Culture Wars: Pattern of Desperate Bushes

Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson pushes the envelope in this savage attack on President Bush — both of them. And I have to say, he makes some damned good points.

This is the way that Bushes run for president when they fall behind: They plunge us into culture wars.

It was only when Poppy Bush fell behind Michael Dukakis in the summer of ’88 that he made an issue of Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance. It was only when George W. fell behind John McCain in the winter of 2000 that he went to Bob Jones University to align himself with the old white South.

And now the president has fallen behind John Kerry. Abruptly, it is the season of doctored photos showing Kerry alongside Jane Fonda, of Internet and Murdoch-media rumor campaigns about affairs that never were. Like father, like son; like Atwater, like Rove; no one spreads sewage quite like the Bushes.

But the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage, which our current Bush endorsed on Tuesday, is more than just wedge politics as usual. It would actually create within the Constitution a permanent secondary caste in American life.

It’s an intriguing argument, that the Bushes play on voters’ prejudices and fears in an almost predictable pattern, to lift them up when the polls go down. I was baffled by Bush’s notorious visit to Bob Jones University last time around. It seems a lot clearer now.


China’s leading AIDS activist Gao Yaojie publicly honored

More good news from China on the AIDS front.

Despite being persecuted by local authorities, Dr. Gao Yaojie, 76, is now being honored and recognized for her tireless efforts to campaign for AIDS victims in China. (I wrote about her persecution just a few days ago.)

For the first time, Dr. Gao Yaojie, China’s leading AIDS activist, has been honored by her country and is among 10 recipients of the Touching China award, presented by the national China Central Television (CCTV). The 77 year-old retired gynecologist has spent years helping AIDS victims with her own money. Honored abroad for her dedication, she received the Jonathon Mann Award in 2001. At home, she has been continuously harassed by local authorities who threatened her, tapped her phone, and tried to prevent her from attending AIDS related conferences.
Honoring Dr. Gao may signify a change in the lethargy and deliberate secretiveness which the Chinese Government has been criticized for in its dealing with AIDS in the past. For the first time, China Central Television showed images of the AIDS-striken peasants in primitive village clinics. In December,Vice Premier and Health Minister, Wu Yi, met for a private 3-hour consultation with Dr. Gao who told Ms. Wu that priority must be given to finding adoptive families for the over 2000 children orphaned by the disease, and that the increasing problem of frauds selling fake medicine to AIDS patients must be eradicated.

On February 18th, 76 officials were sent by the Henan provincial government to 38 of the 100 AIDS inflicted villages, to help victims and their families.

After many years of silence and duplicity on this subject, it is a wonderful thing to see some light shining into the tunnel. Many factors have brought about the new relative transparencey, from the SARS disaster to the efforts of AIDS cocktail developer Dr. David Ho to a speech in China by Bill Clinton, who introduced a young man with AIDS to the attendees and the media, putting a human face to an oissue that has been largely dominated by fear and supersition.

Let’s hope the good news continues.

Related post: The indescribable tragedy of AIDS in China



I’ve been consolidating excerpts of reviews and other feedback I’m getting on The Passion as updates to a single post. I’d rather have it all together than spread out in lots of separate posts. If this topic interests you, you may want to see what’s been added since yesterday.


Survey on poverty among Chinese peasants said to rock the nation

It apparently started as magazine article, and it’s now a best-selling book. It’s wonderful that it’s in print, and it sounds like it’s having a devastating effect — hopefully for the good over the long term.

An exposé of the sufferings of the nearly one billion peasant farmers in China has rocketed into the country’s best-seller lists, apparently forcing the regime to address the issue.

Chinese Peasantry: a Survey discloses the poverty and corruption affecting the rural majority of 900 million, whose exploitation underlies the gloss of China’s perceived urban economic miracle.

It describes farmers being beaten to death for complaining about embezzlement, officials conniving to hoodwink Communist Party leaders about production levels, and a tax system which forces the poor in effect to subsidise the rich minority. It helps to explain the exodus of workers from farms to low-paid, often dangerous jobs in the booming coastal provinces or Europe and America.

First published by a literary magazine, the work immediately struck a chord with the public. Many readers said they were in tears throughout.

The article is rich with examples from the survey citing obscene acts of corruption by local cadres, levying whatever tax they choose on local peasants. That’s not surprising. The surprising thing is that this is being published and sold in China, and I am impressed.

According to Chinese-Canadian academic Wenran Jiang, the report has been made available because it is consistent with Hu and Wen’s current populist campaign to reach out to the disenfranchised peasants and display their empathy. The article’s reporter doesn’t say this is extraordinary, but I do. Again, I am impressed — letting this sort of thing go out is risky. The leaders rarely allow such blunt criticism to be publicly spoken, let alone printed and passed around everywhere. Talk about the potential for disharmony and social instability!

