What the hell happened?

May 22, 2010

The Sand Pebbles is a three-hour epic of American gunboat diplomacy in China in 1926.  It was released in 1966, and in those days, long films had intermissions, with music!  I saw it about that time.  Memory is a funny thing that amazes me always – I am dumbfounded at how much of the movie I recalled from my boyhood viewing of it.

The hapless ship, San Pablo, is captained by Richard Crenna, a Navy man who feels he’s come down in the world, or been forced down, by being given command of this much derided gunboat.  Still, he’s a spit-and-polish guy, who makes the American presence known by flying the flag and leaving a trail of smoke wherever orders send him, no matter the reason.

Steve McQueen, as Jake Holman, does his tough but sensitive loner thing as the ship’s engineer.  He just wants to be left alone with his machines, and he don’t care about nothing else.  The Japanese-American actor, Mako, plays the coolie whom he trains to be his assistant once he realizes the guy has mechanical aptitude.  Jake is no thinker, but he takes people as they are, without preconceptions.

I remember Mako’s frequent turns in the movies and on TV, often as a crazy Japanese officer, or Asian thug.  Another flash of memory brings him to mind as one of the two antagonists in The Challenge, an awful TV movie from 1970 that struck me as absurd even at my then young age.  The story is that to avoid nuclear war, the USA and an unnamed Asian power agree to settle their conflict by each supplying a champion to fight it out, to the death, on a tropical island.  Mako supplies comic relief, intentionally?, by shouting taunts to the American, whom he calls “Joe.”  “My name’s not Joe!” shouts Darrin McGavin.  “All American’s Joe to me, Joe!” returns Mako.  I love that line.  As one reviewer noted, the director protected his reputation by using a pseudonym, but Mako and Darrin didn’t have that option.

Mako doesn’t fare well in this film – caught onshore when an anti-foreigner riot starts, he is strung up and tortured as a running dog serving the American foreign devils.  Holman and the men watch from the safety of their boat, ordered to hold their fire by the captain who is strictly forbidden to avoid all incidents – it would be propaganda fodder for the Bolsheviks – as the man pleads to be put out of his misery with a rifle shot.  His mentor, Holman, obliges, and kills him with a shot, then throws his rifle into the sea in disgust.

Sick of the military, disgusted by American policy, by Chinese Nationalist propaganda, by the riots, by racism on all sides, Jake just wants to be left alone.  Nevertheless, he forms a bond with a young American teacher serving with an idealist missionary, an old “China hand.”  Played by Candice Bergen at 19 years old, she senses his basic decency and intelligence.   Perhaps there is something to live…and die for?

When the crew nearly mutinees, the captain is despondent, and contemplates suicide.  News of widespread uprisings saves him by giving him the opportunity to redeem himself and his crew in a daring and unauthorized “last thrust into the heart of China,” to rescue the teacher and the missionary.  The missionary isn’t interested in being rescued; he’s renounced all nationality with a letter to Geneva, and wants to stay on, convinced he will not be harmed, or treated like an American foreign devil.  He understands a lot about China, but not much about political revolt.  The troops shoot him down as he waves his letter at them like a white flag.

The captain rises to the occasion of the incident he has pursued, and acts bravely and heroically.  Jake stays behind to delay the pursuers while the remaining American shore party rush back to ship with the young woman.  He knows he might not make it, but there’s that girl to protect…  You almost think he’s going to make it, running for that back gateway out, but he’s shot.  As he sits with a bullet in his chest, he wheezes, “I was almost home…” Then he shouts, “What the hell happened!”  and is shot dead.  It’s almost…existential.  Far better than the “There is nothing..!.” as Joe dies in The Wages of Fear.

When I told my sister that I had just seen the film, she asked if McQueen was in it.  I said he was, and that he was shot in the end.  “He always dies in the end of his movies,” she said.  Did he? 

