The Human Side of Bob Dole. No really, I’m not even joking…

My complaints about the coverage of electoral politics usually come from the Nate Silver direction: journalists’ uses  of data range from innumeracy, treating every random statistical fluctuation as a watershed requiring extensive analysis and debate on its causes and effects, to plain lying (Of course Reagan will beat Mondale tomorrow, but I am calling the race a tossup because it makes for a more exciting story and will please my fans).But the human side of campaign coverage, though farther from my own areas of knowledge, is just as vapid and cynical, reducing “character” to demented shibboleths.

If you doubt me, read Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes and see what can be accomplished when a writer asks, “Who is this guy, really?” (they wre all guys in those days), where does he come from, what would it be like to have him for a boss or a brother-in-law?  I recognize that my endorsement will probably not be enough to send you scurrying off to read a 1000-page book about the 1988 Presidential primaries; all I can say is that I went through it in about the time it takes certain people I know to rip through a season of Breaking Bad on Netflix.

Cramer profiles most of the major players in the 1988 election: Bush, Dole, Gephardt, Dukakis, Hart, Biden.  All are portrayed with empathy, but also with some amusement at their pretensions (and people without big pretensions wouldn’t be running for President).  My favorite is probably the treatment of Dole, who was, I think , widely regarded as a remarkably unlovable figure (there’s a reason that, when the Springfield GOP holds its midnight meeting, Bob Dole is chosen to read from the Necronomicon).  The cold and brittle Dole we know is here—he barks “Keep it up!” at his staff in a tone of terse command “that passes with him for enthusiastic good humor”—but there is also the joy of working a crowd:


Sometimes when he’d finish a speech and a band would strike up some brassy tune, Dole wouldn’t leave the stage, wouldn’t even turn around to shake people’s hands.  He’d stand there watching them cheer,, with the band pumping in his ears, and he’d swing his good arm in time to the music and bounce on his feet, up and down, up and down pumping that arm and hearing the cheers.  He looked like a youngster,like a hep-cat from the ‘40s, bouncing to the big band , like one of those band leaders who played the big dances, the guys who didn’t play an instrument or sing, but stood up front swinging time to the music, bringing you the action: Bob Crosby and his Bobcats, Bob Dole, the Bobster, and he was action.

And, combining the two elements, the Bobster in front of the camera:…

Usually people asked for pictures.  Would the Senator stop a second to pose with Denise here?  Sure!  Then Dole would laugh while the picture was taken, a prairie cackle that held no humor; it was his way of making his face right.  “Hack-hack-hack-hack!”  He never took a bad picture, always had a great smile, unless the people couldn’t work their own camera.  That happened too—they were so in a flutter.  Here was Bob Dole!  “Hack-hack-hack-hack!  Hack-hack-hack-hack!  Come on!”  It would come out teasing, in the middle of the laugh, but he meant it.  He had other people to see.  “Hack-hack-hack-come-on-come-on-Come-On-hack-hack!”

These amusing cartoons of the candidates are interleaved with biographical flashbacks: Dole grew up in the sort of Kansas town where nobody had any money until outsiders with oil jobs started to turn up.  One year the Doles rented their house to oil people and moved the whole family  into their own basement.  Bob (I think he was called Bobby Joe) inherited a kind of fanatical discipline from his mother, who was ferociously devoted to him and mostly just ferocious to everyone else.  He paid his sisters a nickel to iron his shirts to his special standard for his job as a soda jerk, and was voted the handsomest boy in his high school; it didn’t hurt that he was the star of the basketball team.  Imagine the transformation of his world when he came back from Italy crippled and horribly deformed, his arm hanging by a thread and his spine so damaged that he was for a long time unable to walk. Or even feed himself.  Now all that fanatical discipline came in handy, along with endless help from his family, a big collection from the townspeople and the charity of a surgeon in Chicago.  His vanity became a prickly pride in not letting anyone pity him for “his problem,” and his anger a kind of permanent voltage that made his aides afraid to touch him even to help him burst through a mob of reporters.

