Thursday, August 17, 2017
For graphic artists, there are must-reads of the genre that direct the eye to advances in the art, and Sonny Liew’s contribution may well be one of those. Liew shows us many types of comic book art, discusses their genesis and early creators, but also seamlessly melds the story of an artist, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, with the story of the political and economic development of Singapore. It is a masterful work of enormous depth and sensitivity that answers questions I’d had when contemplating the entwined histories of Singapore and Malaya.
I really went down the rabbit hole with this work because it has so many layers and levels of reality and history that I immediately wanted to talk to someone about it or hear an interview. I had been constantly walking way from the piece, trying to realign my thinking about who was telling the story. Sometimes it seemed like it was written from the point of view of this artist and comic-book writer, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, born in Singapore in 1939, and all his life aspiring to be Singapore’s own greatest graphic artist and political commentator.
Sonny Liew was merely republishing, or publishing for the first time, Charlie’s work, including a graphic autobiography begun late in his fifth decade of life and left unfinished until his seventh decade. But occasionally Liew would pop in and add commentary since he was showing us only representative pieces and scraps of Charlie’s body of work. Charlie took the writing of episodic and serialized comic novels to the pinnacle of political commentary, making such astute analysis that he was having trouble getting his work published in the conservative political environment of a colonial city-state and its aftermath.
A high point for me was the RoachMan comic series which imagined a man in 1950s Singapore whose back-breaking job it was to collect honey pots of night soil from houses in traditional neighborhoods. One day on his rounds he is daydreaming about the resilience of cockroaches when—suddenly— he is bitten! Over the next days and nights he feels delirious and tingling sensations only to discover when he is nearly mowed down by a car at night that he has acquired new physical abilities…
All the while, we are experiencing Charlie’s day-to-day reality finding a publisher, and creating characters that reflect the city’s struggle for political leadership. This is no ordinary comic. It is dense with history, drama, commentary, humor, and art. When Liew pops up again to provide commentary—we can tell it is Liew who sometimes writes captions—we need to slow down and ask ourselves which person is talking because it matters to the interpretation—one is concurrent with events and one is long afterward.
Spoilers won’t ruin this piece for you, but I just want to say that the ending is terribly poignant and meaningful; we feel as though Liew has given us a great gift to have introduced us to this unknown cartoonist, who finally finished his autobiography. He’d travelled to Comic Con in San Diego in 1988 after an entire career in comics, bringing with him representative samples of his work. That episode is included in the final pages. I won’t tell you how it turned out—what Charlie saw or who saw him—but suffice it to say it provided grist for mill.
Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s story feels like it has burst onto the scene with the power of a neutron bomb, laying all other artists flat because of its virtuosity and depth. We are intensely curious about how Charlie could escape attention for so long, but also wonder about the connection between Sonny Liew and Charlie. The book won three 2017 Eisner Awards at this year’s Comic Con, for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material—Asia, and Best Publication Design Winner.
Read the book first, and then get a taste of how it has been received in the U.S. by checking out the Comics Syllabus 008 podcast produced by Paul Lai who interviews Sonny Liew about the book. Also, below I have posted a short Epigram Books clip of Liew talking about the book’s conception and execution. But read the book first. Get the whole experience.
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Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Those of us who have looked at the precepts of religions from around the world are often intrigued at how similar they can be across religions. There is something ultimately freeing in realizing that the roots of goodness, happiness, and wealth are not based, as is imagined by some unenlightened and unlucky sods, in what we can accumulate but in what we can utilize.
Some things about Buddhism are so attractive in their attention to simplicity that one cannot help but be drawn to understanding a little more. Warner does a wonderful job of sharing his realizations with us, in several steps. He paraphrases the first twenty-one chapters of Shōbōgenzō: The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, written by the Japanese monk Eihei Dōgen, who explains the philosophical basis for one of the largest and influential sects of Zen Buddhism. Warner tells us it’s a classic of philosophical literature, revered the world over, but that few have actually read it due to density, complexity of concepts, language and length.
