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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Remembering my Friend Qi

 Qi Xing Hua (亓兴华 (1951–2006) with his wife Ling Na)

At a certain point in life, you realize that losing friends is normal and to be expected. I lost my parents and then heard that Qi had died of pancreatic cancer all almost within the same year. 

Qi had a bigger effect on my life than anyone outside of my family. In my early thirties, during the early eighties, when I was somewhat lost, I met Qi and he taught me how to learn Chinese, then invited me to teach English at the school he represented. I quickly learned that every single one of my Chinese students knew English grammar better than I did, (or do.) So I had to teach other things, most of which would get me kicked out of any respectable language teaching program, but, if it I do say myself, my method worked. Almost the entire class I taught passed the TOEFL and were able to study abroad.

Qi and I were both born in second half of 1951. I met him in 1983. I had gotten divorced and after that had quit a pretty good job, out of pride, ennui and spite, and then, to make it worse began to feel that I had made a horrible mistake. I was floating, in my early thirties, with no ambition and no ambition to even have ambition. I took a Chinese class on a whim, at the University of Oregon, and he was the teacher.

And Qi was a wonderful teacher, maybe the best I had ever had up at that point. I really never expected to learn Chinese when I took it, I just thought the experience would broaden my understanding of Asia and give me an excuse to hang out with college girls. But Qi was so charismatic and so determined that everyone in his class would learn his language, that I had no choice but to take it seriously and study.

He only stayed in Eugene for a year. He loved it, loved America, loved Oregon, everywhere he went he made friends and changed the people he met for the better. Or rather, gave them some special thing that caused them to change themselves. He told me, “I don’t want to live in Chinatown.” So I brought him into my world, which at the time was the crazy 1980s Eugene Oregon bar and party scene. Even on the nights when I didn’t feel like going out, he would get me out and with him around it was always exciting, and interesting. We would end up in amazing conversations with people who I otherwise wouldn't have realized existed.

He had his own life too, which I won’t talk about. But when it was time to return, to his wife and son, even though he was offered a very well paying job to continue teaching, he went back. I know it wasn’t easy, but I also know he never regretted it. In 1984, China was still blindly finding its way back to sanity, and no one was sure it wouldn’t revert to the madness of the Cultural Revolution.

He had been exiled like everyone else in China in the 70s to the countryside. He told me at that time, he was always looking for a way out, even though at the time it seemed worse than hopeless. He studied English quietly when no one else was watching. His father had been one of Mao’s most feared guerrillas, leading a small band on many attacks against the Japanese. But in 1965 his father was denounced, beaten and exiled. Qi had to raise himself and support his family, until his own exile a few years later. They were both released in 1977, and Qi resumed his studies and eventually got a chance to teach and study in the US. If he had stayed in Oregon he could have gotten his family to join him eventually, and he knew that, but he decided to keep his promises and return.

I took another year of Chinese, studied hard, and he invited me to teach English in Xian, where he was the vice-director of the English Language training program at the Xian College of Medicine, (now Xian Medical University).

He saw to it that I didn’t end up always trapped in the sometimes claustrophobic world of Foreigners in China. He got me on the faculty basketball team, (a big deal, we traveled to other schools for tournaments and we all got a bump in salary – so I can say I played pro-basketball.) He introduced me to people, including his legendary father, hosted my parents when they visited, and supported me against the frightened and sometimes dangerous Communist party on campus. The most notable accomplishment we pulled off was performing two plays in English for the entire campus. I promised my advanced class that we would get the plays they were memorizing performed. And we did. All lines were in English and hundreds of students and teachers came to see the performances.

Qi and I used to talk about being old men together after life became normal in China. There are not many people in life that have a transformative effect on you. I can’t imagine what my life would have been if I had never met Qi, but I am sure it would not have been as full. He was my big brother, born three months before me. He was so wise and good, and he made me so much better than I would have been otherwise. I wish he was still around, but, really, in my mind, he never left.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Review of "A Sentimental Education"



Flaubert is more famous for what is called “The Perfect Novel” - “Madame Bovary”, but to me, about to begin my 8th decade, “A Sentimental Education” (SE) is really his greatest work. (Unfortunately, I don’t read French so my understanding and appreciation is no doubt limited by that).

SE covers the active adult life of Frédéric and his lifelong love for the older wife of a friend and business partner, Madame Armoux. There are many other characters who come and go through the years. It is a long, extended account of their youthful friendships, petty betrayals, reconciliations, failures, and revivals over the course of about a quarter of a century.

There is a lot going on in the background which makes it doubly fascinating for us in the Boomer generation. I spent several semesters studying 19th Century European history, so the period - the incredible Revolutions of 1848, the Franco Prussian war, the rise of Bismarck, the Paris Commune, is all pretty familiar to me. SE is about a young liberal from the provinces, who doesn’t want to give up his newly won place in the middle class, and who during the 1848 Revolution, thought he was living through the arrival of freedom and democracy for the France and the rest of the European continent. But then, drip by drip, in the major centers of power, the counter attacks from the Right succeed and you can feel the exuberance of life drain out of Fredric and his compatriots. In Paris, where all the action takes place, Emperor Napoleon III, the second rate nephew of the first Bonaparte, takes power. The thrill is gone, but life and the petty bourgeois drama of Frederic and his acquaintances goes on, and they replace their revolutionary zeal with serial seductions and betrayals.

