Friday, May 27, 2005

Congressional Daydream

"In a frosty exchange, NBA Commissioner David Stern bristled at a suggestion from Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) that last fall's brawl between Indiana Pacer Ron Artest and Detroit Piston fans should have triggered a test for steroids, which Lynch said are known to cause aggressive behavior."

Is it just me, or does it seem that the more off the wall the U.S. Congress gets on things like filibusters and end-of-life plug -pulling cases, the more they seem to be spending time on lecturing professional sports on the subject of steroids. In an interesting juxtaposition, last week a certain Mr. George Galloway visited the Senate from across the pond, which you may have heard about. Now Galloway appears to be a truly odious fellow, who's been in a particularly sour mood since the prospect of being held accountable as an enthusiastic supporter of Saddam Hussein has loomed. But that's not what I wanted to talk about, either. (What, you're in a hurry?) What's interesting is that virtually everybody, including people who consider Galloway untouchable without long tongs, agreed that Galloway slapped off their baseball caps and stole their lunch money in the joust, and everybody seemed to take pleasure in the spectacle. Characteristic was this passage from Christopher Hitchens:

In a small way--an exceedingly small way--this had the paradoxical effect of making me proud to be British. Parliament trains its sons in a hard school of debate and unscripted exchange, and so does the British Labour movement. You get your retaliation in first, you rise to a point of order, you heckle and you watch out for hecklers. The torpid majesty of a Senate proceeding does nothing to prepare you for a Galloway, who is in addition a man without embarrassment who has stayed just on the right side of many inquiries into his character and his accounting methods.

As it happened this morning I was all out of coffee and in need of something to get my capillaries open and my blood pumping, and I started to conjure this day-dream in which Ron Artest is being grilled by Rep. Lynch's committee, only now he is standing up, having had quite enough. Pointing a finger, he bellows "You have accused me of taking steroids without a shred of evidence in the most public of forums, Representative Lynch. You, sir, are a liar - and we've seen a lot more evidence here for that charge than you've ever presented to support your charges against me. As for the rest of you, you summon me here to testify,and smear up my name by doing so, just like you did when you brought Raf Palmeiro here, but you don't even have the cojones to admit what you're doing. You're not even made of the stuff to be principled, straightforward liars, like Mr. Lynch here.

I want to say emphatically for the public record that I have never taken steroids, and that I believe taking steroids is wrong because it is cheating. But I want to say one more thing" - and at this point, improbably, Ron Artest begins speaking in a booming, righteous, thespian Scottish brogue - "I recently did a bit of research on you fellows while you were so assiduously researching us. Did you know -but I bet you did - that in the 2002 elections, 96% of incumbents in this body won re-election? 96%! That in '98 and 2000 the number was 99%? Were you aware - but I bet you were - that in 2002, the average winning share of the vote was 68%? What a terribly popular group we are! No, no, Mr. Chairman, I'm not ready to sit down yet. I'm not finished.

And what I'd like to say is that what you are doing is wrong, and harmful to the nation. It is wrong for the same reason that taking steroids is wrong. GERRYMANDERING IS WRONG BECAUSE IT IS CHEATING,LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! And the only reason why gerrymandering is legal and steroids are illegal is that people like you use the former form of cheating and some people like me use the latter. Now, what I do for a living is not as important as what you do, but I'm proud to be a member of the NBA. A lot of people who are smarter than you or me both say that we do what we do a good deal better than you in Congress do what you do. I'm proud to be part of a genuine meritocracy. Truth is, if I had only a 2 or 3 percent chance of losing every time I took the floor, it could only be because the game was rigged, and pretty soon I'd be a fat and flabby and gassed out basketball player. Then there'd have to be a congressional investigation. And now, Mr. Chairman, I will sit down and you may speak."

That was my daydream as I was shaving today. Almost cut myself.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Ginsberg and Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, unlike Nixon, did not tape his telephone conversations, according to the most recent edition of The Atlantic magazine, but he did have his secretary listen in and transcribe the conversations. "Some 20,000 pages of the transcripts....were opened to the public last year", covering the period from 1969 to 1974, Kissinger's salad days. Allen Ginsberg and Kissinger were, apparently, not even acquainted, but Ginsberg called Kissinger in 1971, cold turkey, in an attempt to arrange a meeting between antiwar activists and the national-security advisor:

AG: I am calling partly at the request of Senator McCarthy... My idea is to arrange a conversation between yourself, Helms, McCarthy, and maybe even Nixon, with Rennie Davis, Dellinger, and Abernathy. It can be done at any time.

HK: I have been meeting with many members representing peace groups, but what I find is that they have always then rushed right out and given the contents of the meeting to the press. But I like to do this, not only for the enlightenment of the people I talk to but to at least give me a feel of what concerned people think. I would be prepared to meet in principle on a private basis.

AG: That's true. But it is a question of personal delicacy. In dealing with human consciences, it is difficult to set limits.

HK: You can't set limits to human consciences, but -

AG: We can try to come to some kind of understanding.

HK: You can set limits to what you say publicly.

AG: It would be even more funny to do it on television.

HK: What?

AG: It would even more useful if we could do it naked on television.

HK: (Laughter)

I think if I had to spend the rest of whatever on a deserted island with a lefty, I would choose Allen Ginsberg. I know, I know - but then I'd have to listen to Sheryl Crowe talking about the Iraq War.

In keeping with the directive from Betelnut Headquarters to make all posts related in some way to the realm of the Yellow Emperor, I seem to remember reading a book by Annie Dillard about a trip by a group of intellectuals to China, one of the first such visits made posssible in the waning days of the Cultural Revolution. It's been many years since I read it, but I do remember being singularly impressed with the portrait of Ginsberg - gentle, funny,and wise. I don't imagine what they were allowed to see was very representative of the reality of China at the time, but then, seeing anything of China in those days was something special for westerners. And the trip would have been worth it just for the company.


Personally, I think it's all bullshit; I don't think Chen has changed his position one iota. Why was there none of this "he's giving up on independence" outrage when he declared he would not seek independence in 2000? Or again in 2004? Or when he said he wanted to talk to China on the same basis as the 1992 talks?
Those times he was labelled as an insincere trouble maker, and yet he was saying almost exactly the same things as he is now. The media think he's turned from a rabid independence-supporter to a rabid unificationist overnight - when in fact he's been a moderate president all along.
Incidentally, on the split with Lee: remember we're a few days away from an election where the DPP and the TSU are on opposite sides. The TSU (and PFP) are trying to block the constitutional reform that Chen backs, so it's not surprising a few sparks would fly

This from David in the comments section a while back. Basically, from the vantage point of several weeks later - all points conceded. The entire China Fever phenomenon has deflated even more quickly than I could have guessed. Some quick reflections: first, it seems more and more clear that, looking long-term, China and the U.S. will vie for pre-eminence as deep water navies in the region. This does not necessarily mean war - in fact, acknowledging the adversarial nature of the relationship may help avert a war. But Bush had it right that they are "strategic rivals." Second, in this adversarial relationship, the fault line basically bisects the Taiwanese political landscape - that is to say, for all intents and purposes, the pan-Blues are on the other side from the U.S. If the "We are all descendants of the Yellow Emperor" rhetoric didn't make that clear, then the Blues' obstruction of the arms bill indispensible to Taiwan's defense certainly does.