Warner does not translate the work, but speaks in language common to modern Americans about how he comes to understand the work. In each chapter he gives us a sense of what the chapter header means, then paraphrases generally those pieces of the work that will aid our understanding of the precepts. Finally he gives us once again a few lines in colloquial English which aid absorption of the notions into our daily life.
I skimmed this work, and feel richer for it. Warmer tells us that one of the things about Dōgen’s writing that stumps modern readers is his use of contradictions. He’ll say one thing and a short while later will say an opposite thing. This is explained by Nishijima Roshi, a recognized acolyte of Dōgen, by understanding that Dōgen adopted four points of view when considering any particular subject: Idealism/subjectivism, materialism/objectivism, action, and realism. Depending on the lens one uses to look at something, the object will have a different appearance. Westerners generally are confined to two lenses: idealism/spiritualism and materialism.
One of the first chapters is entitled “How to Sit Down and Shut Up” which tries to explain the concept of zazen. One of the most important takeaways from this chapter is that the practice is as physical as it is mental, a process Dōgen calls “getting the body out.” Warner compares it to one yoga position held for a very long time. Zazen is not meditation or concentration but instead is ‘thinking not-thinking’ with your eyes and mind open, goal-less. Anyone can do this, “it doesn’t matter if you are smart or dumb.” Warner writes: “Since the entire book is ultimately about practicing zazen, you really need to know what he is talking about right from the outset or you’ll be lost later on.”
One of my favorite chapters is “Note to Self: There is No Self.” Warner talks about how we might have a notion of self kind of like a house with things in it. All the things in the house are what we believe, what we've learned and kept. One well-respected Buddhist practitioner, Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said you should have a general house cleaning of your mind when you study Buddhism. Warner tells us this tradition is like that of osoji, a once-a-year house cleaning during which everything is taken out of the house, cleaned, and considered. If it is not necessary, it does not go back into the house. The notion is terrifying, but if you allow yourself to contemplate it, completely freeing.
There is more. Much more. I like the chapter called “List of Rules.” In it Warner paraphrases the Dōgen
“People who have a will to the truth and who throw away fame and profit may enter the zazen hall. Don’t let insincere people in. If you let somebody in by mistake then, after consideration, kick them out. Nicely.”The rest of the list of rules teach consideration and concern for one’s cohort. “Work on your behavior as if you were a fish in a stream that was drying out.” That sentence will require some contemplation.
In the chapter “Don’t be A Jerk,” we get the feel of the Netflix series Sense8 and perhaps even an explanation of it. Don’t-be-a-jerk is comparable to do-the-right-thing, which Warner tells us is the universe itself.
“When you yourself are in balance, you know right from wrong absolutely. The state of enlightenment is immense and includes everything…And so forth and so on. You just have to go with him on that one.
When jerk-type actions are not done by someone, jerk-type actions do not exist. Even if you live in a place where you could act like a jerk, even if you face circumstances in which you could be a jerk, even if you hang out with nothing but a bunch of jerks, the power of not doing jerk-type things conquers all…
At every moment, no matter what we’re doing, we need to understand that not being a jerk is how someone becomes enlightened. This state has always belonged to us. Cause and effect make us act. By not being a jerk now, you create the cause of not being a jerk in the future. Our action is not predestined, nor does it spontaneously occur…
Doing the right thing isn’t something you can understand intellectually. It’s beyond that. Doing the right thing is beyond existence and nonexistence, beyond form and emptiness. It’s nothing other than doing-the-right-thing being done…
Wherever and whenever doing the right thing happens, it is, without exception, doing the right thing. The actual doing of the right thing is the universe itself. It doesn’t arise or cease. All individual examples of doing the right thing are like this.
When we are actually doing the right thing, the entire universe is involved in doing the right thing. The cause and effect of this right thing is the universe as the realization of doing the right thing.”
If you want to know more about the author, David Guy's review here is beautifully written and explains why Brad Warner is such an unusual interpreter of Dōgen.