Some reviewers see the film as the beginning of the anti-American Vietnam War era genre of war film.   Perhaps so, but if it had a political axe to grind, it was not overt:  its focus is on the characters, and how they deal with their situations, created by an era of brutal conflict.  Sort of Sound of Music (same director), without the music.

Steve McQueen is one of the oddest male stars I know.  He famously remarked that he wasn’t sure acting was a proper career for a grown man, and he never seems like he’s quite comfortable with where he is – as if he just stepped into the scene…like a real person.


Mao & Political purges: theory and practice

May 19, 2010

The Long March is over, but I am only half through Phillip Short’s engrossing biography of Mao Zedong.  To escape encirclement by Chiang kai-shek’s GDP armies, vastly outnumbering the communists, Mao led the Red forces on a trek thousands of miles long to the northern desert wastes where they were able to establish a base and rebuild their strength.  The march was an incredible feat of stamina, daring, brilliant strategy, and a bit of luck.  It was in their secure retreat at the end of it that Edgar Snow interviewed Mao for his book, Red Star Over China.

As I try to fathom the last member of the the 20th century’s triple crown of evil, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, I am struck by Mao’s differences from Stalin as portrayed respectively by Short and Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin).  Mao was not a paranoid mental case as Stalin appears to have been.  Like Stalin, he had a classical education.  Unlike Stalin, he was not enthusiastic about violence right from the start.  Joe seems to have relished the chaotic and violent life of a revolutionary outlaw bandit ‘expropriating’ bank funds for the Bolsheviks and organizing terrorist attacks; Mao, at first, was drawn to anarchism and communitarianism, and was repelled by ‘needless’ violence.  Mao was incredibly self-confident about his abilities as a military commander and politician, apparently with good reason.  Stalin was a bumbler as generalissimo, and always felt insecure around intellectuals.

A major difference between Russia’s revolution and China’s was that the Soviet state was founded by a military coup that was followed by a brutal civil war lasting a few years.  China’s ‘revolution’ was, in fact, a twenty-year civil war that ranged across the nation, and was fought with terrifying brutality, including frequent use of scorched-earth tactics by Chiang.  Mao rose to prominence, with frequent setbacks and dismissals by the central administration, while Stalin quietly and steadily homed in on supreme power.  Mao was so outspoken about his views, often directly in conflict with the center and with the USSR, that he was often reprimanded, accused of various political heresies, e.g. ‘right opportunism,’ ‘flightism,’ and ‘high flown-ism.’  He was adept at retiring from the fray at the right moment and waiting, sometimes in desparation, until the Party begged him to return and save their butts from disaster.

Eventually, his military strategy, and his insistence that the Chinese peasants must be at the heart of the revolution, despite the orthodox communist view that industrial workers and tradesmen must lead it, was accepted.    There’s no question:  his astute views, rooted in his deep knowledge of China – he produced several landmark studies of the peasantry, remarkable for their detail and understanding – were behind his role as the unifier and liberator of China.

One could take him for an Abe Lincoln or George Washington figure, which is the criticism made of Snow’s book.  Before the Long March, the dark side of Mao’s future was also apparent.  In Futian, during one of the GDP’s encirclement campaigns, the first big purges broke out among the communists.  They were massive, bloody, and indescriminate.  Short attributes them to the insanity-producing conditions of living in fear of the GDP, soldiers fearing destruction of their families by the GDP, the meddling Stalinist influence of the Soviet advisors, and the fact that most of the men were uneducated and illiterate.  Not to mention that Chinese history is filled with bloody and manic purges, so there was a tradition to uphold.

