Friday, August 28, 2009

News and Human Rights 6: East Timor

I know what you're thinking: "I've never heard of a place called East Timor."
Well, there's a perfectly good reason for this. East Timor is quite commonly known as Timor-Leste, so there you have it, just one of those simple mix-ups.
Oh, you've never heard of Timor-Leste either? Well there's a perfectly good reason for that, too.

The American public school system. And the American mainstream media. So two reasons.

East Timor is a country in South-Pacific Asia roughly the size of Connecticut. Even though you've never heard of it, more than one million people live there. And, unfortunately, all one million of them are living in the aftermath of a 25 year occupation that left an estimated 100,000 natives dead. Bummer, I know, but bear with me.

East Timor was first colonized by Portugal, because even though Portugal is small, they really know their way around colonization. They were, after all, the first to colonize in Africa. The Portuguese ruled until 1974 when a military coup in their own country forced them to relinquish control of some of their colonies, East Timor included. As would be expected the newly freed country was rocked by the sudden political upheaval after 400 years of colonial rule, but at this point things had to be looking up for them. They were free to govern their own land, reap their own rewards, and be the masters of their own destinies. On November 28, 1975, the pro-independence group known as FRETILIN (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor [the acronym is goofy because of the language difference]) claimed an independent East Timor after winning a short-lived civil war and the declaration of victory in the capital city of Dili.
Then, four years later, Indonesia showed up.
Indonesia came barging in Farva-style, completely uninvited and ready to fuck things up. They completely annihilated the armed resistance of East Timor and declared the country to be a province of Indonesia. During the 25 year occupation, the Timorese people were subjected to extrajudicial executions, torture, sexual crimes and starvation. While the UN opposed the occupation and demanded immediate withdrawal, countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and Germany firmly backed Indonesia. Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger even reportedly gave the "green light" for invasion after meeting with the Indonesian president shortly before the invasion.
The Massacre:
In 1991, a delegation to East Timor was supposed to take place with members of Portuguese Parliament, a UN representative, and a dozen journalists. After one of the journalists was identified as a FRETILIN sympathizer by the Indonesian government, the entire thing was called off. Demoralization of the Timorese independence activists, who had planned to use this delegation to gain international attention for their cause, ensued. This grew to frustration, tensions ran high, and things escalated when a group of resistance members was discovered by Indonesian troops. In the course of the confrontation, a supporter of independence named Sebastiao Gomez was taken outside and shot. Gomez's memorial service turned into the largest protest of Indonesian occupation since 1975. Several thousand pro-independence Timorese walked from the site of the shooting to the cemetery where Gomez was to be buried, chanting, holding anti-Indonesian banners, and mocking the troops all the way. While loud, the protest was reported to be peaceful and orderly by most accounts.
When the procession reached the cemetery, some were allowed in while others remained outside the gates and continued to protest their oppressors. It seems to me, in my limited knowledge, that massacres in these sorts of situations always develop out of protests, and usually over the protests of a man who was wrongfully killed. Not surprising, I suppose. What better way to get the state's enemies all in one place, than with a protest?
As the procession continued their peaceful assembly, a new group of soldiers appeared. These newly arrived Indonesian soldiers arrived with purpose. They didn't waste any time with crowd control, they simply opened fire on the protesters. An estimated 250 - 400 were killed. A direct quote from the Indonesian Commander-in-Chief taken two days after the massacre reads as follows: "The army cannot be underestimated. Finally we had to shoot them. Delinquents like these agitators must be shot, and they will be."

In 1999 alone it is estimated that 1,200 Timorese were murdered in an attempt to dissuade the population from voting for independence, which they were allowed to finally (finally, finally, finally) do during a UN-supervised poll (finally.) East Timor was finally granted independence with an overwhelming majority of 78.5% voting for freedom from Indonesia and was recognized as an independent nation on May 20, 2002.

Now, East Timor is one of the many countries in the world still struggling to recover from centuries of outside control. Since their recognition the country has been rocked by political instability and violence. A protest turned riot in 2006 forced over 20,000 residents to flee the capital city and resulted in 40 deaths between rioters and military. Large numbers of the military have disaffected and assassination attempts plague political officials. It occurs to me that perhaps it is difficult to stop fighting when your environment has taught you that it is the only way to live. Sure, Indonesia is gone, but there will always be an opposition whether it be political or civil or authoritarian. After centuries of armed opposition, how do you stop killing your enemies?
For the men and women who suffered for so long through the cruelty of Indonesian occupation, it must be incredibly disheartening to see that the violence did not end with independence. And it must be even more disheartening to know that the war criminals of Indonesia have yet to be punished. In fact, in 2005 East Timor chose to pursue something called the joint Indonesia - Timor Leste Truth and Friendship Commission, which provides no prosecutions for the perpetrators of war crimes from 1975-1999.
As usual, it seems, it's not even that we forgot about this country. We never even knew it existed in the first place.

