Asian Immigrant Father Knows Best

I think I’ve discovered a new genre of opinion writing.  Consider these two commentaries from recent months:

My Asian Dad and Mitt Romney’s Muffin Tops

Why My Immigrant Christian Conservative Dad Supports Same-Sex Marriage

The New York Times ran the top opinion last fall.  Recall my glorious skewering of it here.  The second is an April post by a blogger at The Wall Street Journal.  Both pieces–written by different authors–are the product of a culturally liberal, big city-dwelling Asian-American, who makes a career out of writing.  Each author offers an anecdotal account–real or imagined–of how his or her own curmudgeonly, conservative, immigrant father comes to take a liberal position on a major national controversy.  Their stories are each a perverse appeal to patriarch.  But unlike the 1950s TV show Father Knows Best, the correctness of dad’s authority is completely contingent on his child’s judgment.

The iconic TV show Father Knows Best aired from 1954-1960. (Wikimedia Commons)

As the son of an Asian immigrant myself, I’m intrigued by these opinion pieces.  They cleverly exploit the prevalent “model minority” stereotype to hook readers in.  Our imaginations find traction in the conflict between the up-by-the-bootstraps, old-world sensibilities of dad, and the live-and-let-live mores of the progressive, urban kid.

This drama isn’t unique to Asian-American immigrant families.  It has largely defined the immigrant story since the ascendance of American counterculture five decades ago.  The parents sacrifice greatly to come to America, thankful for the opportunity to work hard and build something.  But then their children succumb to the dominant values of the native culture: instant gratification, moral autonomy, and entitlement.  The American Dream shipwrecks on the subsequent generations’ inability to steward the precious treasure given to them.

Common opinion is that conservatives strongly oppose immigration.  But nothing could do America better than to keep hardworking immigrants coming in.  We need their work ethic and traditional values to turn the tide against the flaming wreck that is American culture today.

Advertisements

Political prudence for the GOP

It’s been almost two weeks now since the Great Disappointment of 2012.  In 1844, the Millerites were let down in their expectation of divine deliverance.  With the wailing and self-flagellation of some after Romney’s 2012 defeat, one could be forgiven for thinking an event of similar cosmic significance had transpired.

To be sure, there is much to talk about.  And I myself have had some hearty discussions or else tracked the ongoing conversation.  This time of ferment offers a fresh opportunity to applaud realistic thinking as well as call out and smack down the sillier and more destructive ideas.

Two or three days after election, I came across one of the self-flagellation pieces on American Thinker.  The article looks back to the GOP’s post-Gingrich Revolution profligacy.  It seems the author is laying some significant portion of the election blame there.  But these transgressions happened an eternity ago on the political timescale.  It’s a little hard to imagine any number of voters bemoaning Trent Lott’s appropriation decisions from 17 years ago.

Yet the idea persists that Republicans are still suffering from the veto of off-put fiscal purists.  Michael Medved counters this notion with a rhetorical image: where is this mythical army of conservative voters who are withholding for the right candidate?  Only 40% of the country identifies as conservative, and we pretty well turned them out this last time.  The decisive work ahead lies not in squeezing an elusive reservoir of more conservatives but winning more moderates in the middle.  The numbers bear this out.

Meanwhile, a piece from Forbes offers a different message: this latest defeat is a chance to shake free of Karl Rove and the Bush II cadre.  Per the commentary, its high time for true Reaganites, in the Jack Kemp mold, to climb back to power.  I’m not really knowledgeable on the comparative schools of GOP politicos, but I took the editorial with a grain of salt.  Just think of Reagan’s 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”  Certainly, there’s room to criticize of our fellow partisans, but we ought to be wary of taking away such a simplistic narrative.  And we need to watch out for the damage that comes from publicly airing our internecine struggles.

Reading articles is nice, but one doesn’t even have to look that far to examine a slice of the conservative movement.  There’s Twitter for that.  And a lot of what has been floating in the past few days is junk.  There is the talk of secession.  Just dumb.  Neither is a dire outlook of the Republican brand appropriate.  And please, let’s suffer no more talk of RINOs.  This kind of sourness doesn’t help grow the party.  But to Twitter conservatives’ credit, folks seem to be on the ball in registering their disdain for unelectable candidates like Todd Akin.  If anyone needs to be kicked out, it’s brand-destroyers of that vein.

A bright spot in the post-election conservation is Daniel Henninger’s deconstruction of the Obama victory.  He has exposed the repulsive shape of future campaigns that Democrats have pioneered.  It will be in your face, all the time, and begging for every last penny.  Democrats, drawing on the progressive obsession with number-crunching technocratic solutions, have perfected the division and manipulation of the voting populace.