What is interesting - and revealing - is that while two washed up Blue leaders made their tributary(朝貢) journeys, the two politicians vying to succeed them both declined to do so. The results of the National Assembly elections would seem to indicate why this is. The Taiwanese electorate seems to take the idea of maintaining the status quo so much to heart there are times when the U.S. seems positively hoist by its own petard. Before the Legislative elections, Chen seemed to be threatening the status quo, and the voters made an adjustment; this time, it was the Blues. It's sobering for the Greens to contemplate that, but for the botched assassination, they most likely would have been voted out of office last year. On the other hand, let us not forget that much of the Blue platform in the months prior to that election consisted of the Blues trying to co-opt (what Clinton made famous as "triangulation") much of the Green platform. Remember Lien and Soong kneeling and kissing the ground to dramatize their love of Taiwan? We didn't hear a lot about the Yellow Emperor then. It will be interesting to see in the next presidential election if the Blue candidate will be able to get away with the Formosa-kissing shtick, or if people remember the Great China rhetoric that came after the election.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Xia Yi I

I swore I wasn't going to post about this but, here we go -into the gutter! Readers from outside Taiwan will be puzzled, but for those on the island in the habit of watching Taiwan T.V. news, the story of Xia Yi and Ni Ming-jan, the variety show actor who hung himself,has been 24/7 for several weeks, only seeming to lose its legs the last few days. I'm no expert on the details of the story for the perfectly good reason that the personal lives of these people is none of my damn business. It would seem that Ni, twenty years married and with two children not yet grown, was having an affair with a fellow actor, Xia Yi, about thirty. Ni appears to have been suffering the symptoms of bipolar disorder in the months before his death. Xia said he would call his friends and have long conversations, repeating the same things over and over again. He was in danger of losing crucial jobs, even as his financial situation eroded. When he started the affair with Xia, his wife moved to America, but then Xia had had enough of him and moved to Japan and wanted to end the relationship. Ni disappeared for two weeks, then killed himself. That's as clear as I can make it out.

The friends of Ni - a good slice of the variety show celebrity stable - have since risen as one and accused Xia of essentially being responsible for Ni's suicide. It seems it is Xia who left Ni's wife a widow and his children orphans. Who else? Certainly not the sainted dead –The Clown Who Brought Laughter To Others While His Own Heart Was Breaking. Ugh! There are various sub-plots, including a dispute about whether Xia Yi should have the copyright to a play the two worked on together, but this is the essence of the story that has sent Taiwan's media into paroxysms of ecstasy.

Xia Yi didn't exactly help things by getting on a plane and flying right into the eye of the typhoon the minute the funeral services concluded. This set the scene for a classic Taoyuan airport scrum that made the reception given to Elton ("Vile Pigs! You're all animals!") John look tame by comparison. A press conference followed in which Xia stood holding a microphone for several minutes while the camera people jockeyed for position, interrupting her repeatedly by roundly cursing each other in gangster Taiwanese. Xia tried to explain herself point -by -point, but in the subsequent twenty-four hours the verdict from the Friends of Ni was emphatic. Murderer. Harlot. Tramp. “I'll never set foot on a stage with her again!”That sort of thing.

Xia Yi II

Thus, universally vilified, Xia Yi was compelled to hold another press conference in the presence of all her accusers. In a scene of ritual humiliation resonant of Cultural Revolution self-criticism sessions, Xia Yi for the first time conceded that she had, in fact, been romantically linked to Ni. She also, if I am not mistaken, handed over rights to the play to Ni's family. Newsreaders, in the manner of reporters counting the ovations given during a State of the Union address, kept count of the times she broke into uncontrollable sobbing and couldn't continue (was it nine times or eleven?). She apologized to Ni's wife, to his children, to the friends of the actor who had said such terrible things about her for weeks and now sat by in stony-faced vindication. In an apotheosis of the excruciating, she even apologized abjectly to the assembled media for her outrageous behavior at the airport (apparently lacking the athletic skill of Robbie Williams, who sprinted through the terminal, Xia Yi had had her way physically impeded and had yelled at them and called for the police). Now we know what hyenas look like when they're being apologized to.

The lack of any admirable party in all this is part of my initial disinclination to write about it. But then, that's not exactly true: through the entire affair, Ni's wife declined every invitation to excoriate Xia Yi, then immediately after the funeral, she boarded a plane for America. Think about that –hundreds of microphones craning her way and she declines to speak; scores of cameras trained on her and she gets on a plane and just leaves! But then, she alone among the principals is not Show People. When I'd get to thinking that I was being too hard on the variety show celebs, I'd think of Ni's wife and be reminded that, no, regular people with any sense of decency or dignity don't, in fact, behave this way.

About twenty years ago, this group of variety show actors and actresses had their start in a vaudeville-like circuit that basically pre-dated T.V., or at least cable T.V. Here in Taichung, in the neighborhood around the intersection of Zi You and Gong Yuan Roads, there were venues ("Show-場") where there were live shows ("做 Show") where most of these people got started. You can still see the signs, and the places themselves, all boarded up, because the neighborhood has pretty much gone to seed since. When T.V. came in, there were only three channels, so most of the actors were out of luck, but the top echelon of performers made the transition and did quite well for themselves. Ni Ming-jan was one of these. Ten years ago, I can myself remember that these variety shows were all the rage. Since then, various game shows and the like, tailored specifically for the medium, have gradually edged them out, especially with younger viewers, but people still have a nostalgic attachment to the aging group of performers from the variety shows.

Xia Yi III

Basically, I think this is the way a certain type of person mourns:“Ah, Davie, he was a good boy! A living saint, he was, and he never did anyone a bit of harm in his life." (Okay, I have Irish relatives - but the phenomenon is not unique to Irish funerals, I don't think). And, of course, if Davie was a blameless saint, then someone must be responsible for his death. Call it the Recriminatory School of Mourning:“You killed our Davie!" And it's hard to put a check on this sort of thing without appearing to be disrespectful to the dead, so it just snowballs. What I'd like to say is that if a fifty year-old man leaves his wife, if his finances are a wreck, if he hangs himself–well, he may have been a good man with many sterling qualities, but absolutely no one but himself is responsible for the end he came to. As to the dispute about publishing rights, isn't that what courts of law are for? Since when are legal disputes about publishing rights adjudicated in press conferences, with the deceased friends as jurors? But since the Taiwan's press seems to have unlimited access to airports, police stations, hospitals and courts, maybe they've convinced themselves they're pilots, cops, doctors and judges. Nobody seems inclined to disabuse them.