As a parallel to our times, the Sixties were a kind of 1848 moment. Like 1848, the revolutionary movement was worldwide, and it combined not just politics, but art, and literature and culture. But as perhaps happened to us, time passes and the purity of their feelings slowly becomes polluted. For Frederic and his friends, whose relationships are defined by those heady student days of demonstrating against the power, they have a second chance 23 years later in the aftermath of the Franco Prussian War, during the brief Paris Commune, with its refrain “To the Barricades!” But they are now older and have their petty lives with some pitiful fortunes to protect. And thousands caught in the wrong palace at the wrong time are being shot. Their reaction to it, their self justifications and avoidance of the larger reality all is quite interesting in light of how we baby boomers have reacted to Trump.

But it is the way Flaubert shows the passage of time and how his characters react and feel this passage which is the most amazing feature of the novel. It is a difficult book to read, especially, I suppose, if you are not steeped in the history of those times. Flaubert thrust you into the middle of things with little introductory preparation. You feel unmoored, and even though you might know that outside their petty jealousies and recriminations and flare ups of romantic feelings and subsequent melancholies, the reader knows there is a world going on out there, and sometimes wonders, do they know? How much does any of it matter? It is a lesson in life. I have read it twice and feel I am only just beginning to understand this novel.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Politics as I See it Today

 tRump’s grotesque occupancy of the American Presidency ‘woke’ us all up to the need to choose a side, and fight like hell to win, and overlook anything that might stand in the way of winning. The last election and its (January 6th)  aftermath was a struggle for survival in several senses of the word,  and now, it seems like we are having a brief respite, a chance to lick our wounds, and return to our lives. 

Really? No, sorry,  it ain’t over, now we have to prepare for the next round. 

It is a difficult prospect to face. But look around - the whole world is battling for its political future. There are many reasons to be scared. Maybe this state of affairs has always existed, and we just didn’t know it, or could not see it. But the domestic political battle lines are certainly more sharply divided than any time in living memory. Every society is in the throes of political civil strife, even if in some cases it is hidden below the surface.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the awakening of China from its Maoist isolation perhaps brought the issues into light. Previous to the late 80s, we were able to hide from our divisions behind the Cold War. But then Communism surrendered and we danced on its grave while Russia shivered and went hungry and built up resentment against the West.  Nationalism, chauvinism, tribalism, Fundamentalism etc. all revived there and in other former Soviet States, and in China too, albeit in a different form.  This authoritarian virus started infecting the West too, and the source, like the recent Coronavirus, is difficult to exactly pinpoint. Liberalism was suddenly seen as weak, even though it had won the Cold War while maintaining peace and prosperity.  It was seen as bloated, corrupt, and perhaps worse, “neo-liberal” and racist. We thought we still had a functioning system of justice, but cell phone cameras captured a different story. While some say this snapped a distorted picture, justice is very much about appearances, and it only works if the public image of it appears fair. 

And the rise of the mostly American tech oligarchs put a spotlight on economic inequality. 

So Liberalism lost its luster on both the left and the right. The hypocrisy and  historical blindness  of  much of “woke” culture makes it worse. And add the mind-numbing repetitive “super hero” fetish of big budget  mass entertainment along with the ubiquitous social media addiction added to the isolation and  uneasiness among much of the Urban “intellectual” class. For those and other reasons, Liberalism no longer commands much loyalty among the majorities in the West.  

I still see myself as a  liberal, because I believe that the technical transformations of the last 20-30 years have or will soon create a vast human economic redundancy. It is not just robots on the factory floor, but throughout our entire economy. Legal Zoom is putting lawyers out of work, to name just one example.  But at the same time, this tech revolution has potentially solved the greatest economic problem that society has faced since it started planting crops - production and distribution.  We now have the means to produce enough of almost everything  and get it to almost everyone. Computer technology (look out your window - see the Amazon Delivery Truck?) has largely solved the logistical issues. If that technological revolution is intelligently combined with science and a renewed respect for nature can keep us going for at least another generation. 

The population is shrinking worldwide, so this is all happening just in time, as we are going to have fewer workers in absolute numbers. I believe all of the above is making “Atlas Shrugged” style capitalism inefficient by comparison, and efficiency was capitalism's hole card. Can capitalism be harnessed for the job? Look how inefficient our capitalist health care system is. We will need to phase it in and bid out the work, but for the most part we can cut out the middle man. The only outcome foreseeable if Capitalism remains is hacienda-like societies, with the Super-Haves living on Islands of immense wealth, the Haves living in gated communities and the Have-Nots - the dispossessed 90% - living in dilapidated inescapable poverty... What Bernie Sanders has been preaching about is coming to pass and it is out in the open where everyone can see it. I optimistically think we can now solve the fundamental economic problem. We can shelter, feed,  educate everyone. Companies, and people can make money getting this done, but because the goal - better living conditions - is a societal goal and not a corporate goal, the government will have to control the purse strings.  

The labor market will exist for those who can work and want more, and economic  inequality will certainly  continue. Talent can rise, and live brilliantly, but nobody needs to be a billionaire. We can rebuild infrastructure and  neighborhoods, and use economic incentives to bring a higher quality of life to people in both urban and rural neighborhoods.  It is not “pie in the sky” anymore.  We can afford wealth redistribution - it will not break us. Inflation, the great fear, is not what it used to be, because it is caused when too much money  is chasing too few goods.  But we can produce the goods cheaply, (except for occasional structure constraints) so prices need not rise.

