A Man with a Flashlight

Democrats begin to redeem themselves…
March 31, 2007, 8:20 pm
Filed under: Hell, Let's Call it Torture, Politics

Somehow I missed this. There are currently two bills before congress which would make the executive accountable for unlawful detention and restore habeas corpus.

The Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007 would restore detainees’ right to habeas corpus, restrict the definition of ‘unlawful combatant’ to the 9/11 plotters and fighters actually on the battlefield, and, according to the ACLU’s summary here, forbid confessions under torture in proceedings against detainees and prevent the executive from rewriting torture laws.

The Habeas Corpus Restoration Act seems to be a sort of Restoring the Constitution Act Lite – it would simply repeal the provisions of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 which removed habeas corpus.

The bills were sponsored by Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) in the Senate, and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) in the house. Is it a New England thing?

Amend the law. Then close Guantanamo. It’s a democracy thing.

Closing Guantanamo – the case against
March 31, 2007, 7:12 pm
Filed under: Hell, Let's Call it Torture, Politics

If closed, will Guantanamo’s inmates simply be vanished? Lawyers for the detainees make the case. (A 2005 article, but the question remains open, I think.)

The Washington Post calls to close it, (also old – 2006) but points out that the government is more legally accountable for prisoners there than it is for prisoners held at military bases or disappeared by the CIA.

So closing Guantanamo might disperse the problem. Hard to stop the ball once it’s rolling, isn’t it?

The Chinese and Family
March 31, 2007, 3:38 pm
Filed under: The East

Every American knows generalizations are dangerous. It is one of those cultural convictions that are not taught in school, but simply repeated so often and in so many places that it becomes instinctive. And it is a piece of collective wisdom we should value, because to deal with another person as an individual rather than one of a tribe is a virtue.

That said, generalizations also contain knowledge. They are as likely to arise from common experience as they are from prejudice.

Over lunch, on the basis of my five years spent in Taiwan, I was asked the question, “What are the Chinese like?” (Leaving aside for a moment whether or not the Taiwanese should be considered Chinese.) I found it impossible to produce an answer. I was then prompted, “Do they work hard?” and I said that in Taipei they worked long hours. I then ventured that most Chinese seemed to feel a strong expectation, and consequently an obligation, to work for their families’ benefit. To bring home the bacon, so to speak – by, for example, working to increase the family’s wealth, or giving the children of the family the highest degree of education possible.

One instantly reflects that such behavior is hardly uncommon in the West. I believe that there are some differences, however. For one, people in America, and perhaps even more so Europeans, would often prefer shorter working hours, a longer vacation, or a more casual working environment, instead of simply a higher salary. That is to say, we want to make money, but we also want to enjoy ourselves and have some time for relaxation.

There is also the difference that in many American families, children are more independent once they have grown up. It is considered embarrassing to live with one’s parents after a certain age. In Taiwan, on the other hand, I met countless people in their twenties and thirties who had not moved out of the family house. In fact, I would venture to say that the Taiwanese still consider it slightly unusual, perhaps even awkward, for an unmarried son or daughter to move out of the family home. And it is quite common for even married couples to continue living in the same house as the husband’s parents.

This is one of the reasons I never envied the position of recently-married Taiwanese brides, who have not one new master – for gender equality, though improved, is not firmly entrenched – but three. Stories of new wives abused by cruel mothers-in-law are as much a staple of Chinese culture as stories of neglected stepchildren are of European culture. Recent examples include The Liuhua Brook and The Joy Luck Club.

Furthermore, children are generally expected to send part of their income to their parents. Again, this practice occurs in the West, but my impression is that it is far less frequent than in Taiwan. (I could go into greater detail about the many interesting Chinese customs revolving around money and gifts, but I will save this for a later date.)

Western stories are full of young men – and sometimes women – who leave home “to find their fortune,” “to make their way in the world,” and “to make a name for themselves.” And so we have a cultural expectation that part of success is separating oneself from one’s family and standing alone. By contrast, in Chinese society any separation from family is viewed extremely negatively. A successful person, as defined in Taiwan, is one who contributes to the family’s wealth, defends the family’s interests, and advances the family’s position.

