Chance at a Decent Future, the Movement Here and Around the World Must Grow

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Why Labour are calling David Cameron 'Flashman'

(Also, for comparison's sake, it's interesting to see how the British version of this same article feels very little need to explain who Flashman is. Cameron like bully Flashman, says Miliband.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia by Milton E. Osborne

Subtitle: Rule and Response 1859-1905

(Book Review)

There are unfortunately not many English language books available on the French colonial period in South East Asia, and the few books published can sometimes be difficult to track down.

This book was originally published in 1969, and then re-published in 1997 by White Lotus, a small publishing company in Thailand apparently dedicated to republishing classic works on South East Asian history.

When I was still in the US, I tried to order this book off of Amazon, but was not able to track down a reasonably priced copy.
(In Cambodia, White Lotus history books--or ripped-off photo copied versions of them-- are much easier to find.)

File this book under: dry, but readable. It’s not the most exciting book I’ve ever read, but if you’re interested in the subject material there’s not a lot of other books to choose from.

This book starts out almost immediately where John Cady left off in “The Roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia” so the two books compliment each other nicely if you read them in succession.
This is not a coincidence. As a scholar, Milton Osborne is less concerned with history as story telling than he is with trying to fill in gaps in the literature, so he states quite clearly in the footnotes his reluctance to retell what John Cady has already covered.

Also this book is not meant to be a popular history. Instead of trying to tell a compelling story, Milton Osborne wants to examine the nature of colonialism. As such there are a lot of chapters heavy on analysis of colonial systems, and very few chapters dedicated to narrative events.

As someone who prefers narrative rather than analytical history, I found several of these chapters quite boring, and it was a bit of a struggle to force myself to finish this book.

For example Milton Osborne spends several chapters detailing the French efforts to change the Vietnamese written language from one based on Chinese characters to being one based on the French alphabet.
This is interesting to a degree. (On my recent trip to Vietnam, it was astonishing to see how the Western alphabet had been so completely adopted to the local language, in contrast to just about every other Asian country which have all maintained their traditional writing systems.) But I wasn’t interested in it enough to go into all the detail that Osborne does.

In the same way, Osborne goes into great detail describing how the French Colonial authorities attempted to set up a legal system in Vietnam that compromised between local traditions and French judicial ideals. Again this is interesting to a point, but not to the detail that Osborne goes into.

All that being said, this book avoids academic speak, and is written in ordinary English prose. So assuming you’re interested in following Osborne through all this analysis, it is easy to read.

The book is divided into two sections, half dealing with Vietnam, and half dealing with Cambodia. Osborne contrasts the different approaches taken by the French to each country.
Vietnam was administered as a proper colony, with the pre-existing government in South Vietnam completely removed, and a new colonial government instituted.
Cambodia was administrated as a protectorate, with the pre-existing monarchy left intact, but forced to surrender much of its power to the French authorities.

The section on Cambodia, partly because it deals with the history of the relationship between the Cambodian king and the French authorities, reads much more like a narrative, and for that reason I found it more interesting than the section Vietnam. But this is a personal taste.

*****************************************************

Further thoughts:

1). This book was originally published in 1969, and it’s not hard to imagine that Milton Osborne must have had in mind the American efforts in Vietnam as a parallel to the French colonialists he was writing about.

Nevertheless, reading it today it’s impossible not to think of the occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So many parallels between the French effort to establish a stable government in Vietnam, and the American effort to establish stable governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, just leap right off the page at you.

There is for example the assumption by French intellectuals that colonization was good for the native peoples because they were liberating the Vietnamese people from a corrupt and oppressive government. (And actually the 19th Century Mandarin government of Vietnam actually was in some ways corrupt and oppressive, but as Milton Osborne shows the French attempts to colonize Vietnam and set up a new government created more problems than it solved.)

Osborne also details the various headaches involved in trying to create a judicial system that both respected local tradition and was acceptable to the French.

And Osborne goes into the trouble the French had in administrating a colony where they did not speak the language, and where there was a shortage of qualified translators.

Osborne describes the discrepancy between the vast majority of the population, which was hostile or indifferent to French rule, and the small number of collaborators who welcomed the French and actively worked with them. Osborne shows how the French government tried to represent the views of this small minority of collaborators as being representative of the whole population, and used this to discredit the idea that the vast majority of the Vietnamese wanted the French out of Cochinchina.

This brings me to thought number 2.

2). Writing in the post-colonial period, Osborne takes a somewhat negative view of the Vietnamese and Cambodian colonial collaborators. Although he repeatedly emphasizes his desire to understand them rather than to condemn, it is obvious he regards them as a problem that needs to be explained.

Something Osborne never touches on, but perhaps should have, is that during this same time period other leading figures in Asia were advocating learning from Western thought and culture.
Figures such as Sun Yat Sen in China, or Sakamoto Ryoma in Japan are still today regarded as national heroes in their respective countries because of the role they played in modernizing their nations, even though they advocated adopting Western institutions.

It could be that the colonial collaborators in Vietnam and Cambodia also sought to make their nations stronger through adopting Western institutions, and thought the best way to do this at the time was by working closely with the French.

This is an oversimplification of course, but I wish Milton Osborne would have explored the comparison between the pro-French Vietnamese intellectuals to the pro-Western intellectuals in Japan and China.

3) And finally, an interesting note on tropical diseases in Cambodia, that makes one worry a little bit.

Not the least of the difficulties that the French faced was the high rate of disease among the troops that they committed against the Cambodian insurgents. Sudden death from disease was a normal part of life for Europeans in the tropics during the nineteenth century, but the scale on which the diseases affected the troops in Cambodia was extraordinary. None of the columns sent against the insurgents seems to have been exempt. In one notable instance, 75 of a detachment of 120 men had to be hospitalized on their return from an operation. The chief French doctor described the situation following the beginning of the monsoon rains:
The onset of the rains has reawakened malarial infections and intestinal disorders which have assumed a gravity which, up until now, I have never seen before….


(p. 217-218).

Link of the Day
The Pentagon Papers and U.S. Imperialism in South East Asia

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport

Subtitle: The Making of a Revolutionary

(Book Review)

There are a million and one books about Lenin.

What recommends this book in particular is how well it’s written. Helen Rappaport is one of those rare historians who makes history sound like a story.

