Archive for April, 2017

Telling tough truths: J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”

April 27, 2017

J. D. Vance is a young Yale law graduate, who rose from what he calls Kentucky hillbilly culture. Hillbilly Elegy is memoir-cum-sociology, aptly titled; an elegy expresses sorrow for human loss.

We’re not supposed to blame the poor for their poverty. Yet that’s just what Vance does, more or less. Though sometimes lyrical in his love for his people, he’s scathing in critiquing their social pathology.

That social pathology is often attributed to the rustbelt’s hollowing out of old time manufacturing jobs. Vance doesn’t buy it. True, the jobs picture is a big problem, but he sees it as greatly worsened by how his people have responded to it.

Some studies say less educated men work more than the educated classes. This too is rubbish, according to Vance. Such data is often based on asking people how much they work — but they lie. Too many of “his people” don’t do much work, Vance says, even if they do have jobs.

The introduction discusses an early job Vance had in a tile warehouse. A fellow employee was “Bob,” nineteen, with a pregnant girlfriend, who was also hired, as a clerical worker. These were good jobs, with excellent health benefits. But the two were chronically late or absent, and Bob spent much of the workday in lengthy “bathroom breaks.” Both were eventually fired. Bob was pissed.

So was Vance. For him, this tale exemplifies the fecklessness of such losers, always blaming others for predicaments really of their own making.

I’ve previously reviewed Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids, exploring the socioeconomic divide between better educated and less educated Americans, and the difficulties of moving from one milieu to the other. Vance’s memoir illustrates what Putnam was talking about.

A key factor is the decline of stable two-parent families. In past eras, poverty was much worse (like in the Depression, with far less government help), yet even poor people mostly married and stayed married. No longer. Family life among less educated people has become frequently shambolic, with women cycling through parades of often useless men. Vance’s mom did that. He couldn’t even figure out whom to count as siblings. She abused drugs too.

“This was my world,” he writes, “a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poor house . . . . [using] high-interest credit cards and payday loans . . . . Thrift is inimical to our being . . . . no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund . . . . Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other . . . . At least one member of the family uses drugs . . . . we’ll hit and punch each other . . . . We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools — like peace and quiet at home — to succeed . . . . We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness or for stealing . . . . or the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute bathroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves . . . . ”

Vance explains how family dysfunction is handed down from generation to generation. It’s more than just people mirroring their parents’ example. There are adverse developmental effects, impairing kids’ later ability to negotiate all aspects of living, particularly in maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. Violent episodes in childhood trigger classic “fight or flight” responses which, when repeated enough, actually rewire one’s brain, making that stance a default mode — a chronically stressed and prickly mental state with, again, baleful effects on one’s future human relationships.

Vance would have fallen into the syndrome himself, but for “Mamaw” — his grandmother, who pretty much rescued him from life with his mother (her daughter). Mamaw was no paragon of virtue or refinement either, being a foul-mouthed product of the same culture — but of its earlier incarnation. A crucial difference: “I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood, embodied another.” Mamaw gave Vance a stable, peaceful home, and helped him to see clearly a better path. He was able to shun all the kinds of dysfunction he writes about mainly because, with Mamaw, he was happy.

At least partially explaining all the social pathology is what Vance refers to as “learned helplessness.” (A concept developed by psychologist Martin Seligman.) People like “Bob” (of the tile job) act as they do because they don’t really see themselves as making choices. Instead it’s as though what happens to them is fate, beyond their control, so there is no point in making any kind of effort or resisting any inclination. Again, it’s blaming others, or the cosmos, for what befalls them. Overcoming this psychology, and developing a sense of personal agency, was a key element in Vance’s own rise to a better life.