Something rotten in the UN Human Rights Council.
March 30, 2007, 10:54 am
Filed under: Israel, Politics


It seems that “Human Rights,” in the UN, is just politics carried on by other means. Nod to Andrew Sullivan.

Something rotten in the Democratic party
March 30, 2007, 10:51 am
Filed under: Hell, Let's Call it Torture, Politics

Finally in control of congress. Finally in a position to correct the horrible moral misjudgements of the Bush administration. Finally holding the power – should they choose to use it – to close the affront to the rule of law which is Guantanamo bay – an action the necessity of which is manifestly and grossly obvious.

A newly updated list of Republicans calling for the close of Guantanamo:

John McCain
Robert Gatescurrent Bush administration secretary of defense (nod to Andrew Sullivan)

On the Democratic side, silence. John Murtha alone has worked to close it. Hillary has stated she would not close it. Obama and Edwards are silent. Am I missing anyone?

Something is rotten in the Democratic party.

Taiwan environmentalism watch
March 29, 2007, 1:26 pm
Filed under: The Earth, The East

Stores were forbidden to give away plastic bags in 2002. Now supermarkets must reduce packaging for many foods.

Local hypermarts or supermarkets are required to submit their first-year plans for cutting plastic packaging to the environmental protection units of local county and city governments, and report their achievements in this regard by the end of September 2008. Those failing to meet the demand for a 15 percent reduction will face fines of NT$30,000 to NT$150,000. (US $900 to $4500)

Heavy-handed government action? Sure. Effective? You betcha. If retailers face an economic incentive, they can be very creative. And pollution imposes a cost on everyone.

Undiscovered Writer of the Week: Garth Todd Hattan
March 28, 2007, 1:13 pm
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, Undiscovered writers

garth hattanGarth Hattan hasn’t published a novel, and as far as I know, he hasn’t even published a short story. All of his work to date, to the best of my knowledge, was written in 2001 and 2002 for Farang Magazine, an online and print journal targeted at English-speaking expats in Thailand, which has since been renamed Untamed Travel.

Hattan’s pieces were more or less journal entries, so technically he could be called a blogger. However, it was an unusual blog, because he didn’t have internet access, or even a computer. That’s because Hattan, a surfer and musician from California, composed his columns using pen and paper inside Bangkwang maximum security prison, on the outskirts of Bangkok, where he was serving a life sentence for trafficking heroin.

You may be thinking that I chose a heroin-smuggling con to be the Undiscovered Writer of the Week not because I dig his writing, but because I want you to dig how street-smart and hip I am myself. Is this Undiscovered Writer of the Week or Hard-as-Nails Cunts?you may be wondering. In fact, there’s nothing tough about Hattan’s writing, and though you might call him hip, it isn’t the empty pose of the cool kid whose wardrobe is in lock-step with the fashion elite. He is hip in the older sense of the word – wise, and with a powerful awareness of what matters and what is bullshit.

It could be that was a side effect of going to prison. Whatever the case, Hattan’s writing resonates with a quality that can’t be faked. Far from calling for pity, he details the myriad frustrations and scant pleasures of Thai prison life with zen-like calm. Reading his essays doesn’t leave you feeling sorry for him – well, yes, it does, but more powerfully, it leaves you wishing some of his appreciation for life’s small mercies would rub off on you. And that demonstrates a strong mind indeed.

If you’ve ever tried snapping a picture with your digital camera, you may have been amazed to watch how, when you point the camera into a shadowy corner, instead of turning to black in the insufficient light, the camera screen brightens and shows you a new level of detail. Hattan’s writing has the same quality – in dark circumstances, locked inside what is certainly a hell on earth, he doesn’t fade to black. Instead he takes a careful look around, and describes what he sees. The price of fried rice or a massage, etiquette of the morning shower ritual, the ins and outs of getting high behind bars, and the pros and cons of recieving visitors are all presented in a calm, often funny tone. Hattan doesn’t speechify or rail against anything much, which for a man in his position is in itself quite an achievement. But even more of an achievement is the emotion his writing conveys, which I can only describe as gratitude – a whole-hearted appreciation of the few good things that can still be savored from inside the belly of the beast.