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Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Whatever your discipline of study, this book has some degree of relevance, considering as it does human biology. I wish to convey that this book is aspirational for everyone, even the author himself. He readily admits to gaps in his/our knowledge about human biology, but he tries to give us, in this mighty interdisciplinary work synthesizing a lifetime of observation and thought, the current state of knowledge and points to areas for further study.
Don’t be intimidated by its size or erudition. The author is amazing but he has always been approachable. Just flip through, stopping where something catches your eye. You will find yourself absorbed, amazed, provoked. Notice the chapter headings: the last several chapters are about humans doing the right thing…or not. The first several chapters reference those later chapters, showing how what he is telling us is related.
What we do and how we act is related to our biology..all of it…like neurobiology, endocrinology, genetics, the relevance of which he attempts to be very careful and specific about explaining. He goes back in time, bringing in examples from our ancient history to show how things have changed and how culturally conditioned our reactions and responses are to stimuli. Each chapter ends with a summary, and the book ends with insights he has developed over years of study.
Skim these to see if there is something more you wish to pursue. The studies he discusses in each section are referenced by authors focusing on different aspects of human knowledge and you may already be familiar with them. The concepts explored underpin much of what we understand about human behavior and morality. The work of Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist and currently professor of psychology at Harvard, is described by Sapolsky as “monumental” and is given its own critique late in this book.
Sapolsky is not arrogant. He writes this book not to show off his knowledge, but to share his knowledge, which is why he tries to make it as readable as possible without dumbing it down. It is a work to be grateful for. One of the more moving moments in the work comes near the end, after over 600 pages of science and Sapolsky is talking about doing the right thing. He introduces us to Anglican cleric John Newton, born in 1725.
Newton composed the hymn “Amazing Grace” but that is not what Sapolsky wants to tell us. Newton is remembered as an abolitionist, mentor to William Wilberforce who worked through parliament to outlaw slavery in the British Isles. But he didn’t start out that way. Read the story for yourself--plan to read the whole back-end of the book because you won’t be able to stop with Newton—about individuals, ordinary individuals making a difference and doing the right thing.
Sapolsky may be a great scientist, but he is great writer and a great teacher. He makes us think and challenge our own assumptions. He tries to answer questions as they arise and he does not intentionally obfuscate. He does not dodge and only occasionally dismisses, and only then when an argument falls of its own weight.
If you wish you had the background to soak up everything he says but do not, go for one of his earlier books which he wrote as a younger man, less burdened by all he has studied. They display his trademark intelligence and humor and are as much fun as a
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Monday, August 14, 2017
Eisinger explores “Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives” in this book that introduces us to the heyday of criminal prosecutions for white collar crime to its nadir, Eisinger argues, today.
“The Department of Justice is a loose federation of ninety-four offices around the country, each a realm unto itself, run by a U.S. attorney who is almost untouchable by headquarters in faraway Washington, D.C…The [SEC] has civil powers and must team up with various offices of the Department of Justice when a securities law violation turns into a criminal investigation….Of all of these offices, the Southern District of New York, located at the bottom tip of Manhattan, has the smartest and ablest prosecutors in the land. Any alum of the office will be happy to verify that.”Eisinger’s detailed introduction to the men and women of the Southern District of New York begins with the Enron investigation, and later he tantalizes us with early peeks at the careers of Comey, Chertoff, Holder, Ruemeller, Weissmann, Breuer. There were plenty of folks who tried going after the big guns, Paul Pelletier, Jim Kidney, and Jed Rakoff for a few. There is a reason these last three men’s names are not as well known as the others. It’s not because they were less able. It’s because they dared to challenge powerful forces in business and government. They didn’t lose so much as get sidelined and discredited. They weren’t part of the cabal using the revolving door from government to business and back.
The title of this book comes from a statement James Comey made in an early speech to lawyers in the Southern District when he was appointed head by George W. Bush in 2002. He exhorted the prosecutors to bring cases whether or not they felt they could win. “If it’s a good case and the evidence supports it, you must bring it,” he said, otherwise you would be a member of the chickenshit club, cowering before powerful forces arrayed to stop your investigations.
