Barckwords

Barckwords
Click logo above to see more about Barckmann's fiction

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Gabbard and Greenwald

 Sometimes, like now, I try to write about politics when my attempts to write fiction are floundering, and it is just not feeling true. While writers block often affects my fiction attempts, writing about politics seems pretty easy, even when I know what I write can be justly called "bullshit", and is mostly a kind of a lie. Political discourse always, in some ways simplifies and blocks out conflicting narratives, in the name of expediency. It always involves fibbing, distorting or shading out or outright ignoring evidence, especially when writing about national political phenomenon in the US. A big country we are, in many senses of the word "big". Yet here and now, as before, there are only two choices, and both the R's and the D's compress ideology into almost meaningless slogans or silly memes. And to make it worse, I  always feel dirty when I try to write seriously about any of it. Any other subject of importance such as science, technology, history, economics all require a level of intellectual investment and competence that is difficult to attain, in order to feel comfortable discussing any of it. But not so with politics. I feel perfectly at home braying my opinions without any shame. It is a full contact mass scrum that I believe we have to join in, and we ignore it at our peril, particularly these days. 


For example, how to react to Glenn Greenwald and Tulsi Gabbard appearing so often on the FOX network, particularly on segments of Tucker Carlson or Hannity or Laura Ingram. Without elaboration, I feel these three at FOX are scum-sucking purveyors of hate, shameless liars, deniers of truth, dedicated to convincing their viewers that some form of fascism is preferable to a government decided by honest elections and universal suffrage.  For me, "to hate" is a reflexive verb. It always comes around like it goes around. So I try to push it out of my mind, but with those three, (who really are only avatars, not even real, any humanity they have is left outside their studios) with them it's a constant effort to flush out hate from seeping into my emotions. 


 I admire Tulsi and Greenwald. I saw Tulsi speak in 2019 in a park in Portland and talked briefly to her afterwards. She's a dynamic speaker and a full-fledged force for peace, and she is whip smart, (as well as quite beautiful, an asset in politics for certain). While in Congress, she called out the hypocrisy of Hillary and other establishment Dems who voted for the Bush/Cheney Mesopotamian wars. Back in the beginning of the century, Tulsi, as an army officer in in the Middle East, saw firsthand the dishonesty and futility of the effort and she was an eloquent voice against our presence there, pointing out our ignorance of the region and the self-defeating nature of our own effort.


Glenn Greenwald helped Snowden publish exactly how our intelligence services eroded the constitutional protections of our rights and liberty.  His resume, to me, is admirable. I always learn something substantial when I listen to him.


Neither one, Greenwald especially, seem to care much about political party.  He refuses to be pulled into the political argument that one side was bad, so what they did had to be bad, while the other side was not as bad so what they did was not as bad. Tulsi of course ran for President, and was the only candidate - well it doesn't matter, she lost.


 Their attitude toward politics and the truth is uncomfortable, not just to other pols, but to us, or at least to me as well. We just can't be pulled into it, because it muddies the preferred narrative. For me, I feel especially dirty as an avowed fiction writer, supposedly above the lies, arguing partisan points, leaking out whatever shred of moral authority I might have had as cover. 


I believe that there's no such thing as nonfiction. Everyone has an angle, no story is neutral.  I subscribe to the corollary of Rashid Wallace's dictum that both sides played hard. The corollary is both sides are both good and bad. Yes we are to some extent a racist, ignorant country, but still, I know these people, and they are not as evil as we tend to see them on TV. But how do you say that in a 30 second ad, which is the "creative" side of politics? 


Believe it or not, I try to askew politics or at least pretend to see and explain the whole field of play when I write fiction. That is why it is so much harder than when I write about politics. In politics there can be no such rule, but if you believe, as I do, that  there is no non-fiction, then you can't avoid the sin of prevaricating, no matter the subject. It is all lies, in one  form or another.


As for Gabbard and Greenwald, they are now media personalities and I guess they need exposure to make a living. They believe in their "truth messages" and that apparently trumps any political or rhetorical ammo they may be supplying to the FOX authoritarians. Or maybe they just like being on TV. 


We are now watching the media reanimate the reputations of Bush through his weird paintings and his daughter appearing with Hoda on the TV show Today. And don't forget that his former flack, Nicole Wallace is one of the biggest voices against Trump on MSNBC. We also see Cheney becoming less of a pariah while his daughter is the one and only R to sound the alarm against the orange faced former Reality show "star" ("When you are a star they let you do anything"). 


Bush-Cheney's decision to invade the Middle East was the greatest disaster in US history, at least I believe history will see it as such. If the US is in the process of historical decline then that action was what set the decline off. 


Without doubt Trump has played a big  part in this process of decline, if in fact it is a decline. Trump undoubtedly accelerated it even though paradoxically, he condemned Bush-Cheney's war. Now he is the real and present danger while the "real" Cheney and Bush live in their Dallas fortresses of retirement. 


