Thursday, May 29, 2008

Talking about Race

In Thursday's New York Times, there is an article about gentrification in Northeast Portland. The article discusses a recent initiative called the Restorative Listening Project that brings together blacks and whites (of the upper-middle class progressive variety), and the neighborhood's displaced black people and those long-time residents who are facing higher rent because of the recent development in the neighborhood share their stories. The white people attending the hearings (and there are some *amazing* quotations) love this; most of the black people find it useless. Talking about how their rent has gone up is not dealing with their problem, although it apparently salves the consciences of many of the whites who have participated.

One woman says the following: “That’s been our history,” Norma Trimble, who is Native American, said during the question-and-answer session this month. “They take all you’ve got. They take your land. Now they want your stories.”

But, as a recent study (by a Northwestern researcher) has shown, white people are so afraid of being considered racist in their daily lives, they most often choose to avoid people who aren't white.

I think the juxtaposition of these two stories exemplifies the fundamental problem with how we talk about race in America - a problem that Obama addressed in a new way in his speech on race. Clearly the Portland project has good intentions, but it's so ineffectual (read the article to see why) that it could also be published in The Onion.

At my book club meeting last night, I encountered something related to all of this, spoken by upper-middle class women. First, the "my black friend told me . . ." defense. After describing how emancipation disrupted the black family because it changed the steady social order of slavery, the book club woman suggests that while slavery was bad, emancipation did more harm. And then she proceeded to draw the conclusion that the difficult situation of a 1940s black woman in the South on emancipation.

I jumped in - umm, you're actually completely wrong. Black people reunited with family members after the Civil War . . . and your statement ignores the 50 years of institutionalized and legal racism encoded by Jim Crow laws, and the fact that persistent white racism is the real problem, not emancipation. She responds to me with the familiar line: well, this is what my "black friend" told me. Is this a defense of her statement? A statement implying that me, a white girl, can't know the truth, even if this subject happens to be exactly what I have spent the past six years of my life studying?

This incident followed a discussion with a Clinton supporter about how women are the most oppressed "race" in the country. Where is an American historian even to begin?

Conversations are good. I think that more Americans - white and black - need to have them. But I don't think Portland's plan is the answer, and I think that if anything, Portland's project fosters the sort of situation that leads to white people feeling like they do in the Northwestern research project.

We need something different from the model where black people talk about suffering and white people sympathize and grow. (See The Bridge Called My Back). The national conversation on race that Obama has called for needs to be more than well-off white people consuming black people's stories and then feeling better about themselves.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding

This is Ann's and my book club book for May: The Member of the Wedding by southern (sort of) author Carson McCullers. A couple of thoughts on the subject . . .

The Member of the Wedding was originally a play, and it takes place mostly in the hot August kitchen of twelve-year-old Frankie Addams. Because it began as a play, the stream-of-consciousness style is verbalized in lackadaisical conversations between Frankie, her nerdy/angelic younger cousin, John Henry, and her black cook/housekeeper Berenice. It is first and foremost a coming-of-age tale, set in a very quiet southern town amid surrounding chaos - the upheavals of the Second World War and, more immediately, the marriage of Frankie's older brother, a soldier who has been away from home for some time.

Frankie's thoughts and ideas epitomize adolescent angst. She feels trapped inside her house, her town, her identity as a twelve-year-old named Frankie Addams, yet escaping this narrow existence is terrifying. Also, her best friend has moved away, and the older girls at school exclude her from their club. She no longer wants to enjoy John Henry's childish games, yet she is too young to partake in the adult rituals of marriage, and the wonderful and exotic grown-up life she imagines her brother and his fiancee will have. Most readers can remember these thoughts and feelings, and the more creative set probably wrote them down in long journal entries (is this what the kids are blogging about now?). [A topic for another post; read the first comment to this piece, it encapsulates my view.]

As I read, I thought about coming-of-age novels, and how most of these stories narrated by children are written for adults. Children are outsiders who are inside, social critics who are forgiven for their antagonistic attitudes, liminal figures in their social worlds and liminal in the sense that they approach the threshold of adulthood. The rites of passage associated with coming of age are archetypal, of course; but I also think angsty teenagers are also permitted to express existential thoughts that would be irritating in the mouths of adult characters whom we expect to have "moved on" from such egoism. So, for writers who want to explore questions of conscience and consciousness, who want to interrogate the set of beliefs and acceptable practices of our rational world, the adolescent is the perfect narrator. We have Frankie Addams in this story, we have Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, Kipling's Kim, Dickens's Pip, and many more - who am I missing? Are Victorians using children differently than modernists or contemporary authors (who use children to capture a certain preciousness, I think)? What is your favorite coming-of-age story?

