Following eight months of hesitant journeys to its owner’s head, authoritative use has finally been made of the author’s fine summer fedora.
After years of travel to places cold and dense, I find myself someplace that is neither: Kauai, the Garden Island.
First the journey. Hawaiian Air had disappointed us with four hours of delay at Oakland International for lack of a “part” which, it was promised, was hastily making its way from SFO. One finds that it’s easy to imagine a nameless “missing part” to be the one absolutely necessary for the act of flying and landing a plane (the throttle? the wing? the flux capacitor?). More likely, it was probably the lid to a luggage compartment, or perhaps a missing bottle of bathroom hand-soap.
Even for those accustomed to microclimates, Kauai is extreme. The island itself is about 85 miles in circumference, and it’s four distinct shores offer incredible variation.
The “Sunny” South Shore receives an average 18 inches of rain per year, making it a Mediterranean climate not unlike Southern California save for the humidity. The beaches and bays of Wiamea and Poi’pu ascend gently inland, creating a vast and sloping grassland which eventually rises into modest foothills which then heave skyward and rip apart to create the astonishing Wiamea Canyon. Wiamea Bay, it should be noted, is home to some of the heaviest waves in the world, while the beach at popular tourist destination Poi’pu is the temporary home to some of its heaviest people. Along Highway 50, Jo-Jo’s serves what is considered the best of the Island’s signature treat: a cup of shaved ice showered in colored sugar water served atop a pile of ice cream, “Shave Ice” is only one element away from a sugary island Turducken.
Driving east along the shore you’ll see the ruins of industries old and gone, mostly sugar plantations, that conjure up a tropical Pittsburg. Hardly of an eyesore, these rusting behemoths make up the island’s most interesting architecture. One will also pass the Kaua’i Coffee Co., whose beans, visitors are told, account for 60% of all coffee grown in Hawaii. If the tasting room is to be trusted, this is an unfortunate state of affairs. Of the dozen or so blends on sample, each was somehow too bland and too bitter. I was, however, so enamored with the site’s stately groves of coffee trees, that I’d rather blame inattentive staff for simply burning the coffee rather than attack the dignity of the noble beans. Like the South Shore, this area has few trees and is instead dominated by the bermuda grass that grows tightly across lawns and fields alike, covering the area like a giant putting green.
The Koloa Rum house is located on a former sugar plantation, which offers free tastings of four different types of rum along with a lesson on making and drinking Mai Tais. All are good, but the dark rum is particularly impressive. I recommend taking the $18 train tour of the grounds, which is today growing fruit, vegetables, and nuts since sugar cane, a highly labor-intensive crop, is no longer cost-competitive.
One passes the grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants of the East Shore and heads North to Hanalei, which (to non-surfers) is probably the most well-known part of the island. The North Shore looks and feels much more like the tropical destination you expected: it receives much more rain than the South, and is covered in mist and jungle flora. Here you’ll find the island’s established cluster of gift shops, shave ice stands, and art galleries. Petrified lava cliffs bank the road to Ke’e beach, each striped with the dangling, rope-like roots of trees harnessed to bluffs hundreds of feet overhead. The houses are on stilts, some of them appearing 15 feet high. Locals say that the area is inhabited mostly by wealthy transplants from the mainland, with several long-established Hawaiian families tucked here and there.
Ke’e beach is perfect for snorkeling beginners. Its sands plunge 20 feet deep into a calm pool surrounded by a reef which ascends to about 4 feet below the surface. This allows one to plunge and explore the miniature canyons of the reef, and spot all manners of fish, coral, and, if you’re lucky (I was), giant sea turtles. Snorkel Bob’s rents prescription goggles (!).
As we spent the entire day at Ke’e, I’ll spend a word here on the tropical Sun. A Californian will note that the sun is hotter in Hawaii than at home, even when the temperature is cooler. You might not have before considered it, but even in a triple digit Fresno August, the Sun’s heat is dispersed and your surroundings are like that of a convection oven. Hawaii is more like a microwave: cool except for (you)r meal, the atmosphere is mild but in direct sunlight you can actually feel yourself cook.
The road ends shortly past Ke’e beach, marking the beginning of Kauai’s world famous Napali Coast. Napali is a 5 mile stretch of cliffs and canyon accessible only by foot, boat, or helicopter. High above Napali sits Mount Waiʻaleʻale, to the East of which sits one of the wettest spots on Earth, averaging over 400 inches of rain every year. Remember, this is only about 15 miles from Wiamea, which gets as much rain as California’s parched San Fernando Valley. The island is controlled by wild roosters.