I’ll just quote a couple paragraphs to illustrate this. In this chapter, Lenin is travelling across Finland, and being housed along the way by the Finnish underground railroad for Russian politicals. He was supposed to get off the train at Abo railway station, where he would be met by the Borg family. However when he didn’t show up, the Borg family assumed he had been picked up by the political police.

By 2.00 a.m. there was only one logical conclusion that could regretfully be reached: the gendarmes had picked him [Lenin] up en route. And then, suddenly, came a soft thud at the window. Down below, standing in the soft white glow of the snow, stood a lonely figure, clutching a small suitcase. Lenin, fearful of knocking at the front door at this time of night, had thrown a snowball up at Borg’s window to attract his attention.
He had indeed almost fallen into the hands of the Okhrana [Tsarist Police]. Leaving Helsingfors by train he soon spotted that he was being tailed by two agents. When he got off the train at Karis to have some supper in the station buffet the men followed and watched him closely. He had to get away from them; they would arrest him the minute he got off the train at Abo, the end of the line. So, as the train gathered speed out of the tiny station of Littois (Littoinene), the last before, Abo, he slipped out on to the running board, threw his suitcase ahead of him and leaped from the train. Luckily, a deep snowdrift broke his fall. The two agents decided it was not worth risking their necks to follow, and as he watched the red of the train’s tail lights disappear into the night, Lenin heaved a sigh of relief. He picked himself up and trudged off in the crackling frost the seven miles of country road into Abo, his only point of reference in the dark, looming pine forest on all sides.
At Borg’s apartment, seeing that he was frozen, hungry and exhausted, the Finns removed Lenin’s coat and boots. As he lay on the divan to recover, Borg’s wife Ida fed him hot milk with cognac and rubbed spirit on his hands and feet to get the circulation going. By now extremely agitated at the thought of being captured, as soon as Lenin heard there was still a chance of catching the Bore I [the ship], he insisted on being found a sledge so that he could leave straight away. Ludwig Lindstrom, who was to be his guide, told him that it would be very hard finding the way in the snow and the dark and they would have to wait till morning. Lenin was hysterical that the spooks would catch up with him before then. “I’ve already been in Siberia and I don’t want to end up there again!” he exclaimed. If Lindstrom wasn’t prepared to take him, he would set off on foot, alone and head north for the Gulf of Bothnia. He’d walk all the way to the northern border with Sweden at Torneo if he had to: “I’ve walked further distances in Siberia.”

That wonderful storytelling alone is enough reason to just lose yourself in this book for hours at your local coffee shop.

The subject material of this book is fascinating as well. Rappaport makes the decision to cover the beginning of Lenin’s life only very briefly, and to skip the end of his life when he was in power. As the title suggests, Rappaport focuses only on his years as a political exile in Europe.
This was a wise decision. Not only is this the period usually neglected by other writers, but it’s arguably the most fascinating part of Lenin’s life. The games of cat and mouse with the police, the fierce political squabbling among the exiled Russian community in Europe, and the idealistic pre-revolution socialist community in Western Europe are all fascinating.

Although Lenin is the most well-known of the Russian socialists, in some ways his story is the least interesting, and Rappaport will sometimes use Lenin’s life as a jumping off point to describe some of the various adventures of the Russian socialist community at the time (dodging police while smuggling in illegal literature or gun running).
Rappaport is particularly interested in highlighting some of the women in the Russian underground, who have largely been left out of history, but about whom she has fascinating stories to tell.

As for Lenin himself:
For the amateur historian, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of a polarizing figure like Lenin. Every book I’ve read on Lenin has given me a completely different picture of the man than the one before it, to the point where I’m not sure what to believe.

In this book, he is portrayed as an obsessive intellectual who spends hours in the library everyday, and who sometimes ignores the political events in the real world around him because he is so obsessed with working out his theories. (Rappaport writes that both the 1905 Revolution and the 1917 Revolution caught Lenin off-guard).
In today’s world, where politicians are thought of as almost anti-intellectual, it is surprising to think that Lenin, so obsessed with books and having such poor social skills, was able to manipulate his way into being the leader of a large country.

Which is not to say Lenin wasn’t a politician. The Lenin in this book is a Machiavellian type personality who uses all sorts of dirty political tricks to get his way. He splits the Russian Socialist movement into two parts—Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, then fights bitterly to make sure his Bolshevik faction gets into control. He demands total obedience from those in his faction, and won’t tolerate any views dissenting from his own. Based on the picture Helen Rappaport paints of him, it’s not hard to see how this would be the same Lenin who would go on to create a very authoritarian regime. At one point in the book Lenin is having a talk with a constitutional democrat, and he ends by saying, “Someday we’ll be hanging people like you off of the lampposts.”

Rappaport also highlights the women in Lenin’s life such as his long suffering wife and mother-in-law (who accompanied Lenin on his travels all over Europe) and a woman Lenin appears to have had an affair with—Inessa Armand. Rappaport tries to counter decades of hagiography which make Lenin into some sort of asexual revolutionary monk and instead portrays him as a man with sexual desires who might well have looked for satisfaction outside of his marriage.

A very well-written book, well worth checking out.

Link of the Day
Status of Forces Agreement

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Game by Neil Strauss


Subtitle: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-up Artists

(Book Review)

From the back cover:

Nothing you have heard about The Game will prepare you for it. Neil Strauss reveals the bizarre world of the PUA (pick-up artist)—men who devote their lives to seducing women. None of this is fiction. PUAs have their own language and codes of honour, they trade strategies on-line, attend each other’s seminars and share houses called Projects.
Strauss lived among the players and survived—but not before he proved that the game works. He transformed himself from a balding, skinny writer into the smooth-talking Style, a man irresistible to women. Once an AFC (average frustrated chump) he became a legendary PUG (pick-up guru).
Here he describes not only his techniques of seduction, but his unforgettable encounters with everyone from Tom Cruise to Courtney Love, from Paris Hilton to Britney Spears. And that’s before things start to get really strange.
Shocking and hilarious, The Game is compulsively readable. It will change the lives of men and the way women understand them.


I came across the book by accident in the bookstore. I picked it up, looked at the back cover, flipped through it briefly, decided this wasn’t the kind of book I usually read, and then put it back on the shelf and moved on. Why waste my time reading junk like this when there were so many more serious history books on my reading list?
I walked on to look at the next book shelf, but then found myself walking back and picking up this book again. Was this just a marketing gimmick or was this for real? Was there really a secret way to pick-up women? And if I didn’t read this book, would I spend the rest of my life wondering?

So I ended up buying it.

For better or for worse (I’ll get to the flaws of the book later down) I found it to be a highly addictive read. I’m usually the kind of person who takes weeks to finish a book, but I had a hard time putting this down and blitzed through the whole book in a couple of days.

This book first came out back in 2005, and apparently was a best seller and a cultural phenomenon (W) long before I got around to it. So, as usual, I’m once again behind the times (one of the consequences of living abroad for so long I suppose).
Friends of mine who saw me reading this book mocked me for being interested in it, and then said they had read it years ago.
So, this review may be commenting on a cultural trend a few years too late. So be it.

The topic of this book pretty much sells itself—every male is interested in learning about the secret to picking-up women. With these kind of guaranteed sales, you might expect this to be the kind of book that the publishing industry simply cranks out and dumps on the public.
It is therefore a pleasant surprise to find out that this book is also well written.
Neil Strauss is a talented writer. He has an engaging style—the right combination of an eye for picking up little details, but a narrative that doesn’t get bogged down by them. To quote a sample piece:

When we arrived, the social workers led him down a long, dark hallway and into a claustrophobic cubicle with a sheet-vinyl floor. The therapist sat behind a desk, running a finger through a black tangle in her hair. She was a slim Asian woman in her late twenties, with high cheekbones, dark red lipstick, and a pinstriped pantsuit.
Mystery slumped in a chair across from her.
“So how are you feeling today?” she asked, forcing a smile.
“I’m feeling,” Mystery said, “like there’s no point to anything.” He burst into tears.
“I’m listening,” she said, scrawling a note on her pad. The case was probably already closed for her.
“So I’m removing myself from the gene pool,” he sobbed.
She looked at him with a feigned sympathy as he continued. To her, he was just one of a dozen nutjobs she saw a day. All she needed to figure out was whether he required medication or institutionalization.
“I can’t go on,” Mystery went on. “It’s futile.”
With a rote gesture, she reached into a drawer, pulled out a small package of tissues, and handed it to him. As mystery reached for the package, he looked up and met her eyes for the first time. He froze and stared at her silently. She was surprisingly cute for a clinic like this.
A flicker of animation flashed across Mystery’s face, then died. “If I had met you in another time and another place,” he said, crumpling a tissue in his hands, “things would have been different.”
(From page 6).

My friend said of this book, “A lot of people think it’s a book about how to pick up women. But it’s not that at all. It’s a story about the kind of guys who pick up women.”
It is true that this book is first and foremost a memoir. However it does integrate all sorts of tidbits of pick-up wisdom.
In addition to his story telling abilities, the second part of Neil Strauss’s genius is his ability to integrate this pick-up information into a narrative structure. And this is a lot of what makes the book so addictive. On one hand you’re caught up in the story about this fascinating world of pick-up artists (and the soap opera like personality conflicts they have with each other). On the other hand, you’re learning tons of information about how to pick up women in bars.
As I read this book, I was constantly thinking to myself, “Aha, is that what I’ve been doing wrong all these years?” It can be a real eye opener.

Neil Strauss is also very compelling as the narrator. He approaches the world of the pick-up artists as a complete naïve, and his own admitted lack of success with women makes him the perfect everyman type narrator for this type of story. Because I identified so much with him and his social awkwardness, it made it a lot easier to see this whole world through his eyes.

It is no easy feat to sign up for a workshop dedicated to picking up women. To do so is to acknowledge defeat, inferiority, and inadequacy. It is to finally admit to yourself that after all these years of being sexually active (or at least sexually cognizant) you have not grown up and figured it out. Those who ask for help are often those who have failed to do something for themselves. So if drug addicts go to rehab and the violent go to anger management class, then social retards go to pickup school.

A man has to primary drives in early adulthood: one toward power, success, and accomplishment; the other toward love, companionship, and sex. Half of life then was out of order. To go before them was to stand up as a man and admit that I was only half a man.



The reason [we were] here [at this workshop] …. was that our parents and our friends had failed us. They had never given us the tools we needed to become fully effective and social beings. Now decades later it was time to acquire them.

(from p. 16 and 21)

Unfortunately, this likable everyman narrator does not stick around for the whole book. As Neil Strauss completes his transformation from average frustrated chump to master pick-up artist, he gets more and more full of himself.

He brags about how he was voted the best pick-up artist by the online community, and how the rest of the newer generation of pick up artists began emulating all his tricks.
The lowest point is perhaps when he devotes a whole chapter to listing his sexual conquests.

I realize the purpose of his bragging is to emphasize his transformation, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.

Finally, the book is written as a memoir. As memoirs go, I thought it was pretty good, but it does also suffer from the limitations of the genre.

For one thing, we’re limited to the perspective of Neil Strauss, who has clearly swallowed the kool-aid of the pick-up artists’ method.
As the book progresses, Strauss does question many elements of the pick-up artists’ lifestyle. He questions whether the obsession with finding routines and programs to pick up women turns the men into “Social Robots”. He questions if the obsession with picking up women comes at the expense of developing an unrounded personality, particularly with the younger members of the pick-up community who lack life experience. He questions whether any of them are any good at holding down a long term girlfriend. And he details how many of them are complete narcissists or control freaks.

But one thing he never questions is that these methods do definitely work to pick up girls. And that even the most socially backward person, by attending these workshops and practicing these techniques, will grow into a confident person able to successfully pull girls.
It sounded a little bit too good to be true, and I at times wished for the inclusion of a more objective outside view.

In fact, if one were inclined to be cynical, you could read this whole book as one long infomercial. Neil Strauss is still engaged in the business of the seduction community, and is selling books and DVD courses (W) related to it. Could his portrayal of his own social awkwardness at the beginning of the book be exaggerated to make the transformation that much more dramatic? Could his unquestioning view of the success of seduction techniques be related to his desire to drum up business for it?

For that matter, if one wanted to be really cynical, could this book also be designed to discredit his business rivals?

Which brings us to the second common failing of the memoir genre: the author comes off as the most likable and sane person in the whole story. Everyone else is at fault except him.
Even the friends of Neil Strauss, like Mystery (W) and Courtney Love (W) come off as likeable enough, but obviously mentally unstable.

His rivals, like Tyler Durden (W) come off much much worse.
(One of these days I’m going to have to research what the finer points of the libel law are. Obviously Neil Strauss got away with it, but one can’t help feel a bit sorry for Tyler Durden and Papa, hardly high profile figures outside of the seduction community, and the very public trashing they got in this best selling book. If they really are the manipulative scheming figures Neil Strauss portrays them as, then I guess they kind of deserved it. If…)

Final verdict: Highly entertaining, very addictive read. But judge for yourself how much of this is truth and how much of this is fiction.

************************************
Additional thought:
I’m thinking the writers of “How I Met Your Mother” must have all read this book. So much of the character of Barney Stinson and the theories he always spouts seems lifted right out of this book.

Link of the Day
The Meaning of Vietnam

2 comments:

Whisky Prajer said...
The "pump and dump" aspect to it all is repulsive and depressing, of course. Mary has made a case (persuasive, I think) for segments of society that go "feral" in some regard, and the "Game" community (should put scare-quotes around that word, too) more than qualifies. Also, n+1 did a terrific survey of Strauss and Mystery and their various Game spin-offs since Strauss's book, but it doesn't seem to be available on-line (alas). If I find it, I'll pass it along.

But a little "Game" goes a long way -- not a bad thing to be cognizant of, for either gender. In fact, my daughters will have their own copies of this book in another year or two. I will be making sure of that.

I've got a couple of friends (male) who obsess about this stuff. They cull blogs devoted to the subject matter, and pare down the various strategies. The one is married, the other not. Curiously, they both register on the Asperger's spectrum. Not sure what that says.

But it's worth the read -- so long as you find a used copy. I can't bear to think of filling his coffers any further.
Joel said...
I agree. It does seem to be a good thing to be aware of. And you wouldn't want to get too sucked into that subculture.

I bought a copy in Cambodia that was a photocopied rip-off (like most of the books here are, for better or for worse). So I guess my conscience is clean on contributing to his coffers

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

(Movie Reviews)


I actually saw this movie a year ago.

I didn't write up a review at the time because I considered it an episode of the PBS TV show American Experience (W) and thus falling outside the scope of my movie review project.

The other day, however, I was doing a google search to see if anyone was comparing the Strauss-Kahn case to the Scottsboro boys (more on this below).
And I discovered that this film had originally been released as a documentary film, had a brief theatrical run, and even has its own Wikipedia page (W). So I thought I'd do a belated review of it.

My memory of it is not as sharp as it would have been if I’d done this review immediately after watching. So treat this review with caution. But I think I can still write down maybe one or two thoughts that have stuck with me over the months.

Thought 1:
For one thing, I remember this documentary as being extremely interesting. It held my interest from start to finish. It has lots of court room drama, and unexpected revelations or plot twists all artfully worked into the narrative by story tellers who knew what they were doing.

Thought 2:
I remember briefly covering the Scottsboro Boys case in a college level course on African American history. Outside of that, I'd never heard anything else about it until seeing this documentary. It’s a part of forgotten history that has gone down the memory hole.
Which makes it all the more interesting to watch this documentary and realize what huge news the whole thing actually was at the time.

Thought 3:
The Scottsboro Boys case stands as one of the more positive moments in the history of the Communist Party. It was the Communist Party that made the Scottsboro Boys case into an international incident, and saved these 9 black men from being legally lynched.

(Actually the prominence of the Communist Party in this case might go a long way to explaining why it has been largely left out of history.)

Although I identify myself more with the libertarian wing of the socialist movement (W ), I think it is important to give credit where credit is due.

The makers of the documentary, however, seem reluctant to give the Communist Party their due credit. Perhaps this is because there is an unwritten rule that Communists always have to appear as the bad guys in any mainstream American production (and this documentary was financed with money from PBS). Although the film makers could hardly avoid talking about the Communist Party's role in the whole affair, they feel the need to emphasize that after the whole court case was over, the Communist Party only provided minimal support to helping the Scottsboro Boys re-adjust to normal life, and imply that the Communist Party only used the Scottsboro Boys for their own purposes, and then discarded them once they were no longer useful.

I think this is unfair. The Communist Party was not buying a puppy. There was no commitment on their part to provide life long care for the Scottsboro Boys after the acquittal. They saw a case of gross mis-justice happening, and they did what they could to stop it, and I find that admirable.

Thought 4:

The case of the Scottsboro Boys show how race and class can be unfairly used in a rape case. Because they were black and poor, they were assumed guilty of the rape. If they had been rich and white they would no doubt have gotten off easily.
Although I suppose you could argue that the Duke Lacross team rape scandal (W ) a few years ago was the Scottsboro boys case in reverse.

However both cases provide examples of rushes to judgment.

Rape cases perhaps represent a difficult dilemma. On one hand we want to protect women, but on the other hand we should protect the Anglo-American judicial tradition that the benefit of the doubt must lie with the defendant, and that a defendant is assumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
For this reason I sometimes get uneasy when people talk in undefined terms about how we should make it easier to be prosecute rape cases. If the rape case is reduced to nothing more than a he-said/ she-said scenario, I don’t think anyone should be sent to jail.
Which is why the Strauss Kahn case made me remember this movie.

(I know this is a sensitive topic. If I’m wrong, go ahead and tell me so in the comments section.)

Thought 5

Actually forget about my review--read this review over here [LINK]. It's a much better summary of the film's strengths and weaknesses.

Thought 6
This is not the first time that this review project has been tripped up by the line between real movies and TV movies. For other examples see here and here .

Link of the Day
Vietnam: How Government Became Wolves

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Stealing from Facebook

Blogs are seeming more and more outdated. All my friends now use facebook to link to interesting articles and post their opinions.
But me, I'm still sticking with the blog. So here's a few things I thought I'd steal from my friends' facebook pages.

For starters is this poster that's making its way around facebook. I couldn't agree more.


While on the subject, Salon.com recently did an excellent take down of the conservative arguments against the Occupy Wall Street movement:

Fox News, unsurprisingly, has been devoting more and more time to trying to discredit the protesters. Here's a Monday segment with Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, who calls the protests a "scary" attack on capitalism:

"As that one dumb woman was saying, 'if only rich people would share their wealth, we'd all be prosperous.' Look you don't get prosperous by taking other people's money, you get prosperous by producing," says Moore, apparently forgetting the multi-trillion dollar bank bailouts of the last few years that represent one of the biggest grievances of the protesters.


Next, a bit late in linking to this, but from my sister here is a rather disturbing article:
The GOP War on Voting
In a campaign supported by the Koch brothers, Republicans are working to prevent millions of Democrats from voting next year


And finally, one of my facebook friends wants as many people as possible to check out this site:
Oppose the Cambodian NGO & Associations Law

(This may be of limited interest to you if you aren't in Cambodia, but maybe if more people outside of Cambodia are informed about what's going on, it will result in more pressure for them to clean up their act.)

Link of the Day
The Soviet Union Versus Socialism

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Carlos

(Movie Review)

This is another case of a movie that is hard to categorize. According to Wikipedia (W) it was released both as a 5 and a half hour film and as a mini-series on French television. Maybe it belongs under the category of TV miniseries instead of a proper movie, but I’m deciding to include it on this movie review project anyway.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie for a while. Back when I was at college, I remember reading about the life of Carlos the Jackal on-line and thinking to myself, “Man, what an interesting story! This would make a great movie.”
(In fact, that same website that got me so interested back in the 1990s is still online. For some fascinating reading, check out their multi-part history of the life of Carlos the Jackal [LINK HERE]).
A few years ago, when I was wasting time creating a blogging list of the top 10 biopics I would like to see, Carlos the Jackal was one of the top of the list.

So, naturally, when I found out about this new French production, I was very curious to see it. I managed to track down a copy here in Cambodia, and watched it the other week.

This is a movie that’s purely for the history nerds. If you’re not interested in history or politics, it will probably be a very long 5 and a half hours for you. Sure there are some explosions and gunfights, but there are also a lot of politics as you have to keep track of which group is being sponsored by which country and for what reasons.

However if you are a bit of a history nerd, like me, you’ll find this movie absolutely fascinating. Although the focus of the movie is only on one man, through the story of Carlos’s life we get a glimpse into several of the terrorist groups of the 1970s and how they were inter-related with each other.

It is a long movie. At 5.5 hours, I wouldn’t recommend watching it all in one sitting. However broken up over 3 days I found it to be a fantastic viewing experience. The length of the movie allows the filmmakers to fully flesh out the events without rushing through anything.

The challenge of making a movie about the life of Carlos the Jackal is that the filmmakers have to make him charismatic and interesting enough to hold the attention of the audience, but they don’t want to glorify him.
This film does a remarkably good job of walking that line. They attempt to explain Carlos’s motivations, and show how he viewed what he was doing against the backdrop of the counter-revolutionary terror that was occurring across South America at the time (Carlos was Venezuelan).
At the same time, they don’t glorify him. They show him as having a callousness towards human life that borders on psychopathic. And in his relationships with women they portray him as a controlling and sometimes sadistic.

I would highly recommend this movie/miniseries to any other history nerds out there.

*******************************************************
Other Thoughts:

* It’s interesting that, aside from the Arabs, the two groups that Carlos ended up working with are the German Revolutionary Cells, and the Japanese Red Army. A lot of comparisons have been made between the West German and the Japanese student movements in the 1960s. In both countries, the 1968 generation was horrified at what their parents’ generation had done during the war, and believed that fascism was in danger of returning (partly because the old fascist guard really was being rehabilitated into high level government positions in the name of anti-communism). Both groups of students saw parallels between the Vietnam War and what their parents’ generation had done . Both countries had a violent student movement that spun off into terrorist factions. And in both countries once the Vietnam War finished, the leftover radical factions turned their attention to the Palestinian cause.

The Japanese Red Army (which for a time operated out of Paris blending in with all the Japanese tourists) is given a prominent part in the beginning of this movie when they work with Carlos to take over the French Embassy in The Hague in 1972.

As for the German radicals:
One of the great ironies of history is that during the late 1970s, the German radical movement began to confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, and therefore came full circle to repeating the mistakes of their parents which had so horrified them to begin with.

To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t dodge this issue but take the time to show the irony and explore it. When German terrorists hijack a French plane, they separate out the Jews from the rest of the passengers (W).
Another German radical Hans-Joachim Klein (W) is so appalled by this that he resigns from the movement. “Bose (W) separated out the Jews, just like at Auschwitz. I never thought a German of my generation could have done that,” Klein exclaims.

* This film is also fascinating because of the look it provides into international politics of the 1970s. It takes place during a time when the Communist bloc was loosely allied with Arab nationalism, and the film hints at backroom deals that went on between the governments of these countries. We get glimpses into the relationship that the KGB had with the East German Stasi, and the Hungarian government’s relationship with Moscow.
Arab leaders who have been in the news recently like Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein also play a prominent part in this story.

* In this post here, I questioned why there were no observation decks at airports back in the US. After having seen this movie, I no longer have that question. (In the film German terrorists attempt to shoot an airplane with an RPG missile fired from an observation deck.)

******************************************************************

Minor Quibbles:
* As this is a French film, and as it takes place all over the globe and has an international cast of characters, several different languages are spoken (French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, et cetera). So if you don’t like reading subtitles, you’re out of luck.
However for me, the most difficult parts of the film to follow were the parts in English. The volume was so low I had trouble understanding what the characters were saying without the subtitles. (This may actually have been due to the poor quality of the DVD I obtained in Cambodia. I’d be interested to hear what other people thought.)
Actually a fair amount of the film was in English, because whenever characters from two different nationalities conversed, they used English as a common language. (If I were to rely solely on my stereotypes of the French people, I would have assumed they would have insisted on making French the international language in this film. But they graciously acknowledge English as the lingua franca.)

However several of the actors were using English as their second language and at times I think it showed. Their pronunciation was fine, but sometimes their delivery was a little off, and some of the lines sounded a bit cheesy. Either that or some of the acting was bad, I’m not sure.

* Some of the shoot out scenes were hard to follow. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but the camera moved a bit too fast for me, and sometimes I couldn’t tell who was shooting whom until the action had finished and the dead bodies were lying on the floor.

* If this had been a Hollywood production, I think the soundtrack would have been amped up a lot. As it is, there were a lot of key scenes that I thought could have used some more dramatic music. Maybe this is just a stylistic difference between American and French cinema, I don’t know, but I often found myself thinking, “This scene would be a lot better if they added some really dramatic sounding music to it.”
The few times when they did have music, it didn’t seem to fit the mood of the scene very well. There was even one instance where the music got caught off very abruptly, and I got the impression that whoever was in the editing room was just asleep at the wheel, or that the soundtrack was just thrown together at the last minute.

Link of the Day
International Terrorism: Image and Reality

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Forwarded E-mail

This was in my inbox today from one of those stupid e-mail forwards. Nevertheless it made me chuckle, so I thought I'd throw it up on the blog for whatever it's worth.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stating the Obvious

It seems that lately all I've been hearing about is the budget crisis. And yet in all the coverage I've been reading, I haven't yet heard anything about the financial impact of all the wars the US is currently involved in. Maybe I've just been reading the wrong articles. But allow me to state the obvious here:

At some point, someone is going to have to pay for all these wars.

At every other point in American history up until now the government has always raised taxes when it went to war. This is in recognition of the basic principle that wars cost money.

The Bush administration was the first administration in history to lower taxes while fighting a war--two wars. (Even after Bush went to war, he continued to cut taxes--LINK HERE.)

We are now, by some estimates, currently involved in 4 wars (Afghanistan, the lingering presence in Iraq, Libya, and the operations in Pakistan). All of these wars have all been funded by borrowing money.

I know it's unpopular to say this, but at some point somebody is going to have to pay for these wars.

Link of the Day
The war everyone forgot

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

X-Men: First Class

(Movie Review)

Whatever else you may say about these X-Men movies, there’s no denying they’re ambitious.

It’s not enough for them to simply do the standard action-fest, choreographed fighting, and special effects extravaganza we’ve come to expect from superhero movies. They have to add pathos as well. They want us to care emotionally about their characters, and to care about the relationships these characters have with each other.
And they even attempt to address social issues like discrimination and alienation from society.

The success with which the X-Men movies accomplish their aims is debatable. (Whenever a comic book movie attempts to explore social issues, there’s a temptation for it to get overly heavy-handed or patronizing. And at various points I think the X-Men franchise has been in danger of crossing over into this territory, at least with the issue of discrimination. The theme of young people feeling alienated from society I think they pull off a bit better.)

The complex relationships in the X-Men are also ambitious as the line between enemy and ally are often blurred. You have enemies who are friends (Charles Xavier and Magneto) and allies who are often in danger of becoming enemies (the rivalry between Wolverine and Cyclops, the confrontations between Pyro and Iceman, and of course the Jean Gray saga.)

Again, how well the film makers actually handle all of these dramatic possibilities is debatable. But I don’t think it’s possible to walk out of the theater and not have a bit of admiration for the ambition of what the filmmakers were trying to pull off.

The first 3 films in the X-Men series I saw before I stared up my Movie Review Project, so I’ll start out by doing a brief recap of my impressions here, before I get into the newest film.

X-Men 1: Didn’t do much for me to be honest. Okay but not great.
X-Men 2: They absolutely nailed it with this movie. Possibly the best comic book movie ever. From this point on, I considered myself a fan of the series.
X-Men 3: You know, I actually liked this movie. I know a lot of other people didn’t like it, and I’ll probably have to re-watch it someday to give it a more intelligent review. But at the time I remember thinking it was pretty cool.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Haven’t seen this yet. Someday, maybe. But I’ve always thought Wolverine was the least interesting character in the X-Men series anyway.

Alright, so with that recap out of the way, how does this new movie fare?

Really well I thought.

Maybe I was a bit biased, because I considered myself a fan of the series, and I went in wanting it to work. But I thought they did a really good job.

The plot was a bit convoluted at first, as 3 separate story lines had to be converged into one. But actually I like plots that keep me on my toes a bit, so no problem for me here.

I thought the movie did a good job of creating dramatic suspense, particularly in the beginning. There’s one or two scenes near the opening of the movie where the scene does a good job of milking the suspense to build up to the dramatic climax, with the appropriate crescendo in the music letting you know something is about to happen.

The characters are engaging—or at least the main characters (some of the later additions to the X-Men team are just blatantly there for no other purpose than to fill the team out.)
This film continues the theme, established in the early X-Men movies, that a character’s inner demons are just as much of a threat as their outside enemies. And so we see a number of characters struggling with, and sometimes giving into, their inner demons.

The acting is quite good as well. Admittedly the two lead actors have some big shoes to fill. (In retrospect, that was quite a coup the first X-Men movies had landing such talented actors as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen). But both actors pull it off well.

So, all in all a good movie. Below are a few more observations on various issues.

***************************************************************
On Continuity

I know that to even broach this topic is to open ones self up to accusations of geekdom. And to the extent that any time spent contemplating a fictional universe is time not spent on chasing girls, drinking beer, or building muscles, I suppose the accusation is fair enough. (I probably should be in a bar right now winking at some cute girl instead of writing this.)

But if a viewer is to spend his time and money watching this series, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for it to be consistent. Otherwise you can’t take it seriously. And if nothing else, these X-Men movies want to be taken seriously. They want us to care about the transformations these characters undergo.

Many people on the internet are already way ahead of me on this. For a run down of many of the continuity errors introduced in X-Men, see for example this list {LINK HERE}. And for a way to explain away many of the same continuity errors, see for example this list here {LINK HERE}.

Most of the minor points don’t bother me so much. I’m more concerned with how this film fits into the overall story the filmmakers have been telling.

The previous X-Men films have already established that Professor Xavier, and Magneto, despite being enemies also have a continuing friendship, and it’s implied that they have a long history. Exactly what this history was is mostly left up to the imagination of the viewer, and perhaps it was more interesting when it was vaguely defined. From what was said in the previous movies, I had always imagined this friendship had carried on over a period of several years. In this movie we get only a period of several months before they have their split.

I’m not sure this brief friendship lasting only a few months would be quite enough to sustain the admiration and mutual respect they seem to have for each other 40 years later in the original X-Men movies. But this is somewhat open to interpretation.

Actually, according to this movie, the person Charles Xavier really does have a long history with, and deep affection for, is not Magneto, but Mystique, who we find out is his adopted sister, and who he is obviously very fond of (and she of him). Therefore this movie does a better job of setting up a complicated relationship between Xavier and Mystique than it does between Xavier and Magneto. And yet this relationship is totally absent from the first 3 movies.

I’m somewhat torn about this, because on the one hand the Mystique we get in this movie is much more interesting and developed. But it will, I fear, ruin the series for anyone trying to watch them chronologically.  If you were to watch this prequel movie right before watching the rest of the X-Men series, the relationship between professor Xavier and Mystique would make no sense.

**********************************************************

On the 60s setting

For a summer block-buster superhero movie, the choice of a retro setting is pretty unique. The normal trend is for Hollywood to take old comic book superheroes, and try to modernize them as much as possible. This movie takes characters established in the public mind by recent movies, and takes them back to the 1960s. It’s unusual, but anything different is good, and this is a pleasant change of pace from the usual superhero movie.

Unfortunately the film makers don’t take full advantage of the retro-setting. If they had made a bit of an effort, they could totally have gone the route of “Mad Men” and worked really hard to recreate the period with the clothing, the hair styles and the music of the early 60s.
What we get instead is a partial effort. Every now and again a character will say “daddy-O” or “groovy”. Some of the clothing looks a bit retro-ish, but even here the filmmakers at times seem to be confusing the Kennedy years with the 1970s.
Many of the hair styles look much more modern than retro, particularly with the new young X-men recruits. (I suspect because somewhere in the studio hierarchy, marketability won out against period authenticity, and the studio wanted good-looking young stars sporting fashionable modern haircuts on all their advertisements.)
It’s a minor quibble, admittedly. It didn’t spoil the movie for me, but I thought it would have been a lot cooler if they had gone to more effort to create more of an atmosphere.

**************************************************
On the Cuban Missile Crisis:

The Cuban Missile Crisis, like many events in American history, has developed a sort of mythology that bears almost no relationship to the actual facts of what happened. The version I learned at school was that the Soviet Union unilaterally breaking the peace by putting missiles in Cuba. Kennedy was forced against his will into a situation where he had to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war, and fortunately his great leadership caused the Soviets to back down.

What was never told to me in school was that the US had missiles stationed in Turkey, aimed at the Soviet Union, which were actually closer to the Soviet Union than their missiles in Cuba were to us. And so when the US complained about missiles in Cuba, the Soviet Union (rightly) pointed out that this was completely hypocritical. They then offered to remove their missiles from Cuba if the US would agree to remove their missiles from Turkey.

Privately, the US government acknowledged that the Soviets had a legitimate point. But it was felt that if the US was the first to remove their missiles, it would look like Kennedy was caving in to Soviet pressure, and would endanger his re-election prospects. And so for this our government brought us to the edge of a nuclear holocaust.

It is very rare that this side of the story is ever acknowledged by the US media. You might recall that Kevin Costner movie that came out about 10 years ago “13 Days” (W) in which they spent the whole movie on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and never once acknowledged that we had missiles in Turkey, or that Kennedy could have ended the whole crisis at any time by simply pulling our own missiles out of Turkey.

I fully expected this movie to take to the same view.
Imagine my surprise, then, when X-Men: First Class goes out of its way to set up that the US government first created the crisis by placing missiles in Turkey. (Granted in the world of X-Men, it is evil mutants who are blackmailing the US army to do it, but still an acknowledgment nonetheless.)

So, the movie gets an extra point from me for this little piece of historical accuracy.
(Sad though that we have to go to X-Men movies for historical accuracy.)

*************************************************

One last, final thought before I finally lay this review to rest:

I read another review of this movie I want to respond to briefly.

Yeah, I know. It’s a losing battle to try and respond to everything on the Internet. But just indulge me in this.

The review is from Slate.com
I don't necessarily want to be the guy who tries to hang a discount-store T.S. Eliot essay about the Death of Culture on yet another mediocre Hollywood sequel, but there's something a little depressing about all the hype and excitement surrounding "X-Men: First Class," the new Marvel-Fox product that's expected to be among the summer's biggest hits. Are zillions of people genuinely psyched about an Anakin Skywalker-style back story prequel to a comics-based movie franchise that almost everyone agrees had run out of juice after four installments? (Just from inspecting cast lists and plot synopses, I can't even tell you for sure whether I've seen all of them.) And if so, why?
Oh, OK, I know why. I'm just playing Socratic idiot. It's summertime in spirit if not in fact, and people are covered in beer and bug-juice and have collectively lowered their expectations. They've convinced themselves that they want to see a big, exciting adventure with cool guys and pretty girls and maybe the faintest hint of moral significance but not much resemblance to real life. I suppose a ridiculous yarn about how a group of superhuman genetic mutants in silly costumes intervene to resolve the 1963 Cuban missile crisis (after starting it in the first place) fits the bill, somewhat. But I'm pretty sure that those who are claiming that "X-Men: First Class" is actually good are engaged in the kind of brainwashed magical thinking that goes along with a culture where the entire media and most of the public have to behave like savvy insiders all the time. This is a movie that definitely could have been worse. (Put that on your poster!) It looks good and has some nice acting moments; as a friend of mine used to say about poetry readings, it's better than some TV. If it makes a butt-load of money, all of us parasites on the sweaty underbelly of the film industry are hypothetically better off, so we might as well like it.


And it continues on in that same patronizing tone for several more paragraphs.

This writer’s argument would be helped somewhat if he could point to what heights our culture has fallen from. Was it in the 90s, when the Batman franchise and the Matrix movies were top box office draws? Or in the 80s with Return of the Jedi and Tron? Or the 70s with the Superman movie and the Planet of the Apes franchise? Or the 60s with the Adam West Batman movie? Or the 50s, with “The Beginning of the End” and the Tarzan movies? Or the 40s, with the Flash Gordon movie serials?

You get the idea, and can probably add your own examples as well as I can. The point is that every generation has their high brow art, and their low brow entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve had movies based on comic book characters since the 1940s, and will likely continue to have them for many years to come.

The way to effectively critique these movies is not to get into a snobbish fit about the fact that comic book movies are once again dominating the box office, but to compare these movies against their genre. In that respect, I think you could make the argument that these X-Men movies have shown that the comic book movie genre is expanding the range of themes it is willing to take on, and thus represents a sign that the culture is getting more intelligent, not less.

In the same vein, Allen Ginsburg once claimed that The Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” represented a cultural high point. He didn’t argue it was a cultural high point because The Beatles handled themes of alienation better than any poet ever before them, but because these themes were being attempted by a bubble gum pop band at the height of their fame.

In the same way, “X-Men: First Class” may not be high art, but I don’t think its popularity is any indication that our culture has gone down the tubes.

Link of the Day
Stability, a cold code word with US

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia by John F. Cady

(Book Review)

Every schoolchild knows that the about the French colonial legacy in Indochina. But how exactly did the French get over there in the first place? Given the fact that the British dominated the sea lanes of the 19th Century, and given the fact that 19th Century France was notoriously - politically - unstable, how did the French find time to set up an empire in Eastern Asia?