Here’s another factor Vance discusses. Love of country — seriously — loomed large in his people’s lives. But that tie that bound them together as a community, akin to a religion, has been fraying too, succumbing to a deep distrust toward the nation’s institutions. Vance wrote before the 2016 election but these passages have great resonance for understanding today’s political picture. President Obama was seen as an alien; quintessentially the product of a social system that’s not working for Vance’s people. Indeed, Obama’s personal success was a mirror to their own failure. Conspiracy theories about him (like birtherism), and other such nonsense, gain credence when the mainstream media is one more societal institution no longer trusted. Politicians too, of course, are distrusted; while many of them promote the idea that the economy is rigged as well and, on the right, the idea that it’s all the government’s fault. A toxic contrapuntal. “You can’t believe these things,” Vance says, “and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance.” Vance’s people have lost their sense of belonging and loyalty to the American project.

We can yearn for some magic bullet to fix this; some government initiative perhaps. But Vance rejects that fantasy. Indeed, he sees past government efforts as part of the problem, talking about how hard-working people watch their tax dollars go to support, in these communities, an awful lot of others who don’t work, even buying things with food stamps those working folks can’t afford. This too undermines communitarian social solidarity; and Vance cites it as a key factor in his region’s political shift away from Democrats.

It all feeds into a basic attitude of existential pessimism. Most blacks and Hispanics, Vance notes, report optimism about their future; working class whites, not so much. And he sees that as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So this is a tale not of progress but of its opposite, regress. The humanist and optimist in me, looking at the broad global picture, over the centuries, sees a great human capability to progress, and great progress actually achieved. But it’s never locked in. We also have ample capability for squandering it and regressing.

So we come back to the question we started with.  How much, in the end, is people’s own fault? It’s the old question of luck versus pluck. I did a lot right in my own life, and could say it was brains and character, yet realize that having those characteristics was just luck. Vance confronts the issue with particular regard to his mother. He recognizes all the demons to which his mother was exposed. “But at some point . . . you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.” That’s what he did with his own life. His book is powerful testimony to how hard it can be. Yet it also makes clear that Vance is not unique. Not seeing ourselves as hapless victims is the best of being human. We do not succumb; we surmount. 

The march for science

April 24, 2017

Quiz #1 — Who made this statement about Saturday’s march for science: “Rigorous science depends not on ideology but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate”?

a) Neil deGrasse Tyson
b) Bill Gates
c) Stephen Hawking
d) Donald Trump

The answer is (d).

Quiz #2 — Did the statement come from

a) His lips
b) His Twitter account
c) His pen
d) A spokesperson

The answer is (d).

Science is not just another belief system or “faith.” Belief and knowledge are two different things. One can say “Joe believes the earth is flat” but not “Joe knows the earth is flat.”

How we know things is called epistemology. Scientific knowledge comes from a rigorous process of deduction from observation and evidence, always open to correction through better observation and evidence. Belief has nothing to do with it.

You can believe the earth is flat, but through science we know it isn’t. You can even do fake science, cherrypicking bits of information (and making up a lot) to deny evolution, but real science knows it’s true.

You can similarly torture facts to deny climate change and/or humanity’s role in it. Or to see harm outweighing benefits in vaccination, or Genetic Modification. Pick your ideology; believe what you like. But if you prefer reality, try real science.

Photo of me at the march by Therese Broderick

Coin collecting

April 22, 2017

Sartre called coin collecting a hobby for dull old men. Well, I started collecting as a dull young man 60 years ago. I’ve been selling coins too, for more than half that time. But Sartre was wrong. I can hardly calculate how much numismatics has enriched my life (and not just financially, though that’s important). To say that it enhances one’s sense of history hardly begins to explain. It has been a great window onto the vast pageant of the human enterprise. The connections involved, with other actual humans, are rewarding too.

And the quest, the chase, is challenging and fun. One never knows what will turn up. Many coins are not cut-and-dried, but can entail all sorts of intriguing nuances.

Many suppose that if a coin is old it must be valuable. Not so. Remember that past epochs didn’t have credit or debit cards, checks, Paypal, etc; even paper money is a relatively recent invention. Before then, all money was in the form of coins – so they needed a lot of them. And tons of those coins (many thousands of tons) have actually come down to us (especially since the advent of metal detectors).