I am glad to report that Hattan’s story has a comparatively happy ending – in 2002 he returned to the United States under a treaty agreement with the Thai government. Whether he continued serving his sentence isn’t clear from news reports, but it seems possible that he was freed. I certainly hope he was. While in prison he got engaged to Susan Aldous, an Australian woman who works for better conditions for prisoners in Thailand, and I have seen at least one website which refers to her as Susan Aldous-Hattan, suggesting they have married. [Update: The ending is not as happy as I had hoped; see Susan’s reply to this post and my new post here.] My hope is that we will see a full-length autobiography, if not more, from Hattan in the next few years. It remains to be seen whether he will keep up his writing, or if it was just one method by which he passed time while behind bars. Given the unique qualities of the writing he’s done so far, I certainly hope not.

Click through to Hattan’s articles in Untamed Travel here. A good place to start is Human Monkey in the Cage, but you can read his whole body of work in a pleasant afternoon. (Note that the 2005 article “Afghan Loony Bin” wasn’t written by Hattan at all and has little to do with his work.)

The Top Ten Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. Not a book review
March 27, 2007, 8:33 pm
Filed under: Undiscovered writers

top-ten-writers.jpgThere’s a new book out edited by Peter Zane where famous writers list their ten favorite books. I haven’t read it, so this is not a book review. But I gleaned a little knowledge about it from a review or two on the web, and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, don’t you know… and it got me thinking.

First, the summary list, which combines every author’s choices into one final ranking, is amazingly predictable (what other outcome was possible?). Number one is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, two is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, three is Tolstoy again with War and Peace, four is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, five is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Next is Hamlet.

Hardly surprising, but it makes me wonder. I’m not really sure who is supposed to use this book. Its lists are written by a hundred and twenty-five of what the BBC calls “leading writers.” Apparently one of them is Stephen King, but dollars to donuts the others are not household names, times being what they are for the publishing industry. If you haven’t heard of Huckleberry Finn and War and Peace, then you damn sure haven’t heard of most of these writers, and their reading suggestions may not carry much weight for you. Then again, if you love reading and are up-to-date enough to have heard of these people, you’re not going to pick this up and say, “War and Peace? hm, haven’t heard of that, but since it’s recommended by Thomas Keneally, maybe I’ll give it a look.”

This is a marketing move that would make a lot of sense in the movie world. If a household name movie director like Spike Lee, James Cameron, or Stephen Spielberg made a list of their favorite movies, it could turn people on to the work of past directors like Orson Welles, John Ford, Frank Capra, or Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, viewers in the States were first turned on to contemporary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai when Quentin Tarantino arranged for Chungking Express to be released in the States by his Rolling Thunder Productions – or I was, at least.

I just don’t understand the need to do this with literature. There isn’t much danger that Tolstoy, Nabokov, and Shakespeare are going to be lost to history. There is a danger, on the other hand, that more and more people are not finding much of relevance in the books currently being published. The literary world – itself a small niche within the publishing industry, which is mostly mobilized producing the next sequel to Chicken Soup for the Soul– has several things in common with a cult. It deifies a few figures and demands that every cult member worship them. (Thus The Top Ten, in addition to being a good coffee-table prop when setting up your living room for a girl or boy you want to impress, also makes a perfect devotional object for placement on the altar of the Gods of Literature.) And its authority seems to drive rebellion among its subjects. David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, like Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce before them, seem to have achieved artistic independence by choosing territories so far out on the white spaces of the map that no authority would apply to them. Their works are stimulating and original, but one wonders why we hear so little about writers working in more mundane spheres. Keri Hulme, Doris Lessing, and J.P. Donleavy, to name a few examples, may not have been relegated to complete obscurity, but they don’t command the same rock-star cachet.