If one is renting a car, the first impression of Hawaiian culture will likely be over the radio. There, one will find that not only is Hawaiian music a slow and moaning mixture of standards-era ballads and ukelele, but that it dominates the dial. Though its lack of passion sounds rather eunuch, Hawaiian music is apparently very pleasant for senior citizens, who seem blissfully unaware that this is the hotel-guitarist’s third go at “Somewhere over the rainbow”. Come to think of it, all-encompassing sameness seems to exist with all components of island culture: all paintings are of sunsets and surfboards, while all architecture that is not 1950′s art decco is in the style of bamboo, palm leaves, and coconuts. It would be as if San Francisco radio only played the ‘Dead, it’s art galleries featured only psychedelic abstractions, and it’s buildings were all cheap imitations of the painted ladies. The food was better than expected, with actually decent hotel food and solid BBQ at Scotty’s on the East Shore. The service can be slow and unusual, like the cocktail waitress who actually grabbed the eaten shrimp off our dirty dishes to explain there was more meat yet hiding beneath the tail. Mostly, we cooked at gas grills along the Kauai Beach Resort with fish from the Fish Express and produce from the farmers market at Tunnels.
A surprising number of individuals we spoke with were transplants from the mainland. One bartender was from Seattle, the woman at the Koloa Rum tasting room was from Ohio, and the guy at the rental car agency was from Pennsylvania. Each marveled about life on the island, but complained about both high costs and low wages. While natives exhibit all the variation you know and love and hate about the human experience, transplants are a self-selected batch of seekers and shut-ins. Nobody wears helmets, and the native Hawaiian accent sounds oddly Minnesotan.
Though economically dependent on tourism, people on Kauai are very committed to its relative isolation from the other islands, which they consider urbanized and spoiled. The only way off Kauai is by plane, cruise ship, or private vessel. No ferry service exists, and the locals are committed to keeping it that way, even if it means they can hardly ever afford to leave. Case in point, a ferry service that launched in 2007 failed as its first boats discovered Nawiliwili Harbor embargoed with a ring of hundreds of surfers. The surfers maintained the embargo for 32 hours, paddling out in shifts until the ferries returned to Oahu. Churches from every denomination are everywhere, a legacy from the vast numbers of missionaries sent here by the West during the 19th century. Mark Twain once wrote that there were “More missionaries and more row about saving these 60,000 people than would take to convert hell itself”.
Speaking of, shortly after I arrived in Hawaii I began looking for a copy Twain’s “Letters from the Sandwich Islands”. Twain’s writings for the Sacramento Union during his four month journey in 1866 is considered by many to be the best travel writing on the Hawaiian islands ever published, making it perhaps the best beach reading of all time. As I first combed the internet on my iPad for copies, I came across a May 2006 New York Times article on travel writing which began with the keen observation that upon arrival to a tropical paradise, a subtle feeling of “This is really nice…but that’s it?” can creep in on city slickers used to options. The antidote, the author recommended, was good travel writing to stoke interest in sights unseen and under appreciated. As I tried to purchase a physical copy of Twain’s Letters, I was politely informed by a local grocer that the Island and County of Kauai, population 65,000, didn’t have a single bookstore. Such is the reason why theologians have always had such difficulty convincingly describing heaven: one person’s eternal paradise is, if not another’s hell, certainly their four day vacation. And such is how I discovered Hawaii’s great irony: to get the most out of it, you have to leave.
Pacificvs makes his first visit to the Middle Kingdom
Having abandoned it’s red ambitions long ago, China’s foray into a capitalistic authoritarian gray zone is at least monochromatically consistent with the physical China: a fleshy and penetrating gray, the color of a rotting tombstone.
China is penetrating, and oftentimes beautiful. Even a smog choked skyline can transport the viewer to the wispy trees, craggy monoliths, and misted valleys of an early Ming Dynasty watercolor. But it’s not all romance. When the same hue begins to arrive in your morning cough several days in, however, you begin to suspect less pure forces are at work.
Then you see the nuclear power plant in the middle of town. There it is, right next to the coal plant. Several miles away, you see the exact same combo: nuclear and coal. And apartments. Lots of apartments.