Some believe the book and the response to it moved the CCP to recently re-release Central Document 1, a policy statement prepared in 1982 demanding improvement in farm incomes. Wenran Jiang agrees, but says its importance should not be over-emphasized.

“I am convinced that the release of this Central Document is a response to the book,” said Prof Jiang. “The question is, can it solve the problems by calling for increased rural incomes?

“My answer, on reading this book, is ‘no’. The Document will be just like other ones – come the end of the year, the officials will just falsify their figures.”

Sounds a touch cynical to me. I want to believe this signifies something important, perhaps a fundamental shift. But I’ve seen lots of false starts before, so for now I’ll maintain my healthy skepticism until we see more action.


The New York Times reviews The Passion

And it’s not pretty:

“The Passion of the Christ” is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus’ final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it. Mr. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one. It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that is at the same time so utterly lacking in grace.

Mr. Gibson has departed radically from the tone and spirit of earlier American movies about Jesus, which have tended to be palatable (if often extremely long) Sunday school homilies designed to soothe the audience rather than to terrify or inflame it.

His version of the Gospels is harrowingly violent; the final hour of “The Passion of the Christ” essentially consists of a man being beaten, tortured and killed in graphic and lingering detail. Once he is taken into custody, Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is cuffed and kicked and then, much more systematically, flogged, first with stiff canes and then with leather whips tipped with sharp stones and glass shards. By the time the crown of thorns is pounded onto his head and the cross loaded onto his shoulders, he is all but unrecognizable, a mass of flayed and bloody flesh, barely able to stand, moaning and howling in pain.

The audience’s desired response to this spectacle is not revulsion, but something like the cowering, quivering awe manifested by Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalen (Monica Bellucci) and a few sensitive Romans and Jerusalemites as they force themselves to watch. Disgust and awe are not, when you think about it, so far apart, and in Mr. Gibson’s vision one is a route to the other.

By rubbing our faces in the grisly reality of Jesus’ death and fixing our eyes on every welt and gash on his body, this film means to make literal an event that the Gospels often treat with circumspection and that tends to be thought about somewhat abstractly. Look, the movie seems to insist, when we say he died for our sins, this is what we mean.

A viewer, particularly one who accepts the theological import of the story, is thus caught in a sadomasochistic paradox, as are the disciples for whom Jesus, in a flashback that occurs toward the end, promises to lay down his life. The ordinary human response is to wish for the carnage to stop, an impulse that seems lacking in the dissolute Roman soldiers and the self-righteous Pharisees. (More about them shortly.) But without their fathomless cruelty, the story would not reach its necessary end. To halt the execution would thwart divine providence and refuse the gift of redemption.

Anyway, this is a film review, not Sunday school. The paradox of wishing something horrible to stop even as you want it to continue has as much to do with moviegoing as with theology. And Mr. Gibson, either guilelessly or ingeniously, has exploited the popular appetite for terror and gore for what he and his allies see as a higher end. The means, however, are no different from those used by virtuosos of shock cinema like Quentin Tarantino and Gaspar Noé, who subjected Ms. Bellucci to such grievous indignity in “Irréversible.” Mr. Gibson is temperamentally a more stolid, less formally adventurous filmmaker, but he is no less a connoisseur of violence, and it will be amusing to see some of the same scolds who condemned Mr. Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” sing the praises of “The Passion of the Christ.”

I’ll give my own review once I see it. But it sure sounds like the film verges on the lurid (and the inflammatory), which is what I was afraid of.

Update: Lots of other reviews over at metacritic (via commenter Wayne below). The best written of them all is here. I can”t resist offering a sample:

Less reverential than razzle-dazzlin’, more an episode in the history of show business than a religious epiphany, Gibson’s blood-soaked 126-minute account of Jesus Christ’s last hours on earth has been flogged for months with everything from souvenir nine-inch nails and contested papal endorsements to death threats against Frank Rich and bizarre anti-Semitic radio rants by the filmmaker’s 85-year-old father. (Where’s the White House screening?) They do know what they do—the question is, will it do them any good?

The Passion of the Christ opens on a dark and stormy night in what might be a foggy Scottish glen with the Jewish police arriving to arrest Jesus (James Caviezel). His two-fisted, brave-hearted disciples fight back; in an action montage replete with slo-mo and thud-thud, Peter slices off one cop’s ear. Jesus picks it up and reattaches it—a prosthetic miracle that sets the stage for the muscular action and cosmetic wonders to come. Before anything else, The Passion establishes itself in the realm of recent fantasy epics: The Aramaic sounds like bad Elvish, a brief interlude in epicene Herod’s degenerate court suggests a minor detour to the Matrix world, the music is straight out of Gladiator, and much of the movie is haunted by the androgynous, cowled Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) seemingly risen from George Lucas’s cutting room floor.