The last bit may owe something to my own interpretation, but you get the idea.  All the bios offer something more than clichés; the most appealing character is perhaps the slightly flaky but warm-hearted Joe Biden, the least appealing perhaps Dukakis, whose Puritan political rectitude seems to be deeply antithetical to Cramer (he notes that, during Dukakis’ first term as governor, people started to call him Governor Asshole).  Those of us who hail from flyover country will be grateful for Cramer’s attention to genuine local detail: the Gephardts’ neighbors in South St. Louis, for example, were “scrubby Dutch,” a phrase guaranteed to provoke a madeleine moment in my family, and Gephardt is described as saying “carn” for corn, a feature of St. Louis dialect that I don’t think is widely known.  (I thought that my grade-school secretary was named after the fourth planet until I I saw “Mrs. Morris” written down.  Very disappointing, it would be so cool to have a planetary name.)

To be sure there is the occasional howler.  Little Dicky Gebhardt was something of a nerd, or “fruit, as people said then,” but he countered this image by participating in the Drama Club.  Oh dear.  “Fruit” was a (usually) insulting  term for a gay person, hence the old T-shirt slogan, Boycott Anita Bryant, Squeeze a California Fruit.  It could also be used as a generic dis, but in any case nobody ever cleared himself of that accusation by joining a Drama Club.

What It Takes also affords the reader the pleasure of seeing early glimpses of now-familiar faces, as when you’re watching an old movie and one of the anonymous thugs intimidating Woody Allen on the subway is obviously Sylvester Stallone.  There is of course an early edition of Biden, plus the youthful Georgie Bush, a.k.a. Junior, and a passing reference to a certain Governor Clinton (no mention of his wife).  There are also some names to conjure with among us political nerds (political fruits?), such as Joe Trippi (later of Deaniac fame) and the unkillable Bob Shrum.  In the direction, the world of campaign media is still dominated by something called “print,” including not only “newspapers” but “weekly news magazines.”  If they do a new edition of Cramer’s book, they should probs add footnotes for these terms.

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Sexy Chewing Gum Talent Scout

One of the best things about foreigners is that they allow us to see ourselves in an entertaining and instructive new light.  I once visited some Germans who had a guide for prospective visitors to America.  This included a warning about the confusing money (it’s all the same size, so you might give someone a large bill without realizing it)  and confirmation that rumors of the so-called “doggy bag” really are true—if you don’t eat all your food at a restaurant, they will let you take the rest home!Restaurants can also present thorny social problems; for example the waiter may introduce himself/herself, but you are not expected to reciprocate.  I can just see it: “Hi, I’m Amber and I’ll be your server tonight.”  “Oh, good evening, I am Bodo, this is my wife Irmgard, and here are little Hans-Dietrich and Anne-Sophie.”

Whole books, of course, are based on the idea of, as Leopold Bloom would say, seeing ourselves as others see us (Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters comes to mind, and this trope plays a large role in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah)., but on a much smaller scale I am fascinated by the role that English words and phrases play in other languages,   often carrying a significance that comes as much from their simply being English as from their denotation.  The Japanese show a special flair  for this kind of thing—who can say what inspired the restaurant name “GOD hamburger”?  My sister saw on the street in Japan a prim middle-schooler wearing a t-shirt with the proud slogan “Motherfucker.”

Anyone’s native language is in itself a colorless, odorless medium, since the universe ‘naturally’ expresses itself  through it.  So it is a bit disorienting, as well as amusing, to see the tang that English (especially American English) has when embedded in, say, Italian.  These linguistic fragments can be used to assemble a little funhouse-mirror version of our culture, providing an entertaining distraction from an otherwise tedious novel such as Piero Tandelli’s Rimini.  We are introduced to Marco Bauer, an on-the-make young journalist whose big Milan paper has posted him to the beach town of Rimini to head its summer-vacation section (essentially all Italians take their vacation in August, and about 80% of them seem to go to the beach).

The Rimini bureau has, of course, a hot  young babe reporter, rich and uppity; she and Marco snipe and quarrel and then (of course) he says “Let’s go back to my place and have sex.  I know we’ve both wanted this for a long time.”  And of course that’s what they do—I would bet that Italian has since borrowed the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ from English, but this is 1983.  Anyway, I tried to man up and keep reading, but when Marco approvingly compares his new gf’s pubic hair to the tentacles of a carnivorous plant…

So, la la la, I’m just over here collecting English lona words.  As a suave modern guy, Marco naturally drops quite a few on us: to celebrate his promotion, he heads to “lo Yellow Bar” why yellow, Dio lo sa) for some cocktails or long drinks  served up by his buddy the barman (I think that for proper effect all these should be rendered in an Italian version of Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy looking for American foxes” voice).  He relaxes with some tennis or squash, and when a song runs through his head, it’s un blues, while teenagers may listen to rock or even do some breaking (remember, it’s 1983).

