Monday, January 31, 2011


Editor's Note:I am aware that all of the links below are from one news source. I must plead laziness and my inability to gauge my small readership's reactions to using news sources like Al-Jazeera. Nonetheless, the links are good topical starting points from which you can search for coverage in other media.

I am in no way advocating violence, rioting, or looting. However, if you have not been able to keep up with the news lately, big things are afoot in several parts of the world right now. Of course, the events garnering the most media coverage are the mass protests in Tunisia (which resulted in the abdication of a president and subsequent governmental collapse/reshuffling) and Egypt (the results of which are still to be determined).

Before those events, things were already heating up in Lebanon with the collapse of the unity government and angry protests in the street after Hezbollah legally forced the ouster of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of assassinated former premier Rafik Hariri. In addition to Egypt, the Tunisia protests have also had a milder ripple effect in Yemen and Jordan.

As I said, big things are afoot. Again making a disclaimer that I do not support violent protests, I want to publicly confess that the recent events stir a certain amount of enthusiasm in me. Why?

Because change can happen.

Change is happening.

While I am immensely grateful for the freedom of speech that allows me to keep this blog and express any opinion that I want, I at the same time get tired of how much us Americans confine ourselves to whining in the ethereal world of the internet. We use our Facebook status updates to complain about what we see as faulty legislation. Many of these people are using Facebook to compel thousands of people to hit the streets in protest.

There seems to be a wide gap in our usage between the words "social" and "media". We don't mind the media part, giving our own views a venue or letting our media personalities carry the "conversation" (ha!) forward. But what about the social part? The actual mobilization of people to come together to do something in society? Why are Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart organizing our political rallies?

Again, I do not overlook the fact that Americans have the right to exercise their freedom of speech. Where I currently live, it is impossible to access this blog without using certain software, and none of my friends here have heard the faintest inkling about what is going on in Tunisia and Egypt. I am very grateful for our right to assemble and exercise free speech.

In fact, that's my point. Let's use those rights! Do you know how much we could accomplish if we spent half as much time getting to know our neighbors and brainstorming ways to make grassroots changes as we did listening to political commentators or watching "Jersey Shore"?

And in case you are hesitant to embrace such activist enthusiasm because of the tinge of violence in most of the above reports, please take note that the media has given much less coverage to what appears to be the largely peaceful dawning of a new age for the people of Sudan.

Hope is founded on the potential for change. It's time that we tapped that potential.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Short Commentary on Selective Memory in the Pursuit of Empire

For background on the following, join in the conversation on my friend's blog about the new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which replaces the epithet "nigger" with "slave". Please note that when I critique empire, I am not critiquing a singular party or movement, but rather the entire American project that rests on the lingering idea of Manifest Destiny. The following is a slightly elongated revision of the comment I left in response to the above post:

Empires thrive on the rewriting of history, and in its short history the United States has shown itself to be adept at this exercise. The problem with the word nigger is not that it’s an ugly spot in our history we don’t want to look at. The problem is that it is a reminder that a previous injustice was in large measure remedied (and that only a generation ago), and thus there is power in the populace to continue effecting change within the structures of empire. Such reminders are dangerous in the extreme and to be avoided at all cost.

From the days that slavery was abolished, the word nigger was used to keep ideological chains on so many black Americans who either transitioned to the semi-slavery of sharecropping or migrated to the cities of the North. Physical violence was paired with these verbal chains in order to communicate one message: “You may have been freed from slavery, but don’t think that EVERYTHING is going to change. White people are still in charge.”

The battle over vocabulary is a battle over imagination. If a country where the word nigger could not be used with impunity was imagined and then realized, why not imagine a country where Latino students can critically examine history from a minority perspective without being accused of sedition?

Such imagination cannot be given room to grow, so the solution is to get rid of words and stories that serve as touchstones of communal memory, which in turn is the foundation for communal transformation. There are two main options to be rid of such words and stories. The first option is to co-opt them. Think of how Martin Luther King Day fixes in time the nation's victory over its own weakness of racism, rather than propagating Dr. King's radical critique of the military-industrial complex and economic inequality.

The second option is simply to delete such troublesome words and stories. Czech author Milan Kundera illustrates this well in a passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.

It is this latter option which the well-intentioned professor and editor of the newest censored version of Twain's novel unwittingly chooses with his attempts to make the work more accessible to young readers.

Goodbye, “nigger” – you and all the power (good or bad) in your utterance belong to the past, not the future.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Yesterday afternoon on my way home delicate snow crystals gently dusted the sidewalk. Due to the dry climate, it rarely snows here in the lower altitudes (7000 feet), so I didn't think much of it. A few hours later I emerged from the front door to find that it was still snowing, a tiny layer had accumulated on the surface of the roads, sidewalks, trees, and bricks.

I know the last part of that list is kind of odd, but bricks are really quite a phenomenon here. Because there is never-ending construction in Chinese cities, and particularly in our slightly rundown Eastside part of town, there are often building materials piled all over the place. Our part of town additionally features many piles of rubble of the hundreds of houses and tiny storefronts that are being demolished to make way for "development". I noticed as I was walking last night that the thin layer of snow blanketing the piles of brick rubble gave them the eerie feeling of ruins.

Apart from those ruins of the recent past, everything else looked new. Even as I was walking, I knew it was temporary. Soon the tread of boots, the trace of dogs, and the dim neon of drunken urination would sully the shallow purity glowing around me. Nonetheless, it was a fitting sight for the start of another year.

As I was walking around 7 p.m. on the first day of the year in China, the denizens of American Samoa were ringing in 2011 in whatever style Samoans celebrate. Except for two tiny Pacific islands on the very edge of the international date line, practically the entire world was artificially united by our clumsy demarcations of time. For all the disharmony in this world of ours, those few moments still descend upon us in which we feel that, somehow, there is a chance for a new start. It is in these moments where we are faced with a difficult question - do we dare to hope?

I am looking forward to and hoping for some things in this new year:

*Scoring respectably on my first national Chinese proficiency exam
*Securing a longish term residence here in Western China
*Taking concrete steps toward the completion of a significant writing project
*Attending the weddings of two of my favorite people (Natalie Ray and Alexis Harmon)
*Learning how to cook at least five Chinese dishes
*Losing enough weight to wear red leather pants
*Thinking better of wearing red leather pants
*Ending my five year absence from New York City
*Attending a Food for Thought reunion of some sort
*Talking to kids who were just babies when I left the States
*Writing and recording at least three songs

There are of course many more things that could be on this list, but I wanted to leave room to tell you that if you are reading this I am most likely more grateful for your friendship than you realize. As I'm cresting 30, sleeping in a bunk bed and still in school without letters behind my name, I have become certain that I will never have much in the way of money. But there is this - I am well loved and feel rich beyond measure. I pray that you may all be rich in love in 2011!