If yours is a spirituality, as Mel Gibson’s must certainly be, based in the presumption that salvation is only possible after suffering, you might well find something like grace lurking in Mr. Gibson’s dark and bloody spectacle. If not, you’re in for one of the most unremittingly cruel movie experiences this side of the (considerably less pious and certainly more fun) remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

UPDATE: One more review, from the New Yorker. Read the entire thing if you have the stomach to get through it.

Cecil B. De Mille had his version of Jesus’ life, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese had theirs, and Gibson, of course, is free to skip over the incomparable glories of Jesus’ temperament and to devote himself, as he does, to Jesus’ pain and martyrdom in the last twelve hours of his life. As a viewer, I am equally free to say that the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony—and to say so without indulging in “anti-Christian sentiment” (Gibson’s term for what his critics are spreading). For two hours, with only an occasional pause or gentle flashback, we watch, stupefied, as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man (James Caviezel) is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.

UPDATE: My blogger friend in Beijing, Joseph Bosco, has some interesting things to say about the film.

The Passion” IS going to stir unprecedented passion in those who see it. Judging by a lengthy series of scenes from the film just aired by CNN (Asian Edition), it can be said that the film crosses cinematic lines like none other. The graphic, ripping, primal violence inflicted upon flesh, whether believed to be divine flesh or only sublimely human flesh, surpasses anything this author–and WGA (screenwriter’s Guild of America) member–has seen in a commercially released motion picture to date. The historian and writer in me applauds the authenticity of the true barbarity of crucifixion Mr. Gibson has painstakingly rendered in his film.

However, if the scenes, dialogue and commentary aired by CNN are an accurate portrayal of the film’s story, then the same historian and writer parts of me are appalled at the film’s dangerously erroneous assertion that Pilate was blameless and that it was a Jewish mob alone that cried out for the torture and murder of Jesus. That is not only a gross historical inaccuracy, it is shameful anti-semitism. Should such a film or idea be banned or censored? Absolutely not. Should it and its allegedly hateful message be argued against? If true, yes, loudly and passionately.

To see blurbs of nearly every review out there, go here.


The Hong Kong “Patriot” test

The CSM takes a look at the intense and at times surreal steps China is taking to make it perfectly clear who holds the power when it comes to politics in Hong Kong.

Some of the tactics and rhetoric employed by Beijing in its patriotism campaign seem lifted from decades-old scripts. Tuesday’s China Daily ran an article stating that the discussion on defining patriotism is “meaningful” in Hong Kong, and that it “has served as a demon-detector that unveils the hidden agenda of certain politicians.” The day before at a chamber of commerce meeting, a senior Beijing adviser sang “No Communist Party, No New China,” a Mao-era standard.

Some commentary has a threatening edge. A presumably official source in Beijing quoted this week by Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong daily, offered a warning to pro-democracy advocates: “I have a knife, which I don’t usually use. Now it’s you who force me to use this knife.”

Democracy activists in Hong Kong argue that the patriotism campaign is an attempt to confuse, intimidate, and divert attention from what they say is an attempt in Beijing to reinterpret or distort the plain meaningHong Kong’s Basic Law. Two weeks ago, a Hong Kong “task force” visiting Beijing to discuss constitutional reforms was given a frosty reception. Shortly after, officials here leaked word that no direct elections in 2007 were to be allowed.

“This is redolent of the way China conducted business 20 years ago,” argues Margaret Ng, a legal representative of the Hong Kong legislature. “All the speeches of [President Hu Jintao] and [Premier Wen Jiabao] as they travel around the world appear to be liberal and open. Yet we in Hong Kong are now worried.”

That’s an interesting contrast: the populist campaign in the mainland to look caring, and the blatant attempt to repress political opposition in Hong Kong. I hope the leaders understand they can’t have it both ways when it comes to world opinion. If they want to be perceived as caring and concerned, they can’t risk being perceived as tyrants in HK.

The campaign on the mainland may be totally sincere — Wen and Hu may truly be taking the peasants’ plight to heart. But if they keep up the strongman tactics in HK, any good they are doing will quickly be overshadowed, as world opinion tends to focus more on a government’s sins than on its virtues.


Andrew Sullivan: “War is declared”

In an emotional post that has already generated thousands of emails, Andrew Sullivan takes off the kid gloves and says President Bush’s support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage will make gays see the Republican party “as their enemy for generations.”

Those of us who supported this president in 2000, who have backed him whole-heartedly during the war, who have endured scorn from our peers as a result, who trusted that this president was indeed a uniter rather than a divider, now know the truth.