There is a real problem with this though. Bureaucratic inertia, self satisfaction of the managerial class, loss of visionary purpose, and eventually corruption and nepotism always seems to set in. It always happens.  The Chinese have understood it for thousands of years. It is the Dynastic Cycle, (朝代循環),   the rise and fall of governments.  In the beginning of a new regime, it really doesn’t matter what form or structure government takes, monarchism, socialism, New Dealism, or Islamic Theocracy, the youthful  human energy of a new beginning can make things happen. But eventually, it all turns, and complacency dooms it. They lose the Mandate of Heaven (天命)and the next revolution begins to build to take its place.

We can perhaps avoid that by building in an expiry date into the reforms. Try it for ten years, then all the laws and regulations lapse, and this intrusion into capitalism will require a thorough re-examination and house cleaning.  Nothing lasts forever and we should recognize that up front. But we will need more than one or even two terms of an Administration and therein lies the problem; our built-in inability to affect even a mid-range plan of action, much less a long term plan.


So all this will  be seemingly impossible in the current political climate, which is largely caused by a ginned up and phony mistrust of elites that is instigated by the (here I lapse into a tired Marxist trope) “lackeys of the plutocrats”. In other words FOX News and its fellow travelers.  To explain why this plan will work would require a degree of analytical thought to which our mass culture can not fathom. This new economic situation of mass unemployment combined with unparalleled wealth that has been created by exponential increases in marginal productivity  goes against all ‘common sense’. It will be easy for the Rs, (Republicans, or the Right) to convince their base to allow them to  kill it. We on the ‘Left’ will  first try and explain it, using Robert Reich’s charts and emojis,  but that of course will get nowhere, so we will have to try and use our narrow majority to get about 1/10 done of what is needed, but that probably won’t work and this “failure” will be used to overturn our narrow majority in 18 months. We will lose Congress.  When you throw in tRump to this situation, you can see how it is easy to be pessimistic. (yes I know I was optimistic a couple of paragraphs or so ago…)

 In frustration many try to blame this political climate on a “fascist retrenchment”, but that is perhaps overkill, based on faulty historical analysis and a failure of imagination. The Situation today is different than when the old style fascism rose. Post-WW1 right wing dictatorial regimes came to power when people were mostly only one generation away from peasantry. But post-WW2 had seen the rise in material prosperity, and, except “on the periphery”, 50 years of peace. (Yes, I know that is a cruel oversimplification to the millions who live on the periphery).  This new US-based, faux-populist authoritarianism is being born out of completely different conditions from Post-WW1.  We have been raised comfortably with a lifetime to enjoy the political freedom the last Great War provided. In addition, we have a historical rear view mirror which warns us how bad fascism can actually get. So if it really comes,  it's not likely to repeat in exactly the same way. I am just saying we will need a different word to describe it.

All that is clearly apparent to “the opposition”, but they still justify their abandonment of democracy to themselves. I guess they say to themselves we liberals are overreacting, that tRumpism wasn’t that bad.  But I think we are not reacting enough.  As an American who was raised in the same society as tRumpists, this disconnect is what scares me the most. To call them “enemy” serves no useful purpose, and as I said above, it is not really accurate, at least not yet.  But I oppose them, and because I know them, and am bewildered by all that, the situation is more than deeply concerning to me. I am aware this weak armchair opposition of mine might show my age, and approaching irrelevance. And it might be typical of American liberals too.

But first and foremost, I remain committed to the liberal values as a moral imperative, in addition to the technical reasons I explained above. Government by definition should serve the needs of the people, not the rich who can and do buy politicians. At the same time I am aware that the 18th century grab bag of ideas that a few Western philosophers called the "Enlightenment” just might be an ideology that has lost its muscle tone. The Chinese certainly think so.  

But I dither and digress. Here we are, seeing the outlines of the next fight. So my advice to myself and anyone else is forget about the long term for now. As long as tRump is in the fight it makes it easy for us to find our purpose. His continued presence is a monumental insult to the nation.  tRump recently said he likes the idea of simply taking over as Speaker of the House if the Rs win six or so more seats next year. Unlike his “reinstated by August” comment, that is not totally batshit. We know what cowards and moral hypocrites the Rs are now. tRump wouldn’t even have to run for Congress to do it. There is no Constitutional provision that requires the Speaker to be elected to anything. He just needs a majority of the House to vote for him.  And who could doubt he could get it from the Rs?

From there it would be a short (two year)  limo ride back to the White House.

So this is why we have to stay in the fight. He is a monster, that that is all the reason we need. Until that monster is put down, politically or legally or both, we have to stay engaged and united. The right is ignorant, morally wrong, legally wacko, and oh yeah, definitely in the minority. But they are united. And dangerous. We have to  stay united, and defeat the tRumpian plutocracy. And that means continuing to fight, not letting FOX News get the upper hand, and that means steeling the Biden Administration to not bend to the Rs. And sometimes, it will mean cheering for our overly ‘woke’ allies who we might otherwise disagree with.

After that - well somebody smarter, and perhaps even more evil, might rise in tRump’s place. That will probably be the next generation’s war to fight.

 But it is just as likely that we might somehow discover a Lincoln-like figure among ourselves to keep the flame alive and give us a new purpose to believe that we can keep our liberal values alive. It’s a tough way for us boomers to spend our retirement, but let’s face it we owe it to the kids.