"The path pursued by these two governments has weakened the rule of law in both countries... The victims need a clear commitment by the Indonesian and Timor-Leste governments and the United Nations to investigate all allegations and bring to justice those responsible for the grave human rights violations committed between 1975 and 1999." - Donna Guest, Amnesty International.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Radioactive Boy Scout

Last summer, in one of my many attempts to stall any kind of productivity in my life, I found myself reading the Wikipedia article on Commerce Township. I expected to find the usual things, of course. Demographics, geography, date of establishment, populations, all the boring numbers. However, what I was hoping to find was something weird and striking, something that would shock me, something that would make my rich, white, waspy, hometown stand out from other rich, white waspy towns. I didn't expect to find much, maybe a story about the infamous wall in Walled Lake, or something about the history of Native Americans in the area. What I didn't expect to find was this paragraph:

"In 1994, David Hahn, a 17-year old Eagle Scout, constructed a makeshift nuclear reactor in his backyard in Commerce Township, exposing himself and his neighbors-and maybe even as many as 40,000 people in the area-to radioactive materials and drawing the attention of the EPA. The event became a short-lived media sensation, and a book by Ken Silverstein called The Radioactive Boy Scout was written about the incident and published in 2004."

Holy shit! Can you believe that? This kid lived in Golf Manor! Like a two minute drive from my house. This is the subdivision just west of CHS where most of my friends went to middle school. The subdivision gets its name from Edgewood Country Club where I used to work. Also, to put that "40,000 people in the area" figure into perspective: as of 2000 there were less than 35,000 people living in Commerce Township. That number must have been far reduced back in 94, which says to me that many people outside of just Commerce (such as the residents of White Lake and Walled Lake) must have also been effected.

So, what drives a 17 year old boy to the isolation of a potting shed, reducing gas lantern mantles to thorium-rich ash in his senior year of high school? The answers are all in Ken Silverstein's book, and luckily for you I've already read it so you don't have to.