Just as in Russia, the purges were self-destructive, carrying off many needed, capable, and loyal party members, but these purges were before those of Stalin!  They seem to have risen from the grass roots upwards, rather than being concocted completely at the top and forced downward on everybody.  According to Short, Mao at first believed them to be justified, and then felt they had gone too far.  After that, he took a pragmatic and self-serving view.  Such ‘excesses’ were inevitable in brutal class war.  They helped enforce party discipline.  The cost of opposing them might be too high.  The man who had urged Red Army recruits to pay peasants for their food, always be polite, never strike a civilian, and who had urged good treatment of prisoners, including freeing them with the offer to join up with the cause, became comfortable with mass murder as a political tool.  The origin of the purges in the mind-numbing horror of the flight from the GDP foretells the insanity of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, barely remaining human under the onslaught of bombing by American B-52s at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

This raised a question in my mind about that other dictator/mass murder, Hitler.  Holocaust scholars debate the nature and ‘function’ of his campaign against the Jews, but did he have purges?  Other than the famous Night of the Long Knives, admired by Stalin, which was a calculated move to consolidate power over the Nazi party, I haven’t heard of any.  Perhaps the attempt to exterminate the Jews, despite the diversion of resources and the other practical problems it raised, was simply one long and very successful purge.  And it performed the same salutory function for the state:  maintenance of a state of terror and abject discipline.  Without the Jews, the Nazis might have turned on themselves repeatedly.  If the Jews hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them…


May 14, 2010

Despite the fact that a sizable proportion of the world’s inhabitants are Chinese, and that China is a powerful force in contemporary world affairs, and that I work with lots of Chinese immigrants, I know little about the place.   Lately, I’ve been talking with some colleagues about the experiences of their families in China.  I know about Hitler, a lot about Stalin, but nothing much about Mao.  I decided to address that gap with some reading.

I first attacked Mao: The Unknown Story by Chang and Halliday.  I got through about 100 pages before I had to drop it.  As one reviewer said, it reads more like catharsis than history.  The authors clearly hate Mao, probably for good reasons, but the writing is so crude, so powerfully biased that it lacks credibility.  As several critics noted, the authors undermine their own case, despite some excellent material.  History as demonization doesn’t add much to our understanding of events, or of people, and I just couldn’t buy their portrait of Mao as a singleminded, sadistic, intellectual mediocrity who schemed his way to power with lies and trickery only.  No doubt, many of their horrible annecdotes and critical observations are true, but history, and people, are not that simple, I think.

So, I decided to try Mao: A Life by Phillip Short.  This one is a hundred pages or so shorter than the other, and much better as a history and biography.  Short builds his life of Mao slowly, while Change and Halliday are intent from page 1 at demonstrating what a demon Mao was.  This book is very good for a reader like me who knows little of the tangled nature of Chinese politics and geo-political affairs in the early twentieth century.  A few things strike me after getting past about a quarter of the pages:

Mao didn’t have an easy path to power.  He seems to be continually marginalized and dismissed by the leadership, all under the sway of the Russian Comintern.  He was certainly astute in many ways, and he seems to have been the first to thoroughly grasp how different Chinese conditions were from those in pre-Soviet Russia.  His insistence on the peasants as a force for revolution was constantly at odds with Russian directives and internal sentiments.  The peasants, even to most left-wing intellectuals, were just an invisible mass.

Mao was certainly not the one-sided devil that Chang and Halliday create.  He was schooled in the Chinese classics, and wrote romantic poems – his pithy aphorisms were based on his deep absorption of Chinese culture.  One reviewer noted that The Unknown Story quotes poems in a Nietzschean vein that the authors exhort us to accept as the true revelation of Mao’s elitist, inhuman nature.  Why, the reviewer asks, should we not also accept his cultured and restrained writings in the same way?  He was a complex and beastial person.

China was incredibly chaotic at this time!  It is amazing also to contemplate the differences between the state of China and that Russia or Germany in that period.  While the Comintern focused on organizing a worker’s party to smash the bourgeois state, China had hardly any workers!  The intellectual ferment among the progressives was all over the map as they struggled to find a way forward for their society.  Mao was no different, favoring at first a Kropotkin oriented peaceful anarchism!

