Category Archives: Global Affairs

2017 Selfies…with Books! Yearly Review

Goodbye, 2017. Time flies when you’re having fun, and also when you’re in shock. The Trump presidency is here—and so far, it seems, here to stay. I still maintain that Trump is preferable to Pence in the White House, because Trump serves as the perfect symbol for the current state of our outrageous politics; Pence, on the other hand, would mask it all off in such a way so as to be considered insidious. Mike Pence looks like a guy who would stab you, look you in the eye, and say, “The Lord told me to do it,” before pulling the knife out and smiling while he did it, in an Aw, Shucks! manner—like it couldn’t be helped! Mike Pence looks like the poster boy for denial. Mike Pence looks like he would walk through a street of beggars and make a remark on their interesting lifestyle. Mike Pence has told so many white lies that his head is snowcapped. Mike Pence has all the personality of a toothpaste commercial. If Mike Pence continues to lavish praise on Trump, Trump might consider adopting him.

On the international stage, our relationship with our allies is proceeding about as well as everyone expected. Britain holds its nose when asked if they still like us; France and Germany have already looked away; South Korea and Japan don’t know how to answer; and Russia and China are now more friends than enemies. North Korea wants us dead more than ever; Cuba is standing on a tightrope and we’re shaking the cable; Venezuela is somehow still hanging on, but Zimbabwe decided it would keep the balance of dictators by ousting its own. At least Australia legalized same-sex marriage. Thanks, Aussies.

Anyway.

As I look back on my book selfies, I’m reminded of the time and circumstances surrounding each one. Since I spent the first six months of this year in China, it was nice to be reminded again of my life in Nanjing through the books I had read. If the first book you read sets the tone for your entire year, then I’m super lucky to have begun this year reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho because of its optimistism and sage wisdom. How different my outlook might have been if I had made my second read book my first: George Orwell’s 1984. It was around this time that White House Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, uttered that now infamous phrase, “alternative facts,” (she seemed to have suffered a mild stroke while doing it) and my jaw couldn’t hang on long enough to believe Orwell’s prescience. I would have started this year in a much bleaker way, no doubt, had 1984 introduced me to 2017. Thankfully, it didn’t, so I instead looked for the good omens all around me.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom had me in tears probably by the tenth page, and kept me in tears through every page turn. That’s not an exaggeration—I literally left a coffee shop because I couldn’t stop the tears. While in Thailand, I had Gabriel Garcia Marquez keep me company, with his book One Hundred Years of Solitude for beach reading. Those four fiction books were followed up by three non-fiction books that had me thirsty for facts and real-world drama. Diane Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, stands out as the most relevant, given the circumstances of the time, because Betsy Davos’ nomination as the Secretary of Education was announced. It seemed fitting to read the pro-charter and pro-public school arguments—and decidedly quash Davos’ charter-everything-or-bust stance on education.

Personally, non-fiction books require a lot more focus to get through. I can only take so many of them in a row, lest I get mired in pessimism and mild depression. So I switched back to fiction after reading Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War by James Risen, a book about our appalling spending and horrendous practices in response to the war on terror. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden put me in California and Arabian Nights put me in the land of the prophet Mohammed.

Andrew’s Carnegie’s autobiography was not as interesting as his essay, The Gospel of Wealth. D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground could not have had more opposite protagonists, a handsome socialite in the former and a bitter recluse in the latter. I do love my juxtapositions.

While I didn’t recommend The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Regime, 1975-79, by Ben Kiernan because of its density and overall academic writing, it is worth reading because it’s like running a marathon while hearing statistic after statistic of how many people died where and when and how. That book was the literary equivalent of an endurance run, and one worth reading for anyone who views the Communist system of government through rose-colored lenses. This book will break those lenses real quick. I actually waited to leave China before publishing the selfie I took with it (in front of the Forbidden City, of all places), for fear of detainment at the airport. I’m serious. China remains Communist, but only in the political sense. Abstain from any form of political criticism and China is actually not a bad place to live.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky welcomed me back to the United States. It survived being completely submerged while on a Kayak trip, and the glue held on just long enough for me to finish reading it on Santa Monica beach. Beyond Outrage by Robert B. Reich and American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips thrust me back into political literature, before I tired and retreated to sci-fi, which is not a genre I often read—fun fact: I’ve yet to read a single fantasy novel. Cradle by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee had its moments of captivating beauty, but I was overall disappointed. It wasn’t as fantastical as I wanted and I couldn’t make myself like the characters. Thankfully, The Ramayana went beyond any conception of time I could have imagined—we’re talking eons—and left me with a sense of fulfillment, somehow. If any books exuded a special kind of energy this year, they were The Alchemist and The Ramayana.