David Hahn, first of all, had a naturally experimental and inquisitive streak. When he was four years old he recalls mixing his first experiment while alone in the bathroom using chemicals under the sink. Obviously it's not exactly safe for a four year old to be playing with dangerous household chemicals, but a lack of parental supervision was absolutely key in all of David Hahn's experiments. His father Ken was an engineer at GM who worked long hours and paid very little attention to his son. His mother Patty was the source of affection in his home life, and the two were very close when David was little. Unfortunately, around the time that David was six his mother was diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia for which she was briefly institutionalized. Upon her release, Patty developed a drinking problem and the marriage came to an end when David was nine.
Obviously, a depressed, alcoholic, paranoid schizophrenic is going to have a hard time hanging onto custody rights, so David was sent to live with his father in Clinton Township. Though his father remarried shortly thereafter, David's stepmother seems to have been nearly as aloof as his father and David's family life quickly disappeared. With all this instability in his life, it isn't surprising that David turned to something that he could control and manipulate to his liking.
The most dangerous possession that ever fell into David's hands, even more dangerous than the radium, thorium and americium he was able to get his hands on later in life, was a textbook called The Golden Book of Chemistry. This was a severely outdated textbook from the 1960s that spoke optimistically of the nuclear age as a thing of the future, and as the way that humanity would solve all of its energy crises. It was also the kind of book that showed children performing dangerous science experiments without gloves or masks, just happily working away without regard for their own personal safety. This book, meant for children, would have brought down the fury of God in the form of angry mothers' lawsuits if it were released today. A short and simple recipe for chlorine gas (a chemical weapon used to kill tens of thousands of soldiers in WWI by stripping away the mucus linings of their lungs and letting them drown on their own blood) was provided for anyone who wanted to try it. The book also urged young scientists to perform their experiments in the garage or the basement, somewhere private. In other words, away from parental supervision.
By the time David was twelve he was making his own hair dye and experimenting with homemade tanning solutions. He would show up to school with his hair streaked blonde green and black or sporting skin the color of a carrot. He was also working with a very serious grasp of chemistry. When his father encouraged him to join the Boy Scouts (this in itself an effort to deter him from his increasingly dangerous experiments) David was briefly banned for concocting a batch of moonshine while on a trip. His real pride, however, were the sparklers, fireworks and smoke bombs he was able to throw together with chemicals like magnesium and potassium nitrate. Even at this young age, his confidence in his ability and seemingly harmless nature proved incredibly useful when it came to getting his supplies, no matter how difficult it may have seemed to come across them.
When David was in high school, he decided that he would find a way to collect all of the elements of the periodic table. When he told his assorted science teachers what he intended to do, he was met with the kind of disbelief that marked his entire life and always made it easy for him to slip by undetected. Some teachers brushed him off as a lying kid looking for attention. Others assumed that he would stick only to the simpler elements. None ever dreamed that he would go after radium, and none after thought that he would actually collect it.
Actually, back in the 1920s and 30s, radium was found in a lot of places. Radium was used as paint to make clocks and toys glow in the dark. Some of the radium painters actually used to paint their teeth in order to shock friends, and for this reason many radium painters later died of cancer. Obviously such practices were discontinued, but the clocks can still be found, and David found them. He also managed to get thorium, as I mentioned earlier, and he was able to extract americium from smoke detectors. About a hundred smoke detectors, actually, which he bought at bulk price.
So why a nuclear reactor? How did he go from making hair dye and smoke bombs to irradiating up to 40,000 people in Commerce Township and beyond?
One of his sources of inspiration was the institution that was supposed to deter him from such activities: the Boy Scouts. Their out of date pamphlets on atomic energy (that phrase itself being outdated) were terribly optimistic, downplaying disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and exaggerating nuclear promise and potential. David was, in fact, completely adverse to any negative literature on the topic, feeling that reading negative criticism of his obsession wasn't really worth his time.
Another fact that seemed to suggest he would actually able to build a breeder reactor in a shed in his schizophrenic mother's backyard was that Marie and Pierre Curie operated in much the same way when they discovered radium. Also, it must have appeared to him that he was absolutely unstoppable. This is a kid who couldn't spell the word "millions" when he wrote letters to government nuclear companies and professors around the country, and yet he was able to collect his radioactive materials and all the information necessary for his grandest experiment. So, from a outdated blueprint in one of his father's chemistry books, David Hahn attempted to build a nuclear reactor.
What's weird about this story (or, I guess, weirder) is that David came about as close as anyone has ever come to making a breeder reactor. (A breeder reactor is a reactor with a uranium core and a plutonium shell. When the uranium passes through the plutonium it's supposed to create more uranium which goes back to the core, and in this way the energy breeds itself and is perpetual.) No one has ever made a breeder before, ever. No country, no matter how many millions of dollars it spends, has ever done it. David didn't create nuclear fission, but he was getting reactions and the radioactivity of his materials grew at an alarming rate. So alarming, in fact, that even he realized how dangerous it was and had to dismantle it. The materials were only found when a random encounter with the police led to a search of his trunk, which held some radioactive materials, and this led to a subsequent search of his house, which revealed the rest.
So where is David Hahn now? Google his name and you'll see. The picture that comes up is his mugshot from 2007 when he was caught trying to steal smoke detectors from his apartment building. The pockmarks on his face were allegedly from radiation exposure, but I read an interesting blog that theorized Hahn has become a meth addict. As the article points out: he knows he can't build a reactor, he knows he doesn't have the materials, and frankly, he knows his shit when it comes to chemistry. Why would he be trying to get the tiny bits of americium out of a few dozen smoke detectors? This indeed does not seem like the actions of a healthy mind.
What's most sad to me about the entire ordeal is that afterwards, all the people he had been trying to impress, his teachers and peers, treated him as more of a pariah in light of his accomplishments. This is a 17 year old kid we're talking about here. He hadn't even graduated high school and he was able to create the basis for a breeder reactor, something that people with limitless supplies and resources do just about as well as he did. All anyone ever wanted from David Hahn was to hide his passion, hide his talent, and follow the rules like everyone else. He was never offered any guidance and encouragement, though to me he clearly shows signs of a savant at work.

You know, since I've been away from Commerce, I've found one truth to be consistent and inescapable: people from Commerce Township are weird. Upon arriving at college, I immediately gained a new respect for my hometown along this line of thinking: at least the people there are interesting. It's difficult to explain. You may say that I stuck with the friends I had, and that all people are interesting once you get up close and personal with them, but I beg to differ. For example, Scott Kilby was a perfect stranger to me when I moved to Kalamazoo, despite the fact that we attended school together and that he lived a mere ten minutes away from me. We became fast friends not because he was familiar, I had no idea who he was or what he was like. We became friends because he was the kind of person to be playing a digereedo outside the dorms while everyone else stood around smoking. And this kind of behavior, this pattern of strangeness worthy of characters in a novel, is relatively consistent in the people of Commerce Township, whether you love them or hate them.
Now, there are a lot of possible explanations for this. One is that the area's mixed level of wealth (from extreme affluence to lower-middle class) and the area's lack of anything fun to do (but not so desolate and stickish that heroin was allowed to completely run amok,) made for a batch of resourceful and interesting people who were afforded a great amount of leisure time in which to creatively entertain themselves. Not a bad theory.
My theory, however, is that David Hahn accidentally turned us all into borderline super heroes when he attempted to create a homemade breeder reactor in a shed and unwittingly exposed us all to radiation.