What this huge supply means is that you can acquire historically fascinating coins for very little money. How little? Many thousand-year-old coins can be had for a buck or two; even ancient Roman coins if you’re not fussy about quality. However, quite nice ones can be gotten for only $10 or $20, too.

Quality is in fact where a lot of the spice of numismatics lies. A coin can be very common and cheap in crappy condition but very rare and desirable if well preserved. The true connoisseur relishes this difference. I am frankly much the condition snob when it comes to my own collection. Yet I’m also a bottom feeder about price. Those might seem incompatible, but for me there lies the sport of the thing: trying to find good quality at good prices. (This paid off spectacularly when my Chinese collection was sold in a 2011 Hong Kong auction. Good coins brought very good prices but excellent ones brought insane prices.)

My Julia Domna sestertius

I have written before about collecting ancient Roman coins in particular. Recently I got a really nice quality sestertius (large bronze coin) of Julia Domna (wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, 193-211 AD). From a Swiss auction, it cost me about $550. I was very happy with it, replacing a not-so-great one in my collection, and I liked the price. I liked it even more when I researched it online and found that the same coin had been in a different Swiss sale just a year earlier, where it sold for $4,086! Evaluating ancient coins in particular can be very subjective, and such price variances make the game pretty darn interesting.

Ancient coins in more typical condition

Pricing is, of course, governed by the law of supply and demand. The vast majority of old coins are cheap because there are so many of them. What makes a coin rare is that there are few of them (duh), and if many collectors seek one, that drives prices up.

But the demand factor is not the same across the board, for all kinds of coins. This blog post was in fact prompted by my seeing, in a Dutch (Schulman) auction catalog, a 1697 Holland Leeuwandaalder (“Lion dollar”). These coins were issued in great numbers by numerous Dutch provinces for a long period, so in general they are quite inexpensive for large old silver coins, available for $100 or less. But this 1697 is the only one known from the province of Holland with that date.

1697 Lion Dollar

So how much is it worth? A comparable U.S. coin – suppose only one 1797 Dollar existed – would be worth millions, because many people collect U.S. Dollars by date. But how many collect Lion Dollars by date? Those people are almost as rare as that 1697 coin. It carried an auction estimate of just 500 Euros. That struck me as quite inexpensive for such a rarity. So did I put in a bid? No; because I doubted I could find a buyer.*

Yet still that’s a very exciting coin, and things like this are also part of what makes numismatics so much fun. It’s full of piquant byways. The longer I’m at it, the richer grows the experience.

* It wound up selling for 750 – with added fees, just about $1000.

Turkey’s tragedy. France next?

April 17, 2017

Yet another bad day for optimists and believers in progress. It really feels like the lights are going out.

Turkey matters, a lot. This key nation has been a NATO bulwark, and poster boy for the idea that democracy and Islam can be compatible. That idea just took a huge hit with Turkey’s referendum vote approving President Erdogan’s proposed new constitution, basically abolishing checks on his power and making him a dictator.

How could anyone vote for that? But Erdogan already had a strong core of voters who back him no matter what (sound familiar?), who feel forgotten by the country’s elites (sound familiar?), and religious fundamentalists (ditto). And then he exploited last year’s coup attempt to whip up a nationalist hysteria against legions of imagined enemies, domestic and foreign. The constitutional change was presented as a way to smack down those bad guys once and for all. Indeed, anyone questioning this was demonized as an enemy of the people.


This was accompanied by a vast repression. With the coup attempt as pretext, Erdogan has jailed tens of thousands, and around a hundred thousand others have been sacked. This includes huge numbers of not only military personnel, but lawyers, judges, journalists, politicians, civil servants, teachers; a gigantic witch-hunt persecuting anyone whose fealty to the regime is questioned. And of course no criticism of the proposed constitution was tolerated. Opponents were cowed into silence. Erodgan had already destroyed independent press and media in Turkey.