How did he make it from the sidelines to the undisputed leadership of the united nation?  I have to keep reading…

Lovin’ that bomb

December 30, 2008


The New York Times has an article today under the headline, Soviets Stole Bomb Idea From U.S., Book Says. This follows on an earlier article in the Science Times that discussed two books on this topic, Hidden Travels of the Atomic Bomb. This latter article was an egregious example of the sloppy writing that so often graces the pages of the NYTimes’ Science section.

The historical and political context of the investigations is summarized in the second article this way:

In 1945, after the atomic destruction of two Japanese cities, J. Robert Oppenheimer expressed foreboding about the spread of nuclear arms.

They are not too hard to make,” he told his colleagues on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, N.M. “They will be universal if people wish to make them universal.”

That sensibility, born where the atomic bomb itself was born, grew into a theory of technological inevitability. Because the laws of physics are universal, the theory went, it was just a matter of time before other bright minds and determined states joined the club. A corollary was that trying to stop proliferation was quite difficult if not futile.

But nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.

Oppenheimer concluded that international cooperation to reign in the awful power of atomic energy in weapons was the only sensible political course.  He opposed the development of new, stronger, and more plentiful nuclear weapons as a useless attempt to maintain the USA’s temporary nuclear monopoly.  Naturally, he was vigorously opposed, and eventually destroyed by people like Edward Teller, who always had a bigger and better bomb in mind, and were convinced that we had to build them to terrorize the Russians into obediance.  And if they wouldn’t obey, well, we would just nuke ’em, and win!

So, latter day claims that the Russians only got the bomb because of nasty spies tend to reinforce the anti-Oppenheimer camp.  “See, he was naive!  If it weren’t for the spies, we’d still be the only one with the bomb…” Preserving our nuclear monopoly was possible and sensible.  President Truman expressed this view rather simply – he predicted the Russians would never get the bomb.  These books are simply another neo-con effort to rewrite history.

Yes, the Russians had spies that gave them information.  This is indisputable.  Yes, this may have expedited their progress on the A- and H-bombs.  Notice, however, that Oppenheimer never said exactly when others would get the weapon, just that they would if they truly wanted to.  (Perhaps one reason not everyone has them is that they don’t want them, for good reasons!  Not to mention the cost!)  The fact that there were spies doesn’t mean at all that he was wrong.

As is often the case in the weird world of the NYTimes, a line in the second article totally undercuts the meaning of its lead:

Alarmingly, the authors say one of China’s bombs was created as an “export design” that nearly “anybody could build.” The blueprint for the simple plan has traveled from Pakistan to Libya and, the authors say, Iran.

Look, either the bombs are really hard to make, or they are not.  You can’t have it both ways.

Soul Man

August 16, 2008

As the television world watches the Olympics in Beijing, the Party is ensuring that certain things will not be seen.  In order to stage a protest of any sort, especially during the festivities, you must get a permit and only exercise your right to speech in selected zones.  (Sounds a bit like the Republican convention in NYC, 2004, eh?)  According to this article in the NYTimes, quite a few of those who sign up for the right to voice their grievances publicly are ending up disappearing into the maw of the Chinese Communist Party security apparatus.  It reminds me of that grim old joke about Stalin and the Soviet constitution that was packed with liberal human rights.  They only published it to see who would sign on, so that then they could be dealt with.

The fellow shown here is a veteran protester, profiled briefly in the article:

Despite what seem to be the perils of applying for a permit, scores of people continue to flock to the capital seeking an opportunity to publicize their grievances. Gao Chuancai, 45, a farmer from Heilongjiang Province, evaded a police cordon in his hometown and arrived in Beijing with a handwritten poster describing a litany of abuses by local officials.

Mr. Gao said in an interview that he had no delusions about his prospects. Over the years, he said, he has been jailed a dozen times and beaten repeatedly for trying to publicize corruption in Xingyi, a village just outside Harbin in China’s northeast. Security officials from Harbin had in the past even tracked him down in Beijing and stopped him from petitioning higher authorities in the capital, he said.