You may be surprised to learn that, in addition to pop culture, English dominates the sphere of the sexy.  I was initially puzzled by a plan to have dinner at 9:00, then the discoteca at midnight and head al nightclub at 3:00 AM.  Isn’t a disco a nightclub?  The difference becomes clear when someone says “Yes, lo striptease was your idea.”   It is the addition of strippers that necessitates the English word.  When Marco, for strictly professional reasons, visits a nude beach, he heads over to a section marked ONLY GAY.  There is something charming in the butchered language of the sign; this is something that must be said in English even though neither the writer (obviously) nor most of the intended readers actually speak English, and even though I don’t imagine such a sign would be at all likely in an English-speaking country (correct me if I’m wrong, but around here I think gay nude beaches tend to lack formal signage).  When he wants to talk about carnivorous plants, though, Marco sticks to Italian.

Another slightly skewed import is flirt, which seems to mean ‘affair (“When did the flirt begin?”).    To make an import sound even more English, you can add “-ing,” as in il lifting, facelift.

English loans can crop up even in spheres like fashion and cinema where the Italians have their own proud tradition (and is not sex such a sphere?  You may ask).  There are buyers, budgets, and talent scouts—perhaps the commercial aspects of these fields seem especially American, just as the sexy vocab leans toward the public and commercial.

And naturally, just as we have borrowed samovar and suttee, there are loan-words that refer to cultural practices foreign to Italy, such as chewing gum (Umberto Eco somewhere dismisses some oddity of American culture by writing “What do you expect from a country where adults chew gum?”).  There is also la babysitter, which I had never thought of as a peculiarly American institution.  But I suppose that this was always the job of la nonna (Grandma) in a country where children seldom moved to a different city, and often lived in the same house as their parents.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it reflects a time (30 years ago) when the influence of global English was less pervasive.  In Swept Away, when Communist sailor dude comes upon a little cave on the desert island containing a crucifix and a bottle of Coke, he notes bitterly that you can never escape capitalism and the Church.  Today, he could probably add the English language.

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Come si dice ‘legitimate rape’ in iitaliano?

OK, I take it back.  In my last post I dissed the “100 Books” list for being provincial, in particular too narrowly restricted to the Anglophone world, but when I tried to think of foreign-language titles that belong on the list, I found myself rather at a loss.  The problem is that, for a list that is not supposed to feel like homework, it is not reasonable to ask people to read something in the original, and translations are…well, imagine if you could approach Van Gogh only through copies in watercolor, or Mozart only through settings for gamelan ensemble.  Someone reading Junot Diaz in Russian or Mark Twain in Japanese would certainly learn something about American culture, but the pleasure to be obtained would hardly be of the same kind as one might get from reading them in English.    Anyway, if I could add a couple of translated works to the list, they would probably be the Odyssey and Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table.

Most of the foreign books  that I have enjoyed are books that I at least took a stab at reading in their own language, and quite a bit of the pleasure I got from them was the sense of accomplishment  in being able to visit their world as more than a tourist.  I’m afraid, though, that this has a distorting effect on my taste; since I am not really a fluent reader of any foreign language, I have gotten more pleasure out of things that I can read without agonizing over every sentence and looking up every third word.  I am probably much more grateful for the clarity of Candide, Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo, and “In the Penal Colony” than I would be if they were written in English, and conversely, I would probably be a big Hemingway fan if I had had to learn English as a foreign language.

So I was pretty chuffed when I found, in the BGL’s very meagre Italian collection, Il viaggio a Roma by Alberto Moravia.  According to his Wikipedia page, Moravia was known for combining simple, common vocabulary with complex syntax, and this is a pleasing combination, since even complex syntax in Italian is not an instrument for crushing the reader’s will as it is in German, while looking up words, odious under the best circs, is a real hassle when you can’t see.