Monday, August 17, 2009

College For Free 6: Human Evolution

I am aware that there are some poor souls out there in the world who still don't believe in evolution, and think that God just plopped us all down here as is. I think that if you were to make a Venn diagram of people who believe that and people who have no college education, it would look like a circle. In short, I think there is a good reason that 99% of all scientists are atheists. But as easy as it is to takes shots at religion, that's not why we're here today. Today, we take a look at human evolution. The most important thing to keep in mind here, and the reason I think this is worth discussing, is that evolution is pretty complicated stuff, and the evolution of humans is a lot more diverse than most people realize.
First, I think I should clarify this whole "evolved from monkeys" business. A common argument against the theory of evolution is that if we evolved from chimpanzees, then why are there still chimpanzees in the world? While this may seem like a valid argument at first, any kind of actual research or education on the topic will reveal it to be completely ridiculous. First of all, while human DNA and that of a chimp is 99% the same, we did not evolve from chimpanzees, or any other monkey/ape as they exist on the planet today. Humans and chimpanzees have a common ancestor, one that we probably shared 7-10 million years ago. This would have been a single species that became both humans and chimpanzees as it evolved along two separate paths.
This is like how you can't say that that Tool evolved from The Pixies, but without The Beatles we probably wouldn't have either of them.
Something I would like to mention here is that the first hominids were all from Africa, appearing there maybe as long as 15-12 million years ago. I have always thought that this was interesting, because it does a weird thing to the term "African American." To me, African American is an inherently racist thing to say, because you are assuming that if someone is black, they are from Africa. Why couldn't they be from Jamaica or Haiti or the Middle East? The argument, I believe, is that even if the person's ancestry traces them back to one of these places, it is assumed that before their ancestors were anywhere else, they were in Africa. And that's true, but it's true because it's true of everyone. All human life began in Africa, according to current scientific knowledge, and we all spread out from there.

The Australopithecus Afarensis (4-3 million years ago)

You may have heard of the quasi-famous fossil found of this ancient relative of mankind. Her name is Lucy, and she is the oldest ancestor of our species ever to be uncovered. Not surprisingly, Lucy is a good deal smaller than today's Anatomically Modern Humans (which is what we are.) The size of her brain is also a good deal smaller, which flew in the face of predictions made about early hominids before Lucy was discovered. It was originally theorized that early hominids would have evolved large brains while still looking a great deal like monkeys, but it turns out brain size was just about the last thing to change. As the process of evolution progresses, we see that the body remains very similar while the head undergoes most of the major changes. Lucy is also a biped.
I don't know if you've ever thought about it, but we are the only mammal on the planet to ever do two things: 1. We put a man on the moon. 2. We walk on two legs. Somehow, the two are directly related.
In evolution, small differences go a long way. Any slight advantage will pay off in the end. As my teacher put it: casinos only have a 51% chance of winning while an individual gambler has a 49% chance. Even though these odds are almost completely even, that 1% will insure that if you walk into a casino with a thousand dollars and proceed to gamble continuously, even if you win big a few times, the casino will eventually have all of your money. So it goes with evolution. Bipedalism is a more endurant form of transportation, and so it allowed us not only to walk for very long distances, but also to carry things with us for those long distances. It also helped us to see over tall grasses, which I suppose would be helpful for spotting predators.
Gracile and Robust Australopithecus (3-2.5 million years ago.)
It's useful to talk about these two species of humans for one reason: one of them didn't make the cut. While both of these species evolved from Lucy's generation, only Graciles would live on to evolve again, for whatever reason. This is notable because I think people tend to oversimplify when it comes to evolution. That's where this whole "we evolved from monkeys" logic comes from. We have a hard time imagining the complexity of millions of years of evolution, so we see things as a much straighter line than is realistic. Robusts get their name from the large jaws they developed from eating tougher foods,which is the only difference between them and Graciles, and yet they did not make it.
Homo Habilis (2.5-2 million years ago)
These were the first guys to make any form of tools. Known as olduwan choppers, these tools were basically just sharp rocks that Homo Habilis used to scrape the meat from bones. They had to do this because, as the fleshy, slow, harmless kind of species that we were and still are in comparison to things like lions and crocodiles, we were scavengers at this point in history. At about fourth or fifth in line after all the bigger animals to scavenge an animal carcass, Habilis had to come up with some way to get a satisfactory amount of meat. They used their tools to scrape the meat out from between the bones, you know, like that little sliver of meat left between the two bones in the kind of chicken wing that nobody wants. Why do they even make those? They should all just be chicken legs, if you ask me.
Homo Erectus (2 - 0.5 million years ago)
Hey, we're finally out of Africa. Homo Erectus are the first to leave, some going northeast towards Asia and some going northwest towards Europe. In this group the tools are becoming more advanced, though they're still using the rocks inefficiently by using the core instead of the smaller pieces that break off. In other words, they're ignoring the fact that they can break off one piece and use it as an arrow head, and are instead breaking off tons of pieces in order to shape the rock into an ax.
Neandertals (200 - 30 thousand years ago)
Yes, I spelled it right, there's no "h." Neandertals, like Robust Australopithecus, did not make the final cut into the human gene pool. We did not evolve from them, they were a separate species that died out 30 thousand years ago. They were a cold adapted people who lived in Europe and even as far south as the Middle East. Cold adapted means that they were short, stocky, and had wider noses to breathe the frozen air. Unlike the cartoony portrayals of cavemen that we most often see, they were not stupid. This was the first group of hominids to intentionally bury their dead, going as far as to lay flowers on the graves. My teacher said that, in his opinion, if you were to take a Neandertal child from 200 thousand years ago and put him into modern day schools, that he would probably do just as well as the average child and be just fine.
Archaic Homo Sapiens/Anatomically Modern Humans (500 thousand years ago -Now)
One hears, every now and then, about the exponential growth of technology. Just think about how quickly we went from listening to vinyl records to mp3 files. Think about how quickly we went from the first plane in flight to the first rocket into space. Once technology gets rolling, it really gets rolling, and right now we're looking at a time period when "technology" was a sharp rock. It took our ancestors over two million years to figure out that instead of making a rock into one big tool, they could save themselves a whole lot of time by making it into a dozen smaller, more effective tools in the forms of spearheads and arrowheads. It's only in the last 500 thousand years that we developed language, communities, art, farming, politics, religion, the wheel, boats, electricity, cars, guitars, guns, roller coasters, nuclear power plants, and Play-Doh. Not bad for a pretty new species, I'd say.

