FrankenGawker?

Going through my old tweets I came across this one from December 2008:

“Apropos of nothing: Is it me or has Gawker gone from funny to mean, boorish and rude?”

Now, two years after the site was dead and buried, The Guardian is reporting that there are plans afoot to revive it next year.

Here’s a thought: sometimes when something dies, it dies for a reason, and it is better to leave it dead.

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In Defense of Joy Luck

I read a review in Slate today that quoted a detractor of Amy Tan’s seminal novel The Joy Luck Club dismissing the work as “the Panda Express of Asian-American lit.”

As someone exposed to that particular sub-genre long before Amy Tan inked a deal with a publisher. I found that the more I learned about China and the more Chinese I spoke, the better I understood and appreciated Maxine Hong Kingston and the tiny coterie of Asian-American writers who were finding their voices in the 1970s.

And that’s the problem. Not everyone has the time and inclination to study a culture and language long enough to gain that level of appreciation, and the Asian-American lit written for an Asian-American audience is often so inaccessible to those outside the community that great writing talent and amazing stories go unappreciated.

The lesson is unmistakable: if one wants their unique cultural stories to be told to and understood by wider audiences, one very good writer – or several – need to create the literary onramp that brings the rest of us to the point at which we can thoughtfully engage with that culture in the first place.

Thus, if The Joy Luck Club was the Americanized version of the Asian-American experience, my heartfelt retort is “so what?” Asian-American lit probably needed a Panda Express to get us all engaged, opening the door for more mainstream appreciation of a new generation of Asian-American voices. What Tan did for Asian Americans was on a par with what Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison did for African-Americans; what Sandra Cisneros and Tomas Rivera did for Hispanic Americans; what William Saroyan did for Armenian-Americans; what Sherman Alexie did for Native Americans; and what Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, and Phillip Roth did for Jewish Americans.

Did each of these writers make artistic decisions that aimed their works at an audience beyond their own community? Without a doubt. Does that mean they sold out, somehow compromising their art and cheapening the experience they sought to portray? Or does that mean only that these authors understood that sometimes, in telling a story, a writer needs to meet his reader halfway, to build a bridge that enables understanding and empathy?

Do not misunderstand: I am as uncomfortable with some of the artistic choices made by Jewish writers who seemed at times more interested in assimilating us into the wider culture than in celebrating our differences. But I would like to think I have always understood the greater value, in the American milieu, of making one of our nation’s component communities a little less foreign, and a little more like the rest of us.

I first read The Joy Luck Club thirty years ago, and it has stayed with me since. It  opened the door for me to a range of relationships life experiences that I might have shunned otherwise. It opened the door to a range of literature I would never have plumbed any deeper than the syllabus required. And it gave me an insight into the experience of my Asian-American hapa child that has strengthened our relationship.

So cast your brickbats, purists. But understand that when the history of Asian-American literature (and possibly of Asian literature) is written, The Joy Luck Club will be recognized as critical juncture in the development of the literature of the Pacific Civilization.

Sunset at the Academy

The Academy is worried about the waning relevance of its signature event. Based on the nominees to come and a way-too-early forecast, it may be right. But are the new changes the right fix?

Source: In the Year of ‘Black Panther,’ the Oscars Are in Panic Mode. Should They Be? – The Ringer

My favorite quote from this:

The Oscars are “not a meritocracy, it’s a subjective popularity contest voted on by a private club.”

The reason that the Academy Awards are irrelevant to me, and probably to a growing chunk of the American population, has nothing to do with their selections. It is the very idea of film awards that have to me become offensive. I don’t know about you, but I did not think my way through a liberal arts education and cultivate my own aggressively middlebrow tastes in order to have the grown-up equivalent of the Drama Club tell me what is good and what is not.

