Off to my New Year’s Eve dinner

Happy New Year to everyone who visits this site (and even those who don’t). Thanks for everyone’s contributions, and I hope to see you around in the year ahead.


The Tsunami


The NY Times may have lots of faults, but it’s still the greatest newspaper in the world. By far. I’ve now read countless stories about the tsunami, but this epic and breathtaking article is the best. It may sound insensitive to say at this time, but one day this is going to be a very intense book and movie — the sheer drama of what went on all around the world as the tragedy unfolded is breathtaking. Terrifying, terrible, unbearable, but breathtaking in terms of dramatic intensity.

Of course, while all hell broke loose our president was clearing brush at his Crawford ranch, and took 72 hours to speak out. Our man of action and daring.


Interesting comments on China’s hatred of the Japanese

A post I put up earlier today seems to have generated some of the most emotional comments this blog has seen. A fascinating microcosm of different cultures and perspectives…

I’m drawing attention to this because I put up way more posts than usual today, and it’s very easy for this post ot get buried. Those who come here for links on China will certainly want to read it.


“Thailand has failed its people”

A writer for the New Republic in Bangkok gives an amazing account of how the Thai people are reacting to the horrors of the tsunami, and how the government dropped the ball.

Bangkok may have a skyline to match any city, an über-modern subway, and Savile Row-suited bankers; but facing this disaster, Thailand’s government fails its people, even as individual rescue workers perform superhuman tasks. The Nation, the best Thai newspaper, reports that even after the earthquake off Indonesia, which would trigger the deadly waves, the Bangkok government played down the possibility that a tsunami could hit Thailand, in part because it didn’t want to issue an evacuation order that, if no tsunami came, might have hurt tourism, Thailand’s biggest earner of foreign exchange. Thailand’s national civic defense organization, supposedly designed to handle disasters, suffers from a lack of basic equipment and seems unable to coordinate among relief workers; without enough government-supplied preservative, bodies quickly decompose in the tropical sun, creating a horrific stench. Only after the tsunami does the government issue suggestions on how citizens should act when faced by a killer wave. “Had the officials in charge that morning been working with a clear-cut, well-rehearsed, and properly communicated procedure, a tsunami warning would have been sounded,” notes Nation group editor-in-chief Sutichai Yoon.

Instead, Thais, like people in most developing nations, turn for help not to the state but to those they have always trusted–family members, close friends, religious figures. Thousands of ordinary Thais open their homes to stranded peers and Western tourists, in an enormous display of generosity, and even the normally nasty immigration authorities help visitors whose passports have washed away. Volunteers from the country’s major hospitals jet to the south to help out, and many individuals, Thai companies, and members of the royal family quickly give blood or set up private donation funds to compensate families of the dead. Thai friends–and people in America–barrage me with emails and phone calls to make sure I’m okay. I am. Paradise isn’t.

His descriptions of what’s going on over there is wrenching. Please pardon me for quoting a lengthy snippet, but this is great reporting I want to remember:

At one Thai Airways counter, shell-shocked Western tourists up from southern resort islands like Phuket, where over a thousand visitors have already perished, try to figure out how to get home, given that the only possessions they retain are the torn clothes on their backs. Frantic, screaming European, Japanese, and American diplomats grab passengers arriving off planes from the south like Third World taxi touts, demanding any information about survivors. Nearby, Bangkok Thais who have family in the south stand huddled around televisions, scanning for news about the dead, and wailing–unusual in a country where openly expressing negative emotions is discouraged–at what they hear. Screams of “Ay! Ay!” ring out, and yells of “Na sonsa”–“I’m sorry.” Some older women collapse at the televised sight of whole southern villages washed away and bloated dead bodies piling up on previously squeaky-white sand beaches. The Thai prime minister, a go-getter CEO-type who normally grins constantly, comes on the television; he looks utterly wrecked.

The numbers pile up like a reaper’s pinball machine. Five hundred in Thailand. One thousand. Then 2,000. More. Forty thousand across the region. Then 50,000. Eighty thousand. One-hundred thousand. No one is spared. Thai friends’ relatives are dead. My local fixer’s family members are dead. Nearly everyone on Phi Phi island, a prime resort immortalized by the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach, is dead; only two hotels on the entire island still stand. It seems half of Sri Lanka is dead. The Thai king’s grandson is dead. The former finance minister is dead. Last year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl clings to a tree in the water off western Thailand for eight hours; otherwise, she too would be dead. I wonder, guiltily, whether the daughter of a family friend who’d called me in early December to ask advice on Thailand and whom I assured the Thai beach resorts were safe–from bandits or sex tourists, not from a series of giant waves–is dead.

In the Thai south, the situation is Dantesque. Searching for relatives, dazed survivors wander Thailand’s beaches, where bodies are being stacked. Many worry that aftershocks will return. Pediatric wards reportedly are packed with children wailing for their parents. Thai dentists are rushing to identify the dead from their jaw records before they must be buried in mass graves; whole primary school classes have been washed away together with their teachers. At local hospitals, foreign tourists tearfully receive news of lost loved ones; thousands are still missing in Phang Nga bay, an achingly beautiful region of limestone karsts rising straight out of the warm water like a moonscape and now one of the hardest-hit areas. For some reason, of all the Western travelers, Scandinavians seem to have taken the brunt of the hit–diplomats say this may be the worst disaster ever in Norwegian history. The fragile coral ecosystem that made Thailand famous lies in ruin. Cars and three-wheeled tuk-tuks have been upended and tossed by the waves into bizarre, abstract patterns all over beach towns. A few stiff-upper-lipped vacationers–Brits, probably–reportedly return to the remaining beaches to sunbathe, along with one unshakeable Thai masseuse.

