trying to figure out whether someone is trying to stop you from posting or reading some stuff, or whether it’s just a series of accidental coincidences. For a few minutes there it was looking pretty deliberate, but now, obviously, it looks either they’re not out there, or whatever they’re doing is pretty easy to get around.
of China seems to be more like the Great Prickly Hedge of China. You can get through it without much trouble, but it’s a minor pain in the neck each time, and so most people just aren’t going to do it.
We spent the day today riding bicycles around the villages south of Yangshuo, in Guangxi. It’s spectacularly gorgeous, as most of these karst landscapes are; they’re the areas that gave rise to that genre of Chinese paintings with the mist twisting around impossibly vertical peaks dotted with pagodas, weeping willows, and wizened sages, or, in the modern version, pandas being trained by tortoises to practice kung-fu. Vietnam has very similar areas, mainly in Ninh Binh around 2 hours south of Hanoi. But for reasons I can’t quite pin down, the Yangshuo area feels nicer. There less trash, for one thing. There are fewer gas-powered motorbikes and more bicycles, which I can’t explain at all, since China is significantly richer than Vietnam; Guangxi is a poor province, but the tourism industry in Yangshuo is going gangbusters, whereas it’s minimal in Ninh Binh, and I would find it difficult to explain if per capita income here were lower. People in China honk their horns less than Vietnamese do, which makes a really powerful difference. And there’s something about the feeling of moving through the fields here that’s just different. People leave you more or less alone, for one thing. Vietnamese are compulsively gregarious, and when you cross through a Vietnamese rural landscape it can be difficult to avoid getting stared at by crowds. The folks in Yangshuo seem much less interested, though of course this probably has a lot to do with the thriving tourism industry.
But the main thing I wanted to say was that I am in love with Chinese electric motorbikes. They’re not very powerful. They’re slow. But they are quiet and gentle, and they coexist with the spectacular limestone landscape in the complementary fashion in which sailboats coexist with the Chesapeake. And the bronchial infection I’ve had for 3 weeks in Hanoi’s filthy exhaust-choked air has already started to clear up out in the clearer atmosphere hre. It’s really not inevitable that places like this will ever have to see a dominant gasoline-powered era. If we help things along, people in China could look back at the gasoline era as a brief curiosity, the way we regard the Age of Steam or pneumatic tubes.
For whatever reason, access to this blog appears to be blocked by the Great Firewall of China. I’m in Yangshuo, posting here now via the magic of Neuroelectronic Psomiasis. But I probably won’t be doing much more posting in the next week.
Observations: the swine flu scare doesn’t seem to have affected the train border between Vietnam and China yet. And, the Vietnamese customs police at the Chinese border at Dong Dan have the world’s cutest drug-sniffing dog — a Cocker Spaniel. Will try to post photo at some point.
He was tortured by Vietnamese Communists, but “moved on” to support normalizing relations rather than pursuing punishment of the torturers. Now he says the US needs to “move on” rather than pursue punishment of those who established the American torture system.
It has a certain consistency. One could of course point out the differences. McCain never had the capacity to punish those who tortured him; Vietnam wasn’t going to prosecute them. We could, however, punish the architects of American torture. Then, it’s one thing for McCain, the victim of torture, to decide that the pursuit of justice is less important than “moving on”; but we were not the victims of the torture meted out by the CIA, and no one seems to be asking Jose Padilla how he feels about whether those who tortured him should be impeached, tried on criminal charges, etc. Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was tortured by the CIA at a black site in Afghanistan, appears not to be in a forgiving mood.
Finally, one might point out that the fact that Vietnamese torturers were never punished is related to the fact that, according to US State Department human rights reports, beatings and extrajudicial force are still widely applied in Vietnam’s penal system. (“On May 1, Y Ben Hdok, a Montagnard from Dak Lak, died while in detention in the Buon Ma Thuot provincial police station. Police detained him on April 28 for questioning regarding his suspected involvement in inciting demonstrations. Officials stated that the suspect hanged himself during a break in questioning, but family members said his corpse was bruised. No investigation was carried out, and the family reportedly refused to authorize an autopsy.” And so forth.)