Sadly, the joy of comprehension has its limits.  Here’s the setup: Mario, a an idle ‘student,’ has lived in Paris since the age of five, when his mother left home and husband in Rome and took him with her.  She has since died, but Mario has not seen or heard from his father until now, fifteen years later, when Dad sends him a ticket to come back to Rome.  Mario decides to take the flight, on which he first snuggles up to the boobs of the woman sitting next to him, then discusses with her the childhood of Guillaume Apollinaire.  Upon arrival at his childhood home (Italians are, I think, forbidden by law to change apartments), M is confronted with a long-repressed memory of seeing his mother screwing his father’s business partner on the living-room couch.  M and Dad sit down for a long chat about Mom’s sexual habits, which even they recognize is a slightly odd ice-breaker.

Mario now finds himself obsessively drawn to the couch and consumed with jealousy of the business partner.  He thinks back to a few months ago, when he succeeded in freeing himself from a similar jealousy:   He was having a casual fling with a certain fellow student, and when she stood him up, he flew into a rage and demanded to know if she had been making love to another man.  She answered Yes, she was with Paul, and they had indeed made love.

A queste parole mi ero gettato su Monique, l’avevo roveschiata sul divano, le avevo strappato lo slip, l’avevo penetrata, avevo eiaculato quasi subito, e tutto questo in pochi istanti e in silenzio….E io avevo avuto nettissima la sensazione che questa specie di stupor aveva cancellato dal corpo di Monique il corpo di Paul, e che il mio seme aveva lavato via il seme che Paul aveva versato nel ventre di lei.  Pur giacendo sul corpo della ragazzina  con gli occhi chiusi come se mi fossi assopito, avevo cercato di analizzare e di definire questa mia curiosa sensazione di obliterazione e di purificazione. ….Monique a questo punto aveva confermato senza volerlo la mia riflessione….
“Adesso non sono più di Paul.  Sono di nuovo tua.”


At these words I had thrown myself on Monique, turned her over on the couch, ripped off her slip [correction: panties] , penetrated her, ejaculated almost immediately, all this in a few moments and in silence….And I had had the very precise sensation that this sort of rape had  erased Paul’s body from Monique’s body and that my semen had washed away the semen that Paul had poured into her womb….And even lying there on  the girl’s body, with eyes closed as though drowsing,  I had tried to analyze and define this peculiar sensation of erasure and purification.  …At this point, without meaning to, Monique had confirmed my conception….”

“Now I am no longer Paul’s.  I am yours once again.”

This edifying example gives Mario the idea that if he can find a woman to substitute for his mom and screw her on the couch, then he will exorcise his jealousy towards the business partner.

So…WTF WTF WTF?   Somehow one expects the news that the narrator is a rapist to be, you know, its own thing, not a detail buried in an aside and exiled to the past perfect, completely subordinate to the question of how to dispel a fit of incestuous jealousy.  What are we supposed to think?  Is Moravia so far gone that this is just another data point in the portrait of a rather mixed-up bourgeois kid, or is Il viaggio a sort of Lolita in which the reader must fight through the narrator’s seductive and self-serving rhetoric to see him for the monster he is?  On the one hand, the book was published in 1988, which is a bit late for Neolithic attitudes to gender, at least in a respectable cultural space.  On the other hand, 1988 arrived a lot later in Italy than in some places.  On the third hand, Moravia’s long-term partners included a couple of famous women writers, Elsa Morante and Dacia Maraini,; could he have been such a clueless creep?  If I had to make the call, I’d go with the creep theory rather than the Lolita theory.  Moravia wouldn’t be the only writer to trivialize rape (see Hijuelos, Oscar, and I’m sure others I’ve been spared the acquaintance of).

In some ways, the most troubling thing about the whole passage is Monique’s response—astonishingly, she has interpreted the ‘sort of’ rape in exactly the same way as Mario.  Could this really happen, are there women who would react thus to a sexual assault, or is this a manufactured masculine slander?  The answer would affect, in opposite directions my opinion of Moravia and of his culture, but either way, I don’t think I want to spend another six hours letting Mario tell me all about his theories and adventures.  Guess I’ll go back to something more provincial.