This president wants our families denied civil protection and civil acknowledgment. He wants us stigmatized not just by a law, not just by his inability even to call us by name, not by his minions on the religious right. He wants us stigmatized in the very founding document of America. There can be no more profound attack on a minority in the United States – or on the promise of freedom that America represents. That very tactic is so shocking in its prejudice, so clear in its intent, so extreme in its implications that it leaves people of good will little lee-way.

This president has now made the Republican party an emblem of exclusion and division and intolerance. Gay people will now regard it as their enemy for generations – and rightly so. I knew this was coming, but the way in which it has been delivered and the actual fact of its occurrence is so deeply depressing it is still hard to absorb. But the result is clear, at least for those who care about the Constitution and care about civil rights.

We must oppose this extremism with everything we can muster. We must appeal to the fair-minded center of the country that balks at the hatred and fear that much of the religious right feeds on. We must prevent this graffiti from being written on a document every person in this country should be able to regard as their own…..

This struggle is hard but it is also easy. The president has made it easy. He’s a simple man and he divides the world into friends and foes. He has now made a whole group of Americans – and their families and their friends – his enemy. We have no alternative but to defend ourselves and our families from this attack. And we will.

Please go there and see some of the many, many emails Sullivan is posting. Some are heart-breaking, some are infuriating.

Josh Marshall sees the president’s speech yesterday as a blatant and invidious political move designed to drive a wedge between the parties and scare people into voting for Bush.

The support among conservatives has taken some real hits. The White House has decided that the long-predicted rising economy won’t float them through this election. The situation in Iraq looks wobbly and likely to get worse before it gets better. So deprived of the ability to run on his record he’s decided to save his political hide by trying to tear the country apart over a charged and divisive social issue which is being hashed out through the political process in the states.

It’s his dad and the flag burning amendment all over again. Is there really anything that tells you more about a man’s character than this?

I have never lobbied for gay marriage. I’ve tended to see it as an idea whose time has not yet come; Americans simply aren’t ready for it. But after seeing the pictures of young and old couples waiting for their marriage licenses in San Francisco, after seeing them glowing with pride, and after seeing John Edwards a few nights ago speak out against any constitutional ban on gay marriage –it all gave me a new perspective. Others must have been moved by this, even if they had prior doubts.

Unlike Edwards, Kerry has been his usual no-commitment self on this issue. I think he now has no choice but to endorse and embrace it. Bush has drawn a thick, ugly line in the sand, and Kerry can’t waffle or dillly-dally any more. If he doesn’t show some of John Edwards’ courage, he’ll look weak and pathetic to voters on both sides. (And I can hear the commenters in advance: “Kerry looks weak and pathetic already.” Agreed. Now’s his chance to help turn that around.)

Update: I edited this post when a commenter pointed out that Edwards has not endorsed gay marriage, but instead has spoken out against the proposed constitutional amendment banning it.


Psychedelic Republicans

Too funny.


China gives Hong Kong a song and dance — literally

Another of those news stories that verges on the surreal:

A local member of China’s legislature urged Hong Kong people to become more patriotic and then unexpectedly broke into a song – a revolutionary communist anthem – in an appearance before business leaders.

Critics took aim yesterday at Mr Tsang Hin Chi’s gesture as being out of touch and upsetting to many Hong Kongers.

Mr Tsang, a member of the National People’s Congress and a harsh critic of pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong, was scheduled to give a speech at a business reception on Sunday night but instead went on stage to sing the song ‘No Communist Party, No New China’.

Some commentators voiced doubts yesterday about whether Mr Tsang’s song would have the intended effect of instilling more nationalism among locals.

Doubts? Really? Songs can be very inspiring, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hong Kong now turn sheepish and agree to vote only for “patriots.” One cynical commenter even had the temerity to imply the crooning Communist’s stunt would backfire.

‘Even people in China seldom sing this song,’ said political scientist Joseph Cheng of the City University. ‘I think there will be more resentment among the public. Patriotism is something voluntary. It can’t be forced onto others.’

Obviously he knows nothing of the power of music.


Home stretch

With just two weeks or so to go in Singapore, followed by a short trip to China and then off to America for good, I’m feeling less motivated than usual to post about goings-on in Asia. I’ll try, but I find I’m pre-occupied with what’s going to happen in the weeks ahead. I haven’t been jobless for a very long time, and I haven’t lived in the US since 2000. So I’m feeling a lot of anxiety, and my permanent mid-life crisis is more acute than usual.

The good news is that before I depart, I’ll spend a week in China, during which time I hope to write quite a bit about my parting impressions. So apologies for the recent lack of Asia-focused posts, and I’ll try to make up for it early in March. Stay tuned.