My favorite films include (but are not limited to) The Shawshank Redemption, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Big Lebowski, The Postman, Silverado, Blade Runner, Big Fish, Doubt, Thunderheart, Real Genius, The Red Violin, Clerks, Almost Famous, High Fidelity, Silent Running, The Dark Knight, Elizabeth, The Odessa File, The Right Stuff, The Fifth Element, Grosse Pointe Blank, Twister, A Scanner Darkly, and  anything from the  Star Trek, Star Wars, Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Marvel franchises. (Plus the oeuvres of John Malkovich, David Lean, and Stephen Spielberg. There is a healthy mix of stuff in there, but little of Academy fare. But if I were stuck on a desert island with a single hard-drive full of content, I’d happily pick my selections over the last twenty years of Best Picture nominees.

I do not reckon I am alone, and that is unlikely to change. As such, I have to wonder if there is much that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can do within the scope of its charter to arrest the long, slow decline of the Oscars.

Take Me Out to the Bar Game

“The Dodgers suck!”

He’s all the way across the room, and he says it in a voice loud enough to quiet O’Tooles for a moment. This is a Chicago sports bar. It is Game One of the National League Championship Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the middle of teaching the defending champion Chicago Cubs a lesson in humility. The bar – indeed, the whole city – is wound so tight the air thrums as you walk.

And I am a die-hard Dodger fan with just enough IPA in me to stop caring who knows it.

“The Dodgers SUCK,” he repeats. This time he’s louder, and he is supported by a broken chorus of interjections expressing everything from full-throated support to mild “chill out dude” disapproval.

This is one of those moments when I ask myself what the right thing would be to do. As a guy. As a dude. I think about the thin veneer of civilization. I tell myself that sports is an opiate, and that I have been manipulated into this by a cynical media establishment that thrives on stoking sports rivalries.

And I don’t care. This guy hasn’t just insulted a bunch of grown men throwing a ball at each other. He has transgressed against something both more personal and far larger.

I think about the games I watched growing up. The time we went with Dr. Bing, our baseball coach, sitting so close that my heroes came to life in front of me.

I think about the times my dad took me to watch the guys play, and what it meant for he and I to listen to the post-game show as we drove the old VW van home down Sunset late at night.

I think about the giddy joy of the 1981 World Series, when we showed the most powerful Yankees squad in five decades that grit and determination beats glitz and polish when it counts.

I think about fifty years of admiring a team that prided itself on being the anti-Yankees, the Boys from Brooklyn, Dem Bums.

I think about Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch in a critical World Series game because it landed on Yom Kippur, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a Jew.

I think about Jackie Robinson, who with the backing of Dodger management silently suffered innumerable hurts as he forged the path for African-Americans into the major leagues, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a man.

I think about Ray Campanella, upside down in his car on a Harlem Street after hitting black ice on a winter night, his back broken, his career over, then spending the rest of his life working in the Dodger front office and showing the world that there was no such thing as “handicapped.”

And I turn to look at the gone-to-seed neck-bearded fuck whose alcoholic partisanship has turned him into a drooling, knuckle-dragging neanderthal.

I think, “‘The Dodgers suck?’ You miserable, illegitimate, Epsilon-minus thick-skulled cretin!”

And I realize that I am about a pubic-hair’s width away from getting into my first bar fight, alone, deep in enemy territory. And I wonder if Blue Shield will cover my heartfelt yet doomed defense of our team, or whether the adjuster will boil the whole thing down to idiocy and refuse to pay on the grounds that the cause of my broken bones, lost teeth, and contusions were the direct result of an uninsured pre-existing condition.

This is the last place I want to be, but the testosterone and adrenaline are pouring into my system, and I start to get up.

The waitress is smarter than all of us. She comes over, looks me in the eye, smiles, and sets down another pint of IPA.

“I didn’t order that!”

“On the house,” she says. “And I’ve got some fresh tater tots on the way.”

I look over at Neckbeard. The bartender just put an order of hot wings in front of him and the boys. I’m betting these were free, too.

I look back at the waitress. She smiles.

“Enjoy the game,” she says. “And welcome to Chicago.”