Evet means yes

Considering all this, it may seem remarkable that half the country still had the intestinal fortitude to vote “no.” Yet given the ugly climate of repression and fear Erdogan has created, it’s sobering that half the country would vote to endorse and even worsen it.

An optimistic hope is that having finally achieved his long-sought aim, Erdogan will ease up. But giving bad men more power does not make them better. Erdogan actually started out in 2003 as a good guy, doing a lot right. But then power corrupted him, making him a monster of megalomania. He’s already shown what extremes he’s capable of, even under the old system with some constitutional brakes. Removing those brakes is insane.

Suffering particularly is Turkey’s persecuted Kurdish minority. In his earlier, better incarnation, Erdogan was moving toward resolving those ethnic tensions. But then he switched back to violence, as part of his program to foment nationalist hysteria. Now the repression of Kurds is utterly vicious. This too is insanity for Turkey’s future.

The next light flickering is France’s. I wrote recently about its presidential election, whose first round is April 23. Conventional wisdom says Marine Le Pen, the Trumplike populist, will place first, but surely lose the subsequent run-off. Conventional wisdom had said Trump could not win either.

Pray with Macron

When I wrote last, it seemed the likeliest second round would be Le Pen against Emmanuel Macron, whose economics are rational. But I have no confidence in the French voting uncharacteristically for such a candidate. And indeed the one now surging in the polls is Jean-Luc Melenchon, a far left firebrand, backed by the Communist party, who appeals to France’s inveterate romanticist hostility to globalism, trade, and markets. A run-off between Le Pen and Melenchon — Skylla and Charybdis — could well be curtains for the European Union.

Putin and the Kremlin have been messing with France’s election too, trying to undermine Macron and boost Le Pen — for the same reason they backed Trump — to cripple an adversary nation. This should, in a rational world, put French voters off Le Pen in droves. But every day it seems the world grows less rational.

The Big Picture – a sound viewpoint on life and the world

April 12, 2017

Physicist Sean Carroll has written The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. It sets out a philosophy or worldview which he labels “poetic naturalism.” Naturalism simply means no supernaturalism. “Poetic” says this is not prosaic. Instead this view of existence can fill us with awe and wonder. Human life arose by natural processes, but it’s nonetheless very special; almost miraculous.

The book’s 433 pages cover a lot of ground. But I will focus on just the penultimate chapter, a kind of summing up.

Carroll notes the popularity of the Ten Commandments – because people “like making lists of ten things, and telling other people how to behave.” Of course, the Ten Commandments were handed down by a deity who never existed, as part of an historical narrative that never happened. But Carroll is down on the idea of commandments altogether, and my libertarian soul shares that antipathy toward people being told what to do. Those who think we need a God to tell us stealing is wrong must have a pretty dim view of our species.


In lieu of commandments, Carroll offers what he calls Ten Considerations: things we (well, some of us) think are true, and that help us shape our approach to life and the universe we inhabit. These ten points amount to a philosophy of life. I was struck by how closely they match the ideas I myself have arrived at over a lifetime of contemplation. Much of this entails recognizing philosophical mistakes that bollix up a lot of folks’ thinking; it contradicts what many people think.

Here are the ten, with my own gloss:

1. Life isn’t forever. Carroll deems this a good thing. “Eternity is longer than you think.” Though couldn’t there be some middle ground between eternity and a mere century? But anyhow, death is final, this life on Earth is all we get. One must live with this crucial understanding; hiding from it is incompatible with living a truly meaningful life.

2. Desire is built into life. Some philosophies see desires as evil, impediments to happiness, that we should strive to banish. That’s wrong, because desires are what give life meaning and purpose, making us care about our lives. If you truly desired nothing, why care about living?

3. What matters is what matters to people. My version: what matters are the feelings of beings that experience feelings. Nothing else can matter. The existence of the universe itself could not matter, absent beings to whom it matters.

