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.)