It strikes me, though, that everyone sort of thinks this whole evolution thing is done. This idea of an evolutionary peak, or the permanence of this particular sliver of infinity in which we exist, is a symptom of a society that doesn't even attempt to integrate big-picture ideas like time and space into lower-level education. In American schools, history class seems to insinuate that time began with the Revolutionary War, and American history is the only one that matters. Everything that happened before the 1700s is left to guess work, and guess work leads to these conclusions about evolution from monkeys and Neandertals. It also keeps history seeming small, and helps keep time a comfortable thought. Some stuff happened, some stuff is happening now, end of story.
When you really look at it, however, time is a flowing thing, a thing that we have entered into and will one day exit. The universe is not a stagnant thing, but something we are participating in, and in that way human evolution and progression are still relevant and still exist, even if not physically.
That's why I don't understand conservative politics, this idea that the past was the right way, and that we must stick to the morals of the past. If we all thought like that, we'd still be scraping the meat out from between the bones of over-sized chicken wings in Africa.
Evolution is no longer about physical prowess.
It's time to evolve ideas.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Real Life Stories 2: The Antioxidants Experiment

This is the second Real Life Stories blog, but the first one went by a different title, so this is the first time you've seen a blog by this name. I wanted to call it "Our Brief Excursion into Self-Control," but that seemed like a mouthful.

About three years ago I was taken by the urge to experiment with my diet. I was presented with the idea by a friend who told me that for an entire month he had eaten nothing but raw vegetables and foods high in antioxidants in order to completely cleanse his system for a drug test. Antioxidants work like a cleanser and flush the toxins from your body, but according to him, they also gave him an amazing amount of energy. He said that he had never felt better, each morning jumping out of bed at 7 or 8 a.m. regardless of the amount of sleep he'd gotten. He went through the month feeling like a seven year old, with more energy than he knew what to do with.
This struck me as incredibly interesting, and since then it has occurred to me every now and then to try it. As I mentioned in the Drawbacks of Farming blog, humans are not supposed to eat very much meat in the first place, and as Americans we consume an especially high level of red meat, which should be very sparse in our diets. It always occurs to me that maybe I feel sluggish and lazy and tired and don't even really realize it, and that eating better might work like putting on glasses when you didn't even know you had a vision problem.
Upon looking up a list of foods high in antioxidants and discovering that they were primarily berries, beans, and nuts, I was excited to learn that upon attempting this experiment I would be eating much as our bodies are intended to eat. Instead of a month, I planned to try the diet for a week, just to get a taste of it.
So, on Monday, Lindsay (who agreed to try this experiment with me) and I went to Meijer and spent upwards of $90 on nothing but these antioxidant foods, vitamins, and some alphabet magnets for the fridge. We got home, cleaned the fruit, and began the week-long journey in to the land of self-control, abstaining from all forms of liquid except for water and eating nothing but the fresh fruits we had collected.
The end result: Three and a half days (if I'm being generous.)
Let me tell you something: I'm sure that if you're lost in the woods or trapped on a desert island, you'd be more than happy to see strawberries, blueberries, and pecan nuts every single day. Thing is, I live on a strip where you can pass two Taco Bells within ten minutes of each other, and between those there is a Wendy's, a KFC, a Pizza Hut, an Arby's, and the Mongolian BBQ that I work at, and a slew of other convenient places to eat delicious foods. I think I was doomed from the beginning.
I just don't have the patience, I guess. I love fast food, I love salty food, I love milk, I love basically everything except for water, fruits and vegetables. And I didn't feel different at all, except for a little spacy and irritated. Oh, and my stomach has been trying to eat itself since Monday, which hasn't been pleasant. I mean, I know I didn't give the effects much time to set in, but I wasn't waiting around, eating like a wild animal, passing Taco Bell everyday on my way home from work, just to have the effects come on the seventh day. No thank you, I'll just give up now.
As I sit here writing this blog I am waiting for Lindsay to come home from work, bearing a Pizza Hut buffalo chicken pizza and breadsticks, which she is picking up on her way back. Later tonight we're going to a friend's house to watch Indiana Jones and have some beers.
Antioxidants Experiment = Fail.
Life = Success.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