Not to muddy up one of my personal idols with being mentioned in the same breath with a group I consider to be of somewhat dubious talent, but I keep thinking of the story of Woody Guthrie when I read about this. As in the case of Ni, Woody's behavior became progressively unpredictable and erratic over time, so that even people who loved him deeply, like his wife, moved away from him. And as with Ni, Woody's problem was essentially neurological- Huntington's Corea in Woody's case, and (apparently) bi-polar disorder in Ni's. Woody, like Ni, ran to the arms of a younger woman who had no idea that he was mentally deteriorating because of a medical condition. In both cases, the younger woman was initially flattered by the attention from a "legend", only to find out the truth the hard way. In either case, blaming the "other" woman for the demise of the entertainer just strikes me as ludicrous.

Xia Yi has several strikes against her among the Friends of Ni: she's one of the very few younger talents in a circle of graying, fading performers; she is a woman, and for some reason in Taiwan, when a single woman has an affair with a married man the greatest weight of recrimination seems to fall on the woman rather than on the man. (Who can forget the case of Chu Mei Feng, the Taipei City Councilwoman who divorced the Mayor of Hsinchu? Later, she was secretly taped, in her own home, having sex with a married man. CDs were made of the tryst and copies inserted into a magazine for mass distribution. She was subsequently forced to leave the island in disgrace. Her humiliation was justified by many on the grounds that she had an affair with a married man, but the man's dignity received barely a scratch. People even complimented him for being such a stud on the tape); also, she is a mainlander, from Shanghai, while Ni was a native son. What has descended on Xia is a kind of inverse "This Is Your Life", in which every single person who had contact with her is now compelled to come forward with a story casting Xia in a bad light. The day after the Cultural Revolution self-criticism press conference, it was Bai Bing Bing, who helpfully recalled that when Xia was her understudy she had always been polite and respectful, but when she started to get choice parts she became proud and haughty. I don't suppose those were choice parts that the way-past-her-prime Bai felt an entitlement to, by any chance? My own feeling is that submerged deep in the human id is an atavistic instinct to attack the member of the herd who's perceived as being vulnerable and wounded. Lately, in Taiwan entertainment circles, the instinct hasn't been nearly as submerged as it ought to be.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Lonely Philologist

For S.H. Chang, a Yiddish philologist at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, "doing what nobody has done" and "doing what others would rather not" are her lifelong mottoes. Chang, known as one of the very few Yiddish philologists in all of the world's Chinese communities, said in an interview with CNA yesterday that being a lonely student of Jewish languages, particularly Yiddish - "the language of exiles" - is no hardship at all so long as "you are keen to learn."

Good for her. People like that reassure me there's hope for civilization. Given the opportunity to have dinner with S.H. Chang or Jackie Chan I wouldn't even need a minute to think it over.

What Did You Say Your Name Was?

"Popular movie star Jackie Chan has decided to stay away from Taiwan for four years to avoid protests over remarks he made calling the island's presidential election in 2004 a big joke, Taiwan media reported yesterday".

Jackie Chan says he's staying away because he wants to avoid a scene at the airport, but the four year time frame is a dead give-away. After all, if people are going to throw eggs at him three years from now they're probably going to throw eggs in five years. He's staying away to protest his side losing the election, which is why he's staying away for four years. Like most people who regarded the election as a "joke", the last year has not been kind to Jackie. The allegation made was that the attempted assassination was an inside job engineered by the DPP to garner a sympathy vote. International forensics experts since have determined that, far from being a faked injury, the president's wound was caused by a shot fired from outside the vehicle. Moreover, a shot ricocheted at a completely unpredictable angle before hitting the president. The likely shooter, who seems to have commited suicide, was an ardent pan-blue supporter. More and more, it looks like people like Jackie Chan who are a joke.

Taiwanese should tell Chan: "Please, don't stop at depriving us of the Celestial Presence for only four years. Could we work a deal for ten? What we are putting together here is the first democracy with a Chinese cultural base in the history of the world. This is not of colossal importance because of the number of people involved - necessarily, it involves a rather small minority among Chinese people in the world. It certainly doesn't require the endorsement of prominent Chinese actors. What is happening here is important because of the power of the idea, not the power of, or the number of, the people doing it. You say it's a joke, but you understand that it's true on some level. Otherwise, why would the leaders of 1.3 billion people be so exercised over the democracy project of 23 million Taiwanese. The idea is powerful because it self evidently works in bringing happiness and prosperity to people. And we don't need you to make it happen."

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Welcome Back, John

Yes, I know, I disappeared for a week. I've been fighting an unsuccessful battle with a singularly diabolical flu bug that's taken over my life. I'm still not all the way back, but I'm getting there.

Is Wang Chien Ming doing great, or what? The way he pitches reminds me most of Greg Maddux: Not blowing anybody away with speed - keep it low, in and out painting the corners, giving up some hits because he's throwing strikes, but not walks or homers. For him to be pitching as well as he has in New York, with that pressure, is pretty impressive.

During my long days in bed, I had a chance to do some reading and thinking. I break my fast with a longish essay below.

Nation of Rebels I

The classic counterculture critique of consumer society posits not only that the mass of people must be socialized to be cogs in a machine for the production of goods, but also as consumers for the purchase of those goods. This interpretation has largely dictated the countercultural response to the mass market even as the counterculture has risen to ascendancy in the culture as a whole. From Beats to Hippies, Punk to Grunge, the answer to this mass consumer conformist society has been non-conformism in style, and in the purchasing of goods. Departing from the herd and making a wild, non-mainstream gesture not only serves to fully realize oneself, we're told, it also serves as a protest against the machine that, repeated often enough, threatens to rock the machine (and the machine people) to its foundation.

Two Canadian professors, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, have written a book, "Nation of Rebels", that offers a tightly reasoned and well-researched argument that explains why after forty years of cultural success, the counterculture has failed to show the slightest evidence of undermining mass consumer culture. In fact, the values of the counterculture, they argue, have abetted the growth of the consumer culture, which would explain why the last few decades have simultaneously witnessed the explosion of counterculture values and the mass marketplace.

"The critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for the past forty years.... It is rebellion, not conformity, that has for decades been the driving force of the marketplace."

The authors point out that studies have indeed shown there to be a correlation between wealth and happiness. People in rich countries are happier, in general, than people in poor countries. But this has only been found to be true up to a certain level of development, after which there is a leveling off. "The rule of thumb among economists who study the subject is that once GDP reaches about U.S. $10,000 per capita, further economic growth generates no gains in average happiness." Up to this point of development, gains in wealth generally are put toward addressing deficiencies in basics such as food, hygiene, shelter and clothing. After that, something else is going on:

"We constantly hear about how, as a society, we can no longer 'afford' health care or public education. But if we can't afford them now, how could we afford them thirty years ago, when the country produced only half as much wealth? Where did all the money go? The answer to this question is, in fact, quite straightforward: the money is being spent on private consumption goods. Yet, if this pattern of expenditure is not making us happier, why are we doing it?"