Interview with Reader Views Editor Sheri Hoyte

Interview with S. Lee Barckmann – Author of “The SwiftPad Trilogy”

Hi Lee, Welcome to Reader Views! Tell us a bit about The SwiftPad Trilogy

The Trilogy is an alt-history of the last decade. It starts with “The SwiftPad Takeover” which is a serial killer thriller combined with a peek at the business of starting up a worldwide social media system, as well as a fanciful sci-fi-techno tale about the features of an advanced social media app.

“The next book is “The SwiftPad Insurgency” which moved time ahead about 5 or 6 years. Now SwiftPad is a worldwide mega success. It has changed not only the characters in the story, but the city of Portland itself, bringing in money and influence to the city. Politically however, the nation has descended into fear and terror as a boorish monster has taken over the government and caused major disasters.

Portland, rich, turns into a human catastrophe with a million refugees. The city mobilizes to aid the homeless people who have descended on the city, and this infuriates the @RealPrez. One of the principal creators of the “SwiftPad” app is kidnapped. Much of the novel is about urban warfare, and its aftermath.

“The SwiftPad Extinction,” the final novel, follows the action from the previous installment as nationwide the conflict spreads.  Simultaneously the world is hit by a pandemic of a bizarre disease with unpredictable symptoms, that baffles science. The story is about the coalescing of the nationwide resistance to the dictatorship. It is also about the main character’s search for his kidnapped colleague and for a cure for the pandemic.

What inspired you to write this particular story line?

The first book was written with no thought it would become a trilogy. My career as a corporate  IT troubleshooter came to an end before I was ready, so the first book was meant to be, in part, a satiric account of the IT business from different perspectives, from the C-level negotiations, to the business of “consultants”, down to the people who actual do the technical implementations. It was sort of a ‘revenge of the nerd’ story if you will.

It was completed in 2014, so I had no idea how the 2016 US Presidential election would turnout.   But as  the deepening realization hit of what tRump actually wanted to do, all that seemed to cause me to be consumed by politics. I could not believe it was my country, the United States, that I was watching. So, I turned that to writing as an outlet, and decided to write a sequel to “The SwiftPad Takeover”.

“The SwiftPad Insurgency” was published in 2019. “The real “Insurgency” in Portland, when DHS Security troops were kidnapping people into unmarked vans happened in July 2020. I wasn’t looking to make prediction, but only to find a story angle where I would be familiar with the setting and locale.  I live in a Portland suburb. By listening to the rhetoric coming out of the White House and right-wing News, where the word “Portland” was used as an epithet, it seemed like a logical outcome.

What are some of the relevant topics readers will encounter in your series?

  • The theory and design of an ideal social media app.
  • The business requirements of starting a software company that has a worldwide footprint ( on the cheap).
  • The sick mind of a psychotic sadistic rapist/serial killer
  • How to hack a communication system.
  • The kinds of disasters that an American fascist can create, when combined with climate meltdown and a widespread epidemic.
  • Extrapolations as to the nature of 21st Century Urban warfare.
  • How a country can slowly be draw into a civil conflict that almost no one wants
  • How to hack and disrupt a major infrastructure.

Tell us about your lead characters – what motivates them?

  • Kip – a laid back son of a rich, cutthroat limber baron.  Kip is a nice guy, a stoner, with traces of the Big Lebowski’s “The Dude”, a man in his early 40s who seems completely guileless and without ambition and who lives on a dwindling trust fund and who stumbles into a role of worldwide business leadership.
  • Jim – Jim Kip’s childhood best friend who was raised in the woods by a poor single mother and is competitive with Kip. He goes into the Army, catches his CO in an East German Honey trap, and gets total freedom to wander disguised as a civilian on both sides of the Berlin Wall. He returns to civilian life as an IT troubleshooter for Global Industrial Processing, (GIP), a declining mega IT company.
  • Paula – a 60s Political radical, and hippie goddess who discovers the fountain of youth (Fungus) and travels through the second half of the 20th Century as physically a young woman. She taught Nate the tricks of love when he was young and they get together again.
  • GG – the real brains behind SwiftPad. Sleeps with Kip and the next morning she gets funding to start her Social Media development project.
  • Senator Cadez – a former Nixon operative who also discovered the Fungus and is running for President in 2020
  • Spence – a weak but brilliant software engineer who is building the computerized link between recorded mind reads and the internet. Married to Maggie but has a crush on Alison.
  • Nate Schuette – an old man who has forgone perpetual youth and is Paula former sometime lover
  • Maggie – Spence’s wife who becomes a feared urban guerrilla. Formerly Nate’s girlfriend when Nate was still on the fungus.
  • Alison – Work colleague of Spence, who comes to play the pivotal role in the climax of the conflict.
  • Leone (Humpkin) the shadow leader of the opposition to RealPrez and Nate’s old college roommate

Did you let your characters dictate the story or did you map things out first?

The characters, and the thread of the story itself took on a life of their own. I had only the vaguest idea where I was going as I was writing.

What kind of research was involved in writing The SwiftPad Trilogy?

I took most of the technical ideas from my own experience. But I did a fair amount of technical research. I studied specs for high end process control systems. I took most of the technical ideas on Internet hacking from my own experience (as an Internet security administrator for Oregon State Government and a system monitoring specialist in the private sector). I did recycle some of the back story of Nate and the origins of telepathic recording and transfer of mental images from a previous unpublished work from many years ago, (when I did research on 1970s technologies).  I read a book about Ed Snowden. And I certainly did do a lot of research on existing technologies as disparate as light plane flight specs, current EEG sensing and recording of brainwaves for legitimate  usage.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your series?