This is Xian. Xian is instructive because it’s neither Shanghai nor Beijing, China’s two showcase cities. Xian is like Yuma, Arizona: sprawling and utilitarian. Two years ago, one can tell, it had no skyline. If you only count finished buildings, it still doesn’t have much of one. But when you consider what’s under construction…I counted no fewer than eight clusters of 15-25 tenement buildings, each 40 stories high and probably twenty units across. As the largest consumer of steel in the world, the metal is in short supply in China, so bamboo is used for scaffolding–to a spectacular effect.
With 8 million residents, Xian would be America’s third largest city. In China, it’s a backwater. Inside the city wall, apparently the best preserved in all of China, one finds plenty of unfortunate architectural survivors of the communist era. The buildings are concrete and uninspired and, of course, gray. Covered in tacky neons, the place looks and feels like a prison converted into a casino, which, in post-communist China, in a way I suppose they are. It looks unnatural and poorly conceived, like you’ve been transported into a SimCity built with lots of cheat codes. Overwhelming pollution, consistent filth, bizarre infrastructure, Frogger roadways, and general dreariness–despite the recent economic gains–Xian doesn’t look like the China you’ve read about so much as it feels like the China you expected. It’s important for American students of China to visit such places.
The Hilton Wangfujing is near the Forbidden City. Here the streets are spotless and the shopping is high-end. Drivers observe traffic lights. This is obviously a new development, probably constructed in time for the Olympics, and is precisely the “China” Beijing wants to showcase to the world: modern and refined. To their great credit, the Chinese achieve this sense of modernity without sacrificing their culture’s greatest asset: their food.
Forget the walls and the temples, it’s the food that is the single greatest achievement of the Chinese Civilization. Hot pot, dim sum, peking duck…every single restaurant will dare you to exclude it from your top-five list. But for that extra touch of adventurism, there it is, in the heart of the shopping and modernity: the exotic food market.
Squid, octopus, snake. Grasshoppers, silkworms, crickets. Lamb penis and lamb testicles. And yes, dog, and cat (oddly enough, they both look like hash browns). But it’s not what you’re thinking. The presentation is clean and fresh, with a flair for design. This is obviously regulated for the foreign tastes watching from the surrounding hotels. The vendors are friendly but scheming: be wary of any “deals” and demand that they repeat your order before you hand over cash.
Speaking of culture, on my way to China I began reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s oldest novels. One gets a taste of the type of heavy metal badassery within when they read the title of the very first chapter:
Feast in the Garden of Peaches;
Slaughter of Rebels;
The Brothers Heroes.
Taken in just prior to visiting the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Soldiers, and the Hall of Overwhelming Glory, ancient Chinese literature helps you understand that you are in a place where the rulers take themselves very, very seriously.
In both Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s Indian characters respond to the English disdain for bidets with revulsion (“They only use paper”!). They should visit China: except for the hotels, sitting toilets don’t exist, and neither does toilet paper, let alone bidets. Paper towels are nowhere to be seen, and although every bathroom, it seems, has an air dryer, none of them work. Not kidding: zero.
At any given retail situation in China, whether for tea or chachkis, you will almost certainly find that the store is crazy overstaffed. At the airport, fifteen people greet you off the plane. Six welcome you to the tea shop. Eight servers wait on your table at restaurants. Even at Starbucksthe employees often outnumber the customers. Many times, one finds themselves walking to a store and being forced to repeat familiar lines: “I don’t know what I’d like…I don’t even know what you sell…I’m just looking”. There is a lot of standing, staring, and cutting in line.
All this leads to a shopping experience that, to a Westerner, is plainly ridiculous. Every step you take is matched by at least two “helpers” who flank you at the sides. They mime you as you browse the shelf, pointing at and naming the objects passing your gaze. “Toy”. “Hairbrush”. “Cat”. Instead of shopping, you’re mostly congratulating people on their English. “Very good”. “That’s correct”. “Right again”!
Visitors to Beijing’s Silk Market are given a taste of what to expect by the two giant banners which greet them: “Protect intellectual property rights, be law-abiding vendors”. China has a thriving black market. Chanel handbags that push $2,000 at the Wangfujing mall fetch $60 at the Silk Market. Men’s swiss Bally leather satchels are knocked from $1,000 to $30. Even Rosetta Stone Mandarin is only $15 (a dangerous sale considering one tends to get things slightly cheaper if they can exhibit some control over Mandarin). Wendy tailors makes excellent suits and in good time. Sunny, her assistant and apparent translator, drives a hard bargain, but it’s hard to be upset at a custom fitted three-piece suit and shirt for under $200.