4. We can always do better. This reflects the fundamental humanist stance of optimism rather than pessimism about our species and its trajectory. Cynicism on this score is endemic. Carroll acknowledges “[i]t may seem strange to claim the existence of moral progress” (his emphasis), but says “that’s exactly what we find in human history.” I myself have written a whole book making this argument. So has the slightly more famous Steven Pinker (citing mine).

5. It pays to listen. Because all human minds are fallible, one should be open to new information and insights. This has great relevance to today’s U.S. political environment, with confirmation bias running amok, and the nation divided between two camps living in alternate universes.

6. There is no natural way to be. Carroll says that our being part of nature makes it tempting to valorize “being natural.” This has indeed long been a major cultural and philosophical trope. But nature doesn’t in fact guide us in how to live. “Nature is kind of a mess,” often appalling, says Carroll. And nature doesn’t think. We should instead look to our reason for guidance.

7. It takes all kinds. “People are different, so they’re going to create different things. That’s a feature to be celebrated, not an annoyance to be eradicated.” It’s from that variety among people, especially in how they think, that dynamism, progress, and advancement come. A society of people all alike would be stagnant.

8. The universe is in our hands. We are not hapless playthings of an impersonal cosmos, nor subjects of “fate.” Instead our ability to think empowers us to alter our conditions of existence. As indeed we have spectacularly done.

9. We can do better than happiness. The “happiness” question is a perennial philosophical conundrum, exemplified by John Stuart Mill’s query, is it better to be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied? Carroll distinguishes between one’s state of being at a given moment and the journey one is on, and suggests focusing more on the latter. It’s the difference between fleeting feelings and the ongoing sense of a life well lived.

10. Reality guides us. Carroll recognizes that certain illusions can make one feel happier, but says, “very few people knowingly seek out false beliefs.” And while illusions can be pleasant, “the rewards of truth are enormously greater.” I have written about my “ideology of reality,” with facts shaping my beliefs rather than allowing beliefs to shape what I think are facts. It’s a matter of self-respect to hew to what is real and true, to live authentically. A life well lived cannot be grounded in falsity.

Class dismissed. Now go have fun.

The Syria strike

April 8, 2017

Having been a relentless critic of Trump, I will give the Devil his due. I approve of the Syrian airstrike. I’m glad it was done.

President Obama’s passivity on Syria was execrable. Early in the conflict we might very possibly have achieved something greatly serving our interests. Inaction as well as action has risks and consequences; in this case they were horrific. And then the “red line” fiasco made things even worse, shredding U.S. credibility. Obama let himself be played for a fool by Putin with a phony deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, which they were never seriously going to honor. And when Assad later resumed chemical attacks, Obama had little choice but to look the other way. The latest chemical attack was indeed one of many, if perhaps a particularly egregious one.

Around a hundred were killed, which Trump said significantly changed his view of the Assad regime. A really stunning thing to say, considering the 400,000 killed in this 6-year-long atrocity, with millions (half Syria’s population) made refugees (whom Trump still refuses to help), and the well-documented reports of industrial-scale torture venues where tens of thousands, including many children, have been murdered in hideous ways. After all this, a hundred deaths changed his mind? Does he even have one?

At least, in contrast to Obama’s sorry record, Trump not only acted, but acted swiftly, with no second-guessing or crawling fecklessly to Congress for an unlikely approval. And at least, as David Brooks commented, this moves Trump toward a somewhat normal presidency, with America again the upholder of an international system.

“How many ears must one person have before he can hear people cry?”

However, while our action was long overdue, it wasn’t much of one. Hardly even a pinprick, it changes nothing (and might actually prolong the war, that we still have no plan for ending). Better an airstrike on a significant target, like a command-and-control facility. Like, say, the presidential palace. And better yet if Assad is home.