News and Human Rights 5: Barack Obama

Ever since the election I've been waiting for Obama to do something I disagree with. Up until recently, I'd been hearing nothing but great things. During his first week in office he called the leaders of countries we're on rocky terms with just to see how things were going, how's business, you guys need me to pick anything up from the store while I'm out? Any time he makes big news it's because he's doing something awesome and, most importantly, something very unBush. From writing little girls notes so they can skip school to killing flies with cat-like reflexes to inviting regular joes over to the White House to have some beers and work out a misunderstanding, when it comes to good publicity Obama is really cleaning up.
Now, what's dangerous about this is the same thing that I discussed in the Noam Chomsky blog, which is that politicians are carefully crafted by PR people to sell an image. Once you sell an image, you sell people on the idea that their candidate agrees with them in virtually every way, regardless of actual track record. It's this kind of political trickery that had thousands of God-fearing Christians believing that Bush would increase public spending and funds for education while cutting the defense budget, when really he consistently did the opposite. So, what happens when we look at Obama and dig a little deeper than the good looks, charming smile, amazing charisma and hard-to-argue-with-all-around-good-guyness? Short answer: You find some things you disagree with.
(Note: In the tradition of giving credit where credit's due, I should probably mention at this point that this blog is inspired and greatly supported by a few people on a website that I am known to frequent. The real digging took place there, and I am just lazily regurgitating the information that was provided for me.)
First of all, one of the things I was most excited to see under Obama's presidency was the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Gitmo is one of the most embarrassing, obviously ass-backwards thing about this country and its removal from the face of our human rights reputation could only do good for us as a nation. However, it seems now that even though Obama plans to close this unconstitutional prison, he does not plan on restoring sanity or basic human rights to the inmates being held therein. Recently, Obama proposed an "indefinite detention" policy, which would be specifically aimed at prisoners like those in Guantanamo Bay. In a nutshell, Obama said that there are detainees in Gitmo who can't be proven guilty with things like evidence, but nonetheless pose a threat to our nation. As Rachel Maddow pointed out, this kind of preventative-crime logic is typically more prevalent in science fiction and shitty Tom Cruise movies. The UK has a similar system of preventative detention, one that Tony Blair wanted to be as long as three months, but that was limited to 28 days by the British Parliament, and 28 days is the longest preventative detention period in any democracy in the world...until now. Obama seems to be implying that these prisoners must be held, without trial or charges or evidence, as long as the threat of terrorism presents itself. As long as a year, five years, or even ten years.
For those of you who are not sure how to feel about this, let me simplify it for you: You should feel horrified. This is really bad.
Also, Obama's administration has been aligning itself a surprising amount of the time with sketchy Bush administration policies and practices when they prove to be convenient. In direct contradiction with his promises of transparency, Obama's administration has fought a lawsuit that could recover millions of missing White House e-mails, sought to block the court-ordered release of pictures depicting US abuse abroad, and are even planning to classify White House visitor logs, among other things. Also, Obama's promise of posting for the public all bills five days prior to their being signed has been an utter failure, only actually happening once. While I've heard journalists on NPR praise Obama for his easily cherry-picked politics, it would seem that his promise to create "an unprecedented level of openness in Government," falls short of the mark.
Now, while I admit that not declassifying White House visitor records isn't something to get upset about, I do start to get a little nervous when Obama starts shutting down information about torture.
Earlier in the summer, a man named Binyam Mohamed was released from Guantanamo Bay and has been ever since trying to seek justice for the torture he endured there. Unfortunately, Obama's representative of the Justice Department maintained the same position as the Bush administration, that the entire matter was purely a state secret, and demanded that it be dismissed.
Now for the really scary part.
After the British High Court decided that torture really shouldn't be allowed to be a state secret, and that Mohamed should be allowed to get some justice for the things that were done to him, and a police investigation began, the British government received threats from the US that are basically to this affect: If you release the information you have in regards to what did or did not happen to Binyam Mohamed in Gitmo, we will no longer share information we have regarding terrorist threats directed at England. Best Wishes!
So it would seem that not only are Obama and his administration being tight-lipped about torture, but that they are threatening the well fare of another country's citizens, and also proposing new policies such as indefinite detention, which go further than even Bush went.