I was surprised by how violent things could become.  I hate violence, and am uncomfortable writing about it, but I think it is important not to be too comfortable when writing. The study of the past has been a serious lifelong hobby for me, so as I wrote, I thought a lot about how much pointless violence happens during revolutions and how horrible civil wars often turn out. 

So, the violence is meant to be a warning. We are in some ways sleepwalking, like Europe was in August 1914.  The threat of civil conflict is real and our responsibility to avoid it is paramount. This Trilogy is a fictional warning. It is not a prescription. As the author I claim no ability for prognosticate.

I also discovered, to my surprise, that I could create and write under deadlines and pressure. I need to say, that on one level writing the Trilogy was a collaboration with my editor Linda Franklin. She didn’t get involved until I was “done” or thought I was. But during her engagement almost every day she would send me notes on things that were weak or missing.   I would make corrections and because I wanted us both to stay engaged I wrote a number of major (and maybe the best) storyline additions overnight.  If I had to describe the perfect editor, it would be Linda.  I was lucky to be introduced to her by Inkwater Publishing, a great organization that got me on the right track in a number of ways. (Masha Shubin, also from Inkwater did the interior design and implemented my ideas for the covers.) 

How does The SwiftPad Trilogy stand apart from other books in the genre?

Honestly, it is hard to think of a specific genre. I guess it is alt history, like Phillip Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle”, about life on the American West Coast if Japan had won World War II. Or John Brunner’s novels, such as “The Society of Time”. about time travelling in an alt-world where the Spanish Armada successfully conquered England.  As I think about “The SwiftPad Trilogy”, it really is about a second Trump Administration.  But it is also speculative fiction in that it extrapolates where technology might be taking us. It is also social commentary, about where our social behaviors are leading us. There is a bit of the old “ripped from the headlines” about it too. But really, I hope it is more story about the characters who work through the problems that are unexpectedly (to me and them) thrown at them.

One thing I don’t want it to be, is a counter story to something like “The Turner Diaries” which is a right wing fantasy about a revolt against a “liberal” government. My books are not made to inspire anyone, but to frighten them. “The Turner Diaries” was a handbook for Timothy McVeigh. On the surface The SwiftPad Trilogy” might seem like something similar, but that is not what the books are about. Yes it recounts a civil conflict in the US from a particular side, fighting a corrupt wannabe dictator, but the “power” is far away, most of the time. The issues in the story personal and “locally sourced”. And it is clearly fanciful. There is no attempt to attach anything real to any real people, except in satire. If it is a “Protocols of a Libtard Qanon”, then it is obvious satire. The difference is QAnon believers really believe tRump is Q or is close to Q.  The SwiftPad Trilogy is fiction. It is not “liberal Anon.”

What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

Some negative. I can’t deny the Trilogy is political and people who see it through that lens only, and dislike my politics, will likely dislike the books. I certainly don’t disguise that it is (in part) a revolt against a tRump-like figure. Wackos like those that attacked the Capitol on Jan 6 tell themselves “we have the guns”.  And clearly that is true. The story is a bit of a meditation on how it might play out, especially in a city like Portland where almost no one is armed. While the extreme right is armed in an infantry sense, those advantages are not necessarily so overwhelming. I wanted to explore how that might play out in a “war game” like scenario.

What do you like to read?

Fun books. Carl Hiasaan is a particular favorite. Donald Westlake.. I like le Carre, and the noire writers of the 30s and forties, James Cain, Dashille Hammit, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler. I like Walter Mosley, Of course Tomas Pynchon. I don’t know Don deLillo, Jonathon Lethem. I thought Joan Didion’s “Play it as it Lays” was great, and I have read much of her nonfiction. John D. McDonald, Martin Cruz Smith,  Phillip Roth, Kingsley Amis, James Ellroy – and of course the greats, Shakespeare,  Melville, Faulkner, Ken Kelsey (“Sometimes a Great Notion” is the greatest American novel, needs to be read again and again…) but I read a lot of history too. Recently half of my bookshelf is history.

Which book has most influenced your writing?

Gravity’s Rainbow. I got it right away, and most people shake their heads and say it is incomprehensible. I studied a lot of 19th and 20th century German history in college, and some physics too. And his sense of humor really appealed to me. So, of his more recent work I have been indifferent to though.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I’m wife and I were both decent runners in school. We try and help each other stay in shape. We hike and do camping in the late summer. Nothing too radical, maybe 5 days in the woods at a time.

What’s next? Are you writing another book? What can you share with us?

I have a couple of ideas. I want to write a mystery set in the 50s. Maybe through the eyes of a young boy. Also thinking about a comedic-satiric political scandal in a modern small city. A la Anthony Trollope. Comedy is hard, as they say, but I like to read it, so, maybe I can pull it off.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, about writing, or about life in general?

Do what you like to do. The hard part though is knowing what that is.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Don’t quit your day job.


My wife Mary and I  live outside of Portland Oregon now. We like to go backpacking, biking, and enjoy playing with our grand daughter, who lives with our son and daughter-in-law not far away. 

I grew up in Barnegat NJ, and had a Huck Finn childhood, surrounded by woods, streams, and meadows. In the 1950s, 1200 people lived there. I have two younger sisters, Laura and Liza.