Living in San Francisco’s Mission, a neighborhood with plenty of discount clothes and lots of mannequins, I was surprised to find the little ways in which different standards of beauty manifest around you. Also surprising was how the tourists are overwhelmingly Chinese. From every corner of this vast country, many have never seen white people before, and on many occasions you will be stopped and asked to pose for a photo. But nothing prepared me for the near obsession the Chinese had with James, the 16 month old infant which traveled with us. In a land of few children, James is not only male (much preferred), but also half white/half Asian, or “mix blood” as they put it. Not kidding: mobs of gawkers, at one point numbering in the dozens, would gather around James and stare.
China seems to have uniformed military officers everywhere: guiding traffic, taking tickets at museums, marching through this plaza or that. Even private-security guards and postmen looked like 5-star generals. What’s stranger is that at the places you’d expect some authorities, like at the Forbidden City, you’ll instead find plainclothes guards. It’s very strange watching guys in sweatpants and hoodies on the other side of the rope looking stoic and at the ready. There’s only two possible reasons why the Chinese do this: to take foreigners “off” the defensive, or much more likely, to put the locals “on”. The plainclothes guards are a very visible example that you never know who works for the government.
Spread out before the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square and the body of Chairman Mao, lying in state. It’s true what you’ve read: people don’t know much about the ’89 massacre. Our tour guide, who we’ll call Sharon, inquired about the protest, and informed us that she had never seen the iconic picture of the lone man standing in the face of a line of tanks.
Ignorance about Tiananmen is unsurprising. The Great Firewall is significant enough, and state censorship complete enough, to trip up news junkies and researchers. My iPhone couldn’t access Facebook, and both Google and Safari were significantly disrupted. Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, responds the query “Tiananmen Square Massacre” with an article titled “Tiananmen Square Massacre a Myth”. When I reached for the China Daily the morning following my Beijing arrival, I found a piece titled “China fights climate change with utmost zeal”. Peasants aren’t allowed to freely enter cities, and Chairman Mao looks good for being 118.
The easy conclusion is that China is, well, exceptional. It’s enormously foreign, and one gets the sense that they are breaking cultural taboos often. China’s longevity is among it’s most impressive feats, but you don’t really know what this means until you see it. An at-first surprising observation, is that the Chinese, wherever possible, don’t seem to let their ancient buildings lapse into decay like many have done in the West. Xian’s city wall was rebuilt in the 1980’s. So was the Beijing area of the Great Wall. The Big Goose Pagoda, which tilts in a way so familiar that the locals call it “Leaning Tower of Xian”, is not just being anchored from further slippage by government engineers, but corrected. When you point this out, people remind you that their great grandparents helped rebuild this-wall-or-that following the earthquake or the fire or the invasion or whatever it was a hundred years ago, and their great-grandparents rebuilt it following whatever catastrophe it was a hundred years before that. It makes natural sense that they’d keep it up. Doesn’t this effect the object’s authenticity? “Not at all” say the Chinese. There is a cultural continuity that is understood.
Compare this to Greece, where the architectural family jewels of the West are either mostly destroyed or simply no longer exist. The pagans who built the Parthenon lost their culture and became Christianized following 2,000 years of endless invasion and occupation at the hands of a who’s-who of ancestral Europe’s great powers: Romans, Persians, Ottomans, English, Nazis. In a total way, the ancient Greeks really no longer exist. This is in stark contrast to China, where a region dominated by Han arts and culture, Confucius teaching, and ancestor-worship, is entering it’s 2,233rd year.
In many ways, the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s attempt at dislodging China from it’s past, a prerequisite for building the communist utopia. Many of Beijing’s classically trained artists artisans, and many of the country’s professors and intelligentsia, we’re purged, “re-educated”, and killed. It is for our great benefit that this effort failed.
Finally, something has to be mentioned about the China hysteria that I fear hasn’t even really begun. For all it’s growth, China has much further to grow still, and it’s economy is almost certain to overtake that of the US within a decade or so. These fears, I believe, are exaggerated. China has problems, big ones. Too numerous, in fact, to list in a brief essay about a brief vacation. But driving from the countryside into the cities, one sees the same thing everywhere: a bronze-age civilization surrounding a Dickensian nightmare swallowing modern a metropolis. If you live in the first two, your movements into the third are highly restricted, which is where everyone wants to be because that’s where the money is. People grumble about the one-child policy, and the cities are beginning to develop their own housing bubbles. The environmental problems are worse than you think, and I thought they were terrifying going in.