The rank and file of the GOP is too idealistic by comparison.  We’re always waxing about “articulating ideas.”  But I know we have some unsavory electorate-dicing operatives among us; or at least, we ought to.  We need them to act with the resources and range of their Democratic counterparts.

One more take away from post-election discussion comes from Michael Medved.  Per his recent piece, the key to Obama’s reelection victory was voter suppression.  You read that right.  Not Black Panther intimidation or tampering with ballots, though that surely happened too.  The winning strategy was deeply cynical: turn off swing voters, and push your base to the polls at all costs.  There’s nothing magical we can’t replicate there.

I think the GOP definitely has the ability to turn things around in the next few elections.  But even if you disagree, I would implore you to hold the myopic moping, conspiracy theories and intra-partisan vitriol.  Don’t spoil the hunt for the rest of us; too much is at stake.

2016 and RNC: increasingly visible, minority conservatives buck liberalism

This past weekend, I saw Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America.  It was playing on some 1,000 movie screens.  And this upcoming weekend, it will open up on a thousand more.  There’s been considerable coverage now that it’s broken into the weekly box office top ten.  Not only that, it’s at least the fifth highest grossing political documentary of all time.  Watch out, Michael Moore!

I have offered some critical words about D’Souza’s past work.  Just the cover of his 2011 tome, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, comes off as a psychoanalytical potshot.  But given the election year excitement and buzz, I thought I’d give 2016 a try.

Dinesh D’Souza travels the world to learn about Obama’s roots. 2016themovie.com

The film is well-produced, and acclaimed Hollywood veteran Gerald Molen can be thanked for that.  The music, not overbearing or manipulative as we might expect for a political documentary, lends an air of excitement and intrigue befitting the cosmopolitan journey.  After all, this is D’Souza’s “reading” (as my wife put it) of Obama’s globetrotting, cross-cultural upbringing.

D’Souza lays out a comprehensive case in the course of 90 minutes; undoubtedly, he has done his homework.  Polished graphics and dramatic cuts of D’Souza retracing Obama’s footsteps through Indonesia, Hawaii, and Kenya add grit and a kinetic potency to his “anticolonial” thesis.

A recent AP Fact Check–which Breitbart’s Big Journalism has answered–takes exception to some of D’Souza’s claims.  But the finer points of what Obama was exposed to at prep school or what his father’s old associates believe about Israel pale in comparison to the the core fact that the AP fact checker perhaps willfully overlooked.  This is the odd trajectory his white, American, maternal side of the family put him on.

Looking beyond the film for a moment, we can see the root of that strange trajectory.  President Obama’s maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, named his daughter after himself.  Of course, people mostly know her by her middle name Ann.

Back in the film, we see Ann’s radical values–adopted early in life–play out.  She rejects her Indonesian husband Lo Lo Soetoro because he cozies up to an American oil company and comes to oppose communists.  This telling is hardly the kind of “logical stretch” that AP’s fact check would have you believe the film is built on.

D’Souza’s most important revelation may be Obama’s “founding fathers.”  How he comes to know one of these guiding lights is particularly telling.  Young Barack’s grandfather Stanley Dunham  introduces a peculiar personal friend to be his mentor: card-carrying Communist (no. 47544) Frank Marshall Davis.

At one point in the film, D’Souza refers to Obama’s ideas as “alien.”  As cringe-inducing as this may sound, it is not a prelude to a radical right rant.  Neither is it a racist code or dog whistle.  After all, D’Souza is a mixed race immigrant from the global South.  That Barack Obama is black is merely an asterisk to the long-raging ideological struggle that lent his mother and grandfather strange ideas most Americans reject.

As important as D’Souza’s revelations are, we’ll find in 2016 a deeper significance.  It’s a film where a South Asian immigrant stars in a winsome, provocative telling of his own life as it contrasts with Obama’s.  During one prominent segment, D’Souza invokes the expert testimony of a fellow biracial academic, Shelby Steele.  Liberal Hollywood doesn’t hand us such a substantive, diversely-cast film everyday.  Sure, there’s Harold and Kumar, if Asian-Americans being depicted as stoners is somehow a good thing.

What 2016 accomplishes by featuring such thought-provoking minority conservatives is something neither the media, academia, nor the rest of our liberal cultural elites can stand.  This film is a very “brown” critique of the liberal worldview, and something I deeply appreciate as the son of a Southeast Asian immigrant myself.  Just as D’Souza relates his own college experience to spotlight the strange thinking of some Americans, I can recall absurd liberal expectations that I encountered as a college student of color.