 My Dad was an amazing story teller, and a town character.  Mom was from the mountain region of North Carolina.  She graduated from college and taught us kids to read early.   My parents bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, along with the Britannica Junior set and also a set of books of mythology and heroes, such as William Tell, William Wallace, and Robert the Bruce, (through my mother’s Appalachian family, legend says Bruce is a direct ancestor).  

We moved from Barnegat to a north Jersey suburb when I was 12.  I ran track and cross country at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale.

I studied Economics and History at the University of Kansas,  moved to Eugene Oregon, and then met Mary.  I did various jobs, and then went to China to teach English.  Mary joined me.  After two and a half years, we returned to the US, broke, with Zach on the way, and I got a job in a Florida strip mall computer store.  It was a hard few years, but I learned computers and the associated technologies. I went on to a career in IT, from which 30 years later I retired from IBM.  During that time I wrote intermittently, mostly on “Farewell the Dragon”.   

I have a few ideas as to what kind of fiction I will write next. I love history, but the responsibility of “sticking to the facts” is more than I want to take on. So in the meantime, I am exercising, reading a lot and occasionally writing book reviews for my blog.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The China Mirage by James Bradley

The China Mirage History of American Disaster in Asia by James D. Bradley

 I really liked “The China Mirage” by James Bradley. I learned things and felt it was worthwhile reading. I say that now, because I need to point out much that is wrong with the book, (see below) or rather what some people, (such as serious historians) might say is wrong with it. I think this history is important though, (and it is forthrightly a history). 

The book is not a forbidding tome. In only 371 pages of narrative, along with well arranged notes and an appendix, it covers, rather breezily at times, the US’s relationship with Asia over the last 150-170 years. James Bradley is perhaps best known as the author of “Flags of Our Fathers”, a book that was made into a movie by Clint Eastwood. His own father had taken the famous photograph of American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Bradley tells this story at times with very broad strokes and at others, he sometimes plays fast and loose with the historical record. Much of the story he tells is focused on the proclivities and whims of political actors, (mainly two Presidents, who were both named Roosevelt.) The book is a history of the “China Lobby” in the US. It at times reads slightly less hyperbolic than say Hunter Thompson’s political writings. Because Thompson’s drug-fueled, manic and psychotic accounts about the Presidential campaigns don’t exactly meet the high standards of journalism expected of a nationally syndicated writer, most people know that Hunter Thompson has to be read with your tongue inside your cheek sometimes. (See “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972”) But just because Thompson doesn’t meet the standards of objective journalism does not mean Thompson is wrong. Because even though some of his hallucinations seem like repressed revelatory memories of the future, you can’t use him to make a serious argument about specific happenings - but taken with a satiric, wider view, you can easily say that Thompson had it all right. 

 My over-wrought point is that Bradley’s occasional historical malpractice does not mean he is wrong either. Bradley doesn’t have Thompson’s comic gifts, and his book reads like an over the top high brow screed at the insanity he sees in our relationships with Asia. He is a good writer, the story he tells is compelling. He tries to cover a century and a half of history, mixing detail with breathtaking denouncements and summations. If you have ever been exposed to any academic understanding of the proper way to study history, in the manner that Thucydides’ great account of the “Peloponnesian War” models, you might find this book disappointing. 

Bradley doesn’t play fair, and doesn’t pretend to try. He has an agenda. The villains are both of the Roosevelt Presidents and a long line of (mostly) Harvard men who had no knowledge of China, had never been there, and who put total faith in what Bradley calls the Soong-Jiang Syndicate, ie. the Kuomintang (Guomindang) Party led by Chiang Kai Shek (Jiang Jieshi). Bradley doesn’t examine or give fair consideration to serious contra-stories to the narrative he is trying to push. We hear nothing of the many cultural achievements under the Guomindang (or Kuomintang) and almost nothing of Mao’s Stalin-like purges. And Bradley sometimes makes bold assumptions without evidence, or just to be clever - (and sometimes snarky). Just one example - on page 320 he says, “Roosevelt promised Stalin that he could have parts of China that Japan had taken in the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt told himself he would straighten the whole thing out with Jiang (Chiang Kai Shek) later.” Now I suppose you could say that Bradley was merely “extrapolating” that Roosevelt must have “told himself” to make this policy contradiction square. But you can’t really say that “...told himself…” is empirical evidence.

 He covers the many examples of corruption, betrayals and cruelty alleged against the Kuomintang, but, again, says nothing of similar well documented instances against Mao. We ( serious readers who are searching for some kind of truth…) have to be armored against all kinds of propaganda, and this technique of only reporting one side of a struggle is what the modern mainland Chinese party (CCP) uses (even today in the Covid era) to sell China to the Americans. The technique is to point out the easily provable failings of the West while refusing to acknowledge China’s own obvious failings in a serious way. This is why Bradley’s book has to be held to a different standard than for a more serious study. 
The argument for reading Bradley’s “The China Mirage” is that so-called serious studies have consistently missed the ‘Big Picture”. Bradley is trying to spotlight the “Big Picture”, to correct the propaganda imprint that the “China Lobby” has left on the American psyche. Perhaps he is highlighting this “Big Picture” by using the China Lobby’s own methods of exaggeration, avoidance, and hyperbolic conspiratorial projection. Or maybe it is a way for “long form” writers like Bradley to have a chance to compete with the Twitterverse. If you agree with Bradley’s premise, (Which I do) then you will like the book.