In conclusion, I am giving this book the finger. The editor should have told all his writers to give the top ten books they felt were obscure or under-appreciated. And to strike back in my own inconsequential way, I am inaugurating the Undiscovered Writer of the Week.

Taiwan environmentalism watch
March 25, 2007, 10:55 am
Filed under: The Earth, The East

A major highway is partly closed and covered with nets to allow butterflies unique to the island to complete their annual migration.

The economic development of the island created a host of environmental problems. But now that a broad middle class has emerged, they are demanding action on the environment.

Can we state broadly that prosperity brings environmental protection? I think, at the least, that where people have no secure livelihood, they are likely to worry about that first, the environment second.

Blasphemy against the prophet
March 25, 2007, 10:28 am
Filed under: Religion

Muslims demonstrate – but the Mormon church claims violation of intellectual property.

To wit:

T-shirts being sold at the coffee shop feature an image of the angel Moroni, the golden statue of a male figure in a robe blowing a trumpet that sits atop many LDS temples. In the Just Add Coffee version, Moroni’s trumpet is angled upward as coffee from a pot is poured into it.
“It was a spoof,” Beazer said. “It was meant to be fun.”

Can a religious figurehead be trademarked? Could the Catholic church sue everyone with a tattoo of Mary or the Sacred Heart of Jesus?

just add coffee

Bakery on the first floor of my building
March 24, 2007, 3:16 pm
Filed under: Design, The East

In Okinawa. It’s almost as rare here for a building to have an apartment on the first floor as it is in Taipei. Instead most have shops, which makes for convenient shopping. I also like how the delivery van is small enough to park next to his window without blocking the sidewalk, and the visual image it creates, which communicates very simply that the shop bakes bread and delivers it. The red sign hanging in the glass door says he’s inside baking; when the truck is gone, it turns around and says “out making deliveries”… at least I assume that’s what it says, I can’t read Japanese very well.
Very tidy, like everything here. If I stay on, soon i won’t notice it any more.

March 24, 2007, 2:30 pm
Filed under: Comedy, Language, Politics

Tony Blair rises in my esteem. Also I like the way Catherine Tate pronounces “tattoo parlor.” Thanks to Andrew Sullivan.

Nice how 10 Downing Street looks an awful lot like an ordinary house.

Hillary: Guantanamo “not the real problem”
March 24, 2007, 2:04 pm
Filed under: Hell, Let's Call it Torture, Politics

McCain would close it. John Murtha wants to as well. (Anyone know if he’s made progress since then?)
An interviewer asks Hillary point-blank if she would close it and gets a dodge. Specifically:

I’m not going to speculate on that now. I think that’s the kind of tactical decision that has to be considered depending on what the real facts are at the time. Obviously, I feel that the administration has misfired in the way that it has refused to expedite the treatment of the individuals down in Guantanamo. And, frankly, it has relied on unreliable, hearsay evidence and we need to clean up the processes.

Then we can get to the point of what will we do with the people once we have totally considered them on the basis of legitimate concrete steps to determine whether they should be held or released. Then we can deal with the actual facility [Guantanamo] issue. That’s not the real problem. The real problem is the processes we’ve used.

Is securing the rights of prisoners, rightly accused or wrongly accused, not a liberal position? Is sending a message that we reject torture not a liberal position? Or can she afford so little challenge to her hawkish credentials that she is unable to oppose torture? As so often with Hillary, I’m left simply befuddled as to what she really believes.

March 23, 2007, 11:04 pm
Filed under: The Beginning

As you can see, there’s not much here now. A little about myself and the kind of subjects I might talk about on this page in the future.

My parents were hippies – and still are, in the changed way of most old hippies, a little more groomed and presentable but still very much children of that moment in history. (Young people now who claim to be hippies aren’t the same thing – because in the sixties it was an original act, a trend to be sure, but a trend happening for the first time.) I grew up conversant in the New Age, hearing a lot about naturopathic medicine, organic food, and the empowerment of women. I was encouraged to be creative and read books, and forbidden to watch television, which I did anyway at my friends’ houses.

