The Ides of September: Ebbing Mao, Flowing Mao

The visage of Chairman Mao Zedong has hovered over my own three-plus decades of studying, working in, living in, and writing about China, and I have found myself deeply conflicted in my interpretation of the man. Neither the lickspittle propaganda panegyrics of Edgar Snow nor the splenic vitriol of Jung Chang managed to sway me. There was always something missing in the simplistic interpretations of Mao as either national savior or monster tyrant.

As of this writing, it has been forty-two years since the death of Mao, and four decades since the “reforming and opening” of China that all but refuted his legacy. Yet Mao’s ghost haunts the nation. The generation most scarred by his caprices still lives, and as long as they do Mao will not fade into history. As such, his legacy and the nature of his real remain a matter of contention, and are likely to remain so for decades.

One aspect of his 37 odd years of rule that begs for re-examination is the exact nature of his power over the nation, and how it evolved over time. It is comforting, perhaps, to regard Mao as a static stone who perched himself atop the nation for four decades. It is easy to see Mao as always having been strong, and any of his fears to the contrary being aught more than the paranoid delusions of a man increasingly isolated from any healthy human relationship.

But after sitting through the late Richard Baum’s lectures on the making of modern China, reading the magisterial trilogy by Frank Dikotter, and delving into sheaves of old documents, it seems that reality is much more nuanced.

A truer picture is likely that Mao was never as secure in his role as he seemed. Indeed, Mao’s power ebbed and flowed throughout his tenure. Far from being paranoid musings, his stated and demonstrated insecurities were reactions to real changes in the Chinese polity. Those ebbs and flows became signposts written in gigantic characters across the history of the PRC’s first quarter-century. Indeed, if you want to understand the history of the PRC under Mao, the main events (the Korean intervention, the 100 Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightest Campaign, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) were nearly all precipitated by Mao’s reaction to how he perceived the current tidal status of his political power among the Party elite.

Mao knew Chinese history, knew the stories of imperial tyrants unseated by popular uprising, and as one if its craftsmen he also knew the byzantine politics of Communist Party leadership. When his power ebbed, he would incite a campaign or movement to undermine those who had begun to amass power and legitimacy of their own. When his power flowed, he would anoint a generation of underlings who would support him, and turn his attention to placing his stamp upon the nation.

Thus whatever else Mao may have been, he was a deeply insecure leader who pathologically elevated his own sinecure above the interests of the people and nation he led. He overcompensated for his own deep faults as a leader with the bluntest instruments of politics, paying for his failings in the blood or ordinary Chinese. Mao may or may not have been a monster. But anything positive he accomplished in his effort to raise China out of the vortex of neo-feudalism and into the modern world must be weighed against a character flaw that exacted a cost measured in millions of lives.

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Hitler’s Bug

Long before VW’s emissions scandal, the Beetle stood out as a Nazi symbol

Source: Volkswagen’s Dark Past | History Net: Where History Comes Alive – World & US History Online | From the World’s Largest History Magazine Publisher

There is no shortage of companies extant today that trace their lineage into an Axis past. Most of Japan’s major zaibatsu made it through the MacArthur era, albeit modernized in ownership and management. Fiat made fighter planes for Mussolini yet remains Italy’s most blue-chip industrial enterprise. And Krupp, the most infamous of the “merchants of death,” exists today as part of European heavy industry giant Thyssen-Krupp.

Volkswagen is arguably the most visible of these Fascio-capitalist legacies.

I have spent my career working with companies and their reputations, and I have come to understand that history is not destiny: success is rarely permanent, failures need not be fatal, and a founder’s foibles can be expunged. But a company’s skeletons, however well closeted, are brutally difficult to bury because heritage becomes woven into culture in ways that are often variable and unpredictable.

VW is a fascinating case study, a legacy of National Socialism that has been over the past seventy years alternately beloved and reviled outside of Germany. It would be hard to argue that the company has risen above its past.

What will forever plague the firm – and others like it – is the degree to which the ideology that birthed lies dormant within the company’s cultural fabric. One would hope that, like Ford, VW can remain cleansed of the ugliness in its past even as the past echoes through modern Europe. But the burden of assuring as much remains an obligation of the firm’s leadership.