Nation of Rebels II

When people first begin to be able to take care of essential needs, they do indeed behave like conformist consumers. This is because cookie-cutter goods are the cheapest. Levitt houses built after the Second World War represented the first houses most of their owners had ever had a dream of purchasing. They may have been little boxes made of ticky-tacky, as the song goes, but they were affordable. The first mass-produced cars had no accessories either. But far from being conformist consumers, people who live in societies, like America, that are well past the subsistence stage of development, buy things that will confer distinction upon them. "Most people spend money not on things that help them fit in, but on things that allow them to stand out from the crowd. They spend their money on things that offer distinction. People buy what makes them feel superior."

About twenty years ago, I went through a phase of reading in the field of economics, a phase never likely to be repeated in this lifetime. The name Thorstein Veblin sticks in my mind not only because he was affiliated with the University of Chicago. Veblin became something of a hero to me upon my reading that, a bachelor, he would collect his dirty dishes in the bathtub until he had an enormous pile, then hose them all down in a single high energy session, in keeping with the theory of economies of scale. But that is not why he is a hero to the authors. There are other reasons to venerate him, it seems.

"First, it is worth noting that in developing countries, economic growth does an awful lot to promote overall happiness. It is only once a society has become quite wealthy that growth no longer delivers increased happiness. Second, there is still a fairly strong correlation between relative wealth and happiness, even in very rich societies.... In Veblen's view, the fundamental problem with the consumer society is not that our needs are artificial, but that the goods produced are valued less for their intrinsic properties than for their role as markers of relative success.... The problem is that while an increase in 'material' goods can generate increased happiness for everyone, status is an intrinsically zero-sum game. In order for one person to win, someone else must lose." After a certain point, that is, having stuff that your grandfather couldn't imagine having does not make you happier. Only having stuff your contemporaries don't have does the trick.

Nation of Rebels III

At this point, the authors introduce the idea of "positional goods." The house you buy in a fashionable downtown neighborhood may cost you $400,000 whereas the same house out in the country sells for $50,000. Most of what you pay for, then, is not for the materials that go into making the house, but the advantages –the convenience, and prestige –of living downtown. But not everybody can live downtown. "Living downtown" is a prestige position that by definition is only available to some. Ideas like "coolness" and "good taste" are also positional goods. If you get in on the ground floor of a phenomenon like microbrewed beers, you are part of a small, select circle of coolness. But as more and more people want to gain membership to that elite club, the cachet of being in the club gets diluted. Suddenly microbrews are in every grocery store and, while the brew may still taste good, the social distinction is largely lost and it becomes necessary to find a new source of distinction. This sense of being part of a select elite of cool is largely what the business of advertising is selling you on. The counterculture taught you that by wanting to be distinctive –a radical, cutting-edge individualist–you were undermining the system that wanted you to be a faceless cog. In fact, it is largely this restless need to be distinctive that feeds the monster.

An interesting example adduced by Heath and Potter is men's shirts. The archetypal pre- counterculture shirt was the standard white oxford button -down worn by armies of 1950's businessmen - a virtual uniform of conformity. Many men in the 50's only owned two shirts that they wore for the whole week, which was why they wore undershirts. By the 70's, nobody could wear the same shirt two days in a row without being outed. Everybody had to express that they were liberated from being a cog by wearing shirts with colorful prints. But those shirts cost more, and the more distinctive they are the more they cost. And you'd better have a full set in your closet for at least a week to avoid being looked down on. The effect of the sixties has not been to undermine the consumer society with an attack of distinctiveness and individuality. Precisely the opposite has happened.

This is why so many of the spin-offs from the counterculture revolution are on the high end of the price/ quality spectrum. Organic food may be especially good for you, and it certainly makes you feel special when you buy it, but it costs more than the mass produced stuff in the rest of the market. Fresh baked bread tastes better and has more crunchy cred than the mass produced stuff, but it will cost you. Here's a description of the coffee revolution brought about by the revolution, from "The Devil's Cup", by Stewart Lee Allen: "It is probably best understood as part of the 60's rebellion against overprocessed food. Think whole wheat bread equals whole bean coffee. So it's no surprise that the specialty coffee movement was born in the counterculture capital of Berkeley, California, when a gentleman named Alfred Peet opened Peet's Tea and Coffee. They specialized in fresh dark roast coffee and were so successful that his partners soon opened their own places, like Boston's Coffee Connection, Florida's Barney's, and, of course, Seattle's Starbuck's.” Tastes better than my mother's Maxwell House? Yes. More expensive, too. And once you get used to it, it's very difficult to go back. What it's not is a blow to consumer culture.

Nation of Rebels IV

How to relate all of this to my own life, and my decision to live in Taiwan? First, let's acknowledge, this is not a book about "them". A blue- state, tail-end-of-the-babyboom, counterculture-influenced consumer would peg me pretty well. I see plenty of myself in the behavior diagnosed in this book –from an original intention to live a simple, non-materialist lifestyle to an adult life in which, shall we say, money management is not exactly a strong point. A positive spin on this is that I have tastes that are more sophisticated than my parents.“Indian food!,”my mother marvels."You didn't learn about that in my home!" An invidious take would point out that, though I earn less than my parents, my consumption habits –whether in clothes, food, travel, music, whatever –reflect a disinclination to settle for the weekend by the lake when I could be trekking in Nepal. To my amazement, this turns out to be rather more expensive.

Another interesting angle from which to reflect on this book is the blue state/ red state divide. It's a source of deep satisfaction and vindication for blue –staters to point out that the blues on aggregate earn more than the reds. Moreover,while the blues contribute more in taxes, the reds receive more from the federal government. The flip side of this coin is that, consistent with the thesis of "Nation of Rebels", the children of the counterculture are more, not less, implicated in the cycle of earn and spend. I've often reflected that, if I were to return to the states, I would prefer to live in the south or west, albeit within driving distance of a blue oasis like Boulder or Austin. "Nation" clarifies for me that this is not illogical –it really is the case that the "positional goods" race to the bottom is farther along in blue states, and this is because of, not in spite of, the 60's "movement" legacy.

And moving to Taiwan? It's surely no coincidence that I've chosen to live in a country with low, red-state-like tax rates, but which still manages to adequately subsidize fundamental "social contract" sectors like health care and public education. Taiwan's GDP ($25,000 per capita) is exactly at the mid-point between the U.S.($40,000 per capita) and the figure cited as the transition from a subsistence to a "positional goods" economy –not a bad place to be. Of course, the very decision to live as a foreigner in a (mostly) ethnically monochrome place like Taiwan is symptomatic of the need to be "distinctive" the authors diagnose. When I spent my first six months here thirteen years ago, a running joke was "Get out of my Asian experience, whitey!" upon seeing a foreign face once a week or so. Of course, we also said that what we loved about Taiwan was that it didn't have the cloying "self-consciousness" of America. We wanted to be distinctive, that is, but we didn't want to live in a society where everybody else wanted to be distinctive. At some level of self-awareness, we knew where that ended up.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Chen Planning A Move?