What Eisinger tells us later is that many prosecutors working during the financial crisis of 2007-08 never even looked for evidence of wrong-doing. Lips and teeth, I think to myself. The chief financiers responsible for the toxic asset meltdown and the chief prosecutors responsible for bringing them to justice are like lips and teeth.
Seeing early glimpses of now-famous actors in our government drama is informative for what we didn’t know when we were reading laudatory newspaper articles about what they accomplished in the past. Eisinger has long shed his rose-colored glasses and is critical of how the Department of Justice leadership evolved into a group who was reluctant to bring cases, cases that had merit and enough evidence to expose and shame these organizations in public, even if the U.S. government never got a cent of ill-begotten gains back. The public might be able to handle some portion of the payback--witness the difficulties Bank of America experienced for years after its thievery, lies, and overextension became daily news.
Much is made of the headliners like Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney of the Southern District until fired by D.J. Trump this year, but Eisinger deconstructs his cases and finds him wanting as well, eager to go after the “easy” cases involving insider trading. Eisinger goes further, showing us how difficult and unsure major fraud cases against, say, the head of Goldman Sachs, but how necessary if the public is to have any faith in the fairness of the system.
“The Southern District [under Preet Bharara] did not bring criminal charges against big investment and commercial banks. The office did not take on the power structure of American finance. Bharara did not charge top executives at the biggest companies. After the biggest bubble and financial crisis in generations, bankers at the biggest institutions sold defective products, misrepresented them, played games with their own finances, and almost crashed the global financial system, save for a multitrillion-dollar taxpayer bailout, the most important prosecutorial office in the country took on hedge funds. It was a prosecutorial non sequitur.”The Obama administration “engineered preventive measures to stave off similar future crises” or, in the words of Brooklyn Law School scholar K. Sabeel Raman, ‘prioritizes “good” government over “democratic" government.’ There would be no feeding the populist thirst for blood, but neither did we see justice.
In 2005 the Supreme Court took up mandatory sentencing in United States v. Booker, giving judges more latitude in sentencing, the result of which executives are more inclined to take their chances than to plead guilty or plea bargain. This appears to be a corollary to the notion that corporations can police themselves. What has become glaringly obvious in the past twenty years is that corporations serve themselves.
Eisinger, whether or not you agree with him, is a terrific read. He gives a level of granularity that many will not have heard in alcohol-fueled late-night back-slapping sessions. It is useful for proponents of his tough-on-crime stance to see how we got to this point where it can appear corrupt business has government regulators over a barrel. And it can be useful for opponents of this view to see what is getting the public mad as hell.
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Tuesday, August 8, 2017
This comedy by Young Jean Lee has been making the rounds for the past couple years in theatres in major cities, and I believe it has come up for a major award(s) recently, which is how it came to my attention.
Lee looks into the heart of a family of white men at Christmas--their strange rituals, their familiar cruelties, their tendency to coordinate attacks, their blind support for one another. A father and three college-educated sons meet to share the holiday, eating take-out Chinese in new flannel pajamas, sitting side-by-side on a too-small couch, and teasing one another mercilessly. They are so white.
Young Jean Lee examines how aware these men are of their whiteness, privilege, and opportunity in their own society by having one of the brothers, Matt, not fulfill what the others think is his role, but also, we discover, his birthright.
Having someone look closely at white ritual in America could be a harsh experience but Lee makes it silly, funny, and mostly non-threatening while raising important questions around what constitutes privilege and how far each of us as individuals should go to erase, ignore, eliminate those special rights enjoyed by the majority class.
Matt is smarter than the others, has the best education and had the most promise. He is the one doing the least 'moving and shaking' amongst the brothers. We are a little surprised to find they resent that pulling back, and insist he carve a productive role for himself in society. But Matt feels he is being productive, live-in companion to his father, and is troubled by all that he sees and knows and tries everyday to find his way in a society that doesn't make much moral or ethical sense.