So with respect to Sinophobia, remember: the Chinese may have invented the compass, paper, printing, and gunpowder, but they also invented bureaucracy.
When I was 6 years old my parents loaded my sister and I into an RV. We disembarked Los Angeles and headed eastward, clinging to Joshua Tree’s lower half along the Interstate 10. Six hours later, we had arrived at Lake Havasu: retirement home for American humans and English bridges since 1971. Two decades and change later, my memory could use a digital remastering. But I do remember this: there was a boat, I boarded the boat, and at some point, that boat crossed an imaginary line that bifurcates the good lake down the middle, California to one side, Arizona on the other. That moment would become the first and last time that I would leave California until college.
This past year, in particular, I’ve tried to make good on seeing more of my country. In addition to Oregon, Washington state (and a respectable number of countries), I’ve added New York City on New Year’s Eve, New Orleans on Mardi Gras, and Yosemite in the early Fall to the list. I’ll be adding Utah in January. The first week of this past October, I added Washington, DC.
I was there for work and had precious few moments to myself, but precious none the less.
My favorite culture on earth is drinking culture. To this end, I can always rely (and you can too!) on a enlightening new town experience by visiting one of the given city’s FODDs (Fanciest-Oldest-Diviest-and-Douchiest bars).
(A brief digression on FODDs, San Francisco: Fanciest: Bourbon and Branch; Oldest: The Saloon; Diviest: Tough call…I’ll go with The Hockey Haven; Douchiest: Medjool).
Everybody in DC seems to readily know the oldest bar in town. It’s called Old Ebbitt Grill, conveniently located two blocks from my hotel, and across the street from the Obama crib. Forget that the food was bland (and priced accordingly), while looking over a flyer on the bar’s history, I noticed that the suspiciously beautiful place was built in…1983! Turns out Old Ebbitt is the oldest brand in town. Nobody seemed to know where the actual oldest continuous drinking establishment actually was. Defeat.
I took a stab at the FODD douchiest, making my way to Circa on Connecticut Ave NW, as recommended by a coworker who spent time in DC as a Senate aide. Circa delivered on the basics: bronzed sugar daddy’s with and women inflicted with the plastic-surgery’s inevitable cat-face. But after one whole Maker’s–rocks–Manhattan, I didn’t see one cougar attack! I’m sorry, but even at Americano, San Francisco’s runner-up douchiest, the hunting grounds are littered with wounded young men by 7:00pm on a Monday night.
After Circa I stopped at a total gem: Kramerbooks. At this small bookstore I picked up Arguably, the latest compendium of essays by Christopher Hitchens (who, as it happens, lives only blocks away).
Like all great bookstores, Kramerbooks features a pub. Unlike a great bookstore pub, they served only one “local” beer…from Baltimore. Unlike even the greatest bookstore, Kramerbooks serves fantastic food. After first catching my nose, I saw several plates whiz past, seemingly out of nowhere: filet mignon with horseradish sour cream, BBQ ribs with mac ‘n cheese, seared scallops with organic maitakes. The scallops were unreal.
For the fanciest place the bartender recommended the Gibson, a Whiskey bar on 14th street. The Gibson, like Kramerbooks, brought with it total victory: hundreds of whiskies from around the world, and a bartender who delivered my rocks Blood and Sand with flamed orange zest.
A backstory to my evening was that, for each place I went and bartender I spoke with where I could go dancing on a Monday night. Each time I asked, I received different versions of the same opinion: “This is a government town. There’s barely dancing on Saturday nights.”
Interesting. After leaving the Gibson, I walked about four blocks before honing in, like a sperm whale echo-locating her distant calf, on a place somehow unlikely called Marvin. Hearing music from the side walk, I creeped up the stairs to find an old Edwardian-style bar packed, wall-to-wall, with dancing. Government town indeed.
Pressed for time, I didn’t make it to one establishment that could qualify as a dive. Next time. I did, however, make several other observations about our nation’s capitol. The store fronts have stoops, and the sidewalks are clean, narrow, and many are brick. The marble steps of the rotunda staircase have been sharpened like to dagger-like-points just to the left and right of center, under the ceaseless plodding of the congress.