Saturday, May 24, 2008


In the United States and in France (as Joyce can certainly testify!), 1968 is getting attention. I wonder if there was such a display in 1998, for the thirtieth anniversary, or in 1988, for the twentieth. I doubt it. Actually, I remember D-Day being the most discussed historical event of the 1990s, a fiftieth anniversary, and falling at a time when baby boomers started to lose their parents, the Greatest Generation.

I think that the combined presidential election year and the Iraq War make this anniversary, the fortieth, more resonant. Although we don't have to scratch very far below the surface to deflate these comparisons. The Democrats are all anti-war, unlike the pro-war Humphrey who divided the Democratic Party; McCain is hardly a Richard Nixon. We have none of the urban riots of 1967-68, in fact we have just the opposite - gentrification.

I suspect, as has been suggested, that the fact that the media is largely dominated by baby boomers drives the discussion of 1968: see this French editorial in the Times.

Indeed, NPR has a whole website devoted to their stories on "The Echoes of 1968" (including Robert Siegel's interesting memories of being a student-reporter at Columbia). I like that they have a broader swath of history represented in their stories. Another NPR story covers a group that wants to "recreate '68" at this summer's Democratic Convention.

What do you think? Was 1968 truly transformational? Or more transformational than any other important election year? Does the current remembrance reflect boomer nostalgia or something else in the air?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Alright. If this whole academic career thing fizzles, I'm moving to China to play with pandas. Seriously. This is possibly the cutest internet video ever.

Look at it right now.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Personal Lifestyle Versus Religion

That Buddhism is the most popular religion among educated, affluent and cultivated elite of the modern west is probably obvious to many. It is on the list of "stuff white people like" in the satirical blog, in the form of a tiny Buddha statue on the armoire in a bedroom with "Pottery Barn"-like furniture. Today, it is in the New York Times today, in the "Home & Garden" section - in the form of a bohemian couple living an alternative life-style in the desert of Arizona. Only, to what extent it is "Buddhist," I am not sure. Their supposedly austere tent is furnished like a tourist magazine photograph from Tibet or Nepal, and their speech pattern makes it clear that, no matter how learned they might be, what they believe and practice is essentially no different from any new-age non-philosophy that one can purchase off the shelf.

What makes this form of self-made spirituality so attractive to certain populations in the west, I suppose, is the apparent absence of a figure of authority. Even the word "discipline" that is being used rings like the kind of discipline that we associate with athletic training or diet: it is demanding, but it is good for you. In other words, it is not a kind of discipline that we impose on ourselves for the sake of others, for the love of some higher good. It is a discipline that "purifies your mind" - with emphasis on "you." For this reason, the story of this couple is appropriately placed in the "Home & Garden" section, implying the truth that this is about a personal lifestyle and is far from being an authentic religion.

What makes monotheistic religions unfashionable among the Western educated elite, I presume, is the fact that they implicate a partial submission of the individual to an institution. (Why it is any worse than submitting oneself to institutions such as the university, the company, the nation-state, I cannot quite figure out. My Episcopalian or Anglican parishes have never obliged me to attend office on Sundays, whereas there are days that one cannot miss at the university or work.) But for religious persons, I suspect that it is precisely the recognition of the limitations of the individual that is the most rewarding aspect of their practice. By this, I do not simply mean the limitations of the individual before an almighty, absolute God. On the more quotidian level, the daily mediation of one's values, beliefs and practices through intercourse with other human beings is a powerful antidote against self-delusion.

The presence of a community and competent spiritual leaders prevents religious people from making up their own gods, in other words. More than once, I shared my own "theology" with friends, only to find out at the end of a long conversation that my ideas were incoherent (at best) or debased (at worst). Left to my own devices, I would be in a situation where I can make up whatever idea I have of God for my own benefits, safeguarding the criticisms of others with the deluded dogma that "spirituality is a personal thing." The truth is that in an authentic and functional religion, the "I" always needs to be checked against the values of the collective, or, even better, a small affective community based on friendship. Is there anything more precious than the presence of human beings whom we trust enough to ask, "Do you think that I might be mad?" All the more precious are those who will respond with honesty and intelligence.

That said, since religions are human institutions, they are susceptible to all human weaknesses. Corruption is standard in any institution, and I have often recognized in certain Roman Catholic bishops in Europe the same crooked faces of Zen-Buddhist charlatans in Taiwan (all with names like Star-Cloud Master or Child of Moonlight) who molest female worshipers habitually. And when a population suffers systemically, we can only expect that the religious institution that it upholds will also suffer and go mad: this is the case with radical Islam today. For any religious person, who must to some extent take responsibility of his or her religious institution, perhaps nothing is more painful than watching a rich religious tradition degrade itself due to contemporary circumstances. At that point, one has the choice to stay or leave, and either decision will affect the person's understanding of his or her identity.