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I have here in my hand a list…

The other day I noticed that Amazon had produced a list of “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime” and could not resist checking it out.  The “in a lifetime” bit must explain the large contingent of children’s books; as you scan the list, you’ll also see that they “didn’t want it to feel like homework”:


I love this kind of thing, not just quibbling over the choices (is Fahrenheit 451 really anyone’s favorite Bradbury?  Doesn’t it seem awfully sepia-toned?) but also looking at the cultural world it describes.  How would the list be different in another place or time?  What does it say about ‘our’ literary culture?  A few thoughts follow.

I suppose it is no surprise that there are zero poetry books on the list, not even Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, who count as popular by today’s standards.  Poetry now  is to what all-cello rock bands are to iTunes.  I wonder how far back you would have to go before the equivalent list would contain poetry…I’d say that in 1880 you’d get Longfellow, Tennyson, Walter Scott, maybe Wordsworth, and probably a woman or two of whose work I am ignorant (not Dickinson, she was nobody).

It is a little strange, though not unpleasant, to see so many favorites  of the 14-year-old me:  Slaughterhouse-Five, Things Fall Apart, Bradbury, Garcia Marquez, The Shining, Catch-22, The World According to Garp (who knew people were still reading that one?).  With all these, it was a surprise not to see The Godfather and Watership Down.  Little Roy would also have liked Hawking, but he was no more than a gleam in his publisher’s eye at the time.

Most dismal blurb:  “For reluctant readers”?  Or “Great, yet divisive”?  I don’t know why The Corrections is supposed to be divisive, I guess it’s a reference to the controversy when Franzen stupidly said that he feared the Oprah imprimatur would scare off male readers.  That’s the author, not the book.

There are a lot more women and quite a few more people of color than there would have been on a similar list in the past (say, 1964), though it is a rather straight list (Sedaris and who else?).  And so provincial!  Three translations from Europe (one with pictures)?  One (1) from Latin America (along with two English-speaking US citizens with Caribbean roots).  Can you imagine a list from or or being so restricted?   Even so familiar a country as Ireland is represented only by the rather domesticated memoirs of an immigrant to the US.  Still  more severe is the temporal provincialism, nothing before 1800 and almost nothing but children’s books before 1920.  I guess that anything old seems like homework.

This is not mainly a criticism of the editors at Amazon, I think it really is difficult for moderately educated Americans to imagine that books from another time or language might be interesting.



I would welcome y’all’s responses.

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Cause I’m the Ho Chi Coochie Minh, everybody knows I’m here…

During World War II, a group of Vietnamese men was traveling through southern China on their way to establish a base in the mountains of northern Indochina for operations against their  country’s Japanese and French masters.  One of their number  was pretty coy about his identity, speaking only French and claiming to be Chinese; the name he gave them, Ho Che Ming, was certainly Chinese but sounded fake (it meant “he who enlightens”).  At one point, one of the party got careless with a cigarette and Mr. Ho said “Your pants are on fire” in Vietnamese before he could check himself.  So his cover was blown, but Ho Chi Minh (to use the Vietnamese transliteration), who until then was best known as Nguyen I Quoc (another of his many noms de guerre, “Nguyen the Patriot”), stuck with his latest pseudonym.

Later in the war, a downed American pilot was found by a rag-tag band of Vietnamese guerrilla fighters in those same northern mountains.  They marched him off to a cave, where he was shocked to be greeted by their commander in fluent  and friendly English.  For Ho, in his twenties, had worked as a gardener in New York and a pastry sous-chef in London, as well as a photo-colorizer in Paris.

Ho used the rescue of the pilot to establish relations with American intelligence officers in China, offering to  gather intelligence and keep an eye out for other pilots in return for material support.  At first this consisted simply of a radio, but eventually the Americans sent Ho’s group, the Viet Minh, weapons and advisors to help train them in guerrilla tactics.  The American officers were quite impressed with the Viet Minh and especially Old Man Ho (he was about 54 but had led a hard life), whom one described as “a sweet guy.”  They were convinced that he was a freedom-fighter, not a tool of the Kremlin.

When the collapse of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere left a power vacuum, the Viet Minh were able to take over the northern half of the country in a nearly bloodless coup.  Ho, aware of the late President Roosevelt’s anti-colonial views, hoped that the US would oppose the French in their inevitable attempt to reconquer Vietnam; in this context, it is not so surprising that he began his speech announcing the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam with a quote from the US Declaration of Independence.