To be an American living in the Capitol City is to have a voice in neither the Congress nor the Presidency. The US Constitution predates the District of Columbia by three years, and sadly, the founding fathers neglected to ask how residents of the future capitol would vote. Thus the best license plate motto in the republic was born, “Washington DC: Taxation without Representation”.
Although I was there for work, I was lucky in that work took me to the White House and the deeper halls of the Capitol. Good times.
WHAT’s funny about the memorable phrase “all politics is local”, is that it’s so easy to forget about local politics. I was given a good refresher tonight at Public Works, where 5 candidates (Supervisors Beavan Dufty, John Avalos, and David Chiu; City Attorney Dennis Herrera; and State Senator Leland Yee) to become the next Mayor of San Francisco talked MUNI, parks, and how much they loved their opponents. Matthew Troy, co-owner of Faye’s Video & Espresso Bar, was on hand to moderate, and to transmit wisdom.
Up to this point, all that I had heard about the race to fill the Mayoral vacancy left in the wake of Gavin Newsom’s election to the most pointless office ever invented, was that it was going to be boring. Ranked choice voting has opened up an electoral path to victory whereby a candidate can win by racking up “second-choice” votes, meaning that no candidate wants to say anything that might turn-off any potential voter who might consider him for their number two pick. In short, boring.
The debate revealed the following: All the candidates support Healthy SF, ranked-choice voting, and public schools. With the exception of Avalos, they are all in support of the Park Merced development project, although they were all made visibly uncomfortable saying why. They are all opposed to privatizing parks, and in support of marriage equality. When asked to say which city department was the biggest disappointment, each of them answered “MUNI”. They all agreed that the 14 Mission bus is “Jacked”. Which it is.
Being in the Mission, they were sure to mention their support for tenants rights. They all refused to answer my question, which was who were they casting their “second-choice” vote for, even though I specifically admonished them not to duck the question. Beavan Dufty thinks bars should be allowed to stay open until 4am.
When each of the candidates were given a chance to ask their opponents a question, they served them up on platters of the purest gold. Beavan Dufty asked David Chiu to reflect on his memories of growing up in the Mission. Dennis Herrera asked John Avalos about his feelings toward the immigrant community. Avalos asked Yee if he supports privatizing parks (he doesn’t!). Only Chiu’s question to Herrera, whether, as mayor, he would have signed onto the Park Merced deal (Herrera replied “yes”), had any sort of english on it. The night’s only disagreement came between Herrera and Yee, over the former’s support for gang injunctions.
Here’s what I learned: Beavan Dufty wants you to know he likes to party, Leland Yee really wants you to know that he really likes schools, John Avalos is quite handsome, and David Chiu, with his abuse of the Clinton thumb-point, probably wants to be mayor more than all of them. That, and that ranked-choice voting, while probably still a good idea, makes for some boring politics.
As election day nears, I’m hoping we get just a smidge more fist shaking, and a touch less back slapping.
It’s time to come up with a disparaging word for vaccine-autism conspiracy theorists, and I propose “Germers” to be that word. Germer: One who willfully ignores scientific evidence in order to preserve the erroneous belief, based on a single discredited 1998 paper, that vaccines are linked to autism. Example: “Johnny’s classmate, Jane, succumbed to flesh eating bacteria last week after her germer parents refused to get her vaccinated. She will be missed”. Post this onto your blog or website, and let’s get it into the urban dictionary!
IT’S tough to imagine, but the American left used to be characterized by rabble-rousing populists, immutable intellectuals, and hordes of ferocious red-necks. Today, they’re about as edgy as Deepak Chopra. When future historians document how the American left went from a rag-tag coalition of hicks, freethinkers, and suffragettes, to a zodiac therapy session of vegans and germers (vaccine denialists), they will find that the reason will fit neatly into three words: The Huffington Post.
I’m sure there are many, many more our there, but these are the top 10 most ridiculous Huffington Post articles that I have come across since downloading the iPhone app two years ago. I chose my favorites using only the most vigorous and methodical criteria. First, by how they rated on my “You have just insulted my intelligence” meter (like number 2). Others were chosen for their impressive command of Bullshit Heights’ most impenetrable vistas (number 3). Still others qualified by the force with which they choked “what-the-fuck” from your gaping, stupefied mouth (number 5). Some of the complete articles weren’t as absurd as the headlines suggest (like the honorable mention number 12), but most of them don’t disappoint (like number 7). If you have any favorites not listed here, please add links in the comments below.