 So what should think? What should we do? Should we condemn Tulsi and Glenn for aiding and abetting the present day enemy and should we forget their past actions which focused a bright light on the worst aspects of the worst foreign policy disaster in the nation's history? Or should we say history smidgely, what have you done for me lately? How do we acknowledge the opposing truths? 


Time does not stop. It's a river, it is never the same. We can't freeze moments in time and move them into other eras and expected all to fit. We are now in a struggle for a future that we can't see. Remember the show trials of the 20th century from Stalin's to Joe McCarthy's. Should we put Gabbard and Greenwald on the dock and send them to the proverbial block? Do we want a return to that?  Do we want to replay the lies, the evil barbarity and stupidity of the past in order to accommodate our very murky present? 


If not, that means we have to chart our own course, and let the past go, while at the same time never forgetting it. That is the scariest course of all.  Leaping into the unknown, led by the new and unfamiliar.


 19th century France couldn't stomach the horrible side of  their own revolution, but they could not let go of the part they admired, so after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, they returned to monarchy and after that to the mediocre authoritarian, and silly nephew, Louie Napoleon. That turned out to be an even bigger disaster for France, and led to the first World War, eventually.  Does our future have another Cheney or Bush or Clinton or Kennedy or even a younger Trump in the wings? Can we escape the past? Can we get to a sane place, a livable place without going over the same ground?


If you were waiting for an answer, then don't ask a fiction writer.  We are the most untrustworthy of them all.

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Lure of the Red Dragon by Mark Oulton


The Lure of the Red Dragon: Life and Love for a Foreigner in Modern China by Mark Oulton

Buy the Book!


The Lure of the Red Dragon (“...Red Dragon”) is a big and important book. It is encyclopedic in scope, full of well-researched facts, facts that sit comfortably beside keen observation and personal anecdote. It admirable attempts to do the nearly impossible - explain China. It is an up-to-date compendium on the Xi Jinping era.

The recent “great books” by westerners about China often come with a layer of historic dust. They impart the perspective of the classic “China Watcher”, of the post-war “China Hand”, writing before Deng Xiaoping’s reopening, men (for the most part) who could be imagined as the younger adventurous sons of the upper class, versed in Latin as well as Confucius, stuck outside looking in, reading tea-leaves from some kind of self-imposed exile in British Imperial Hong Kong. Contrary to that, Mark Oulton writes from deep on the inside, not living in a Legation, but as a married member of a vibrant Chinese family, completely integrated with Chinese rhythms, even as he acknowledges the difficulties this lifestyle imposes on a westerner. Yet, “...Red Dragon” pays odd homage to the old China Hand’s passing generation. Oulton himself is a Brit whose father worked in international development, and who grew up all over the world, so his story imparts a bit of that older view and style from when the sun never set on the Queen’s empire.

“…Red Dragon” is a book that is aware of the various winds blowing from public discourse about the Middle Kingdom but is not buffeted by them. Oulton is anything but blind to China’s faults and bizarreness. Having lived there long enough, he can clearly see the strange logic that drives Chinese behavior. For all the corruption, and inequities that the Chinese system imposes on its people, (and trading partners) Oulton knows and describes how China (and the Communist party) has recently lifted more people out of poverty in a shorter period of time than any government in human history. Oulton shows the wonderful gracious humanity that Chinese people extend to their friends and family, as well as the seeming hardness and sometimes rudeness that can be shown to those outside that orbit. He clearly explains that in order for westerners to come to grips with this, they have to leave behind preconceived ideas and western assumptions about nearly everything in order to really understand what is going in China. He takes the long view about many of the points of contention between the West and China, best described below.

“The west committed the biggest theft of intellectual property of all time... In 552 A.D, two Christian monks smuggled silkworm larvae hidden in bamboo canes out of China and the Byzantine monopoly in silk sustained that empire for over 500 years. Silk production continues in Greece to this day. In today’s value, this theft would dwarf anything else.”

The book is full of practical hard-headed advice about where and what to eat, about highly detailed strategies for buying vs renting, and about driving, “Chinese are the worst drivers in the world.” (But, IMO, the best drivers in the world at navigating the crazy traffic in China…). He talks at length with wry humor about parking your car, the recent changes in laws and how they often don’t work, how Uber was “run out of town” by a local car-hailing app (Didi), He relates his misadventures trying (and failing) to find somebody, anybody, who he can beat in ping pong.

“Also, never play a Chinese person at ping-pong/ table tennis. I considered myself a more than competent player and had learned the game at school from a pupil from Hong Kong. I had mastered side and top spin and had a mean forehand smash. On my first visit to Beijing, I had a Saturday off and asked the hotel reception where I could play ping pong. They directed me to a local club and I was matched against a player of similar age. Opening game: Mark Oulton (England) 1 Local Beijing Amateur (China) 21.”