As a theatre piece, the play runs about an hour and a half. Most of that is taken up with the weird behaviors of white American men display in exclusive and close proximity to their families. But there is some discussion of larger issues. We know there is something we are meant to see because of the starkness of the title and because one of the men begins to cry less than halfway through the play. This can't be right, we think. Not all is well here.
The ending and the final pages come as a shock after the foolishness, they are so profound. "There is nothing you can do to erase the problem of your own existence," the youngest and brightest among them claims their mother would have said. "Do not despair, and keep searching for answers" is the advice from one who has loved them. It seems like very good advice indeed.
If this production comes through your city, it may be worth finding the time to attend. Like I say, the ending came at me with enough force to make me gasp and left me feeling something important had been said.
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Saturday, August 5, 2017
Ordinary people like myself occasionally glimpse pieces of truths we believe are important to explain how we live and understand the world but we never seem to get enough distance, or time, or examples to really state definitively what it is that makes us happy, or contentious, or willing to put ourselves out for another. Jonathan Haidt, fortunately, knows how to excavate the origins of our value systems, and has worked with colleagues to theorize and test what we believe and why and to discover the origins of those beliefs. I am thrilled this information is ready for us to use, allowing us to leapfrog decades of daily lived experience.
Best of all, Haidt writes in a clear but casual and unstudied way so that the information is easier to absorb. He does not compress all the studies he is telling us about to the least number of syllables or conclusions, but writes as though he were speaking in a spirit of open enquiry. This is particularly important because he is examining the roots of our belief systems, those things that may lead us to diametrically opposed political points of view. At the very end he answers a question I’ve had for quite some time—about the differences and similarities between the liberal and libertarian points of view—that I have never been able to grasp.
This book came out in 2012, so anyone who hasn’t had a chance to look at it is placing themselves at a disadvantage in today’s world of political discourse. Haidt freely admits that he is a liberal, and that before he published this book he wanted to put his learning as a social psychologist to use giving liberals insights into their political opponents, so that they might structure liberal arguments to appeal more broadly. He discovered something he didn't expect. He discovered that liberals can be handicapped in their presentation politically because they do not place much emphasis in their thinking on certain foundations of moral thought more commonly used by conservatives.
Perhaps more importantly from my point of view, is that in his explanations Haidt shows us the way liberals can move closer to conservative viewpoints without sacrificing the essential contribution progressive thinking makes to a well-balanced society. I firmly believe that neither side on their own has all the correct answers and we need some diversity of thought to innovate at the rate we need to succeed in the future. But we will also need a level of social cohesion or hive mentality which is not available to us at the moment with all the political disagreement.
In his concluding chapter, Haidt reminds us that his work shows us that “there is more to morality than harm and fairness….the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.” Because not all of us use them all the time doesn’t mean they are not there. Those receptors can be used to construct a moral matrix which will differ with political viewpoint. Conservatives use more moral foundations than do liberals (or libertarians), including Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. Both sides of the political spectrum use Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, Fairness/cheating, but to different degrees.
That is to say, liberals define their morality mostly using Care/harm and Liberty/oppression rather than the other dimensions of morality, while conservatives use all six dimensions. Libertarians mostly use Liberty/oppression and Fairness/cheating and only a little of the other four dimensions. Therefore, liberals and libertarians, as you may have noticed, have many overlaps in political goals and tactics that conservatives do not share.
Haidt praises early conservative thinkers (Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and Thomas Sowell among them) for expressing the importance of social capital as opposed to financial capital, physical capital, or human capital. “Social capital refers to a kind of capital that economists had largely overlooked: The social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties. When everything else is equal, a firm with more social capital will outcompete its less cohesive and less internally trusting competitors…”
This just sounds right, and has been backed up by a number of observations and studies by folks looking at the issue, not from the morality standpoint, but from the competitiveness standpoint. It meshes with something that has been niggling in my mind, around notions of diversity, inclusion and exclusion, nationhood, immigration, bilingual schools.