My son got bit by a dog this evening, so we had to go in for a rabies booster shot. We were out having dinner in the garden of The Kitchen, a restaurant not far from our house that serves decent Mexican food and is located down a small alleyway with little traffic. The kids were playing hide-and-seek while we waited to order. My son ran off out the gate to hide down the alley while my daughter counted, my wife said “I’d prefer they stayed inside the garden,” I said “Eh, there’s almost no traffic down this alley,” and a second later Sol came running back inside crying, saying a dog had bitten him. One of those moments that makes parenthood such a relentless parade of demonstrations of your inadequacy rewarding and life-constituting experience. My wife and the restaurant owner ran into the alleyway to figure out what the deal was with this dog while I handled the kids. Not a deep bite, barely broke the skin in just one spot, but it hurt; I washed it off and put some ice on it.
The dog belonged to some poor neighbors down the alley. It was on a chain on the concrete stoop of a little brick hut the family uses as a kitchen/utility area. The hut gives directly onto the alley so the dog wasn’t fenced in, and it had already bitten the restaurant’s motorbike valet the week before. (He had unfortunately been in the bathroom when Sol ran out, or he would’ve stopped him.) The restaurant’s manager had demanded they keep the dog inside, which they hadn’t done. The owner was a tiny, blinking lady in her 60s or 70s who did not seem capable of understanding what the issue at hand was, which was simply this: could she prove that the dog was vaccinated for rabies? She said her husband had taken the dog in a week earlier to get vaccinated for rabies, because an announcement had gone around on the neighborhood loudspeakers instructing everyone to do that at the local Ward People’s Committee Headquarters. (Gotta love Communist public health. Seriously.) The problem was she didn’t know where the certificate of vaccination was. After twenty minutes of discussion we finally rousted her husband out to go search the house and try to dig up the paper. I say “discussion,” but I mean “threats”, largely on my wife’s part, to call the police and demand that this family pay our son’s medical bills. That seemed to be the only way to impel them into action — they just didn’t do anything until there was a threat of police action and monetary damages.
Meanwhile I had called my friend Heiman, an MD-Ph.D. who works on communicable diseases here, including rabies, to ask what he thought I should do. Since it was a stupid question, he responded patiently that if I was absolutely sure the dog was vaccinated, I didn’t need to get Sol a booster shot, but if there were any doubt whatsoever as to whether the dog was vaccinated, I should go get Sol the booster, since you don’t take a 0.001% chance on a disease that’s 100% fatal, in a country where it’s endemic. Duh. It can be helpful to have people lay these issues out clearly for you sometimes.
Anyway, as I waited for the husband to find the certificate, the old woman took my hand and led me over to the dog, explaining in simple Vietnamese: “It’s feeding pups. It’s feeding pups.” And there they were, indeed, nursing on the dog’s teats. Which explained why it was acting so aggressive. So you see, she implied, it’s not the dog’s fault, it’s not usually like this. Which, of course, pissed me off. What did I care whether the dog was usually like this or not? The only question for me was: was the dog vaccinated? Did they have proof? Either they had proof, or I had to go the doctor.
The restaurant’s manager had been extremely concerned and kind throughout the interaction, and she by now had called the police to intervene. She, obviously, couldn’t have a dangerous dog in the alleyway outside her restaurant. I went inside and ate the dinner we’d ordered, and a few minutes later the old woman dashed up to me, grabbed my hand, and began pleading. She couldn’t pay the money for my son’s medical treatment, she said. They were very poor. But she promised to kill the dog.
The restaurant manager had come over to help translate, and at this point I didn’t even know what to say. I didn’t want or need this woman’s money. The booster shot wasn’t expensive, and our insurance would cover it. The problem was that this family’s dog had already bitten the motorbike valet, they had been told to keep it indoors or fence it up, and they hadn’t done it. The point of the monetary threat was to force them to do something about the dog. But I didn’t want them to kill the dog. I wanted them to fence the dog in, to go back and get it vaccinated again but this time keep the vaccination certificate – to just deal with their responsibilities like normal citizens, keep their animals on their own property or be conscious of the consequences of letting them run out into the alleyway.
But this is the thing about these kinds of cross-cultural interactions, the thing that makes them so often horrible and tragic. You can put pressure on other people to accomplish goals that you want. But you can’t dictate to them how to go about delivering those goals. You can show them that the consequences of the dog biting a foreigner’s kid will be dire; but while you may think the logical solution is vaccination and a fence, they may think the logical solution is to kill the dog. Whatever norms their society operates under — norms which may appear crazy, perverse, brutal and counterproductive to you — will likely be repeated and intensified in their approach to meeting your demands on them. This isn’t just a problem that appears in interactions across national cultures; it happens across class cultures, between two different families, or for that matter between individuals. You try to teach someone how to do something the “right” way (your right way, anyway); they won’t do it; you finally set a target and threaten to fong the bejeezus out of them if they don’t deliver the target; and they find a way to deliver that target that’s so completely screwed up and wrong, by your lights, that you wish you’d never asked for it in the first place. Usually it somehow involves taking the whole thing out on whoever is weakest and most vulnerable inside their own system. And you find yourself thinking, it’s hopeless. The only solution is to exterminate the brutes. Which is exactly what they’re thinking too.