Minority conservatives are to be found not just on screen, but on stage, at the Republican National Convention.  Speakers like Nikki Haley, Artur Davis, Condoleezza Rice and Susana Martinez have this year voiced their rejection of liberalism while affirming all that makes America powerful, decent, and good.

Nothing threatens the liberal worldview more than when its objects of sympathy and concern stand up, call it for what it is, and reject it.  As important as it will be in getting out the 2012 conservative vote, 2016 is,  perhaps more significantly, another nail in the coffin of liberal ideas whose time has passed.

Fearing the rhesus revolution

It’s an exciting time.  The Republican National Convention is about to start.  This is Romney’s chance to shine.  But the press has been stuck on the narrative that unwelcome events keep the GOP off message.  This is where media malfeasance has steered us, to meta-news, news about news.  Who is responsible for determining what the media covers?  Whoops, we’re not supposed to ask that kind of question.

The New York Times Magazine commemorates the advent of the Republican convention with a dour examination of the host city, Tampa, Florida.  Writer John Mooallem brings us the saga of a renegade rhesus macaque.  As he tells it, this indomitable monkey has become a sort of resistance symbol and a focal point for anti-government sentiment.

From start to finish, he peppers the piece with liberal complaints.  Opening up, he finds fault with the American flag flying over a local restaurant.  It’s “preposterously large.”  He reveals that, en route to covering the story, he tortured himself by listening to conservative talk radio.  From what I can tell, he’s done this for no other reason than to complain about it in writing afterward.

With respect to the monkey controversy itself, Mooallem makes his sympathies very clear.  He’s supportive of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, who the locals see as “the Gestapo.”  The writer’s sentiment crystallizes in this assessment of the state officers:

But they took a somewhat traditional view: the American people had a right to be protected by their government from wild monkeys. It was disorienting to watch the people of Tampa Bay champion the monkey’s rights instead.

That an idea like freedom might trump the public order deeply troubles him.  To counter such libertarian exuberance,  he quotes one man’s stern warning: “Sometimes, freedom isn’t necessarily a good idea.”  In true liberal fashion, the writer is most at home expressing his convictions as an equivocal miasma.

Nonetheless, he seems to advance a genuine concern about public order and safety.  Mooallem unmistakably condemns Tampans’ refusal to cooperate with the animal control agency.  But I suspect he doesn’t feel the same way about the Holder Justice Department’s bitter reluctance to enforce federal deportation laws.  Per his metric, why shouldn’t the prospect of fellow humans living an uncertain, shadow existence elicit the same kind of concern?

At any rate, pieces like Mooallem’s are the Sunday afternoon grist that Northeastern cultural elites relax by.  Harper’s, Atlantic, The New Yorker, anything that will allow them to look with detached pity and concern upon their benighted countrymen in the far flung regions.

I recall a long-running TV ad from some years ago.  In an effort to get the viewer to subscribe to the weekend edition of the New York Times, a woman would exclaim, “For me, that’s what Sundays were made for!”  Back then, I suspected this woman’s compatriots would profess that Sunday was “made” with a nobler purpose in mind.

With aching essays like the Tampa monkey expose, the folks at the Times demonstrate they are just as aloof of Middle America today as they’ve ever been.

Reflections on The Dark Knight Rises

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises for many reasons, not the least of which is Hans Zimmer’s ominous and expectant musical score.  Like the preceding entries of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the film is rich with the timeless tensions we face both as individuals and as a society. And though some have denied it, it can be read as a social commentary relevant to the divisions that rend our world today. Here are some observations on my part.

Rebuking Revolution

One strand of Rises’ plot sees Gotham City, a self-contained symbol for society, undergo the trial of revolution. There is a scene clearly meant to evoke, in a twisted way, the storming of the Bastille at the onset of the French Revolution. We also witness the workings of a kangaroo court, another French legacy replicated by Marxists and other would-be world changers.

On facebook I’ve seen at least one anarchist express a sense of betrayal and disappointment with Christopher Nolan for what he saw as a manifestly reactionary tone. Yet, the varied dispositions of Gotham’s denizens, from apathetic to licentious, continually tease the viewer with the idea that Gotham might not be worth saving.  This tension, as with the previous films, is at the crux of the narrative itself. Rises certainly airs out the ugliness and excess of revolution, but it is not authoritarian agitprop.

The Thin Blue Line – Campus Observations

For any Hollywood production, it’s refreshing when the police are not the all-out bad guys.  Of course this makes for an awkward tension with cinema’s core consumer, the disaffected adolescent male. But just as Batman puts himself on the line to do what is necessary and right, so it is good that self-indulgent audiences get a dose of reality as to who and what holds civilization together.