Lastly, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which is another great juxtaposition, provided me with two ways to think about life. I intend to read more Huxley next year, but I’m glad that I started with The Doors of Perception because I enjoyed the personal tone and mind-blowing observations—mind-expanding might be the more appropriate descriptor. Atlas Shrugged I’ve been reading on and off for about five years, which is insane. I almost gave it up until I saw it on some list of books people rarely finish, so I took it as a personal challenge not to succumb to the list. Just like Aztec from last year, this is another 1000+ page book that manages to stay entertaining throughout. You’ll inevitably pick up and understand Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, since it’s hammered into you throughout the 1000+ pages, but more importantly, it’ll allow you to think critically about the philosophy. I can see myself liking Objectivism and voting Libertarian every four years, you know, if I don’t think too hard about Objectivism. But since I have thought about it, no, I don’t buy into the philosophy.

I wave goodbye to 2017 with The Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice. Honestly, not the best book to say goodbye with simply because I didn’t like it. It started off interesting, with supernatural and biblical elements, but I was as confused as the main character for the entirety of the book. Maybe that was Rice’s intention? I don’t know. I just know that I didn’t like having more questions than answers, which is a problem Cradle had as well. Both ended prematurely, but both were so unpleasant to read that they also didn’t end soon enough.

Twenty-one books later, my 2017 reading year comes to a close. Below you’ll find the list of books I finished this year. With the exception of Atlas Shrugged, all were begun and finished this year.

  1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  2. 1984 by George Orwell
  3. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
  4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garca Mrquez
  5. This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich
  6. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch
  7. Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War by James Risen
  8. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  9. Arabian Nights Volume I: The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand and One Nights translated by Sir Richard Francis Burton
  10. The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and His Essay: The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie
  11. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
  12. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  13. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Regime, 1975-79 by Ben Kiernan
  14. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  15. Beyond Outrage by Robert B. Reich
  16. American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips
  17. Cradle by Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee
  18. The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon
  19. The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
  20. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  21. Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice

Happy 2018, everyone!

Minority Report

Three months down. It’s time to take stock.

There are condoms everywhere. Unlike in the US, where you have to go through the 7/11 clerk to ask for a pack, or wave down a supermarket associate so that she (it’s usually a woman) can unlock the glass door and know more about you than you wanted to reveal, since she has to lock the glass again after you’ve made your selection, China has condoms next to the bathing products, and the snacks, and the wine, and the miscellaneous items, and on this corner, here, because you’ve walked too far without seeing a condom pack. Family planning, after all, is part of Chinese culture. Though the one-child policy has been relaxed to allow for two children, the Communist Party still caps the number of children a family can have to avoid its 1 billion+ population from becoming a John and Kate + 8 scenario. Chinese people have very strong knees, a colleague explained to me, because of the way toilets are, or rather, aren’t. Squat toilets reign supreme here, which to me feels like an urban camping experience, but you’ll often see people squatting in the street while on their phones, to rest—in the absence of benches, squatting provides a suitable substitute. Continue reading Minority Report

Post-Normal

We’ve reached the post-truth era. 2016 will be the year the phenomenon of soothing truth was finally recognized, truth that massages our own biases and kneads away troublesome knots of inconvenient fact. Gradients of truth, varying in their veracity, overload our supposedly shortening attention spans and we are collectively led to the newspaper’s logical conclusion: memes housing bite-sized factoids. Their intake quick and easy, memes are the fast food equivalent of news consumption. 2016 marks another epitaph for the intelligentsia. This one reads:

Here lies plethoric hubris. It declared everything fine even as the last nail pierced its ankles.

Continue reading Post-Normal

Wary Observer

Month 2 down. It’s time to take stock.

Things made in China do not say, “Made Around the Corner.” Dogs run around, unleashed, beside their owners, and they maintain a reasonable proximity to passerby traffic. Despite their small size—poodles are popular here—they do not bark or try to intimidate like the poodles and Chihuahuas back in the US. The price of winter coats goes down during the fall, not up like in the US; I chalk that up as a victory for the socialist part of China’s socialist market economy. Gratuity is factored into the final price and every restaurant, including McDonald’s and KFC, will clean up after you. The metro system is fast, clean, and routinely cramped, sometimes to the point of bursting, on which occasion you have no choice but to wait for the next train and hope for better luck. Apartments reign supreme in Nanjing, so I have no idea what houses look like in China. Life hasn’t been very different from living in the US, save for the obvious language transposition. Oh, and I’m much closer to North Korea now. Continue reading Wary Observer

Thoughts Abound

For though I leave my land,
I simply step on another
–And belong.