"Within the DPP, I don't think there's any more room to go," said Hsiao Bi-khim, a Democratic Progressive legislator from Taipei. "The party at large is not willing to compromise as President Chen is personally. He wants to make a legacy, but he is operating under very, very constrained and difficult circumstances." (I'm pretty sure the Post reporter got it wrong - she's from Tainan. JD)

Analysts and party leaders say Chen's shift reflects his calculation that independence is a lost cause. Taiwanese increasingly eschew the idea of confrontation with China, and the Bush administration has chastised Chen for provoking the Beijing government, raising doubts about whether the United States would come to the island's aid in a war. That leaves Chen with only one way of securing a significant place in history: reaching out to China.

Very interesting things are going on these days, but it's not at all easy to know what to make of it all. Until very recently, I didn't put much credence in the Chen as Nixon goes to China idea. It seemed to me China put on a big public relations show without much substance, so Chen would make an empty counter - gesture of magninimity. This article, though, makes it seem quite credible that Chen is about to do something big, and substantive. I also suspected the friction between Chen and Lee might be a bit of a show, but it begins to appear there is a genuine rift between the two. The idea that Chen would speak so openly about his resentments toward Lee dovetails with the theory that he is planning a major demarche that would alienate Lee anyway. Talks? On what terms? Probably some kind of semantical formulation that would allow each side to give its own interpretation. It's hard to believe Chen would budge on the issue of Taiwan's sovereignty.

Missing Link

Here is the link to the story I was responding to below, which I forgot to include.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Long Gone Green I

One thing that defines adolescent thought is the double-hitch pattern of, first, an epiphany in which it is revealed that the world is not as pure as one originally thought; followed by, two, unbridled indignation that this should be so and a radical, no compromises plan of action to restore the world to its proper, pure state. An opinion column in Saturday's Taipei Times by Michelle Wang exemplifies the limitations of this kind of thinking. She's identified as the deputy secretary-general of the far green Northern Taiwan Society, but if she's a day over sixteen, we're looking at a serious case of arrested development.

Chapter XIII: In Which Ms. Wong Discovers the Limitations of Freedom.

“We do enjoy freedom of communication, speech, publication, traveling and relocation, but we do not have the freedom to choose what we really want. Although we can cast our ballots to pick our national leader, legislators, and councilors, we cannot choose to write a Constitution of our own, decide the future of the nation through referendums or change the national title…..I really doubt if we have 100% freedom.”

Okay. Fair enough. Taiwan is a small country trying to carve out a place in the world in the face of an expansionist, authoritarian China, so its freedom to act is circumscribed by that reality. Right? Well, not exactly. It seems there is another culprit denying Taiwan "100% freedom". You guessed it:“Although the U.S. champions the causes of democracy, freedom and human rights, Washington has never given up its desire to direct Taiwan's future. Their logic is that the fate of Taiwan must be decided by the U.S. and that Taiwan has to follow Washington, D.C. In other words, the extent of freedom that the Taiwanese people are allowed to enjoy must be dictated by the U.S.”

Is it the policy of the Taipei Times to have fifteen year olds write op-ed columns? Let's be clear: if the U.S. did not provide a counterweight to China, Taiwan would today be a part of the PRC. Game over. No more Taiwan independence/democracy movement. Because certain actions taken by pro-independence advocates could drag the U.S. into a catastrophic war with China, the U.S. gets a significant say in whether those actions are taken. The U.S. does not "dictate" that this is so. It only gets a say because Taiwanese voters, wisely, take the U.S. position into account.
Prior to the legislative elections, A-bian was pushing policies that the U.S. felt were crossing some red lines clearly drawn by the Chinese, and the U.S. expressed its disapproval. This, then, became part of the mix in the pre-election debate. This is what the Taipei Times has been referring to recently in editorials as "the State Department's last-minute intervention in last December's elections." Freedom does not really mean what tenth-graders think it means. It does not mean "I can do what I want without consequences, or taking the position of others into account." Freedom means "I make my choices in a complicated, fallen world, and take responsibility for those choices." Taiwan has the freedom to isolate itself internationally. Some of the polities Ms. Wang most admires –Cuba; the Palestinian Authority – have taken stances that were ideologically or emotionally satisfying "pure", and brought the house down on their heads. Ms. Wang sees them as positive models, but Taiwan voters don't.

Far Gone Green II

Chapter XIV, in which Ms. Wang eats the apple, the scales fall from her eyes, and she discovers that pursuing their national interest is often a large component of a nation's foreign policy.

“We are all aware that for Washington, its attempt to protect Taiwan is driven not by the country's achievements in democratization and freedom but by the strategic values that Taiwan represents in the Asia-Pacific, by the interests it enjoys and the leading role it plays in the region.....In the eyes of politicians in Washington, freedom, democracy and human rights are just beautiful-sounding words.”

I am always amazed at the idea that, because a nation can be shown to be pursuing its interests, it therefore follows that it necessarily couldn't have a "values" component in its foreign policy. Why couldn't it include a balancing of both? The longest- running show in Foggy Bottom is the struggle for pre-eminence between the advocates of realpolitik –seeing nations as pieces on a chessboard– and those who would define American interests as more in line with supporting democracies wherever possible. Has it escaped Ms. Wang's notice that the high-priest of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger, is a full-time, pleated skirts and pom-poms cheerleader for the regime in Beijing? (Sorry for the image). Neo-cons like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz are the most stalwart defenders of Taiwan, but they are also the most despised by the kind of "national liberation" leftists Ms. Wang most identifies with. These (neo-cons) are the people who are tough on the dictatorship in Cuba; who support democratic, small and resource-poor Israel; who (controversially) saw it as in America's interests to expend blood and treasure to try to establish Iraq as a democratic country. Is there a nation in the world that does not pursue its interests? Taiwan should hold out in an isolationist stance until it finds one? This is what Andrew Sullivan has called, referring to the post - 9/11 left, "the combination of bitterness and not thinking."

Far Gone Green III

Chapter XV, in which Ms. Wang realizes that the U.S. is omnipotent and has limitless resources, but perversely declines to use these powers to build good and vanquish evil.

“Dictator Chiang Kai-shek's pro-Washington policy made it deliberately lenient about his atrocities curing the White Terror period.”That's not all: “Why do you (America) call for a war on terror but at the same time allow China, the world's greatest terrorist, to target 720 missiles at Taiwan and use oppressive terrorist tactics against political dissidents and Falun Gong practitioners?” But that's not all:“The strategy of the U.S. has always been two-faced. On the one hand, the U.S. supports regimes (even authoritarian ones) which are obedient to it, while on the other, it raises the banner of righteousness in seeking to obliterate hostile forces that are seeking national liberation.”