Free beer and tots?

Manhood satisfied, I sit down again, the anger gone, replaced with a sympathetic good will toward old Neckbeard.

The Dodgers don’t suck, I tell myself. But for the moment, I am happy to let them prove it themselves.

The tots arrive, the Dodgers are winning, and I am left alone to contemplate the madness we – I – have yet to outgrow.

Ah, Q

I have at last finished my extended binge of all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series has aged remarkably well, to the credit of its cast, its crew, and the legion of scribes who ensured an upward trajectory of plot-lines and issues that lasted almost to the very end.

The watch-through gave me a chance to understand and appreciate aspects of the show that I had missed during my spottier watching in the past. One of those aspects was Q, the near-omnipotent being who regularly showed up to toy with the Enterprise crew on the pretext that it was his way of testing the value of humanity as a race.

My revelation: Q was Loki, the trickster of his race, and the Q Continuum a reinterpretation of the Asgard of Norse myth.

Armed with that thought, I went back and re-watched the episodes with Q, including the series pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint.” Q came across as less and much more sympathetic. In the end, Q is a tragic figure, neither of his world nor ours, and doomed to testing the boundaries between the two.

And yet, there was something profoundly sad about how Q was developed as a character.

The Trek universe, at its best, it has been a compelling forum for exploring the larger questions that face humanity. Those questions are rarely resolved, but they don’t need to be – it is in the probing of those questions that we learn about ourselves.

Where no Trek has gone, though, is in an exploration of the unresolvable quandary of whether a higher power exists. The Trek universe has either studiously avoided the debate, or it has engaged in long-winded  plot lines that dismiss the question as a matter of myth, superstition, or the naive misunderstanding of a more evolved being by a less evolved race. We can agree to disagree on many things, Trek tells us, but religious believers are suckers and simpletons.

This has never been enough to warn me away from the Trek universe, because despite this failing I continue to find the ouvre provocative and compelling.

I continue to hope that some wise squire of the Roddenberry legacy will give writers the permission to leave the question of G-d open and on the table. But I will not hold my breath: I know my fellow Trekkers too well, and for them the vastness of the Final Frontier is all the G-d most of them will ever need.

 

Bonfire of the Narcissists

While it is disheartening to watch the hollowing-out of the Great American Journalism machine, especially in these dog days following the passing of an innovator like Tom Wolfe, there are moments when I must wonder aloud whether some of the culling might be for the greater good.

A few moments ago a colleague forwarded to me (and about a dozen others) a notice that GQ was laying off a clutch of editors. On the surface, sad and evocative of much hand-wringing.

Pardon me if I do not join in.

For these were the editors (some of them, anyway) who in the April 19 issue of GQ let loose an anti-intellectual tirade against the Great Books (21 of them actually), suggesting that because these books were, you know, old or boring, they weren’t worth the time and effort of reading, and that there were 20 other hipper, more recent books that should be read instead.

I am all for inclusion, but I take the viewpoint that the answer to adding diversity to one’s erudition is to lengthen the list of the works to be read with other authors of merit, not arbitrarily cull the canon of the stuff that requires effort or that posits ideas one finds objectionable.

In a day and age of hypertext and short attention spans, I believe it lies with those placed in a position to influence the tastes and habits of our nation to make as loud a case for the consumption of intellectual fibre as they do for the ingestion of the dietary kind. I believe a failure to do so is pandering at best, and at worst a betrayal of the greater cause of belles lettres. As our list of periodicals shrinks, any indication that the remaining scribes will be those who fight for intellectual rigor is heartening to me.

Did Russia Start World War II?

Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War?
Victor Suvorov
300pp.

English: Viktor Suvorov (Russian: Ви́ктор Суво...
English: Viktor Suvorov (Russian: Ви́ктор Суво́ров; real name Vladimir Rezun : Влади́мир Богда́нович Резу́н) (born April 20, 1947) – Russian writer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following my review of a small library about Russia’s fight against Germany in World War II in The Peking Review,  a reader introduced to me Victor Suvorov’s provocative Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War? In this book, the author debunks the accepted idea that Hitler was the primary instigator of the war, suggesting instead that it was mostly Stalin’s fault.