Adopted Californians: The Navy’s Smartest Man

The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance
Thomas B. Buell
Naval Institute Press
January 1987
518 pages

“There are two kinds of people in this world,” a Chinese executive told me once. “The kind of people who speak for themselves, and the kind who let their deeds speak for them.”

This insight not only compelled me to look at my own life (which one am I?), it also forced me to re-evaluate my heroes. Who among my pantheon was a doer, and who did some good things but was really exceptional at tooting his own horn (or paying others to toot if for them?) What does it say about an individual who crafts his or her life after one type or the other? And what does it say about nations that make heroes of narcissists?

Old “Electric Brain

Picture of from http://www.history.navy.mil/ph...
Admiral Raymond Spruance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations in World War II, thought Raymond Spruance was the single most intelligent U.S. naval commander in the war. Given the competition – Nimitz, Turner, Halsey, McCain, Leahy, and King himself – this was high praise. Yet Spruance today is largely unknown outside of the relatively small circle of mariners, historians, and history buffs. Why?

Thomas Buell, himself a naval officer, offers an answer with his definitive portrait Spruance, the enigmatic commander who made the critical decisions at Midway and led the US Navy-Marine Corps team in their legendary drive across the Central Pacific. Throughout his life, his subordinates and superiors all came in turn came to rely on his quiet intellect, his preternatural calm under fire, and his ability to size up a situation and act with deliberation, neither vacillating like Ghormley nor impetuous like Halsey.

Working from a relatively small number of sources on Spruance, Buell gives us no great insights that will change the way we think of war, but it will change the way we think of warriors, their flacks, and their biographers. Buell paints a credibly human picture of Spruance, and rather than inflate him to larger-than-life size, offers us the spartan, taciturn, stone-faced career officer whose deeds remain greater than the man himself. It would have been easy for the author to write a panegyric, but you can almost hear the ghost of Spruance whispering over his shoulder, telling Buell not to go down that path. While ably defending Spruance against criticism of his actions at Midway (later proven to be correct), Buell uses the same historiographical care to excoriate the admiral’s actions during his tenure as Ambassador to the Philippines.

The Smartest Man in the Navy

Buell also points out more sublime examples of Spruance’s leadership that resonate today. Spruance led his fleet with a staff that was a fraction of the size of Halsey’s, demonstrating an economy that the brass-bloated navy of today has forgotten: he was early to recognize and defend geniuses like Kelly Turner and Carl Moore against the capricious politics of the Navy; he was a battleship officer who never learned to fly, yet absorbed so much about carrier aviation that he became one of the country’s ablest commanders of airpower; he oversaw the reinvention of naval logistics, a factor the Japanese navy recognized as the keystone to the US victory in the Pacific; and he grasped early that American bases in postwar Asia would be an irritant that would lead to further conflict.

And then there was that intellect: rebelling against the provincial, trade-school approach the navy had taken to professional education, he spent the last years of his career turning the Naval War College into an outstanding graduate school with unparalleled programs in strategy, national security, and world affairs. While nothing he did will surpass his feats as a commander, in terms of its importance to the nation, to sea power, and to global security his two years as President of the College are unmatched.

Buell also offers us an illustration as to why, seven decades after the end of the conflict, we are still unearthing truths that compel us to reevaluate how we understand the war, history, power, and leadership. As we do, we are finding that many of the lessons our fathers learned from their victories are wrong, and many of the right lessons have been forgotten. The time has come for a reappraisal of that conflict: as we watch the rise of a new set of world powers, now more than ever we need to understand why World War II was won (or lost), and we need to find the people who were really responsible, not just the heroes and villains our fathers’ textbooks served to us. Raymond Spruance offers us a timeless model of leadership in crisis. We would be wrong if we did not go looking for more.

N.B.: Ray Spruance spent his final years living in California, and passed away in Monterey in 1969.

Missing the old Pacific Electric 

A little transit nostalgia, courtesy of the Imagineers at Disney California Adventure.

Yeah, we should have spent the money on faster Red Cars operating on above- or below-grade tracks. We learned. We’re paying for the lesson now. Hindsight and all that.

An Airfield Twixt Past and Future 


Pausing for lunch on a cold, windy day at the former George Air Force Base, this beautifully restored F-4C is my sole companion.

The base is a glorified industrial park attached to a parking lot for cast-off jetliners, an example of the “peace dividends” of dubious value that so many California communities have reaped since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It does not take much of a sense of history to wonder, however, whether the dawn of the second Cold War might fortell a quickening in the future of this high-desert airbase.