America does not have a“two-faced strategy". It has a foreign policy balanced between two poles stressing, respectively, realpolitik and promotion of democracy. "Allow China?" It's hard to see how the U.S. could get China to change these two policies quickly except through war. The U.S. doesn't want a war with China. Martial law era Taiwan? Iraq demonstrates just what a colossal expenditure of money,lives and diplomatic capital is involved in invading a state gone bad and trying to create a democratic culture almost from scratch. What the U.S. did do was make several overtures over the years to General Sun Li-ren about the possibilities for a coup. The time was never right, because Chiang's dictatorship was, in fact, quite efficient. Ultimately, Sun was purged for his contacts with the Americans. What was plausible in the way of change at the time was explored by the Americans and found not to be possible.

The Cold War involved a tilt toward the "pragmatic" in U.S. policy, but ultimately the "containment" strategy did manage to free the occupied peoples of Eastern Europe without a major, nuclear world war. Allying with regimes like Franco's Spain, Pinochet's Chile and Chiang's Taiwan represented a moral compromise, but in fact those regimes have subsequently been able to evolve into prosperous, democratic countries, while Russia, Cuba and Vietnam have not. What's striking about Ms. Wang's vision of how the U.S. should act is how sanguinary it is: War with China? Bring it on! Next week, no doubt, she'll be flying to Paris to wave a Palestinian flag and participate in a Peace March.

Far Gone Green IV

Chapter XVI, in which Ms. Wang discovers that small nations and large nations do not have parity; advocates extreme methods to rectify situation.

“Small nations and large nations do not have parity, and large nations will never pay attention to the goodwill or pleas of small nations….. The Palestinian struggle for statehood and Cuba's revolutionary movement may all have adopted extreme methods, but if this had not been done, would the U.S. have recognized their existence? Would they hear their voice demanding freedom? I really doubt it.”

So what, exactly, are we advocating here? Suicide bombings? A Munich-style terrorist attack at the Olympics? Have these tactics served the Palestinians well? Has it escaped Michelle's notice that China is cozying up to Venezuela and Cuba? China, at present, is not able to refine the oil pumped from Venezuela, but the governments of both countries are aching to rectify that situation. Has it escaped her notice that Venezuela's close ally, Cuba, is also being courted by China? (Raul Castro visited China in April to firm things up). They are allied with each other because they stand on the opposite side of a gaping values divide from the U.S. and Taiwan. Anti-American Europeans of the sort who vociferously criticized the Iraq War, celebrate the Palestinians and turn a tolerant eye toward Cuba –they're on the side of Taiwan's“national liberation movement,”right? Or was that Jacques Chirac leading the charge to sell arms to China?

Of course, this is an opinion column and doesn't represent the position of the Taipei Times, but it is fair to say that this column could not possibly have been printed in either of the other two English language papers. T-Times editorials vacillate between a (usually) pragmatic, A-bian type of Greenishness and the kind of moonbat anti-Americanism found in this column. It was the latter strand that had the Times editorial board dancing on the rooftops two days after the 9-11 attacks in their“Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”editorial. There's a part of them that longs for the day when they can join in rallies in Rome and London:“Free the Palestinians! Support Taiwan independence and democracy! Yeah, Castro! Go, Chavez!”It's not going to happen. Those people are a lot more interested in anti- Americanism than they are in promoting democracy. Taiwanese Greens infatuated with this kind of Western bien-pensant thinking are letting themselves in for an endless round of disillusionments. Fact is, Taiwanese don't have the luxury of deluding themselves about which nation in the world it is that stands up for small, democratic nations in nasty neighborhoods.

Friday, May 06, 2005

China Fever III

"'Chairman Lien should not be too selfish,' said Central Standing Committee member Hou Tsai-feng.
'The KMT cultivated him for several decades. The KMT needs him to be responsible and not think of his own personal considerations.
'The KMT needs you,' she said. "

Some other interesting things are happening, adding to the mix. Lien Chan is allowing himself to be beseeched to continue in the role of KMT Chairman. It seems obvious to me that if he intended to retire gracefully and also planned to make a "personal" trip to China, he would have waitied until August, stepped down, and then made his trip. At what point does Ma Ying-jeou lose patience with this act from Lien? Ma is described as standing by expressionless as Lien was implored to stay on. The China Post article says“Ma,who was besieged by reporters after he left the meeting, said: 'I respect everyone's opinions,' before escaping down a fire exit.” I couldn't help but notice that it was Ma who escorted Soong to the airport for his trip. A potential alliance, or am I thinking too much?

On another front, as if on cue to remind Taiwanese of the difference between sweet words and substance, Taiwanese doctors were barred from participating in the Annual World Health Assembly despite the fact they had been promised seats by the organizers and despite a Chinese commitment to "help" Taiwan join. Of course, the only help Taiwan needs is for China to stop umremittingly opposing Taiwanese entrance to international organizations. "Though Chinese leaders recently claimed that they are willing to help Taiwan enter the international health body, 'On the eve of the Annual World Health Assembly, the question of whether or not they were sincere seems clear at this point,' said Peter Chang, of Taiwan's Department of Health.

Pan - Greens have been having a lot of fun parodying the reception Lien received at a mainland elementary school: (爺爺爺爺 你回來了 你終於回來了!) "Grandpa! Grandpa! You've come back! You've finally come back!" But the difficult fact is that the juxtaposition of Lien being greeting so emotionally in China, juxtaposed with Chen Shui-bian being feted in the Marshall Islands and Fiji, didn't work to the DPP's favor at all. At a DPP rally, much was made of the fact that Lien's name - Chan (戰) - means war: "Oppose War and Protect Taiwan!" Lien says he was given the name in the context of the Japanese invasion of China, to demonstrate his family's defiance of the invaders. At the same rally, VP Lu offered that Lien "has become the spokesman in Taiwan for the Chinese Communist Party." Ouch!

China Fever II

Each of the three“goodwill gestures”by the CCP is likely to run up on the rocks of the mutually contradictory definitions of what this thing here in Taiwan is. In the case of the gift of the pandas, if the gift is a domestic transfer (China's position) it should be no problem, but if it is an international transfer (as Taiwan maintains) it would contravene quite a few existing laws concerning the international transfer of rare and endangered animals. Taiwan is quite concerned about the increased scope for espionage if Chinese were allowed to travel here in large numbers, and the measure might be blocked on those grounds alone. But Taiwan maintains that both the tourism issue and the lowering of tariffs for selected fruits should be dealt with (internationally, essentially) in the WTO. China, of course, wants them handled “domestically.”

But while China Fever is unlikely to lead to any great breakthroughs with China, it is causing earthquakes in the domestic politics of Taiwan. Seeing Lien descending the steps onto the tarmac and being greeted so fulsomely puts one in mind of Anwar Sadat's breakthrough trip to Israel. But,unlike that trip, there's no meat here. The KMT is able to reap the harvest of exciting, historic-feeling imagery, but because they are not in power, they enjoy this imagery with none of the responsibility to deliver something substantive. The truth is, Taiwan Consciousness (台灣認同) is still very much a work in progress. People who have not clarified who they are are not deeply offended by Lien’s putting the welfare of his party before the welfare of Taiwan. A TVBS poll indicated that about 60% of the people interviewed did not feel Lien sold out Taiwan while in China.