The author sets himself against a mass of historical evidence and analysis in his work, and in so doing opens himself to accusations of being an apologist for Hitler. But Suvorov is not that kind of revisionist: his goal is not to exonerate the Austrian Corporal or the Nazis, but to prove that the accepted Soviet/Russian narrative about the war is wrong.

Much has been done to uncover the crimes of Nazism and find the butchers who perpetrated atrocities in its name. This work must be continued and stepped up. But while unmasking fascists, one must also expose the Soviet communists who encouraged the Nazis to commit their crimes, so that they could avail themselves of the results of these crimes.

The task would seem almost impossible given that Soviet historians had 44 years after the war to alter the historical record and eliminate any countervailing evidence. Suvorov manages to make an argument that is interesting to those of us who still puzzle over Stalin’s tactical idiocy in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa. Believing that the whole show was a Stalin set piece, even down to the sacrifice of tens of millions of Soviet lives, offers a rationale that seems to reconcile Stalin’s early bumbling with the Red Army‘s victories during the last 30 months of the war.

What is more, Suvorov is no longer alone in the effort to make Stalin a co-culprit in World War II. Timothy Snyder‘s excellent Bloodlands is a reminder that both Hitler and Stalin engaged in political killings and mass-murders of their own citizens and those of the lands they conquered.

Unfortunately, Suvorov’s book (and indeed much of his other work, including his Inside the Soviet Army) comes across rather less than an academic study and more as a political treatise against Soviet communism. When the book was written in the late 1980s, there was a receptive audience for such works. Today, Suvorov’s tone and approach seems rather quaint (although, I would argue, not as anachronistic as it may seem, given events in Russia.)

Stripping away that foible, though, Suvorov at least opens the door to further academic examination of his points. There seems a vast field for historians to sow in probing the degree to which initial Soviet defeats were calculated by Stalin to secure his own power and provide an opening for Soviet domination of Europe.

Re-Examining Oliver Stone

Twins.

“You can’t even make a movie critical of America practically, unless you do it in a very lighthearted way,” Stone says. The ‘70s were “a time where people were re-examining — what were we doing in Vietnam? But that hasn’t happened (since). What are we doing in Iraq? What are we doing in Afghanistan? There’s just no questioning in movies.”

Source: Oliver Stone still seeking movie truth in ‘Snowden’

Reading this quote, offered by the director upon the release of Snowden, one was left with the unmistakable impression that Oliver Stone was already making excuses for what would rank as one of his most egregious box-office flops, almost – but not quite as bad – as Heaven and Earth.

I was tempted upon reading this to ask Mr. Stone whether he is familiar with the vast corpus of documentary work that is scathingly critical of America? Or, indeed, whether he has heard of films like Lions for Lambs, Syriana, In the Valley of Elah, Margin Call, The Big Short, or Redacted, all of which were critical of the nation’s faults without descending into the cauldron of angry demagogic revisionism that is Mr. Stone’s customary swimming pool.

Regardless of whether it is hyperbole, ignorance, egregious self-promotion, or studied disinformation, Mr. Stone’s comment reflects poorly upon him and his exceedingly narrow world-view. Such a tunneled perspective in an auteur is only a problem when it is a reflected in his work. Unfortunately, given Mr. Stone’s choices of subject matter – recent American political history – this is indeed a problem.

Oliver Stone is no documentarian, and he has made clear his willingness to interpret historical events through the prism of his political beliefs. As Snowden drips its way into our living rooms, it is worth remembering that what Stone creates is works of interpretive fiction, not histories with dramatic license, and that in the end, his cause is not so much to reveal truth as it is the promotion of Oliver Stone.