He discusses the Chinese “natural” approach to earthquake predictions, which works if the signs are quickly and universally communicated to the affected area. “Observations included pigs running into walls and running around in circles, chickens refusing to stay in their coops, well water inexplicably dropping in temperature and bottles on a shelf rattling; all signs of seismic activity…(he then describes how this was communicated to Qinglong County, near Tangshan). “The death toll in Tangshan City area (in 1976) was around 240,000 with 164,000 seriously injured but other estimates which include surrounding rural areas place the death toll at over 600,000 people. Tangshan was completely flattened. 180,000 buildings were destroyed. In Qinglong County however the direct loss of life was zero, yes, I mean zero, although one person died of a heart attack. Qinglong County was also able to provide some of the first respondents to other areas. The lessons learned were employed in the three earthquakes that struck Yunnan Province in 1995 where the loss of life was 11 people due to timely warnings by public officials.”

Oulton has long discursive sections on the language. His explanation of pinyin, (The Chinese system for transliterating Chinese character pronunciation int the Roman alphabet) and how pinyin works and why it is useful is interesting and engaging. He has a long exposition on how to differentiate the different grades of uniformed organizations. Essentially divided into guards and police, (and the many varieties of each) he explains the differences and the different behaviors to expect. “Don’t ask guards directions but police are ok.”

QUOTE “It’s a sad fact that most foreigners can’t retire in China and those wanting an affordable retirement place in Asia will have to consider other options such as the Philippines and Thailand. You can’t normally become a citizen of the People’s Republic or have dual nationality although there have been a few exceptions as honorary citizens or for bravery or outstanding service. The only realistic options for most are for permanent residency as a route to retirement, through marriage, the use of tourist visas and by keep leaving the country or getting a work permit such as for teaching.”

He discusses activities related to drugs as the penalties are some of the harshest in the world. “In a recent drug raid in my home city, foreigners were asked to carry out a urine test for marijuana and those who failed were sent to “rehabilitation” for three months followed by three months in jail and then deported. That’s just for smoking a joint. Sharing one with a friend would be an even more serious crime.” When I lived in China, in the 80s, the Chinese still related drug use to 19th-century opium addicts, with no awareness of hashish, which was available everywhere from the Muslim traders from Xinjiang. Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities seem to have caught up.

He has some strong opinions about historic figures. He is a big fan of Claire Lee Chennault, the American aviator who led the “Flying Tigers” in World War II. But not so much his nemesis Joe Stilwell. “This unconventional genius (Chennault) was not invited to the Japanese surrender partly because of his career-long battle with higher command and in particular, Joseph “Vinegar” Stillwell, one of the most vainglorious and politically and militarily incompetent commanders in American history.” According to Barbara Tuchman, Stillwell was one of the greatest generals the United States ever produced, who performed brilliantly while constantly being hamstrung by the “vainglorious”, but inferior General Douglas MacArthur.

Barabara Tuchman reviewed by Jonathan Spence on Stilwell

Oulton tells the story of a hero of whom I had never heard. A Chinese diplomat, He (Ho before pinyin) Feng Shan, in Vienna saved 3,000 Jews (more than Schindler) by getting them visas to Shanghai. “It is impossible to compare Schindler and Ho. For one, Schindler, if discovered, would have been tortured and killed. Ho (He) might have escaped but more likely be assassinated. He had already antagonized the Gestapo by threatening them at gunpoint to save some Jewish friends. These are incomparably brave men who acted while most of the world stood by and did little. In November 1986, Ho made a visit to his home country and went to his Changsha middle school ‘s 80th year celebrations, and on his death in 2007 at 96 years his bones were repatriated to China.”

Oulton talks about the strange loneliness a foreigner can feel during Spring Festival.

“Honestly, this is not the time to be in China if you are an unattached foreigner. If you have a Chinese family connection it is magical but if not be prepared for deserted cities, closed restaurants, hotels with skeleton staff or even shut and the larger towns and cities that become almost lifeless. My first Spring Festival in China, I spent in Weihai, Shandong Province. I was mostly alone and lucky that the hotel managers asked me to join them in the festivities as a guest. It was a memorable party. The following morning, I did get a knock on my door at about 11 am and a hotel member of staff had brought me a big jug of water and some headache pills as they had apparently helped me to bed in the early hours after I staggered around from excess consumption of Chinese strong liquor.”

I will just add a personal note. I took a cruise from Shanghai to Hong Kong on the SS Jinjiang, formerly a famous ship (the SS Mariposa) that the Chinese bought from my Dad’s old company Matson Line. We had 12 people, all young Westerners, on board. It actually was one of the best travel adventures (read “party”) I ever had, but I’ll leave the details out. However, the fact that only 12 people were on a luxury ship to Hong Kong illustrated how no one goes to Hong Kong for Spring festival, as it was a city created by the Brits and is the home village to very very few Chinese people.

I could easily go on, but I will leave the rest to the reader. I think “...Red Dragon” is a very good book, one that doesn’t have to be read cover to cover, first to last, but can be dipped into anywhere and it will provide elevated entertainment. I suppose some might say that, in order to make it more commercially accessible, it could have been edited more tightly, taking out or abridging some of the longer sections, but that would have only made it shorter, not better. I hope Mark gives us another book because he is a talented, entertaining writer.