Many religious people have chosen to stay in imperfect traditional religious institutions - some harder to defend than others - instead of going away to the desert to make up their own Buddhist lifestyle. Some of these religious people are less educated than others; some can defend themselves with more conceptual clarity; some, admittedly, become incoherent or mediocre when pushed to articulate their faith. But I wonder if all of them do not share one thing: They all implicitly recognize or understand religion as a form of institution that, when made to function as a rich symbolic space in which metaphysics and ethics join to dance, might end up saving human beings from their own follies and miseries.

To defend a religious institution and to partake in it is like speaking a language. Just as I do not refuse to speak German for the reason that it has been tainted by Amtsprache of the Third Reich, I do not reject the Christian tradition for the reason that it has been co-opted by the Roman Empire and been misused numerous times as pretext for political and military violence. The same as German language remains valuable to me because it is the language of German philosophy, aesthetics and poetry, the same I continue to defend Christianity, not only because it is the most feminine and pagan of monotheisms, but above all because it is the religion whose essence is the Sermon on the Mount, the loving and merciful God, and the faith in the imperfect perfectability of every man and woman.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


I have nothing terribly interesting or original to say about the recent catastrophe in Myanmar, the frightening death toll of 28,000 as a result of the typhoon, and the hysteric efforts of the Burmese government to prevent international rescue and aid to make contact with its suffering people. An opinion piece on the New York Times voices a temptation to "invade" Myanmar in order to save the victims. While my conservative side says that there is no way we can import democracy by a military invasion, and that a form of authority imposed by a foreign power will not receive the populist support that is the point of democracy, how can we understand the kind of isolationism of these repressive regimes, whose reaction under crisis can only be compared to a dysfunctional family who would rather see to its own ruins than open itself to the aid of social workers?

I am not for "invasion" (I doubt that it is the right word to use here), but I wonder if there is not something to be said about external mediation. We do not occupy the earth alone, and when we suffer, we need to be able to ask others for help. After all, Germany's acceptance of the Marshall Plan is a sign of the reconciliation of the western European nation-states, isn't it? To be able to accept help from others is a form of humility and the beginning of peace-making with the outside world. The parents in the Indian reservations in Canada have been known to call upon Canadian social workers to take away their children before they all get drugged on gasoline fumes, which is a gesture of grace in an abysmal situation. The current behavior of the Burmese government, however, can only be seen as heart-chilling. It is only to be expected that a government that has no love for its own people would hate not only its neighbors but the entire world.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Knives from the Sea and the Problem of "Fish-Goat"

Spring time has finally arrived in Paris, and the "couteaux" (knives) from the sea, a common treat that I associate with summers in Spain with my family, have begun to appear on the fish markets. Called "navajas" in Spanish (meaning razor blades), they are a species of shellfish whose taste I consider vastly superior to not only mussels but also many different kinds of clams.

These were purchased on rue Mouffetard this morning, and the fishmonger told me that they can be eaten raw, to my surprise. I went home and prepared them the Mediterranean way: heat up olive oil in a pan with a few pieces of garlic; when the garlic begins to dance, throw the "knives" into the pan and "stir-fry" until the slim "boxes" begin to open; remove from fire as soon as they lose their modesty and display their flesh. The rest is simple: parsley, lemon juice, and the delicious sauce produced in the pan, which should not be lost.

In Chinese, the character "鮮" (pronounced "xien") refers to a kind of taste that comes with extremely fresh and flavorful food, and it can be applied to both vegetables, fruits, seafood as well as meat. However, this two-part ideogram is essentially made up of the part “魚" (fish) and "羊" (goat, sheep), intriguingly bringing together two kinds of meat known for their distinct animal smell. Both are earthly delights that cannot be neutral: they are the coquettes in the world of food. The "couteaux" tasted exactly like this: tender, juicy, fragrant and moist like the summer wind of the Mediterranean. In fact, they do not even have to be salted, since they were evenly marinated during their short lifetime in that mysterious uterus from which all organic life comes: a bath of salt water, seasoned with alga.

God is good, one might say, yet the Buddhist monks knew exactly that this is the kind of taste that keeps the most well-intentioned from receiving enlightenment. Anything that tastes too "xien" provokes desire, and desire is always modeled on the carnal kind. In my very limited philosophical knowledge, only in ancient Greek philosophy and Christian theology is this negative view of desire modified - vis-à-vis the concept of love. Love is the desire of something for its own sake - a brilliant solution to a biological necessity that brings as much joy as it does suffering. Nevertheless, the great philosophy of the East understood the moral problem presented by tasty foods. In the austere form of Buddhist diet, not only meat and fish are to be avoided, garlic, onions and leeks are considered taboo - because they make food taste good, or "xien." I doubt the Christian monks thought differently: is not the holiest food simple bread, perhaps with a little of soup? Even the fun foods and beverages invented in the monasteries, such as biscuits and beers, tend to taste wholesome and pure like the earth. The mild intoxication that one experiences after having a few too many beers is still less dangerous than the kind of para-erotic "fish-goat" taste that one gets from shellfish, foie gras, and blood-based foods such as boudin noir (France) and morcilla (Spain and Portugal).