The Top 10
And the number 1 most ridiculous Huffington Post article of all time is…
ONE of the more annoying reactions to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death has been the warning that Al Qaeda will now certainly seek revenge. No, no, no. The Navy SEAL attack which killed bin Laden was revenge, thank you. Another annoying reaction has been unease at how Obama’s aggressive order hews uncomfortably close to Bush-era mentalities regarding terror. Noam Chomsky mostly sticks to the latter in his excruciating commentary on the assassination of OBL. (Read Hitchens’ response to the Chomsky article here.)
Chomsky goes unhinged in the very first sentence, declaring OBL’s sprawling concrete fortress as “unprotected”. True, the SEALS were on the unfriendly side of the 18ft defense walls of world’s most wanted terrorist’s fortress, deep into the territory of a terror-state and a stones-throw from that state’s terror-sympathizing military. But they were shot at only once, making it less of a ultra-elite-covert-operation and more of a troubled-teen-checking-in-with-his-parole-officer type thing.
He then takes on the assassination itself, criticizing (or, more accurately, quoting those who criticized) the extralegal pretense of invading Pakistan. Chomsky quotes, and obviously agrees with, the Atlantic’s veteran Middle East correspondent Yochi Dreazen:
“The decision to kill bin Laden outright was the clearest illustration to date of a little-noticed aspect of the Obama administration’s counter terror policy. The Bush administration captured thousands of suspected militants and sent them to detention camps in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. The Obama administration, by contrast, has focused on eliminating individual terrorists rather than attempting to take them alive.”
Unilateral killings of high level terror targets inside sovereign nations who refuse/are incapable of action was a signature campaign promise from candidate Obama. Believing it to be a gaffe, the GOP even pounced on it in the run up to the 2008 primaries. Mitt Romney declared that the Senator from Illinois had gone from “Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week”. In any case, Chomsky rejects this policy in a tone which suggests he finds it even less just than the mass indefinite detention policy under Bush. It may be. It does seem, however, that the targeted killings aren’t as politically damaging for the United States as was indefinite detention. Perhaps it is because major powers, including the US, have been engaging in clandestine murders since forever and that people simply expect it, whereas getting preachy about the sanctity of your values with one side of your mouth while defending the purgatory camp at Guantanamo Bay with the other side is to take hubris and hypocrisy to the breach.
Speaking of hubris, Chomsky goes on to assert that not only did George W. Bush commit crimes “vastly exceeding” those of OBL, but that this “uncontroversial” opinion can only be opposed by “ardent supporters” of the former President. Now, I worked damn hard as a grassroots organizer in 2004 to defeat President Bush, and that November I proudly watched the ballot box click to “000001″ as I cast both the first presidential vote of my precinct and of my life. So as an active “non-supporter” of the Bush Presidency, I respectfully disagree.
Chomsky’s moral relativism is such that he argues that since Imperial Japan and Hitler believed that what they were doing was good, we are in no position to say otherwise. Likewise, Osama bin Laden no doubt thought his franchise idea, to submit large portions of the human race to a misogynistic, homophobic, imperialistic, chauvinistic, fatalistic, backward state of credulity, was a good thing too. Who’s to say? As it happens, the dependable thing about totalitarian values is that their versions of heaven and hell are indistinguishable: homogeneity, endless praise, conformity, and obedience. Even the rosiest-totalitarian assessment leaves one with plenty of filth with which to be repelled. Contrast this to women’s rights, sexual liberation, religious liberty, and the freedoms of speech and association. Failure to admit that the bin Laden vision would have been a tremendously worse fate for our Arab brothers and sisters than team-Bush’s ambition of spreading Jeffersonian democracy is to choose to stroke an emotional attachment to America-hate at reason’s expense. That American energy firms stood to gain from the spreading of democracy changes nothing: one’s disdain for murderous oppression should be greater than their disdain for corporate profiteering, no matter how obscene.