David Frum: “Since Watergate, American politics has moved into a new era of the criminalization of politics.”
The other way of looking at it would be that since Watergate, Republican administrations have been repeatedly breaking the law. Nixon spied on political opponents and broke into the offices of the Democratic Party; Reagan cut illegal secret deals to sell arms to Iran in order to fund right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua; and George W. Bush enacted a systematic program for torturing detainees.
Oh yeah, and Bill Clinton lied under oath about getting his intern to give him blowjobs. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush didn’t do anything illegal as far as I know.
Filed under: Conservatism
Ezra Klein notes that David Vitter offered an amendment to the Senate budget resolution that would have required applicants for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) — welfare, basically — to pass a drug test. The amendment says its aim is to “encourage healthy, drug-free families instead of encouraging dependent behavior or on-going drug abuse.” Klein says the fact that the amendment was handily voted down shows the welfare wars are at last over, and it is indeed great that the amendment was voted down. But for perspective, you have to keep in mind that this amendment to keep Federal tax money from going to anyone who uses drugs was proposed by a guy who used Federal tax money to pay for prostitutes.
Filed under: Conservatism
Meghan McCain seems, judging from her writing, to be a pretty nice person with mainly reasonable, if not very sophisticated or detailed, policy views. It’s not surprising that her policy views aren’t very sophisticated or detailed, because she just graduated from college. What is surprising is that by virtue of her celebrity last name, she’s been able to gain an extraordinarily large platform in the roiling debate that’s currently reshaping the Republican Party. With her new book deal and her well publicized spats with Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, she’s practically at the point where her views on issues have as much weight as those of other unconventional voices on the right like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam — people who’ve put in years more as policy wonks, have written books and run blogs, and have had to win their place in the public eye through persuasive thinking and writing, without any boost from name recognition.
Steve Benen finds McCain’s celebrity “odd”, and Matthew Yglesias says “I can’t help but wonder to myself who on earth is Meghan McCain?” I don’t think it’s particularly odd, given the prominence of family scions throughout conservatism over the past decade-plus — William Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, Christopher Buckley, the Podhoretz kid, George W. Bush and so forth. But I do think it’s a structural weakness. The problem is that the GOP isn’t tied into national institutions, movements or constituencies in ways that allow it to generate new stars in an organic fashion, people who are tied to real constituencies. If you look at where Democratic and liberal voices come from, they may come out of academia and the professions (Krugman, Summers, Sunstein). Or they may come out of journalism (Power, Friedman, Maddow). Or they may come out of labor (though unfortunately not enough these days — Andy Stern). These are all institutions which are historical liberal-aligned for good reasons.
But if you look at the conservative-GOP side, the institutions that ought to be generating those kinds of voices in an organic fashion aren’t. You’ve got churches, which did in fact generate many such public figures beginning in the late ’70s. But those voices (Falwell, Robertson, Dobson) have always been extremely polarizing, and at this point it looks as though the religious right has stopped being able to generate voices that appeal broadly to more Americans than they turn off. No one is replacing Gary Bauer. Then you’ve got the military, which once did generate Republican and conservative figures who commanded broad respect. But amazingly, since the Iraq War, the public figures coming out of the military have been trending liberal and Democratic. There is no conservative Paul Rieckhoff, the last general to take up a political career was Wesley Clark, and Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama. Finally, you’ve got talk radio and FOXNews. Nuff said. Because the GOP increasingly lacks solid ties to real institutions or constituencies, it’s vulnerable to being swept away by media figures and the children of past Republican politicians and intellectuals. If Meghan McCain can graduate from college and immediately take over the “young moderate Republican woman” slot in the national discourse, it’s because the slot is standing open. The Republicans, adrift and unmoored, have nobody else to fill it.
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture
“Maybe we needed a born again Christian to bring stress positions into the American government. They have a very Christian origin.” — Andrew Sullivan