We lived in a liberal county of a conservative western state. When I was twelve my parents put me into private school, much against my will, as it meant leaving behind every friend I knew. In private school most of my classmates had more money than my family, and some had quite a lot. But many had names like Rainbow, Bodhi, and Sunshine, and long-haired parents who wore rough, dyed shirts from India and Nepal. At the time I didn’t really think of them as hippies, but as normal adults like my own parents.

Like more and more Americans these days, we lived surrounded by like-minded people.

College brought some continuity and some change. Though colleges are supposed to be extremely liberal, and mine was somewhat, I met more Republicans than I had before. My college was in New England, and I saw a different face of liberal politics – people who dressed formally, whose people had been in New England for generations, who looked conservative to me. Their liberal views were not a rebellion against any older generation, but a continuation of their parents’ and grandparents’ politics – a tradition of civil rights, union support, and environmental conservation. I went abroad for a year, to several third-world countries, with students who opposed globalization and international trade. I had friends who went to the Seattle WTO protests. I still regret not going, not to stop the meetings – I have no position on them – but to have been there, and to have seen it.

Up until then I had seen nothing to challenge the culture I had grown up in. I felt privileged to be American, from the west, and brought up liberal.

A year out of college I moved to Taipei. I had studied Chinese and wanted to continue learning, and friends told me there were job opportunities teaching English.

I arrived with badly incorrect expectations. I had been in India before, knew there was similar poverty in China, and expected Taiwan to be a little more developed. I found an affluent, urban nation, where technology is in many ways more advanced than in America. A few decades before, Taiwan had been the low-tech factory of the world, known for cheap labor and products, like China and Malaysia are today. And sweatshop labor, I had been taught, exploited the workers without developing the economy.

So how could Taiwan have developed? This is where my reconsideration began. Living in Taiwan, I began to consider areas where liberal politics seemed blind, content with rhetoric but lacking curiosity. And, living in a foreign country, I came to understand more deeply what it meant to be American. “Proud to be an American” is just a slogan, designed to produce a reflex response, not thought. But there are good grounds for that pride, if you look with the right eyes.

I still consider myself more liberal than conservative, and I don’t wish to focus mainly on politics. It is an easy subject to write badly about. But when I do write about politics, I want to spend more time criticizing liberals than conservatives, because I think liberal politics badly needs to reconsider what its core values must be.

I also want to write about the way people are living in Asia, and what that means for Americans. Every culture thinks of itself as the center of civilization, but in some things, I believe, we can learn from the Chinese and the Japanese. In other things we can appreciate our own culture’s traditions better by knowing that they are not universal, but unique to ourselves.

And of course I’ll write about whatever else strikes my fancy. Posts won’t generally be this long – it’s a blog, not a novel – and now that the introduction is out of the way there’s no need to stand on ceremony. Let the wild rumpus start!

I already regret naming my blog that.
March 23, 2007, 7:50 pm
Filed under: The Beginning

Sounds priggish somehow. Like I’ve got the flashlight and you don’t. Then again that was somewhat the point… but was it taken too far? Well, I care enough to complain but not enough to open Photoshop again. As a new user of Photoshop 6.0, to all the Adobe CEOs reading my blog, your product in 2000 was really hard to figure out. For the first several hours I didn’t understand that all the parts of my image were stored on different “layers.” Sure, once I knew, that made it really easy to do more things… but couldn’t you have some kind of friendly character when the program opens up, going “Hey! You look new here, so keep in mind you are working with a bunch of superimposed images, which you can navigate through using this box over here! Ta!”
Like Microsoft Word, where the character is, however, completely unnecessary.

Anyhoo, welcome to my blog. It’s quite empty just now, so if you’ll bear with me, I am going to keep typing, but in a new post. That way it looks like I’m doing more.