What does it mean to write of the universal human experience? Do I deprive a people of their identity and a land of its signature by shaping my mindset to think of an all-inclusive narrative, or my eyes to see worldwide struggle and joy, or my mouth to speak of triumph and sorrow? Themes exist for this reason, do they not? China has tragedy, Bolivia has betrayal, Chile has passion, and the United States has jealousy; exchange any of those themes with any country, not just those listed here, and the statement remains true.

Differentiation results from actions undergone as a result of, or in response to, different circumstances. History, we call it. Whether victory or defeat was attributed to outside barbarians or inner incompetence, specific actors, and the names they carry change, but their roles do not. Storylines remain fascinating, however, despite their repetition, and even though we as a human race have thousands of years to lay claim to, sometimes we rise—sometimes we fall. Continue reading Thoughts Abound

My Buddy, Obama

With a few weeks to go before the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and with the two presumptive nominees already, presumably, chosen, we need to think about a few issues that have gone largely unnoticed, but which, in my mind pose difficult policy questions for Hillary Clinton. President Obama’s time in the oval office is almost up, his popularity is surging, and while Trump and Clinton pivot to the general election, Obama himself is pivoting to become Hillary’s most influential surrogate. Her election would largely secure his policies and those of Democrats, generally. From embracing a multilateral approach to combatting ISIS, to keeping in place the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Affordable Care Act, Hillary would effectively secure a figurative Obama third-term and use her mighty veto to strike down any Republican attempts to repeal whatever they please.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, continues to tank his campaign, but let’s think back to some of the serious policy issues he somehow stumbled upon, issues which Hillary Clinton will have to face, either from Trump himself in a debate, or from his supporters. Members of the #bernieorbust movement will similarly require assuaging of their disdain, if possible. Continue reading My Buddy, Obama

On The Destruction of Illusion

The Players

For trust to exist, doubt must always be maintained at a reasonable distance. Suspicion arises only when doubt makes its existence known, not through a sighting of some sort, but through hushed tones carried by the wind. The breakdown of trust follows when the hushed tones increase to the level of careless whisper and eventual audible clarity. For society to survive, a certain level of trust must be believed to be real. Suspicion, being a result of encroaching doubt, does not by itself chip away at society’s trust. In some respects, suspicion strengthens society and can be considered a byproduct of an informed populace, one in tune with the fallibility of man and his creations. In other respects, however, suspicion plays into man’s fears and speaks to him like the voices that sing to schizophrenics, endlessly warning him about false realities stemming from false outcomes. Continue reading On The Destruction of Illusion

On The Liberal World Order (Part 3)

Contradiction must be confronted. Ignored problems act as a constant reminder of failure, are an annoying high-pitched whine that distracts in the background, and eventually make themselves heard in the most inconvenient time, in the most unfortunate way. ISIS is not the problem. It is only the latest American arch-rival, a clearly identifiable evil-doer whose black attire would resonate well with students of American literature: black represents corruption, it is a color symbolizing impurity, and surely, the author’s choice to don his characters in black represents their status as an antipode of good. Continue reading On The Liberal World Order (Part 3)

On The Liberal World Order (Part 2)

Thus far, even a cursory glance at any of the Republican debates is enough to show the complete lack of thought, consideration, or care given to statements of foreign policy, particularly toward ISIS. Simplistic statements that were once limited to frontrunner Donald Trump have pervaded the debates, becoming the norm among even the most “intelligent” candidates, an adjective exclusively reserved for Ted Cruz. Rather than challenge Trump on specifics regarding anything he has said, particularly his most demonizing policies—from rounding up all job-stealing immigrants, to indiscriminately barring all Muslims entry into the United States—the “smartest” candidate has chosen, instead, to outdo Trump’s statements, with dangerously militaristic and vague statements that garner the same amount of cheer and enthusiasm as the frontrunner. Continue reading On The Liberal World Order (Part 2)

On The Liberal World Order (Part I)

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here is the Preamble, in its entirety:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, Continue reading On The Liberal World Order (Part I)