Early this month, after he learned of the Olympic protest zones on television, he mailed in an application to Beijing.

On Wednesday, he worked up the nerve to visit the application office. “Whatever happens, happens. I don’t care if I die,” he said as his taxi pulled up to the building.

Just what makes a person act this way?  Some sort of glorious stubborness that might, under most circumstances, make him a rather unpleasant person?  Surely, the authorities are asking themselves the same question:  “Why won’t he just shut up!!”  Philip Pan’s engrossing new book, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, tries to answer just this question.  He profiles several men and woman, inspiring, brave people with   tremendous grit, who won’t buckle under to the the Chinese state.  He also describes others who are cynical, rapacious, brutal, and totally unprincipled, and he sees it as an open question as to which group will carry the day in China, ruled as it is by an entrenched, corrupt, kleptocracy.  (Communist ideology dropped by the wayside long ago.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Gao…

At the reception area, a pair of officers questioned him about the nature of his protest and asked him to fill out a lengthy form that included the names and numbers of the officials who had wronged him. Mr. Gao was reluctant, but he complied.

After an hour, they smiled and told him to return in five days. As he walked out the door, he overheard one of the officers on the phone. He was calling the police station in Harbin.

I wish him luck.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Stupid…

August 16, 2008

Once again, David Brooks clocks in with a column that makes me ask, “what planet do you live on?”  Visiting the countryside in China that was recently traumatized by earthquake, he comments:

We’d visited the village without warning and selected our interview subjects at random, but some of the answers were probably crafted to please the government. Still, there was no disguising the emotional resilience and intense mutual support in that village. And there was no avoiding the baffling sense of equanimity. Where was the trauma and grief?

For someone who bills himself as a libertarian-leaning conservative Republican, and a “pop” sociologist, his response is remarkable.  Does he not read the newspaper that publishes his drivel?  He hasn’t heard of the protests by grieving parents, their children crushed to death in shoddily built schools, that were broken up by police, the parents beaten?  He is not aware of the concerted effort by the Party to buy silence with a hush money policy?  It never occurs to him that the vast network of Party officials throughout the country has made it perfectly clear what sort of statements are acceptable?  Does he think that these people are as stupid as he is?  Does he really think that the Chinese collectivist spirit, as he calls it in his superficial maunderings of the last week or so, precludes grief over the death of a child, especially when such mind boggling political corruption is involved?

And speaking of ideas that are so stupid only an educated person could believe them (to use George Orwell’s phrase here for the umpteenth time), what about that “End of History,” eh?  People like Francis Fukuyama are why the word “intellectual” is, for some, a slur.  Just add the pointy headed… How could anyone take this idea seriously?  Well, it seems that Vladimir Putin didn’t.   Fellow neo-con Robert Kagan gets a jab in at FF with his new article, “The End of the End of History,” commenting on the return of 19th century history as Russia pursues the “Great Game” with renewed vigor.

Yeah, every movement is supposed to end history.  The same thing in art – we had Modernism…then Post-Modernism.  In the end, all we have are styles and fads.

Bridge Political

November 17, 2007

Some American women competing at an international bridge tournament in Shanghai, China have caused an uproar in certain circles because they displayed a sign that said, “We did not vote for Bush!”  Today, I read several letters to the editor complaining about their behavior – not appropriate!  I believe that they were criticized by the international association hosting the event.

I wonder if the Chinese government is watching this?  Of course they are!  Can you imagine the wheels turning in their heads?  “Hmmm…they announce their opposition to their national leader with a sign, and they are condemned by the bridge organization.  People declare their actions are inappropriate and unsuitable for this venue.  We put people in prison for similar expressions of dissent, and the entire world condemns us and gets on our case!  Maybe we can learn something from this!”