Diversity is fine, good, and necessary for a healthy and inventive society but in the end we have to come together around some basic principles and if we don’t, we have very little indeed upon which to build a nation. Language helps. Social agreement around common tasks is also necessary. I make a distinction between morality as taught in churches by organized religions and moral man, but there is some overlap. Personally I question whether indoctrination by religious groups can get us to social cohesion, but it did work for hundreds of years. The leadership of some churches has been shown to be corrupt; I think religion can work to create social capital, but on a case-by-case basis.
“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”Apparently conservatives are more clued into this than are liberals, so liberals among us best take some of Haidt’s lessons to heart. We can’t all do whatever we want whenever we want wherever we want without sharing some responsibility for/to our social group. The good news is that this connectedness is one of the richest experiences we will probably have in our lifetimes.
Get this book. It is packed with insights. So many I could write for weeks and not touch all it raises. But it is extraordinarily helpful in sorting through things one may have observed in one’s lifetime, but were unable to substantiate, or formulate into conclusions. Haidt and his group have created the studies, looked at the data, and come to surprising and useful conclusions about our political differences and moral man.
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Friday, August 4, 2017
Ever since I read It’s Beginning to Hurt, a collection of stories by James Lasdun, I have eagerly picked up any writing of his I could find. He comes from a long line of self-aware male novelists who point to themselves, the human condition with its male inadequacies, and laugh with us, e.g., Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and further back, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse. That Lasdun is not as broad as these last two, matters not at all for what it is he perceives and is able to convey.
Lasdun may be one of the most underrated novelists of whom I am aware. A new novel of his should be an event, and widely heralded. Instead I came upon this novel published last year in a library display. All my other reading had to wait until I had a chance to see what he was doing in this extraordinarily chilling horror novel in which the unspooling of mystery is embedded in the comfort the characters enjoy.
There is a threesome: a wealthy banker, his beautiful wife, and a talented cousin. There are some stressors: the banker has been laid off, the wife has an artist’s eye but not an artist’s income, and the talented cousin lost his last investment in a restaurant of which he was chef. However, it is summer, and the three escape city heat to enjoy the cool of the summer house in the Catskills, time to refuel one’s energies for the stretch ahead.
The vacation idyll has a butterfly garden, a pool house, privacy hedges, large airy rooms, and a fully stocked kitchen. The chef shops for local produce using the banker’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of funds to prepare gorgeous meals of diverse and exciting courses, accompanied by wines from an extensive cellar that the banker enjoys replenishing in his free time. Everything is lovely until, suddenly, one character in the piece appears in town outside of the role assigned them…
On one foray to the tiny shops in town servicing the vacationers, the chef sees the wife driving to an apparently secret assignation. Lasdun cleverly constructs this novel so that whatever happens after, our sympathies are at war with our understanding. Tiny, shocking revelations mentioned almost as afterthought set alarm bells clanging, turning around hours of conclusions we have already made from the details Lasdun gives us.
This is a deeply disturbing novel, perhaps the more so because we are lulled into believing that none of these likable and ordinary-seeming characters can harbor dark secrets. But, we discover, one of the three is indeed twisted, and even when we get an inkling of the truth, we are not willing to completely believe the evidence of our eyes. After all, Lasdun did leave out something crucial when we were first constructing our own narrative.
Tell me the following passage, which comes late in the story, isn’t calculated to give you chills. Can we even trust the author?
“It was still raining when he went to bed. The pines stood dripping behind the guesthouse, dark and immense. Glittering strings ran from the unguttered octagonal eaves. He opened the door and slid the suitcase out from under the bed, half expecting, as he always did, the things inside to have rearranged themselves, so bristlingly volatile had they become in his imagination. They lay exactly as he had left them.”Loved it. To me this is a perfect summer read—drifting in and out of consciousness by the water—one instinctively feels something is wrong, but a stray sentence jolts us awake, sending heart rate pounding. Terrific little psychological thriller.
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