Now, don't get me wrong. I drove two hours just to cast my vote for this guy. Just thinking about having Obama in office as opposed to Bush, the relief is that of waking up from a bad dream. But I think it's important to criticize him all the same, and maybe even more so. Presidents can get away with these types of things because once you sell an image, you have everyone hooked into thinking "He's not a bad guy, look at that smile, he could never threaten to deny Britain knowledge which could potentially prevent them from saving the lives of thousands of citizens." Unfortunately, presidents do shit like that all the time. Really evil shit. Clinton seemed like a friendly guy, but trust me, getting a blow job was not the worst thing he did in office. Presidents support military coups, they sell weapons to dangerous dictators, and they suppress information about the mistreatment of prisoners. And the reason they can get away with it is that no one is watching them, and this goes ten times over for Barack Obama. Coming in after the biggest political disaster in the history of our nation, during a time when legal distortion is set at an all-time high and expectations are at an all-time low, it seems to me that it would be hard not to take advantage of the situation, just a little tiny bit. It's not that I don't like Obama, it's just that it is the duty of the people to keep their government in check, something that was all too forgotten during the Bush years. And I would rather die than go back to those dark ages.

Glenn Greenwald on threats to Britain
Glenn Greenwald on Obama's lack of transparency
Rachel Maddow's reaction to indefinite detention

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I thought that this book would take me longer to read, so I had planned on an alternative blog to fill in the gap between College For Free and News and Human Rights. However, this book is amazing, and I read the bulk of it in about five days. I think, eventually, I will write you all a blog explaining in detail why Animorphs was the greatest series ever written. But that's for another time.
Another side-note: I'm thinking of calling this section of the blog Spoiler Alert.

Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a fantastic book to read if you're a writer and you want to understand just exactly how bad and amateurish you are. One thing that I couldn't help as I found myself reading a Pulitzer Prize winner, was to wonder just exactly what made this novel so good as to deserve the lofty award. I believe I got my answer. The scope of this novel, the attachment one feels towards the characters, the twists and turns and parallels and layers upon layers upon layers in terms of theme are all astounding.
First of all, this novel spans about 15 years, from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s, also known as the Golden Age of comics. Joe Kavalier is a Jewish refugee from Prague who managed to escape the country in spite of Nazi intervention by hiding in the casket of the Prague golem. Kavalier and his teacher have dressed up to look like an Aryan man so the Nazis will let it through. I should also mention here that Kavalier's teacher doesn't dabble in math or social studies, he is in fact a magician and an escape artist, and it is only through being the apprentice of an escape artist that Kavalier is able to escape to America, but I'll come back to that later.
Kavalier manages to get to America where he is to stay with his aunt and his cousin by the name of Sam Clay (actually Sammy Klayman, which is interesting because the golem is a man literally made of clay.) Kavalier and Clay become instantly inseparable in a way that I think only works in a novel. Because so much of a novel takes place inside the head of the reader, and every little thing doesn't need to be shown or spelled out, certain liberties can be taken in the pages that I don't think can necessarily be taken in other art forms. Namely, you are expected, even in the most serious of novels, to suspend your disbelief at times. Kavalier and Clay's relationship is, when you get right down to it, a touch unbelievable. They never disagree, even when millions of dollars are on the line over unreasonable, emotionally based decisions. They never fight or resent each other, and there is plenty of good reason for it. In short, Chabon crafts a perfect friendship between these two men, and instead of cheesiness and unbelievable forgiveness, you are left with something better than reality.
There are a million points to discuss and I could spend an hour plot-summarizing this 636 page novel, but what I think is the most interesting point is that of the Escapist, the premier superhero among the dozens that Kavalier and Clay create as an artist and writer respectively. This fiction within fiction, the creation of a comic book hero by the protagonists of a novel, is just excellent. The reader can watch as Sam Clay's polio-shriveled legs become a limp in the walk of the Escapist's alter-ego Tom Mayflower. Also, it becomes clear that the name Tom is taken from Kavalier's brother Thomas, and Mayflower is inspired by Kavalier's journey to America.
The Escapist, as a fictional character, serves a lot of purposes in the lives of the two protagonists, specifically in the life of Joe Kavalier. As the animator, Kavalier has the most control over how bloody the pages of their comic can be, as as he and Clay turn their aggressive fantasies towards Nazi Germany, the images become exceedingly violent. It is through his widely-circulated vicious art that Kavalier feels he can at least in some way fight the Germans, who are thoroughly wrecking his shit back in the homeland. However, when he hears the news of his father's death due to poor living conditions, fighting fictional Nazis isn't enough, and Kavalier takes to the streets of New York looking for a fight, or rather about a dozen fights, with any German he happens to make eye-contact with. It is through one of these expeditions that he comes upon the American Aryan League, a one-man operation in a small, pathetic office, the purpose of which is to spread German pride, hatred for Jews, and to disparage the anti-German sentiment of the comic book industry, namely that of the Escapist. Kavalier does what any Nazi-hating, badass comic book artist would do, and trashes the place, leaving a calling card as the Escapist for an extra touch of surrealism. However, this man is a comic book fanatic, and in response to being attacked by a comic book hero, he assumes the name of a comic book villain and uses this alias to commit a few minor crimes throughout New York City.
So here, we have fiction within fiction coming to life and actually becoming the characters. Kavalier draws the Escapist, and then he becomes the Escapist, and his fictional battle becomes a real one. This point is first really underlined when, in the middle of a magic show (remember, Kavalier is an escape artist and a magician) at a bar mitzvah, the Saboteur strikes, attempting to detonate a pipe bomb in order to kill all the Jewish children. This real life face-off is made more surreal by Kavalier's attire, which is meant to look like the Escapist, complete with mask, as an added layer of mystery to his act.
Surreal moments like this litter the novel. Sam Clay, a homosexual, ends up in a doomed relationship with the man who plays the Escapist once it becomes a radio program. This man, Tracy Bacon, looks like the Escapist as well, and becomes yet another strange literal version of what began as fantasy.
While there are parallels to be observed in Sammy's story, it is Kavalier who remains the most obvious example. As an escape artist, his signature move is escaping reality. As the comic book industry thrives in the 40s and Kavalier and Clay are putting away a ton of money (though not nearly as much as the comics are actually earning) Kavalier manages to pay for his brother, along with 15 other boys, to come across the ocean on a large rescue-mission type boat with 300 other refugees. When the boat is attacked and sent to the bottom of the ocean by a German U-boat, Kavalier enlists in the army so that he can kill actual Germans, because killing them on paper is no longer enough.
I should note here, that at an emotional peak of the novel where all of the lives of our beloved heroes are falling apart, we get one of the best lines from the commander of the German U-boat, which was part of a number of roaming submarine squads known as wolf packs. When the commander is asked if he would've fired on the boat if he would've known that it was full of children, he responds "They were children, we were wolves."
Unfortunately, Kavalier is unaware that is girlfriend is pregnant when he leaves, and in the tradition of people becoming other people and leading secret lives in this novel, Sam Clay marries Kavalier's girlfriend Rosa and raises the child as his own for the next twelve years.
Kavalier does eventually manage to kill a German, an act that he later admits to Clay as making him feel like the worst man in the world. After the war he manages to escape a number of circumstances that would lead him back to Clay and Rosa, because at first he simply doesn't know how to return to them. He lives a secret life, complete with disguises and fake names, in New York City, renting out an office in the Empire State Building, which becomes a central point of the novel (the building, not his living there.) His son, named Thomas for Kavalier's brother and known as Tommy, as in Tom Mayflower, discovers him by chance in the back of a magic shop and becomes sort of his apprentice, very much like the boy sidekick of a comic book hero.
This point is also very interesting because it is at this time that Sam and many other comic book writers and editors are being subpoenaed by the US Senate for degrading the moral character of America's youth through comics. As a suspected homosexual, Clay is accused of frequently giving superheroes boy sidekicks as a way of expressing his own pedophiliac urges. After public embarassment, Clay later goes into detail about the significance of the hero-sidekick relationship as that of the need for a father, a universal trait amongst boys who do most of their growing up while their fathers are at work. To prove the point, Clay mentions that circulation increases 22% once a sidekick is added and is a great way to increase the sales of a stagnating comic, which is practical information, but also, I think, is Chabon pointing out that he himself has added a sidekick as a plot twist at the end of the novel.
It is because of Tommy that Kavalier is found at all, which is interesting because of the liberation and deliverance themes of the book. Tommy writes a note to the newspaper that a man dressed as the Escapist will appear on top of the Empire State Building and jump the following day, and while he note begins as a fake, it becomes real (like so many other things in this book.) Joe really does appear in a stolen Escapist suit, prepared to fly from the building attached only by a home-made rubber band chord. The chord snaps, however, and the incident lands Joe in the hospital, and then to a really touching reunion with Rosa and Sam, the likes of which the reader has been waiting for like 200 pages.
With the return of Kavalier, Clay decides, it would seem, that now it is his turn to leave, and buys a ticket to LA, where he should have gone much earlier in life but backed out due to some horrific situations. At the end of the novel, Joe and Rosa wake to find Sam gone, and the deed of the house no longer reading Sam and Rosa Clay, but Kavalier and Clay, maybe because they were the only real thing to happen in the entire novel.