Some of the Asian specialists at the State Department were sympathetic to Ho, but there was a strong desire not to antagonize the French (I’m not sure why) and the fear that the Viet Minh were mostly Communists (which was true) and that they were under Moscow’s thumb (which was not, at this point) outweighed all other considerations.  Allied authorities allowed the French Army back into Vietnam, and the Viet Minh, which had endorsed fairly moderate policies, ultimately turned to Mao for help  and, along with guns and trucks, imported the Chairman’s fondness for ideological persecution and brutal collectivization.

The obvious question is whether we missed a real opportunity here to pull Vietnam in a more humane direction, not to mention sparing the French their costly humiliation over the next eight years and of course saving ourselves the trouble of destroying the country in order to liberate it.  Was Ho sincere when he said that his main goal was to free his country from its colonial enslavement, or was he just blowing smoke up our ass?  It must be conceded that his claim not to be a Communist was a flat lie..I mean, he studied at something called the Stalin School, and got frostbite at Lenin’s funeral.  Still, it might be claimed that Ho was drawn to Lenin simply because his was the only game in town for an anti-imperialist in the ‘20s, and that he would have been happy to embrace an alternative to Stalin..  It may be useful to know a little more about who Ho was.

Ho’s early education was heavily influenced by Confucian tradition; his father was a scholar of the Chinese classics upon which civil service examinations had been based for many centuries, achieved the degree of Pho Ban, which was such a big deal that his native village was thenceforth entitled to call itself a Civilized Place.  The village rewarded the elder Mr. Nguyen with a house of three rooms, in one of which lived the water buffalo The future Ho (at this point called Nguyen Sinh Cung) also learned about Vietnam’s long struggle against imperial domination, beginning with the Chinese almost 2000 years before the French arrived.

Later the family moved to the capital, Hue, where Cung got to know the French.  He attended the Lycee National, where he saw his fellow students beaten beneath a sign that read “Aimez la France, qui vous protégé” (Love France, which protects you).  One day there was a peasant protest and Cung served as an interpreter so that the protesters could make themselves understood to their betters, who of course spoke no Vietnamese.  The next day an official turned up at the Lycee and Cung was promptly expelled.

From then on, he was pretty much on the run.    He taught school, worked on the docks, where he claimed to have seen Frenchmen laughing as they watched Vietnamese sailors drown, and eventually got a job as low-end kitchen help on a ship bound for France.  Entering a café in Marseilles, he was addressed for the first time in his life as “Monsieur’—in general, he found the French in France vastly more humane than the French in Indochina.

In the West, Cung encountered Marxism, and was particularly drawn to Lenin, who (unlike many Marxists) devoted serious attention to colonialism and allowed for a broad-based democratic revolution before a later socialist one.  Cung joined the French Communist Party and began to publish articles under various names, including Nguyen I Quoc; as that name implies he remained devoted above all to the liberation of his own country, a focus that encountered indifference from many of his FCP comrades and sometimes ran afoul of the Comintern party line, when it required internationalism, frowned upon attention to national identity, and emphasized ideological purity.

Cung/Quoc/Ho won over many people with his earnestness and simplicity (even after he became a star, he was not above sweeping the floor or doing laundry, and he gave his most famous speech wearing flip-flops), but he was also adept at telling his audience what they wanted to hear, and willing to play a long strategic game.  For example, when he faced a choice between occupation by the KMT (Chinese nationalists) or the loathed French, he went with the French.  To his alarmed  comrades he explained, “The last time the Chinese came here, they stayed for a thousand years.”  The French would be easier to get rid of, so they were to be preferred, no matter how much one hated them.Which is by way of saying that he was quite capable of bamboozling us Americans, using our support for a while, and then discarding us.  All the same, if we had been able to make  moderation look like a winning strategy for independence, I think Ho would have run with it, and more power would have gone to the moderates in the Viet Minh than to the Maoist fanatics.   Given the tapestry of blunders, tragedies, and atrocities that unfolded, could we possibly have done any worse?