 

Defining the Californias

Looking over Morro Bay, the epitome of a central Californian beach town. This is neither Laguna Beach nor Bodega Bay, and any similarities are purely physical.

Dividing California into regions is a matter of such ongoing debate and conjecture that it has become a cottage industry among geographers. As a student of geography and a native son of the Golden West, I figure I am as entitled as anyone to draw my own lines. To me, the division is as much cultural as it is physical or economic, and that sometimes those cultural divides can be intuited better than they can be rationalized.

In my time back in California after my two-decade sojourn in China, it has become clear that a very real change happens when you proceed north of the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley, and the San Fernando Valley; north and west of Simi Valley; and west of the Conejo Valley. Pass those points, and suddenly a different California emerges, a more timeless place, a more relaxed pace removed from the intensity of Hollywood/tourism/technology/aerospace that is Southern California. Here the farm communities, beach towns, and megalopolis-resistant exurbs take over, dotted with Wal*Marts and Costcos, to be sure, but all in service of a life determinedly removed from the economic engines of media, commerce, and innovation.

In a sense, it is here where the state joins its singular geography of rugged coast, bucolic valleys and soaring mountains with a culture that blends midwestern sensibilities and values with a progressive spirit that seams to grow from soil, rock, and sea. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it sets the region apart.

A similar change takes place traveling north. Something changes where the coast of Monterey Bay turns to face southward; where Gilroy’s garlic fields turn into Morgan Hill’s silicon suburbs; where the waters of the Central Valley begin to drain into San Francisco Bay; and where the tufa mounds of Mono Lake stand as mute testament to the resource rivalry that has always set California’s north and south against one another. This is the point where California begins its gradual shift into a climate and culture that share essence with the Pacific Northwest,  yet remain definitively Californian.

Can any of this be quantified? Probably not. But if you look with the right kind of eyes, stopping at a pull-off on the northbound 101 at the Conejo Grade just past the weigh station to survey what is ahead, you can see it. You enter a land where towns still have Main Streets, where man remains nature’s guest, and where wealthy retirees live next door to Navy engineers, sheriff’s deputies, and the prosperous, boot-strapped children of poor braceros. These elements foster a culture pleasantly distinct from the balkanization of SoCal and the hyper-gentrification of the Bay Area and its own sprawling exurbs.

So draw your own lines, if you must, but I submit that the dividing line between Southern and Central California runs roughly Point Mugu – Conejo Grade – Moorpark – Santa Clarita – Gorman – Palmdale – Barstow – Needles; and that the split between central and northern happens along a line of Santa Cruz – Morgan Hill – Modesto – Mono Lake – the point where US Highway 6 crosses the California/Nevada border.

I love this entire state for all of its regions and subcultures, but if you are looking for me, you’ll find me here, in between the lines.

Uber Un-diverse? Color me Un-Shocked

Under pressure from harassment and sexism allegations, the ride-hailing giant is rethinking its approach to hiring.

Source: As Uber Grew Hastily, Diversity Took a Backseat – Bloomberg

We can engage in long conversations about diversity in the workplace, but one thing should come as no surprise: that Uber executives behaved exactly as they saw fit, and social pressure, political correctness, and societal norms be damned.

Why are we surprised when we discover that the people who set out to make a lot of money by laying waste to entire industries are not very nice? Uber has never apologized for what it is: a bunch of guys armed with an ounce of vision, a pound of opportunism, a kilo of greed, and an algorithm that mixes all of that into an earth-scorching business proposition.

But we’re kidding ourselves when we ignore the fact that every time we take an Uber ride that we’re fucking over a cabbie, that every time we stay in an Airbnb we’re giving a little shafting to a housekeeper at the Hilton, or that every time we order a book from Amazon we’re devaluing that erudite guy earning 10.50 an hour at the local independent bookstore.

Whatever their economic value, robber barons have never been humanists. It is now, and ever will be, up to us to make sure their depredations do more good than harm.