Nearly a week later, and I suspect we still haven’t even begun to fathom the extent of this catastrophe. 911 changed everything for America. This event will change a huge portion of the world for generations, if not forever.


Hitchens on Susan Sontag

Wingnuts are shedding few tears over the death of one of our great thinkers and writers. Michelle Maglalang (Malkin’s real last name)and Charles Johnson spewed forth their predictable populist poison, remembering Sontag only for her unfortunate remarks after the September 11 attacks, when she said American actions had much to do with the calamity. They can scarcely conceal their glee (no, I won’t link to them) as they live up to the Sean Hannity standard of journalism, where you find an incendiary thing someone once said or did and brand them permanently with it so it becomes their whole identity. (Think Willie Horton and Kerry’s “I voted for it before voting against it.”) It’s a Karl Rove tactic that is supremely effective and nearly impossible to counteract; the power of the meme is near-invincible.

Anyway, there is is some hope of balance with Christopher Hitchens’ superb obituary of Sontag, which puts her dumb remarks into perspective and gives her lavish praise as one of the great thinkers of our age.

In what I thought was an astonishing lapse, she attempted to diagnose the assault of Sept. 11, 2001, as the one thing it most obviously was not: “a consequence of specific [sic] American alliances and actions.” Even the word “general” would have been worse in that sentence, but she had to know better. She said that she didn’t read reviews of her work, when she obviously did. It could sometimes be very difficult to tell her anything or to have her admit that there was something she didn’t know or hadn’t read.

But even this insecurity had its affirmative side. If she was sometimes a little permissive, launching a trial balloon only to deflate it later (as with her change of heart on the filmic aesthetic of Leni Riefenstahl) this promiscuity was founded in curiosity and liveliness…She was always trying to do too much and square the circle: to stay up late debating and discussing and have the last word, then get a really early night, then stay up reading, and then make an early start. She adored trying new restaurants and new dishes. She couldn’t stand affectless or bored or cynical people, of any age. She only ventured into full-length fiction when she was almost 60, and then discovered that she had a whole new life. And she resisted the last malady with terrific force and resource, so that to describe her as life-affirming now seems to me suddenly weak. Anyway—death be not proud.

I met Sontag many years ago and she signed my copy of her book On Photography with a very warm, personal note. I loved the way she wrote, I loved the way she bravely faced her lifelong battle with cancer, I loved her ability to cut through the crap and to present time-worn topics with a wholly original and often brilliant perspective. She was sometimes too critical of the US, a bit far to the left, but that’s a very tiny speck, a crumb of what she stood for. But of course, Johnson and Maglalang and their wingnut friends see only treachery and evil. It’s their loss.

Update: For a good example of wingnut loathing of Sontag, go here.


Geezer Power to the Rescue

Great news — the AARP is going head to head with Bush’s inane, insane plan to “privatize” Social Security. They don’t call this “the third rail of politics” for nothing, and Bush is about to get electrocuted. Once geezers get mobilized, there’s no easy way to fight them, and those who try usually do so at the risk of ruining their political careers.


It may not seem like much….

But I just gave what I could to the Red Cross to help the victims of this week’s tragedy in South Asia. I gave through Amazon and want to encourage everyone to give whatever they can. Talk is great, but these people need help that only money can buy.


Another great photo series…

…from my favorite Asian blog. This one depicts life in an impoverished rural village in China.

And while you’re at ESWN, be sure to see this story, which I meant to blog about last week but was just too busy. It’s absolutely a must-read.


Jerome Keating on “the dark side” of Confucianism and Legalism

Here’s another essay on China, this one focusing on Confucianism and what it has wrought [pdf file]. I agree with its fundamental premise, i.e., that China is still reeling from the negative aspects of its Confucist and Legalist mindsets, which are inherently unjust and unhealthy. Unfortunately, their influence is still going strong in the China of the 21st century, where power and hierarchy matter above all else.


Blind rage

We all know about the near-uncontrollable hatred today’s young Chinese harbor against Japan, but I didn’t quite grasp the scale until I read this intriguing article.

The explosive growth of the web in China, where the number of users is growing by more than 25% a year, is often cited by advocates of political reform as a source of hope for greater openness in the world’s last big communist state.

But there is increasing evidence that the opposite may be true. Sites advocating democracy, religious freedom or union rights are closed down by the authorities and their operators often arrested. But there are countless sites like Mr Song’s devoted to one of the few political passions permitted by the government: hatred for Japan.

Every day on the “My View of Japan” bulletin board, Mr Song and his contributors post reports of perceived slights by their neighbours, who are referred to at least once as “shitty little Japanese”. Many predict that military conflict is inevitable, and some wish it would come sooner rather than later. “I’m 30 and a fire burns in my heart,” writes one contributor. “Only war can extinguish these flames.”

While hate-mongering is a feature of extremist internet chatrooms around the world, in China such inflammatory comments appear to represent anything but a small minority. In the past two years, small anti-Japanese protests have mushroomed into nationwide campaigns through the internet and mobile phone text messages.

The article focuses on one prosperous young man in Beijing who seems to have it all, and yet is a burning pillar of rage and fury, obsessed with Japan’s refusal to acknowledge and take responsibility for its monstrous crimes against the Chinese people in World War II. I can understand the anger, but I have to admit I can’t understand the obsession, where one’s entire life is focused on and consumed by the events of 65 years ago. Read the article to see just how all-consuming this hatred can be.

Thanks to the reader who alerted me to this.