The stuff in this post is based on William Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh, which I recommend except that the endless meetings and disputes between acronymic entities (FCP, ICP, CCP, VNQDD, DRV, DalBuro, FEB….) can waer you down.  The meetings must have been the second-worst thing  about being a Communist in the ‘30s, barely behind getting purged by Stalin.


For a reminder of the shocking stupidity and brutality of our own role in Vietnam, read Thomas Powers’ recent article in the New York Review of Books:


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A Korean student in one of my adult ESL courses walked up to me after class one evening and asked, “Are you Jushi?”  For a moment I thought this might be related to Bushi, which is what all my Korean students called the President at the time, but it turned out she had described me to her husband and he had suggested that I was Jewish.  He claimed that there was a special affinity between Koreans and Jews.

Lenny, the protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, would surely agree, since he keeps falling for Korean women, especially those with a childhood history of abuse.    This is a bit disturbing but at least introduces some novelty into what is otherwise a  shopworn scenario: middle-aged male Jewish New Yorker, son of Eastern European immigrants, is plagued by various anxieties (what we used to call neuroses), especially a fear of aging and death, and becomes obsessed with a sexy young Gentile  girl.  You can probably supply the meditations on the nature of Jewishness, the decay of the flesh, the decay of Manhattan, the object of desire’s tiny ass and inadequate knowledge of Freud and Tolstoy.  I love Woody Allen as much as the next goy, but could we change some of the props once in a while?

To be fair, the story is set in a 2007 which is also somehow (don’t ask me) a dystopic future.  It is a fairly boilerplate Bush-era dystopic future, with oppressive government security, pointless wars that have made America an international pariah, economic collapse that has left the dollar at the mercy of the yuan, poor people camped in Central Park while the rich buy life-extension treatments.

Super Sad  belongs to the comic-satiric sub-genre of near-future dystopic fiction, and the fun depends on whether you find its exaggerations spot-on or just cranky (I, for one, could have done without the hundred or so references to currency exchange rates).  Here is a typical example, in which Lenny’s friend Noah rants on his video-stream about an atrocity committed by government troops under orders from the Defense Secretary:

And R-stein won’t feel good until all the niggers and spics are cleared out of our city.  He’s dropping bombs on our moms like Chrissie Columbus dropped germs on the red man, cabrons!….Half the Mamis and Papis in the city are going to end up in a secure screening facility before the week is over!


Oh, snap!  You can judge for yourself—for me, this is a reminder of why it is a suboptimal satiric strategy to have one of the characters serve as the author’s sock-puppet.

Or maybe his grandpa’s sock-puppet.  Lenny is only 39 in this future America, but he has a true Junior Geezer’s antipathy to e-books, the crazy way those kids talk today (with all those initials), and the slutty clothes those young girls wear (yes, those same young girls whose tiny asses he is always nattering on about).  The brand names of these transparent pants and nipple-exposing bras are intended to shock (Juicy Pussy, Suck Dick, Ass Luxury), as are the young women’s enthusiasms (anal sex, being peed on).  So, did I miss some recent trend that is being satirized here?  It is possible that sexual tastes have suddnely gotten a lot more kinky without anyone telling me, but I suspect that Shteyngart is using exaggeration to highlight his anxiety about  recreational sex, waving his angry little hanky at a ship that sailed in like 1972.  No wonder he thinks 2007 is in the future.


PS In case you’re wondering, the book was published in 2010.

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Not many cows, but many good places

On the first day of high-school basketball practice on the White Mountain Apache reservation, new assistant coach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was shocked to see a style he had never experienced before, either with the Lakers  or at UCLA under John Wooden or in high school or on the streets of Harlem.  What coaches and players described as “Apache basketball” involved a nearly berserker level of abandon, but even more unusual were two other features: the players seemed reluctant to bump into each other, and they played in almost complete silence.  It’s hard to imagine how one can defend or rebound effectively without being willing to, as they say, put a body on someone.  And talking is essential both in the most formal aspects of the game (Abdul-Jabbar notes that the best teams are usually the most effective at communicating) and in the most informal, with the trash talking that pervades basketball culture.