Trump’s foreign policy: a feckless fog of foolishness

April 5, 2017

You know the slogans: America first. Make America great again. No more playing patsy for other countries.

The reality: the opposite.

But this, like all Trump’s “policies,” is not a matter of considered strategy. Instead it’s the product of his incompetence, mental disorder, vile character, and monumental ignorance about how the world actually works. He’s stumbling around in a feckless fog of foolishness.

Trump says China is “raping” us on trade. So what’s the first thing he does? Kills the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP, as Thomas Friedman points out, was our made-in-America deal with 12 other Pacific nations to shape regional trade to our interests and values. A powerful move against China on the global chessboard. Trump’s cancelling it hands China a tremendous victory. Now it’s China that will make the region’s trade rules, and those other countries will be forced to play China’s game – not ours.

Calling the TPP a bad deal was another of Trump’s huge lies. Likely he never bothered to check the facts, choosing instead to pander to voters phobic about trade. The TPP would have been a super deal for us, benefiting our most dynamic industries, and with unprecedented labor, environmental, and human rights standards. It would have lowered prices for our consumers on imported goods. A Peterson Institute study concluded the TPP would have boosted annual real U.S. incomes by $131 billion, with no job losses.

And then Secretary of State Tillerson goes to China, hiding from the press, and kowtowing about mutual respect and nonconfrontation – music to the ears of China’s Communist bosses as they aggressively strive to dominate their region and banish U.S. influence.

And remember how America used to be a magnet for all the world’s best and brightest? Coming here to build their careers – greatly enriching and strengthening America in the process. But Trump has effectively put up “Keep Out” signs, signaling all those smart energetic foreigners they’re not welcome here. Surely many more Chinese technology whizkids (whose talents we actually desperately need) will now choose to stay home – again boosting China to our detriment. Foreign tourism, unsurprisingly, is way down too, another self-inflicted economic wound.

Also, in the global game, trust and credibility are a golden currency. It does not help if the world sees our president as a pathological liar. He touts himself as the Great Deal Maker, but what country will trust his word? Not to mention his insulting and picking fights with our friends. Further, we have lost the moral high ground from which to push other nations on issues like corruption, transparency, human rights, and adherence to the whole panoply of international norms of behavior. Trump cozies up to bad guys, even saying the U.S. is no better than Russia! And America’s biggest asset in world affairs has been its attractiveness as a culture others want to emulate. Trump is trashing that asset too, in countless ways blackening America’s international image. Nobody wants to emulate this crassness.

Then there’s Trump’s proposed budget, drastically slashing funds for the State Department, foreign aid, the UN, climate change, and the World Bank. True, some of that spending is wasted (as is much military spending – yet Trump wants to shower the Pentagon with money). But the reason we do foreign aid and those other things is because they increase American influence throughout the world. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Moreover, they make a more prosperous, humane, peaceful, stable world – thus a better neighborhood to live in. A huge benefit for us: fewer countries making trouble, fewer humanitarian disasters to deal with, and bigger markets for our exports. Trump is clueless how America’s role as the linchpin of a web of international institutions makes a better world, which amply advances our interests. Withdrawing from such global engagement, behind walls of our own making, is not a recipe for American greatness.

Everything discussed above is called “soft power,” as distinguished from military might. Trump does, as noted, want to boost Pentagon spending. As if there will be another WWII or Vietnam War. Our military budget already exceeds the next seven countries’ combined. Spending even more — on capacities very unlikely ever to be needed — won’t make us better off. Especially not if it’s at the expense of soft power (which yields more bang for the buck anyway).

This is all bad news not just for us, but for the whole world. As America tosses away its global leadership role, guess which countries will jump in to fill that void? Not Denmark and Switzerland. We will not like what results. Not a nice neighborhood to live in.

That’s why the Kremlin tried to get Trump elected. They understand all this perfectly, and that Trump does not.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

April 2, 2017

What is more precious than freedom and independence?

The answer: nothing.