 “The China Mirage” is not a boring book, it is highly readable. He puts you inside deliberations that are tragic-comic illustrations of extreme American hubris combined with profound ignorance. The book taught me things about how America twisted and convoluted itself into a long standing “Asia Policy” that was based on fantasy. That is something Twitter can never do. The problem is that if you use Bradley’s book to put steel in your arguments that America screwed up Asia for generations by supporting the Kuomintang over Mao’s Communists in the war against Japan, (and later in their civil war,) then Bradley’s weak methods might become your weak points if you are not careful. A strong debater will shoot down unsubstantiated hyperbole in a “Point-Counterpoint” debate. So that is the caution to maintain when reading “The China Mirage”. “The China Mirage” points out again and again that “The Emperor has no clothes”. The Emperor in this case is our Asia Policy for the last 150 years. 

“The China Mirage” is written as popular history, in the hope that a wider audience will understand how the US was duped, and how we seem to continue to be duped by the “China Lobby” and its (still) active descendants. There are many sub-themes in the book, but the overriding one is that in the mid-19th century, American Protestant missionaries sent back glowing letters about the “simple Chinese villagers” who were industrious, family-oriented, moral people who only needed to to hear the word of Christ to rise up and join the enlightened nations. At the sametime, Yankee sea captains and second tier British aristocrats were making fortunes selling opium to those same simple villagers. So those two social forces - missionary zeal and massive fortunes made from drug dealing in the largest market on earth combined to drive conflicting fantasies about an Americanized China. 

 In the mid-19th century, America’s stumbling intrusion into Asia began with Commodore Perry’s “Gunboat diplomacy” in Tokyo Bay. Japan quickly saw how the technological and industrial might of the West gave it such a military advantage over Asian countries. Small and insular, the Japanese used both their social unity, and unique laissez faire (low taxes) attitude toward commerce to quickly begin to “catch up”. By “social unity” I mean the many layered, strict hierarchical social discipline that had been imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate 200 years previously, and that was still maintaining sway when Perry arrived. Japan went from international seclusion and feudalism to a unique form of an expansive paternalistic military-Industrial oligarchy within two generations. Underneath the new system however, the old feudal system persisted, disguised with Western bureaucratic forms, but still underlying society. And in the end these sub-rosa feudal attitudes and inhibitions trapped Japan in an aggressive, “Samurai” posture when facing the world. Japan followed the example of the West by using colonialism to expand and capture natural resources. 

By the turn of the 20th Century, Japan had already defeated China in a war and taken Korea as a colony. Then Japan launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, (on a Sunday morning), and defeated the Tsar’s empire pushing Russia out of East Asia. But Japan did not want a long drawn out war, so they asked Teddy Roosevelt to mediate a peace treaty. He brokered the deal in Japan’s favor. Japan’s ambassador to the U.S. Baron Kaneko, who reported directly to Prince Ito (who was the power and brains behind the Meiji Revolution, which signalled Japan’s move to westernise.). Kaneko, like Roosevelt a Harvard man, worked a brilliant con on Teddy and his fellow alumnus. He understood Teddy and the US, while no one in the US government knew anything about Japan. Teddy envisioned Japan as the leader of Asia, and himself as Japan’s big brother. TR wanted full access to China’s market, and he didn’t want to share it with Europe. Japan could play the heavy, protecting Asia from European poachers, while letting the US in the back door. The Japanese of course were not fooled. Diplomatically they made every signal that they agreed with Teddy’s vision, while they expanded and consolidated their colonies into China. 

 The story then switches to the rise of the Soong family. We learn how Charlie Soong arrived in the US as a laborer, became a Christian, and to avoid anti-Chinese violence on the West Coast, moved to North Carolina. A group of prominent Methodists, none of whom had ever met an Asian person before, took Charlie in. With their support, he studied English and ended up graduating from (what became) Duke University. With his wealthy American Christians contacts in hand, he returned to China and started a publishing company. His main product was Bibles (translated into Chinese) and with his American friend’s support, he sold millions of Bibles to US Missionaries, (who were generously funded from Protestant churches in the US). Needless to say, Charlie got rich. Charlie had six children. The most prominent were his three daughters, and a son, all of whom would graduate from prestigious US Universities. His children would form the backbone of a “dynasty” that would become enormously wealthy, be celebrated in the western press, and for a while, be the rulers of China. The eldest was Ailing, the often invisible power behind the Kuomintang Party, Chiang Kai Shek, and all of his generals. She was by all accounts the leader, and the effective ruler of China. Ailing married H.H. Kung, a descendant of Confucius, an early supporter of Sun Yatsen, and a minister in his government. Kung was the richest man in the world in the 1930s. Ailing had previously been Sun Yatsen’s secretary, but she didn’t submit to his sexual advances, so she promoted her sister Qingling to be Sun’s principal assistant. Qingling did not rebuff Sun.

 Qingling was the second daughter and she became Sun Yatsen’s very young wife and eventually heir to his legacy. After the Kuomintang’s bloody purge in 1927, (where many of Sun Yatsen’s closest followers were killed) Qingling rejected her family, and left Shanghai for Yan’an, Mao’s headquarters in Northern Shaanxi province. Qingling supported Mao and was on the podium in front of Tiananmen in 1949 when Mao proclaimed the founding of the PRC. She held a number of high, ceremonial posts in the CCP, suffered severe criticism and harassment during the Cultural Revolution and lived in Beijing until her death in 1981.