As he tells it in A Season on the Reservation, Kareem arrived eager to learn more about Apache life (he was friends with a learned Apache man who had taken him to ceremonies and climbed Mount Baldy with him), but imagining that basketball was a universal language in which he would be the revered expert.  It turned out that even basketball has dialects, and in the town of White River, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were only second-magnitude stars compared to Armando Cromwell, who had led last year’s team to second place in the state tournament.  Of course Jabbar’s many championships and MVP awards entitle him to great respect, but he is so full of crabby-geezer griping (today’s players don’t learn the fundamentals, don’t work hard, my Lakers would beat Jordan’s Bulls….) that it is kind of fun to watch him struggle with the kids’ skepticism.


Jabbar gains some insight into the roots of Apache basketball from a list of Dos and Don’ts, intended as a guide for Apache youth:


Under the title of “Etiquette of Apache Don’ts” it mentioned some things that may have explained the boys’ reluctance to talk to one another or bang each other with their bodies on the court.  It said not to:
whistle at night
be destructive
misuse words when angry
waste food
make fun of people
make fun of deer
push another person
spit on people
bump people on purpose
step over people
marry into the same clan
act smart and snobbish
use makeup (facial)

Chew on fingernails
get drunk
touch physically unnecessarily
plan ahead
make fun of traditions
pull another person’s hair
be jealous
count the stars
make faces
be lazy
bother with things you don’t know about, especially crown dancers

And finally it said,
Apache females do NOT participate in sweat-hut ceremonies


Fascinating in so many ways…I especially love the bland and universal “make fun of people” followed by “make fun of deer.”  I certainly don’t condone deer-mockery, but would be very curious to see how it’s done.  There’s bound to be a good story behind “count the stars” too, and it would be interesting to hear more about the prohibition on planning ahead.    The item on not marrying inside your clan is rather depressing—your traditions must be very seriously threatened if you have to tell people in writing not to marry their kinfolk.

It is not surprising to see some version of “keep your hands to yourself,” but somebody does seem a bit obsessed, and the awkwardness of “touch physically unnecessarily” indicates some straining for emphasis.  There is an interesting echo of this in the coaches’ introductory talk, where the expected prohibitions (smoking, cussing…) are joined with the warning that, if the players must sit with their girlfriends at athletic events, they are not to hold hands.  Jabbar reports this without comment, and elsewhere notes that several players on last year’s successful team had impregnated their girlfriends.  There appears to be some cognitive dissonance here concerning the gulf between traditional norms and current practice.

The document also suggests a culture that does not reward attention-getting verbal displays.  According to Jabbar, young Apaches do not like to be singled out from the group, and in particular do not respond well to direct criticism,  which is the only kind of coaching he knows.   The  The refusal of the head coach, Mr. Mendoza, to confront players’ mistakes pretty much drives Jabbar up a wall, and though he tries to respect the players’ values, his success is limited, and the tense relationship with the flashy, error-prone point guard eventually boils over into a physical fight.

A further indication that we are not in Kansas any more (we are in fact in Arizona) comes when Mendoza gathers the team for an extended lecture on the challenges they face, which turn out to include various forms of witchcraft.  Members of the community, he claims, are using spells and “voodoo dust” to sabotage him personally and the team as a whole.    It is helpful to be told that Mendoza is a “strong Christian,” as are many on the team, but that the old time religion still has a large following on the White Mountain reservation.  Still, I get the feeling that Jabbar and I are way out of our depth trying to decipher this situation.

And that is probably my favorite thing about the book, the fact that Jabbar’s attempts to tidy everything up for a Young Adult audience often fail and we are left with a tangle of threads.  For example, is the low value placed by most Apaches on formal education a problem to be remedied or a tradition to be respected?  How are we to feel about a poverty-plagued community where teachers start at $22,000/year but which spends $6 million on a new high-school basketball arena?  Well, I should confess that I do have opinions on these things, mostly because the traditional way of life doesn’t really seem to be available any more: instead of the women tending cornfields and the men herding cattle and hunting deer, the alternative to education these days is apparently a low-paying job at the saw-mill or the casino.

I remain agnostic on the important issue whether you can win in basketball without talking.

(The title is taken from Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache.  Basso spent a long day with some Apache cowboy friends, looking for lost cows.  At the end of the day, one friend said, “Not many cows today, but many good places.”  Basso is also a source for my statement about the low esteem for official learning among traditional Apache; he reports with approval various negative comments about reading including that it isolates people and that it has little to do with everyday life.

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