But this has a sardonic double meaning; and that’s key to The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

Nguyen is a Vietnam-born American. The book’s narrator (never named) is the bastard child of an American priest and a Vietnamese girl. Toward war’s end he is a close aide to a South Vietnamese general in charge of the police. But the narrator is the “sympathizer” of the title; i.e., a Communist sympathizer. More, he is actually working for the other side, as a mole.

Nguyen is a wonderful writer. Not just a good story-teller; the prose itself scintillates. Sentences are not given flatly, but usually with a wry kick. At one point he refers to beer tasting like baby’s piss. A lesser writer would just say piss; but that’s banal; comparing beer to baby’s piss is not. (Though even if one knows the taste of piss, would the particular flavor of a baby’s be recognizable?)

There is a delicious sex scene between the narrator in youth and a squid (destined for dinner). It recalled the episode in Portnoy’s Complaint with a piece of liver. I’ve always liked liver; I’ve never liked squid. But Thanh’s writing was so erotically charged it made me want to give squid another try.

And how about this passage:

“The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb ‘to cleave,’ which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Man had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the open and closing of a well stuffed billfold.”

This meditation (prompted of course by the narrator’s experiencing “the gravitational pull” of a woman’s display) continues further. And its cynicism is wholly characteristic. The book is mainly about politics, not sex, and reads very cynically indeed.

That was me (1973 photo by Jack Henke)

In April of 1975 the Communists suddenly win the war. Despite actually working for them, the narrator stays with the General and his entourage escaping Saigon, for America, by air. That chaotic evacuation is evocatively described. On that day I happened to be typing away on a fantasy novel, coincidentally with a comparable episode. The radio was on. And a sentence I heard on a newscast slid, perfect and unaltered, directly into my manuscript, as though I was taking dictation. One of life’s weird moments. (The novel, Children of the Dragon, was published by Avon in 1978.)

Nguyen’s narrator, after coming to America, gets involved as a consultant on Vietnamese authenticity for an unnamed “auteur” making a movie, shot in the Philippines, scathingly satirizing Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now. Meantime, he also continues doing dirty work (including killings) for the General, as the latter organizes an expatriate army to reinvade Vietnam (this really happened); while the narrator continues as a spy, reporting everything to his Communist superiors. Eventually (against their wishes), he joins the General’s ragtag force on its doomed mission, is promptly captured, and despite his mole role he’s sent to a “re-education” camp.

And so we get the obligatory “enhanced interrogation” scenes. He isn’t exactly tortured. Not exactly. But this section of the book is not for the squeamish.

I’ve mentioned cynicism. That certainly pervades the Apocalypse Now sequence. But unsurprisingly the main canvas for cynicism is America’s war role itself. Yes, that history is not entirely glorious. War is hell, and a lot of bad things happen in war. But I remain a rare unrepentant defender of our Vietnam involvement. We sought to help an independent nation, with at least some degree of freedom, against aggression aiming to impose a Communist tyranny. The justness of that cause was borne out by the aftermath, in which two million Vietnamese “boat people” risked their lives, and many lost them, trying to escape what we fought to prevent.

So I found it grating to read the narrator’s words, so full of corrosive cynicism toward America. “After all,” he says, “nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” Those words again. And your standard empty anti-capitalist blather. Set against misplaced romanticism about the Communist cause. It was easy to infer that the author was using the narrator as a vehicle to express his own viewpoint.

But not so fast. The narrator is not the author, but a character, and ironically enough, he does get re-educated in that re-education camp. The reality behind the slogans peeps through for him (and the reader). At long last, he grasps the subversive alternate meaning to the catch-phrase formula: nothing is more precious than freedom and independence — communist style. He realizes that’s what the war was fought for — for nothing.

He becomes a boat-person himself, rating his chances of survival at fifty-fifty. But those, he decides, “are excellent odds, as the chances of one ultimately dying are one hundred percent.” (Something we should always remember.)

And finally, he declares, “We remain that most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution.”