One way I survive working on a liberal university campus is listening to podcasts. The other day I had to get new ear buds for my personal player, so I traversed the student union to reach the campus bookstore.  Signs every few feet admonished passersby to not block physical access to the unions’ various businesses.  Last winter, Occupy had done just this to force a closure of U.S. Bank’s campus branch.  Where services were once transacted, only a dim, empty room remained, pocked by outlets sprouting unused cables.  “Direct action” is good at tearing down, not building up.

The posted signs attest to our litigious society, where personal responsibility has been completely outsourced to superfluous fine print warnings. The larger civilizational failing is that the campus administration, out of fear of seeming heavy-handed, allowed a group of kids to shutter commerce and diminish the vitality of the campus.  And then there is the needless lawsuit that followed.

As if these signals of decline weren’t enough, the very headphones which I purchased were branded “Riot,” with a cartoon depicting dozens brawling in mayhem, not unlike the criminal vs. cop melee at the climax of Rises. Also included in the packaging were stickers and a spraypaint stencil with which to vandalize one’s environs and allay whatever sense of self-righteousness and alienation one’s music might produce.

Despite these dire signs, there is still hope.  On the same campus can be found a quiet, green spot where parents walk their small children.  Once, I spied a bicycle cop stopping by one mother and son.  The boy instinctively hid behind his mother’s skirt.  The policewoman produced a small candy for him, and some words were exchanged.  This kind of scene is the hallmark of civilization: parents passing healthy attitudes onto the next generation.  In case you missed it, cops are there to serve and protect us.

Who is the real hero?

As with the previous two films, Rises tracks two parallel crises: that of Bruce Wayne, and that of Gotham as a whole.  Bruce must confront his own doubts and limitations to prevail, but each of the city’s citizens must also.  At one point, when hope of outside deliverance appears lost, Jim Gordon proclaims the city must be saved from within.  Powerfully revealed in the course of the film is the idea that even small virtuous acts by ordinary citizens can have outsized consequences.  As dark, tortured, and brutal as the film is, the viewer cannot escape the boy scout ethic–a confident, selfless, and felt moral responsibility–at the drama’s core.

Much in this lavish, blockbuster epic points to the ineffable nature of morality, the “oughtness” we feel and the volitional nature of doing good.  Ultimately, nothing is determined but what we will.  It’s rare and good when we can get a hint of this in a summer action hit, as we did with The Avengers.  To be sure, we get this in spades in The Dark Knight Rises.

Two Trons, Four Freedoms

After Governor Scott Walker’s June recall victory, blogging compatriot Cosmoscon shared some choice tweets from the Left.  One that really grabbed me was this spurious Abraham Lincoln quote:

“If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar.”

The line is simultaneously funny and sad.  The adversarial unions we know today were scarcely extant, let alone popularly identified by the “labor” moniker, in President Lincoln’s lifetime.  It’s ironic that a movement sheltering so many of the work-averse (rubber rooms, anyone?) would brandish a quote that, properly construed, endorses hard work.  True to that irony, those at the bleeding-edge of the quest for expanded labor rights end up calling for a fantastically impossible feat: the abolition of work itself.

“Labor” is not the only word that lends itself to sociopolitical confusion.  People sometimes get caught up in an equivocal use of the word “free.”  On the one hand, it means for some agent the liberty of movement, thought or action.  On the other, it can refer to a null price of acquisition, that is zero cost, gratis.  Occasionally, the vital distinction between these two meanings is blurred in the popular imagination, as with the 2010 blockbuster Tron: Legacy.

Two Trons

The original Tron, released in 1982, came on the heels of serious Soviet Bloc upheaval; just the year before, the Polish Solidarity labor union secured a degree of independence from Communist control.  This dramatic feat of defiance would have been fresh in the minds of moviegoers.  Tron is not merely anti-authoritarian but anti-Communist.  A theistic theme evinces in the eponymous hero’s mantra, “I fight for the users!”  The oppressed programs know they’ve been endowed with purpose greater than the totalizing and centralizing dictates issued by the Master Control Program.  Incredibly for Hollywood, the story ends up affirming property rights: the protagonist Kevin Flynn eventually regains credit for his programming masterpieces, which had been stolen from him.  There’s no mistake that when the characters speak of “freedom,” the classically libertarian ideal is in mind.