Chomsky then goes on a bizarre tangent, whereby he accuses the US of cruelly naming it’s military weapons after peoples it has vanquished, citing “Apache”, “Tomahawk”, “Black Hawk”, and the operation to kill OBL “Geronimo”, specifically. This, he writes, would be like the Luftwaffe calling its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy”. In this Chomsky manages to be simultaneously ignorant and too-clever-by-half. Apache, Tomahawk, and Black Hawk do have something in common: they are all symbols of ferocity, intimidation, and bravery. A tomahawk is an actual weapon, not a person. Geronimo may have been an actual person, but to virtually every American, “Geronimo” is an interjection commonly exclaimed immediately before one does something dangerous. It’s use was entirely appropriate.
Chomsky was one of the first intellectuals I ever admired, and I’ll always have a soft spot for him. But the less time I spend studying politics, and the more I spend on evolutionary biology and primatology, the less I see the world’s problems as a function of American design in specific, than of human design in general. Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, sees American design everywhere, and it is always malicious, always corrupt. Noam Chomsky believes American power is a uniquely evil force in that it is incapable of having any other motivating factor but the lowest available to the imagination of Noam Chomsky.
I would have liked to see OBL go to trial. I would have liked to watched as the world’s best legal minds confronted him with his crimes and explain to the human race how he has blasphemed his species and why he must die. But dead he is, and on the list of things I should be outraged over, the particulars of his assassination are way, way, down.
GIVEN it’s slightly get-on-with-it-already tone, the families of 9/11 victims understandably are said to disdain the word “closure”. But surely, bin Laden’s death must mean the end of something, right? Right?
It probably won’t mean the end of conflict in Afghanistan, and it can’t end the pain of the families who lost loved ones on American airplanes on 9/11, or on English buses on 7/7, or on Spanish trains on 3/11, or in the countless other murders by the sexually and religiously perverse (how often these two deficiencies coexist) actors of Osama bin Laden’s network. But if not closure here, then where?
In an odd twist, it brings closure to me. I turned 18 years old two days before 9/11. In my third week of college in San Luis Obispo, I was awoken to the television, where I watched the towers fall. I went to math class, where I learned nothing that day. Angry, juvenile, and confused, we took paint to our buddy’s hatchback with scrawls reading “Fuck Bin Laden” and “U-S-A”, and paraded up and down highway 101, relishing in the honks and thumbs-ups from our fellow motorists on the way.
Before September 11th, I was an anxious undergraduate art student, insecure in my choice of majors, and unsure of my desire/capacity to actually make art for a living. I still am. What changed on 9/11 was my confidence in my understanding of the world around me. Why were these people going to such great lengths to attack us? Why are my library books suddenly the curiosity of the Homeland Security Department? Why is the President now talking about waging war on Iraq? Suddenly, it seemed, I didn’t know anything.
I vowed to change that. I switched my major to political science, transferred to San Francisco State University, and secured every internship and volunteer position I could. Canvassing the streets of the Bay Area, I raised $20,000 to defeat George W. Bush in 2004. I graduated with honors, and spoke at my graduation ceremony. During this time, for the first time in my life, I produced very little art.
After unspeakably frustrating months, and then years, trying secure the low-pay work that greets undergraduates, I got a job as a political consultant for a business group on a cause I believed in. I was later promoted, only to watch the campaign collapse two months later. Nearly 10 years have passed since 9/11, and nearly 5 since I graduated college. I have little to show for it other than hundreds of hours of fruitless arguments and a blip on my resume. I am faced with the disconcerting possibility that the whole political enterprise was a perfect waste of time, that in an unforeseen way, the terrorists won.
But then again, no. I’ve learned things, important things. Like the difference between journalism and hack literature, and how cosmopolitan values are superior to tribal ones. I learned about how the phrase “conspiracy theory” libels the noble and scientific word “theory”, and that one should view the intentions of “the people” to be just as suspect as those of “the elite”. And then this crucial lesson: I learned to distinguish western values worthy of the heap, like racism, imperialism, consumerism, from those worthy of our most tender affection, like free inquiry, free speech, free religion, and women’s rights.
“I never wished a man dead, but I’ve read some obituaries with great pleasure” wrote Mark Twain. In a way, Osama bin Laden’s death brings a pleasurable close to my interest in politics. I’ve learned all that I’m reasonably sure I will ever know about human nature, motivation, and morality. I’m left largely where I started: a revived desire to make art, and unsure as to how to pay for it. The irony is that my newer opinion, that the best society is one of individuals seeking to maximize their talent dividends while leaving alone those who have the decency to leave others alone, is essentially a conservative one. As it happens, such a place would be maximally capable of bringing us the finality of the terrorists losing.