A Taipei Times editorial tries to make the case that the unfavorable polls for the DPP are the result of a media still dominated by the KMT:“When has an opinion poll by a Taiwan news outlet ever been accurate? Which poll has not had its results predetermined by political concerns?” Yet, the same paper's Jewel Huang, in her news story, makes the dismal situation clear:“According to the latest poll by the DPP, voter support for the party has slumped by 7 points to about 33%. Support for the KMT, meanwhile, reached about 34%, and increase of 4 points.”The truth is, for the moment, the DPP is genuinely at a bit of a loss about how to deal with all this. They're caught in a pincer movement: legislators from the pro-independence wing are insisting on a meeting with Chen and calling him to account for swinging from his pre-legislative election stance for Name Rectification and Constitutional Reform to his present accomodationalist stance. Meanwhile, while refusing to meet Chen, the CCP is encouraging middle and lower-level members of the DPP to make their own trips to the mainland. It has also not gone unnoted that the lowering of tariffs on agricultural products is a bouquet thrown to farmers in the DPP heartland in the south.

China Fever

“China Fever”(中國熱) has descended on Taiwan, all agree, and my guess is it will have about the same shelf–life as those egg tarts that absolutely everybody had to eat a couple of years ago. What is clear is that Lien and the KMT have made a brilliant tactical move in going to China, but it's largely a triumph in the limited but not to be dismissed area of public relations. It's unlikely there will be much follow-up, because there has been no break-through on the central issue: The CCP insists that the DPP must, as a precondition for talks, renounce the plank in its constitution that calls for independence; Chen, after meeting with James Soong, agreed that he would not declare independence during his remaining term of office in return for the Chinese not using force to take the island. Not enough, China said. China insists that any talks be held under the“one-China”principle; Chen, after his talk with Soong, agreed not to change the present name of the sovereignty – The Republic of China – during this term of office. It was a largely semantical concession, but“Name Rectification”had been very important to the DPP prior to the disappointing Legislative elections. It was also a semantical concession that could be seized to give face to China on the “one – China” issue. Still not enough, said Beijing. Soong is hinting at the possibility of some sort of reinterpretation of terms that could be negotiated during his trip which began yesterday. Mostly, I think it's unlikely to work out because the differences between the two parties (DPP and CCP) are cardinal differences that are not negotiable. Maybe I'm wrong, and a face-saving verbal formulation will be found that would allow talks to start, but that opportunity hasn't been grasped in recent months. Why would it be now?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

International Incident

There's been a bit of international tension in my neighborhood recently, and I am ashamed to report that my own behavior has contributed substantially to the situation. You see, time management and organization have never been particular strong points of mine, and my temper is not always what it ought to be, either. As it happens, a couple of weeks ago, there I was again, sweating like Carlton Heston, late for a class, and trying to load a tape recorder and a large bag of books onto my scooter. Every time I thought I had it all set, the electric cord on the recorder would pop out from the little pocket in the bag where I'd secured it and trail along the ground. This is how it came about that I was to be found cursing profusely with balled fists - I swear I was cursing the cord, and quite clearly addressing myself to it and entirely oblivious to passersby. A very old man was passing by on his bike at that moment, of the sort known to have animated discussions with themselves, and hearing me cursing, started cursing me right back. Now, I know it was the wrong call, and I'm not a bit proud of myself, but I was, in fact, a bit deranged at that moment myself. So I turned and replied with a volley of the most imaginative and colorful invective I could think of. Well, he may have been eighty-five, but there was no quit in this old coot. He didn't exactly stop his bike to curse me back, but since he was going about two miles an hour, he had plenty of time to give me holy bloody hell as he was going by. I think we both felt better at the end of the exchange.

Problem is, I hadn't recognized him as a neighborhood regular (all the old people love me - they do!), but I am now aware that he comes down this street on a rather regular basis. I am now resigned to my fate - every couple of days, he sees me , and I get dressed down thoroughly. I've quite regained my composure, and I just smile and nod to him, but he is not to be appeased. I'm not even sure exactly what language I'm being cursed in, to tell the truth. It may be that he is a mainlander calling me to account for historical injustices perpetrated by my people. (反對八國聯軍殖民主義!) "Resist Eight Nation Alliance Colonialism! Up yours, tape recorder boy!)

I would just like to say publicly to this venerable and terribly misunderstood old gentleman, if he should happen to be a reader of this blog, that I acknowledge my error, and that I have acted in a gravely insulting and inappropriate fashion. As to the unpleasantness regarding the burning and sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace some one hundred and fifty years ago, which I have no doubt you witnessed personally, I can only say on behalf of my nation that what we did was wrong, and it was bad - bad, bad, very bad. How would we like it if you came along and burned down Camp David? We'd be angry, right? Probably cussin' and fightin' angry, right into our spry and vinegary golden years. Let me therefore say, on behalf of the entire abjectly apologetic North American continent, that we will never do it again, and we ask, and will ask forever after, for your forgiveness.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Great Gaming the Coming Years

But to get China looking north to Asia for oil supplies, perhaps we should try to encourage oil pipelines throughPakistan to Iran and through Central Asia to the Caspian Sea region. If China gets oil through this route, paying for a navy with no task other than taking Taiwan may not make as much sense as it did when the navy was needed for oil supply security too. This could suck China into Asia and perhaps make the Europeans nervous enough about the Chinese coming up a new silk road that Europe will feel they need America again as an ally.

The Dignified Rant has an excellent post advocating the commencement of a "Great Game" approach to China. Chinese nationalists, of course, have long accused America of implementing a containment strategy, but, as Brian makes clear,the measures to date have been more defensive than proactive in nature. The centrality of the oil resource is a thread running through all of these considerations. It seems perfectly mad that China would be building a blue-water navy thinking that they would be able to secure the entire oil route from the Middle East, but it appears that is precisely what is going on. Needless to say, the best way to keep that line secure would be to commit to being a good citizen in the international order that is already in place to secure those supplies to countries like Japan and Korea. Only if they were planning attacks on their neighbors would that not be an adequate strategy.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Rambling Reflections

"'He was so poised out there, especially here at the stadium,' Rodriguez said. 'It was a nice lift, and hopefully it can bring some energy here for a while.'
Torre said it was the best start by a rookie for the Yankees since he took over as manager in 1996."