Fast forward to the compromised 2010 sequel, Tron: Legacy.  Early in the film, we find that in Flynn’s mysterious absence, his software company has burgeoned into a Microsoft-like leviathan, profiting by frequent commercial releases of an utterly worthless operating system.  Flynn’s son wants to honor his disappeared dad’s ideal of “freedom.”  But the story writers have revised this to mean advocacy of freeware, as in products distributed for zero cost.  On this paradigm, the work of producing software does not arise from the need to make a living, as in labor, but from boredom, altruism, or some other motive conceived in leisure.  In the sequel, the meaning of “freedom” lurches Left.  It’s not just freedom of thought and action, but freedom from the need to even make a living.

How did Hollywood minds pull off this coup?  If you’ve seen the film, you know Flynn’s discovery of the Isomorphs: supreme, benevolent beings that emerge spontaneously from the digital vacuum and portend to cure all the world’s ills.  They are cinematic incarnations of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity prophecy.  Flynn’s cries in the wilderness about freeware and perfection of the human race are of course mere functions of the film’s indulgence of the fantastic.  Yet, among anarchists and cyberpunks, “libertarian Marxists” and singularity disciples, are those who really place faith in the idea that one day nice machines will magically do everything for us.

Four Freedoms

This confusion over freedom didn’t start yesterday.  Looking back in history, even our top policymakers were prone to conflation.  In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed to Americans the Four Freedoms:

1. Freedom of speech and expression
2. Freedom of worship
3. Freedom from want
4. Freedom from fear

This progressive vision rallied a nation soon to be at war, but it is also a disastrous marriage between negative rights–government’s promise to do no ill–and positive rights, government’s guarantee to ensure good outcomes.  The sum of human experience and the duration of America’s Constitutional enterprise both attest to this: that it is practical and necessary for government to extend negative rights, but impractical and immoral to extend positive ones.

It may have been attractive to early progressives to follow Bismarck’s example in marshaling the state’s power to slake rising expectations.  But past the mid-century twentieth century high tide of statism, advocates of liberty, from Whitaker Chambers to Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek to Ronald Reagan, began to rally against the absurdity of positive rights.  That rally is alive and well today in the American conservative movement.

Unfortunately, too many remain beholden to Roosevelt’s proposition that it is government’s job not just to leave us free in our speech and worship, but to save each of us from the vagaries of poverty, hunger, and emotional distress.  These expectations ignore the finitude of government’s ability to help; no single human institution can guarantee positive rights to all.  The pursuit of happiness is necessarily a prerogative of individuals and their free and natural associations.

The best governments respect human nature, extending negative rights while withholding positive ones.  Disgruntled publics that demand otherwise, to be free from austerity and to be free from market forces, are really asking to be free from personal responsibility.  Absurd on its face, this kind of agitation always merits a facepalm.

Spirit guide

Humor is a subjective thing, so I’ll fill you in on the gaps.  Our pig of course shares a lack of certain scruples with Elizabeth Warren.  The totem gig comes from two sources.

First, I heard interviewed last year on The Michael Medved Show a remarkable performance artist.  She was commissioned via Kickstarter to circumprostrate herself around Mount Rainer.  It’s not as dirty as it sounds.  From all the bowing down, I guess there’s a spiritual dimension to it, but I can only scratch my head in wonder as to who paid for this and why.  Nonetheless, as a free marketeer I say more power to this woman if she can get people to pay her for her art.  It’s something I’m working on myself.

The second part of the totem reference also originates in the Pacific Northwest, which is a sort of epicenter of ecological writing.  There’s a whole lifestyle and philosophy that’s captured by folks like now-retired English professor and poet Gary Snyder.  Early in life, he saw the world as a merchant mariner, caught Zen Buddhism, and subsequently married it to Native American spirituality among other things.

From time to time in my day job, I encounter some works in this tradition.  I find the children’s literature to be especially striking.  One story book features a privileged white kid who is empowered by the spirit of Raven to oppose some mean guys in hard hats who cut down trees for a living.  Another encourages children to connect to “place” and maybe discover for themselves a special inspiring animal, or totem.  As the child of one Asian immigrant (and a native-born American) I can’t help but be tickled by how my fellow, privileged Americans turn from their rich heritage in search of more resonant truths.  By accident or providence, I’m on the opposite end of the divide from those Beatniks and baby boomers disaffected with Western modernity.  Once I came upon the scene, I was taken with the strange idea that America is a singular land of opportunity, that democracy and free market enterprise were vindicated by the end of history, and that we all have God to thank for it.  I still hold to this, by the way.

There’s one more piece to the punchline, if like me you don’t recall much of ancient literature.  It’s that Gilgamesh is 2/3 god, and 1/3 mortal.  But how does one get such a proportion of pedigree?

%d bloggers like this: