Monday, January 24, 2011

Mommie Baddest

I feel like taking a break from politics today, at least a break from writing about politicians, since most everything becomes political once discussed.  So, let’s talk about Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, since so many other people are talking about it.  First, I want to point out, like a lot of books of this sort, it is aimed principally at upper-middle-class women.  Not that middle-class women don’t buy books of this sort, but they make up the aspirational audience, those that wanna-be.  A lot of the same people buy books about Princess Di.  And it’s not just nonfiction.

Imagine Ernest Hemingway writing about work, slaughter houses, etc.  Hemingway’s unending popularity owes a lot to his subject matter, the lives of the rich, running with bulls, drinking at Paris cafes, going to bullfights, a whole host of leisure-time activities.  Ah, that’s the life.  You can divide up literature this way; at least some authors write about the rich and the poor.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, the subplot in The Great Gatsby.  But, back to the Tiger Mother.

Now, nothing is going to get me to buy this book, so I’m writing about it based on a number of reviews, excerpts, and hearing Ms. Chua on the radio.  Let’s start with the title.  Boy, does that put together two disparate cultures, the Chinese and the old South.  I don’t often put those two things together, since the Chinese “slaves” (aka coolies) built a lot of things in America, but not so much down South way back when, since there were real African slaves to use. 

Amy Chua is second-generation Chinese American, so she’s stretching the Chinese part, but she doesn’t seem to be able to get a joke, why her husband (mentioned, evidently, very sparingly in the book) laughed when she asked him accusatively if he had any “goals” for the family dog, and that might be part of her cultural heritage. But the real part of her cultural heritage (and not discussed anywhere I have seen – not that I have seen everything) is that she has two girls, no boy child, and that alone might count for a lot of her behavior. There are a lot of Chinese girls given up (and worse) for adoption to Western couples.

A couple of decades ago a small focus group I was studying (since I was one of the studied) looked like China.  Every couple of the group who had a boy ended up with only one child.  Those whose first child was a girl had a second, and a third, if the second wasn’t a boy, which was most likely the case, since statistically the sex of your second child will most likely be the same sex you already had. And, even for the couples who get a lucky girl/boy, there’s the case of acquaintances of mine who had an actual Chinese (immigrant) nanny, one who lavished attention on the younger boy child and ignored almost entirely the older girl child.

So, the Chinese mother part of Amy Chua seems to be an inner anger that she had girls, not a boy or boys.  Her whole child-rearing methods may well have changed if she was raising boys, and certainly the father would have been more central than he appears to have been, since the same-sex parent is usually much more involved, both literally and figuratively.

And, of course, Amy Chua could call one of her girls “garbage” and get away with it, since she’s an upper-middle-class law professor at Yale, as is her husband.  Some parents call their children garbage and also treat them like garbage, unfortunately, since they are poor and ill-equipped with the parenting resources of the upper-middle class.  Amy Chua’s daughters can take a little abuse, since they had so many other advantages showered down upon them.   All of the rest of the children out there, not so privileged, have a much harder time growing up with tiger mothers of any sort, much less tiger fathers, absent or present.

But the popularity of her book amongst the chattering classes does stem from the high interest other writers with children have in the subject.  But, it also comes from an age where people are inclined to go backwards, to some vanished era when sparing the rod spoiled the child, when lives seemed more under-control than they do now, today, when everything tends to be rationed for the ninety percent, and only loosened up for the top ten.  You don’t have to be a child of immigrants to teach children how to excel, but, evidently, you need to not be a child of immigrants to learn how to laugh at yourself, or get a joke, or know why something you say might appear terribly funny to someone, even your husband.   

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mourning Becomes Them

Amid a week of various kinds of mourning and recriminations and calls for civility, one contest that stood out was who gave the best impersonation of “mourner-in-chief.” On the News Hour (where they used the locution comforter-in-chief) Jim Lehrer interviewed the historian Michael Beschloss who brought up Ronald Reagan, talking from the Oval Office the evening of the Challenger explosion, praising Reagan’s performance.  Though Lehrer mentioned it in his opening remarks, that Reagan was scheduled to give his State of the Union speech that night, a fact neither he nor Beschloss mentioned was that Reagan, himself, was one of the causes for the Challenger catastrophe. 

Lehrer doesn’t call himself an historian, but Beschloss does, so he should have pointed out Reagan’s role in the Challenger disaster.  Reagan had planned to refer that night to the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, in his State of the Union speech and NASA knew that and it was an additional bit of political pressure on the chief bureaucrat running the launch, one thing that made him go against the judgment of a number of his engineers and scientists’ verdict that it was too cold to launch.  He wanted to please the White House and had the candle lit and the whole world got to see it explode.

But Reagan got to give a speech anyway, supposedly written by Peggy Noonan, which ended with the lines from a piece of doggerel called “High Flight,” “They slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” which was part of a TV-sign-off tape provided by the military, which I saw a hundred times in my youth, back when TV signed off-ed.  Doubtless, Peggy Noonan saw it, too, or whoever wrote Reagan’s speech.  This is the speech Beschloss praised.  But he didn’t give the viewers any “history”, though he is supposed to be an historian.  Reagan came off smelling like a rose, and, since history is written by winners, I suppose you could say Reagan won and continues to win, since the real story of his role in the Challenger fiasco is considered only by a few.  And, of course, it didn’t, in any case, change history.  History, for people like Beschloss, is only those things that change history, not just what happens and why.

But it was the same amnesia everywhere else President Obama’s Tucson speech was discussed.  The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, wrote, “Ronald Reagan did it with a short and eloquent Oval Office address....”    The only thing the press got exercised about is the irrepressible Sarah Palin, the narcissist in waiting, and her it’s-all-about-me speech, delivered from her version of an oval office in Alaska on, what else?, Facebook.  Blood libels all around. 

In the States these days the bar is set so low that the fact that President Obama can deliver a few coherent,  appropriate remarks to the nation, makes him stand out head and shoulders above most of the folk in Congress and in Alaska, at least those Alaskans with TV studios in their homes.

But the Republicans are now back doing their good work on the Job-Killing Heath Care Bill, talking their usual nonsense, unafraid any historian will actually point out their lies and shenanigans, since it only matters who has the power and who wins and they and their friends, like Beschloss (his wife runs a hedge fund), are certainly the winners.       

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reality Based Shooter

Supposedly, it was an anonymous Bush II-era aide who told Ron Suskind in 2004 that the Bush White House wasn’t operating in a “reality based community”; that they, the Bush White House gang and co-conspirators, created their own reality.  Well, it’s clear that it isn’t just George W. and friends who create their own reality, it’s a lot of other folks, too.  Like the Republicans who read a redacted Constitution their first day of business in the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives, leaving out the bits about slavery and women not being allowed to vote. And then there is the new edition from an Auburn University professor (Auburn!) of Huckleberry Finn, which removes the word “nigger” 219 times (and Lord knows what else), since some “readers” find the word itself offensive. But it’s mostly non-readers who find it offensive.

At times, words alone alter reality.  One example: test-tube babies.  Now that co-joining of sperm and egg happens in a petri dish, not a test tube, but the phrase “petri-dish babies” just doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way.  The censoring of books has happened over the centuries.  The Hardy Boys syndicate has redone earlier titles, taking out and replacing various anti-Semitic slurs and racial insults.  Updated versions emerged, but not advertised as such (or two decades ago, last time I looked.).  Famously, Thomas Bowdler brought out a cleansed edition of Shakespeare back in the 19th century, wiped of the salacious parts by his sister; hence, the term “Bowdlerized,” which goes to show once again that those women who actually do the work don’t often get credited (see Dr. Spock’s work, etc.).

But, taking out the unpleasant parts of the original Constitution and removing one word over and over from a classic text smacks of other things than Victorian niceties.    People want to live in one world, rather than another.  Well, after the unprecedented reading of the Constitution we had, in Arizona, the unprecedented (in terms of number of dead and victims) attack on a Congress member and her fellow citizens, including a federal judge.  The shooter fit the typical pattern (becoming typical) of the unhappy college-age male with easy access to twenty-first century weaponry.  Jared Lee Loughner (and perhaps the government should make a data base of anyone with the name Lee as one of three, as in Lee Harvey Oswald) reminds me of the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho (Hui rimes with Lee), a young man with a number of the same problems who found the same solution, except that Cho killed himself.) At Virginia Tech thirty-three died; that many might have in Arizona had not the killer been tackled and disarmed by concerned citizens. Cho was 23; Loughner is, reportedly, 22.      

Dallas got blamed a lot in 1963 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy; Arizona will be taking heat for this attack, some of it, like Dallas, well-earned.  Even Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was steeped in the hot brew of Arizona, the city of Kingman, where he lived with an old army buddy.  It was all fairly crazy back then in the Sun Belt, with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and the survivalist-minded in Arizona, back in the mid-1990s.  Now all the craziness has gone main-stream, given the high number of non-reality based communities that have sprung up everywhere. 

Only a few are blaming the wild-west arming of America, thanks to the NRA’s diligent work. Most people surfacing on the media say that Loughner would have found another way to wreak havoc.  But then there’s havoc and there’s havoc.  When I lived in New York City long ago I always thought the City was a testament to civilization, that so many could live (in Manhattan) so tightly fit and still function, spoke to human beings’ best natures.  The many provide a check on the few.  It’s the open spaces that allow for wildness to sprout so lethally. Malls in Arizona; big-box sports stores selling Glocks.

Before all this havoc we only had President Obama’s change is no change, with the appointment of more Clinton retreads, William Daley and Gene Sperling, to high White House posts.  And many journalists actually said that both appointments were a sign of change, showing that they too had abandoned the reality-based community.  If anything, change for the worse, I suppose.  But, the only winner of this unhappy week is the NRA.  Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, I heard all weekend. Which is about as helpful as saying, Rhetoric doesn’t kill people, people kill people.  Yes, indeed, one person with a semiautomatic can kill six and injure a dozen, all in less than a half minute.  And the NRA is so powerful in Washington, D.C., few even bother to suggest some mild limitations to impose on access. 

Well, that makes sense, because no one wants to talk about America’s largest going-concern in manufacturing, armaments and weapons of war. Products bigger and more lethal than a mere Glock. Our military-industrial complex is healthy.  And how.  And if we had no wars to fight, unemployment would probably be in the mid-two digits.  That’s reality based.  The NRA has nothing to worry about.  We’re all in the gun business.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Great Refudiator

President Obama, I hope, will become the Great Refudiator during the critical year of 2011.  Meaning, borrowing Sarah Palin’s wonderful coinage, that Obama will make most of what I have said during the last year wrong and superfluous.   That he will hold the line, battle the Republicans, reverse the gains of the filthy rich and bring up the “middle class” and the working poor, which, come to think of it, is most of the middle class.

Sarah Palin, though, has been repudiating her coinage of refudiate as a mere typo (in her Alaska “reality” cable show), even though she gave a nod to Will Shakespeare as a coiner of words.  Instead of sticking with that line, though, she said her new word was a lowly tweet typo.  Quickly, film of her using the word on TV previous to the tweet surfaced.  But, it would be better for the culture at large if she accepted the mantle of one of her literary predecessors (not Shakespeare), but Mrs. Malaprop.

Mrs. Malaprop, of course, comes from Sheridan’s eighteenth century play, The Rivals.  And she is a forerunner of Sarah Palin, interested in world events and the consequences of the same.  One of her memorable lines from that play is, “If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of oracular tongues, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!” Mrs. Malaprop is obviously (or perhaps not) a comic character, an object of satire, rather than desire.  And, unfortunately, Sarah Palin is an object of some desire, as well as satire.  Whom among us can refudiate that?

So Palin should take pride in inventing refudiate, the coupling of refute and repudiate.  An unnatural union, it well might be, but it produced a reasonable offspring, now finding its way into dictionaries.  English is the most malleable of languages, which is why it is taking over so much of the globe.  More Chinese are bi-lingual in English than we Americans are bi-lingual in anything.

Why I want Obama to be the Great Refudiator is to quell the discontent percolating in his base.  The false hopeful dawn of his election and inauguration has given way to this dreary dusk of discontent, so much so the White House may not even have to chide the progressive base, since it won’t much matter to the administration this year.  Of course, it will matter in 2012.

Though I’ve written about this in the past, it bears repeating,  the fact that close elections are aimed at “independents” and “swing voters” makes them desperate affairs.  For swing voters and independents are, in the main, will-o’-the-wisp lunatics who do not know their own minds, much less their own self interest.  Mostly, they go with the popular winds, whichever way they happen to be blowing.  In Obama’s triumph in 2008, all the enthusiasm blew them in his direction and he won formerly red states, like our own Hoosierville, Indiana.

But what group caused all that excitement, enthusiasm? Obama’s progressive base, those who were with him at the beginning, and those who joined after he beat Hillary in the primary.  The so-called independents and swing voters, as they are wont to do, went with the likely winner.  It made a big number.  Yet, where will the enthusiasm come from in 2012?  Nowhere, that’s where, unless Obama becomes the Great Refudiator.

Alas, one of the great mysteries of our time is why satire has no efficacy.  Why Sarah Palin can be walking satire and still get thirty percent of the national vote.  Why Jon Stewart isn’t considered a satirist, but a person a lot of educated people get their news from.  Why The Onion seems like a news magazine.  Unfortunately, satire requires people to know what is being satirized.  It’s a cause-and-effect loop and if the larger public is unaware of what is being satirized the loop is never closed.  One would think we live in an Age of Satire, but we really live in an Age of Post-Satire.  Or a post-satirical age.  If you want to refuidate me, go right ahead and try.