Well, if these questions have ever kept you up at night wondering, then this is the book for you.

This book was published way back in 1954. (Ironically enough, the same year that the French would lose their empire in Indochina, although I think that’s just by coincidence. The author says he began his research for the book back in 1938.)

It is, as you would expect of an academic history book from this era, a bit dry and dull reading in parts. It’s not badly written, but it’s not written for the general public. The author is clearly more interested in filling in a gap in the historical research than he is in creating the next bestseller.

It’s also one of those academic books that is littered with footnotes. There’s not a single page that doesn’t have several footnotes at the bottom.
(In my humble opinion most of the footnotes should have been integrated into the text. It’s a bit disorientating to constantly have to refer down to the bottom of the page, and a lot of the information contained in the footnotes seems to be important, so I’m not sure why it is buried at the bottom of the page. But then I’m no expert on academic writing conventions.)

The only reason you would subject yourself to this book is if you were interested in its subject material. And as it happens, I was. Having moved to Indochina, I decided I wanted to fill in this gap in my historical knowledge and learn a bit more about why the French had been in this area to begin with.

All that being said, some sections of this book are more interesting than others. The political sections I thought were fairly interesting. I enjoyed reading Cade’s description of the various political factions during the Orleanist Monarchy, or of the conflict between Liberal Catholicism and Conservative Catholicism, or how Louis Napoleon’s need to gain political support among the Catholics would lead him to undertake ventures to safeguard Catholic missionaries in Asia (which in turn would be the start of French Imperialism in that region).

In contrast, some of the chapters describing the long slow back and forth diplomacy between the Chinese and French diplomats are not so interesting. But I sucked it up and kept reading anyway.

As the title implies, the book only looks at the roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia. It describes the French policies leading up to the conquest of Vietnam in the 1880s, but stops short of actually describing the conquest itself. To find out how the French actually gained control and ruled in Indochina, I suppose I’m going to have to turn to other books on my reading list. But this book does a good job of describing all the developments leading up to the French acquisition of Indochina.

The author posits two duel reasons for French imperialism in Asia. One is the need to enhance French prestige, especially in light of the growing British Empire in Asia. The second is agitation by French Catholic missionaries to establish pro-Christian regimes in Asia.

Napoleon III, clearly aware of how fragile his legitimacy was, did all he could to court Catholic support as a way to hang onto power. And that lead him to attempt to set up Catholic empires in Mexico and Vietnam.

The bulk of the book doesn’t actually deal with Indochina, but with the French in China. (Imperialism in Indochina is presented almost as an afterthought when the French Imperial ambitions in China were thwarted.)

The French were competing with other Western powers for influence in China, and in order to tell the whole story there are some chapters were Cade feels it necessary to spend as much time talking about the British, American and Russian diplomats in China as he does the French.

In particular, the French rivalry (and at times entente) with Britain make up much of the book. Cade spends a whole chapter describing the diplomatic events that lead Britain and France to form a joint alliance during “The Arrow War.”

[This book, which focuses heavily on the European reaction to the Taiping rebellion, and also on the Anglo-French expedition to Peking, covers most of the historical events dramatized in “Flashman and the Dragon”, which I just finished recently. Had I read this book first, I probably would have been able to give “Flashman and the Dragon” a more intelligent review. On the other hand, sometimes it’s more interesting to read the historical novel first, and then once your interest has already been aroused later go back and read the real history afterward.]

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Various stray observations:

Interesting to think that at the time the author was writing (1954), the American War in Vietnam had not yet actually begun, and so the subject matter had not yet acquired the polarizing connotations that it would have ever since.
There are a few passages in this book however which eerily seem to foreshadow the American involvement.

For example, when trying to persuade the French government to occupy Vietnam, the Catholic missionaries proclaimed that the Vietnamese people actually wanted the French to invade them and liberate them from their oppressive government.

Abbe Huc, a former Lazarist missionary…had written and spoken volubly on the subject, finally gaining a hearing at court. In a secret memorandum prepared for Louis Napoleon in January, 1857 Huc argued that….The suffering Annamite [Vietnamese] population would receive the French as liberators and benefactors, and only a short time would be required to make them entirely Catholic,” (page 178-179).

Napoleon III actually takes the bait and invades Vietnam, only to find out that the Vietnamese desire to be invaded by the French had been greatly exaggerated. The French army encounters fierce resistance, no native support, and suffers heavy losses.

And another passage which seems prescient of American involvement appears.

During these years [the 1860s], Saigon was a prestige liability for the Emperor [Napoleon III] rather than an asset. One informed nationalist spokesman in 1864 levelled a trenchant attack against the whole Indo-China venture on the ground that it had not been thought out in advance in terms of defined objectives and the difficulties and sacrifices entailed,” (p.277).

[I suppose it would probably be all too obvious to point out how these passages also relate to the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars.]

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Unfortunately one does not emerge from this book with a very positive view of Christian missionaries. The 19th century Catholic missionaries seemed to have been unable to separate their evangelizing mission from their belief in imperialism.

This history presents the Catholic missionaries as actively driving imperialism. The missionaries lobbied the French government to provide them with protection in countries which were hostile to Christianity, such as China, Korea and Vietnam. And the missionaries would encourage the French government to invade and set up French protectorates in all of these areas. In the cases of Korea and Vietnam, missionaries who had been in the country evangelizing would take advantage of their presence inside the country to provide the French military information about the country’s internal defenses, and advice about the best route to take on an invasion.
In the case of Korea, this advice was ignored. But in Vietnam, the first joint French-Spanish invasion of the country was a result of missionary lobbying and missionary advice.

One would hope that this era of Christian history is now over. But there’s no denying that Christian missionaries have had a very mixed historical track record. And this history is no doubt better remembered by the colonized countries than by the colonizers.

I had at least one Calvin professor who implied that China’s reluctance to allow foreign missionaries into the country was in part based on this history legacy, and that the aggressive pushing by some evangelical groups to enter China showed an insensitivity to this legacy.
It’s worth remembering the next time you see one of those church bulletins complaining about how China (or Vietnam) is curtailing missionary activity again.

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This book has long been out of print, but in this day and age you can find anything you’re looking for on Amazon. And, if you don’t mind reading things off of a computer screen, the whole text is also available online [LINK HERE].

Link of the Day
Q&A with Noam Chomsky