Tainan native Wang Jian Ming turned in a quality start, as the whole world knows by now. This is exciting stuff for people who love both Taiwan and baseball (which covers a lot of people, let me tell you). My fourth grade student, Chris Lin, came in with a large poster of Wang from The Apple Daily. As soon as I saw it, I wanted one. My first impulse, needless to say, was to push him to the floor and take his, 'cause I'm bigger than him, but the latest pedagogical studies frown on that teaching methodology and I always try to stay up to date. So after class I went to seven- eleven (or "seven", as it's known here, for the same general reason that the eustachian tube is referred to as the e-tube by Taiwan ENTs). Strange to say, it turns out you can't get Apple Daily at convenience stores after about two or three in the afternoon. The clerks said it's that way every day. All the other papers are there on the shelves and have remainders at the end of the day, but with Apple, if you don't get it in the morning, you ain't getting it, brutha. I don't know anything about it, but they obviously have a completely different marketing strategy from the other papers. I'm told all the other papers are cheaper to have delivered to your house than to buy in the store, but Apple is cheaper in the store. It's this thick doorstop of a paper, filled with an enormous quantity of some of the best fiction being written on the island, and at ten dollars, it's two thirds the price of the English-language papers. They know how to sell papers, though.

Digressing... The above-mentioned Chris is one of two students in a "group class" I teach six hours a week. We have named the class "The Flying Donkeys." I have decided, after protracted and anguished deliberation, to post the Flying Donkeys Class Song. The lyrics were a collaboration between myself and Chris Lin. The melody is something dredged from deep in my sub-conscious - maybe the Carolina Fight Song - I'm not sure. It goes something like this:

Flying Donkeys you are so good
Crazy but brave
Go Go Go Go
On your journey
Not one is a slave

huzza! huzza! huzza! huzza! huzza!

Onward and upward
Long-eared heroes
Into the clouds of white
Flying Donkeys speak good English
And they never bite!
(repeat first verse)

There it is. Sung every day, at the top of the class, at my students' insistence. They will go far.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Baby Name Wizard

"'Lillie' noted that in practice, the long-and-lacy often turns into the short-and-sassy: 'Melissa gets called Mel, Jessica becomes Jess, Samantha is Sam and Alexandra is Alex. Often these stick enough to become the person's day-to-day name.' 'Melissa' agreed with that point, but added 'I also see a bit of a trend towards using the full versions of names.'
Nicknames can definitely turn a name's style inside out -- there's a world of difference between Gertrude and Trudy. And sure enough, many parents today are rejecting traditional nicknames. (See 'The new formality.') But some parents are taking advantage of the style contrast to let them have it both ways. Alexandra/Alex is sumptuous and boyish. You get two names in one, which part of the name's soaring appeal."

Robert Johanson, East Rift Valley Potentate, and Grand Poobah of Hualien, recommends this site, The Baby Name Wizard. Names gaining rapidly in popularity, apparently, include Aidan, Caleb, Griffin, Mackenzie and Nadia. Names that have seen better days: Betty, Deborah, Pearl and Bill. The creator, Laura Wattenberg, has graphed hundreds of names, charting their relative fortunes over the decades. There's also a cool blog, quoted above.

Gate of Heavenly Peace I

"My students keep asking me, 'What should we do next? What can we accomplish?' I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to butcher the people brazenly? Only when the Square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they really be united. But how can I explain any of this to my fellow students?"
Chai Ling, Tian an men student leader, 1989

Ten years late (always the slow adopter!) I finally had an opportunity to see the Tian an men massacre documentary by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon,“The Gate of Heavenly Peace.” Strange to say, watching the footage of the student leaders evoked feelings similar to when I watched the 1965 Dylan documentary “Don't Look Back.” In that case, I found myself cringing at the posing of 25 year old Joan and Bob, identifying instead with Dylan's indulgent and canny manager Albert Grossman. “Heavenly Peace”evoked similar feelings, except with the fortunes of 1.2 billion people hanging in the balance. What the movie (cross-referenced with Ian Buruma's portraits in “Bad Elements") clearly documents is that these were callow kids in way over their heads. Their age is the chief mitigating factor in a case where they did a lot more damage than good.

The above quotation from self-appointed commander-in-chief Chai Ling is the most incriminating. In a pattern familiar from the French Revolution and countless others, the moderates who wanted to disburse after having achieved a few finite but substantive goals, were always at a disadvantage relative to the radicals with a bloodbath/ uprising/ regime change agenda. Here is Chai Ling, in an interview, by turns going utterly to pieces and fantasizing about being commander-in-chief of a rebellion. Here's Wu'er Kaixi, meeting China's leaders in the midst of a hunger strike, sitting with a sullen adolescent slouch as Li Peng appears far more serious and reasonable. Wu'er, in pajamas, living out a countercultural fantasy, shakes his finger in Li's face and tells him “You just don't get it, do you?” The meeting couldn't have gone better for Li. You can see him turn to the other leaders, as if to say, “You can see how it is. What else can we do?” At one point, several of China's most respected writers and thinkers come to the square to implore the students to take their gains and go home. Wu'er dismisses them: What have they ever done, these intellectuals? We've started a revolution; led a million people in singing the Internationale in Tian an men!.

Gate of Heavenly Peace II

Of course what they had“done”was represented by an accumulation of learning and experience of living, which was precisely what the students so manifestly lacked. Watching the documentary, I kept thinking that the students were struggling with precisely the kinds of issues debated in the Federalist Papers, issues that need to be thought through after a commitment to democracy is made. The movie effectively makes the point that, having created a democracy movement, the students quickly fell into patterns of behavior that reflected the same mistakes made by previous Chinese would-be rulers. It would be surprising if they hadn't. It's not as if they had access to the kinds of information that would have better equipped them for what they were trying to do. The middle-aged intellectuals were able to warn them about the nature of the Chinese state, but still would have been limited in advising them on how to create real democratic structures within their movement.

That's why Taiwan's democracy is so important, and so dangerous for the authoritarians. Taiwan is providing a living civics lesson to a generation of Taiwanese, and potentially, to Chinese as well. Taiwan demonstrates that there is nothing in Chinese culture that is incompatible with democracy – democracy needs to be learned, and adapted to the culture, is all. Democratic countries have only emerged in the last two hundred plus years. It has been an unprecedented, and new, idea everywhere it has been tried, whether in the American colonies, India or Japan. The argument is made that Chinese is a culture that values the interests of the group over the individual, and therefore democracy is inappropriate for Chinese. Japan and Korea, also Asian cultures that emphasize consensus, have already provided eloquent rebuttals to this idea – but for Chinese authoritarians, the example of Taiwan is especially threatening. Chinese authoritarian doctrine is a closed system , and Taiwan breaks the loop: Taiwan is culturally Chinese, therefore it belongs to China; democracy and Chinese culture are congenitally incompatible; therefore, Taiwan cannot be a democracy, and if it is, it must be made to cease being so, by force if necessary. What Taiwan promises is that the next time the Communist leadership has to sit down with Chinese democracy advocates, it won't be a kid posing for an MTV video, but someone like Chen Shui Bian or Hsieh Chang Ting- serious, smart people, sitting up in their chairs and wearing suits - people who have done democracy. That's a long way from 1989.