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Did Hollywood Kill Cyberpunk?

In 1995, cyberpunk as a cinematic genre was attempted, desiccated, mutilated, and forever laid to rest. There are many potential culprits behind its demise, but really: who is to blame?

1995: The Year That Killed Cyberpunk”
C
layton Purdom

Paste Magazine
December 15, 2014

I am a longtime fan of Cyberpunk, the subgenre of science fiction that deals with a near-future dystopia suffused with technology, virtual worlds, massive global corporations, and the desperados living in the seams where these forces intersect. In 1989, after years away from any kind of fiction, I read stories by the likes of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in my tiny room above a godown in Taiwan, and in so doing reinvigorated my interest in the novel and short stories.

The stories had great power and more relevance than almost any other sort of science fiction. Almost a rejection of the majesty and melodrama of space operas like Star Wars, the Cold War allegories of Star Trek, or even the deep space horrors of Aliens, cyberpunk was happening in a future no more than a decade or two away. It felt real, immediate, and urgent, and it told us (long before cyberwar and the rise of corporate oligarchies were real things) that the Cold War was not the end of history: it was the beginning of the real nasty shit.

The Hollywood Whodunit

And yet today, three decades after cyberpunk’s birth, Clayton Purdom has scribed an interesting whodunit in Paste in which he laments the demise of cyberpunk as a subgenre of science fiction.

Our literary coroner determines the time of death to be sometime in 1995, where the Summer of Cyberpunk offered up, in succession, Robert Longo’s soul-crushing take on William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic; Danny Cannon’s misbegotten Judge Dredd; Irwin Winkler’s The Net*, which Purdom acknowledges is probably the best of the bunch; and Brett Leonard’s gawd-offal** Virtuosity.

When I read the article through the first time, I shrugged, discarding it as an interesting idea. And then I stopped myself, and realized that the reason that I was discarding it was that the idea was probably so much nonsense.

Now, it is a treasured meme among literary circles that good writers, good writing, and good stories go to Hollywood to die. Purdom probably buys into that meme, and I am loathe to discredit it. But in the case of cyberpunk, Purdom stretches the point.

Movies Don’t Kill Genres

After all, film has screwed up speculative fiction in the past without destroying it. Every adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit prior to the advent of Peter Jackson were mediocre at best. Yet people never stopped reading either fantasy or Tolkien despite an entire decade of bad big-budget fantasy films like Excalibur, Krull, the Conan series, and Willow.  Likewise with hard science fiction: Frank Herbert is selling books three decades after his death despite two attempts to bring Dune to the screen, and Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov titles remain backlist performers after predictably bad adaptations of their own stories.

No, Hollywood did not kill Cyberpunk: the genre died of maladies baked into its very code.

First, Cyberpunk makes for bad cinema. Like bad acid trips, cyberpunk narratives are really hard to film well because so much of the action takes place inside the heads and computers of the characters, making it almost impossible to convey the plot and drama with any kind of accuracy. It’s all contrived video effects, and since nobody actually knows what it feels like to wire yourself into a deck and go totally VR in a world that looks nothing like our own, those effects quickly devolve into a lot of context-free eye candy. Alternately, you wind up with scenes like Hugh Jackman’s laughable under-the-gun 60-second DoD hack in Swordfish: a lot 0f spasmodic twitch-finger keyboarding accompanied by unsynchronized high-speed playback graphics on a computer screen. The real drama is contrived and too often forced to rely on awkward narration. No fun. Bad movies.

Perhaps more important for film, cyberpunk defied happy endings. Both dystopian and noir, the genre was populated by anti-heroes or protagonists just trying to save their own skins, all in a world that was doomed and getting worse. It was as if the most depressing parts of film noir and post-apocalyptic fiction were combined. There were only so many ways to tell that kind of story, and by the time Hollywood even read Johnny Mnemonic, the proverbial shark had been jumped.

Death by Abandonment

Filmability aside, the more likely killer was, to steal a phrase from Blade Runner, accelerated  decrepitude. The more avid readers of the works in question will acknowledge that cyberpunk as a subgenre had run its course long before the summer of 1995, hitting its apogee with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in 1992 before evaporating. Indeed, it was almost like there had been a secret meeting of cyberpunk authors in some little Idaho hotel where everyone quietly conferred, agreeing that it was time to move on.