 The youngest sister, and the most attractive was Mayling, (Madame Chiang Kai Shek). She was bartered off to Jiang by her elder sister Ailing in order to cement Jiang’s “legitimacy”. According to Bradley, (the official account differs) Jiang was married already, but his old wife silently accepted the arrangement. The Soong family also included Harvard educated little brother T.V. Soong, who was the Finance Minister. That in a nutshell was the Kuomintang leadership in 1930, after the massive purging of leftist “allies” in 1927, of whom an estimated 300,000 were killed. Ailing was the brains of the gang and beautiful Mayling was the “front”. Mayling, as Madame Chiang Kai Shek, spoke with a beautiful southern-American accent and charmed the American power brokers who were “The China Lobby”. Bradley’s analysis of who “founded” the China lobby and how they became almost all powerful inside the American foriegn policy establishment is the central theme of the book. Those foriegn service officers, like John Service, who had lived in China during the war, spoke the language, and who had had contacts with Mao and his ministers before 1949 were drummed out of the State department by Joseph MacCarthy. The China Lobby used MacCarthy, but did not embrace him, because the China Lobby passed itself off as a high brow, Harvard kind of group, and while willing to use people like MacCarthy, otherwise wanted nothing to do with him.

 The China Lobby had many members of the Press “on the payroll”, as Bradley put it, notables such as Theodore White, Joseph Alsop to say nothing of Henry Luce himself. Many supporters were in Academia, as well as some of the most important politicians who came after World War II, including JFK, Nixon, along with many influential members of Congress and the Senate. The China Lobby created the “China Mirage”, which was the totally fabricated notion that China was on the verge of becoming a “Christian” nation that wanted to be like America. Neither side had a clear picture of what the “other side” was like or what they wanted. The China Lobby said that if the US helped the charming Mayling and her heroic husband, then the US could “change” China into a liberal Christian democracy, anti-Communist, and a reliable pro-American ally. In reality, according to Bradley, Jiang and the Soongs were a gang of grifters who personally skimmed much of the billions of dollars the US would give them to fight the Japanese. Even after the Japanese were defeated in 1945, when the battle raged against Mao, corruption in the Guomindang ran rampant. Mao was winning every battle, but the China Lobby Press, (ie. TIME magazine and the other Luce publications) refused to cover the military debacle that the US was bankrolling. Bradley says that the US fell into an unrealistic romance with an “oriental” version of Asia that never existed. He shows how the China Lobby continued to dominate the US’s Asian Foriegn policy long after Mao took power in 1949. Vietnam ended up playing out the same way that China did, where we propped up a Western educated Christian Vietnamese, (Ngo Dinh Diem) and his camarilla (Madam Nu) against a popular liberation front led by a charismatic leader(Ho Chi Minh). And even our most recent adventure in Afghanistan has many of the hallmarks of the “China Lobby”. We followed the same pattern of pumping billions in modern American weaponry (benefiting our own Military industrial complex while being paid for by taxpayers), while hoping that the supporters of our propped-up authoritarian grifter can fight off a popular, nationalistic insurrection. 

 Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather made his fortune selling opium in China as did many other founders of 19th century American fortunes, such as the Forbes family, the Perkins Family, the Cushings, and the Russell family - all of whom played a powerful part in portraying a peculiar portrait of China to the rest of the US. One of the primary China Lobby heavyweights who came from the missionary side of the Americans in China in the 19th century was Henry Luce. His parents were missionaries and he was born in China himself. He founded and edited TIME as well as LIFE magazine(s). China has always fired the imagination of the west. Popes, and emperors even neighbors like the Mongols who conquered China never seemed to get what it is about China that has this effect. Its vastness, its antiquity, the way it solved so many of the problems of civilization in such different ways from the manner that the west used, all have a way of getting into our heads and making us think that "if only..." they did this, or accepted that, then China could be - ???

 In "The Quiet American" the American Alden Pyle fantasizes about a "Third Force" not Communist, not Kleptocracy but a true blue movement of patriotic, democratic honest brokers who could somehow come to power in a nation like Vietnam. If trying to understand how we got conned by the China Lobby, I would recommend reading Graham Greene's novel. Its as good an explanation as any. Bradley believes, contrary to most historians, that if Roosevelt had trusted Mao, or at least had seriously engaged diplomatically with him, that the history of the CCP’s early rule after 1949 would have been different. Maybe no Korean War, no Vietnam war, and for China, more openness, less paranoia, no horrible internal decisions such as the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. While no one knows how the “what if” gambit would turn out, most historians think Mao would have turned China inward in any event. I am inclined to agree that Mao showed his radical agrarian, anti-democratic side early on in his history. And like most dictators, he couldn't admit he was wrong in large and important matters. But, the result might have been different on the margins, how much who knows. 

 But those kinds of predictions are not helpful, because they can not really be tested. Bradley’s prose is bitter at times, even cynical. Occasionally he is very funny. He has no domestic “partisan” agenda, as he makes clear that both Rs and Dems were equally in on the China Lobby. Most of his attacks are on the Roosevelts or their representatives. He has a lot of gossipy info and he “chains” events quite well, taking known events and putting in the transitions to help the reader understand “motivations”. As I said, sometimes it seems like a stretch. In spite of all my reservations about the “process” Bradley uses, I give it five stars, because I essentially agree with him on every point, having come to similar conclusions from study and experience.