I enjoyed eating the knives of the sea this afternoon, but I soon will need the psychic-physiological tranquility that only rice, potatoes and vegetables can bring. The Lord put an infinite number of tempting fruits on this planet (the French call seafood "fruits de mer" with good reasons), and fruits always put us in debt to the world for the reason that we pick them and consume them without too much labor. Hence the Original Sin in Hebraic-Christianity is conceptualized in terms of picking a forbidden fruit in the garden of the Lord. Other things, however, remind us of the necessity of our labor, of our obligation to give ourselves to the world whose existence precedes ours. These things are cereal-based and usually taste plain, heavy and sometimes even dry: in short, they taste like quotidian life in its simplicity and dignity. Rice, couscous, pasta, bread, tofu - these things give us back our existence as earthly and mortal beings, who have better mind our own business on earth before plunging into the oceanic Eden to plunder the edible pearls sown by the pagan gods.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Chinese are protesting!

It turns out, some Chinese people DON'T like this new brand of government-sponsored capitalism.

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

The other day I realized that this blog serves the same purpose as my high school newspaper - the Oracle. And so this is an entry belonging in the "Arts and Entertainment" section.

Darkmans is an odd page-turner. The plot elements and characters (a stolen envelope containing mysterious and centuries-old documents from the British Library, a secretive podiatrist and her many connected clients, a crooked contractor, a mentally ill or visionary German, and a precocious and possibly possessed little boy) at times seem like the novel is another iteration of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum or The Crying of Lot 49. History runs into the present in murky ways, in characters dreams and waking lives. A number of characters, few of them resembling any stock figures, are brought together for a few days in the Chunnel town of Ashford on England's southeast coast. A father and son, a married couple with a small son, a skinny and loud teenager, a Kurdish immigrant.

Darkmans' power, though, is in its uniqueness. The font is sans serif (jarring at first). The writing melds working-class youth slang with poised English prose. The historical motif of a medieval court jester popping up in characters' dreams and waking lives bears no connection with the more popular Knights Templar, Masons, or various other secret societies linked to immortality that tend to appear in books of this genre. The jester laughs, but he's also deadly, and his presence looms darkly over the novel's often comical plot.

Without going into too much detail, I think another reason for Darkmans' novelty comes with Barker's refusal to adopt the popular models of the fantastical/literary novel. The autistic child, for example, as the narrator or visionary: The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are two recent examples. Precocity is also experiencing a literary comeback; I read recently that J.D. Salinger's Glass family has been replicated all over the place. (Everyone's a wise child!) In Darkmans, none of Barker's characters are precocious knowers, not even the boy, Fleet, who is in some ways the center of the story. He builds an entire French village out of matchsticks on the dining room table, and occasionally tells stories and speaks in an Old English that hint at the historical presence haunting the novel. His voice is eerie and oracle-like, but almost none of the characters take him seriously. In fact, when his mother is advised to enroll him in a program for gifted children, she listens politely although it is fairly clear she has no intention to act on this advice. (Advice given by a man who encouraged his daughter in the same way, and then had to deal with the fact that his daughter moved to Sudan, converted to Islam, and married a warlord.)

For Barker, the mystery at the center of the novel remains obscure. It cannot be dismissed as a mentally disabled person's point of view, indeed, the presence of the past in all of the characters' lives show that this paranormal historical slippage is not confined to the diagnosed schizophrenic. Barker's characters motivations are only partially explained as the ending quickly answers one small puzzle, leaving the other strings hanging loose.

In its imaginative earnestness, the book reminded me of the less successful Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian in that the supernatural is neither rationally explained nor purely metaphorical. Adrian's book ends (spoiler!) with a fiery apocalypse, angels and all. I wonder if this is some kind of post-X-Files phenomenon - I think echoes can certainly be seen on other television shows - Lost leap to mind immediately. Neither science nor logic can explain the mysteries, nor can they been taken as a manifestation of a disturbed person's psyche. In X-Files terms, Scully's science or Mulder's childhood damage are both inadequate explanations for the strange things they witness. Written nearly a decade later, Darkmans doesn't even suggest that it might be one of these two options. It embraces the unnatural, concludes with a startling scene, and leaves the reader with a feeling of unsettledness to match the displacement felt by its characters.