By the 1993 premieres of Lawnmower Man and Freejack, the early and lousy cyberpunk movies that screened and disappeared long before Purdom’s Summer of Denouement, Stephenson, along with pioneers Gibson, Sterling, and most of their contemporaries, had left Cyberpunk to sow more fertile fields. Sterling went first: his excellent 1988 collection Islands in the Net was his last major work in the genre. After Snow Crash, Stephenson moved beyond cyberspace and into nanotech and cryptology. Gibson, perhaps most reluctant to leave behind a genre he all but created in 1981, took a half-step away from cyberpunk with his media-obsessed Virtual Light in 1993, and then never looked back.

So cyberpunk may not have been dead by 1993, but it was sufficiently close to deaths door that even its creator had moved on. In truth, Hollywood didn’t kill cyberpunk: if anything, the studios engaged in an ill-timed effort to revive the subgenre long enough to suck a buck out of it. The attempt was every bit as bad as Purdom relates, and it failed.

Life in the Old Girl Yet

Yet if cyberpunk died of its inherent cinematic and dramatic limitations, there are occasional works that suggest a revival might be possible. Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One returns to the formula that made cyberpunk so powerful and appealing, yet substitutes a true hero for the noir antiheroes favored by Gibson et. al. Sadly, Cline does not appear inclined or able to carry the cyberpunk banner much further.

Nonetheless, the success of Ready Player One makes an important point. There remains a latent audience for speculative fiction wherein a hero triumphs in a dystopian near-future facing down massive networks of data and artificial intelligence. (Think The Matrix, but without the over-choreographed fight chases substituting for plot and the heavy-handed messianic archetype.†) And little wonder: thirty-five years after “Burning Chrome,” we are all still trying to figure out the relationship between the individual, humanity, and the machines we are creating to think for us. The network is the ultimate villain, and neither Hollywood nor the authors who outed the nemesis have destroyed it or the latent fear it inspires.

Cyberpunk will return, and when it does it will be far more relevant and terrifying than it was two decades ago.

 

Notes

* Full disclosure – I worked on The Net as an uncredited member of the crew, and I owe Irwin and Sandy and playback supervisor Todd Marks a debt of gratitude for supplying the paychecks that got me through a very rough patch in my life, so I will cop to the potential for some implicit bias.

**I know, it’s supposed to be “G-d awful,” but my spelling is no less appropriate.

† No joke: I remember walking out of the theater after seeing Matrix Revolutions feeling like the Wachowski siblings had just spent the last 25 minutes beating me over the head with a copy of the New Testament. There’s nothing wrong with the messianic archetype, but like all literary devices and most condiments, a lot of a good thing isn’t always better than a little.  

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The Ace in L.A.’s Art Deco Deck


The Lobby
Ace Hotel
929 S. Broadway, Los Angeles

The Renaissance that Downtown L.A. has experienced in the quarter century since I last haunted these precincts is astounding, and nowhere does it hum with such subtle joy as Ace Hotel.

The hotel was crafted from the gutted interior of the old United Artists building, and the architects only touched the grande dame’s Art Deco exterior sufficiently to restore it to its former elegance. The rooms manage to meld the period and the contemporary in a way that you almost want to give a name, like “Art Deco Revival” or “Art Deco Moderne.”

I walked into the lobby and was charmed instantly. The fidelity to the era reminded me of the corridors of the Wilshire-Ebell Theater or the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The parquet floors, the arched doorways, the moldings, the iron trim, and the high ceilings above narrow spaces bespoke the architects’ determination to restore more than renovate.

True to its origins, the Ace is arguably less capacious in either room or public area than your average Courtyard, but the lack of opulence is more than balanced by its surfeit of character. To walk through her main doors is to take a step back in time and down in speed.

One is tempted to linger in the lobby, to dawdle over breakfast at the L.A. Chapter restaurant in the lobby, to set aside the email and to think, to breathe, to be in the moment. Sip the coffee. Read the script pages decorating the lobby wall. Watch the people walk by on the street outside. And listen to the sounds and echoes.

You may accuse me of wallowing in nostalgia, but you would miss the point. What is precious about the Ace Hotel and its anachronistic ilk is not a siren call to a supposedly better past, but their Zen-ish insistence that we eschew internet speed so that we may more fully occupy the moment.