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Essays and Rants

Mexican Greeting Cards Suck.

Some years ago, I was introduced to a friend of a friend in the D.F., or Mexico City who worked as a cultural anthropology professor at the public university, UNAM. He gave me an informal walking tour through the piñata district, the pets and livestock district, and other quarters until we reached the greeting card district. This is the printing and wholesale greeting card hub for Latin America. Take as much time as you like, he challenged, and I’ll buy lunch if you can find a card in which more than one person has black hair.

If you’ve never been to Mexico and are a big fan of Mexican telenovelas, you may have a misconception about what people look like in Mexico. There is, as some people fairly point out, ethnic diversity in Mexico. There are redheads and people of African descent. However, the fact is that 99% of Mexicans look – you know – Mexican. They would not be mistaken in Europe or the US for “white people”.  They are at least partly and visibly of indigenous heritage. And 99% have black hair and brown eyes.

Yet he was right. I took a long time. I took a really long time. Nope. Could not find a greeting card in Mexico that depicted two or more Mexican-looking people or even brunettes.

Tonight, my son was enjoying an episode of Guru aur Bhole. It is a cartoon made in India, set in India and aimed at a global or Netflix audience. The cartoon depicts an Indian city in which people wear those Hitler mustaches that one only finds in the 21st century in South Asia and sing a lot of Bollywood-style songs (which my son digs).  Yes, it is surely India. Yet in most ways, the show does not resemble the real India at all. There are more people with light brown hair and blue eyes than with black hair and dark eyes. There is nobody drawn in brown, beige, tan, bittersweet, caramel or even burnt orange. (Yes, there are a child’s crayons all over my desk right now.) Everyone is decidedly white, like WASPs in January in a Minnesota town in winter. Or, if you prefer a reference to Crayola colors, everybody is drawn in white.

Again, without denying that India is a land of great diversity of  hues, there is a tremendous gap between reality and the sub-conscious that is revealed through this mass market art.

The reader may now wonder what brilliant conclusions and insights I reach from all this. None. I don’t know what to make of it. Cannot, as we say these days in the U.S., wrap my head around it. I hope friends will get in touch and share their own analyses.  I will update this page to share any especially exciting offerings that come to me.



Some Books Everyone in America Should Read

A few years ago, I posted a list  of books ( below) about America’s wars in Iraq, including non-fiction and novels, that I believed were especially elucidative. Friends liked the list.

Here is a list of books that may help to make sense of the very existential crisis that the United States and Western democracy in general seem to be undergoing. I think public loss of faith in not just individual politicians or a certain party but in a whole system is a problem with some roots causes and these are some books that pin causes down. All of these books recognize that the blame is not to be assigned only to one party.

Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, Zephyr Teachout

If you want to understand why so many people on both the American left and right are disenfranchised, it may be necessary to take a look at the facts of how our system, with neither of the two major parties taking all responsibility, has been sold off.  This is the one book that lays out the problem, how we got here, and what could – if there were anyone willing to focus on the fight – be done.

Secrecy: The American Experience, Daniel Patrick Moynihan

One of the twentieth century’s most important politicians, very shortly after his retirement, wrote this history of how the military-industrial complex (our biggest business) has slowly and quietly overtaken American democracy. There cannot be democracy without transparency and our governance, taken dollar for dollar, is mostly no longer transparent.

Anyone who reads this book will suddenly see President Trump’s threat to remove the security clearance of his enemies in a very new light.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson

This is the most enjoyable book on the list and Ronson aims, with great success, in all his writing to be accessible and funny. However, it is no laughing matter. Ronson shows how the American military and intelligence community, with poor legislative oversight, can and do run totally amuck.  This funny, narrative read is the unfortunate worst case scenario that proves the importance of Moynihan’s book.

all Ronson’s books

Read his book, The Psychopath Test. Read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Read any of his hilarious, well researched books to understand some very dangerous patterns in American culture.

The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray

A knee jerk reading of Murray’s work often concludes that he is anti-immigration. He is not.  He is, however, for recognizing that immigration policies are, according to people on both left and right, not currently “working” and he offers some reasons.  Whether one wants to fairly and roundly understand the insular reclusion of Brexit or the current debate about immigration in the US or the xenophobic appeal of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, it is worth reading Murray calmly and with a highlighter.

Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg

This is a sprawling work that attempts to explain many ideas. It is not easy beach reading. However, it is a brilliant, erudite, well researched and sheds new light on some of Murray’s points while also covering some very different territory.

Neither left nor right can be entirely blamed for where we have found ourselves, especially in the US. Goldberg demonstrates how Trump’s appeal is a horrible and also largely inevitable beginning – not temporary and probably just the beginning – result of the left’s gradual abandonment of principles upon which the US was founded.


The Best Writing on The Iraq Wars

Having just finished Ben Fountain’s brilliant debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, I’ve been thinking about the best and most elucidative books about the U.S. military action in Iraq. Here are my top picks, though not in any special order.

Bill Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the only work of fiction on my list.

It is wonderful writing, both funny and sad from the first page. The dialogue is strangely perfect, giving people of different backgrounds and personalities very distinct and always plausible voices. Any writer should be admired for getting this right but Fountain deserves special recognition, as he hits the lexicon, sense of humor and patterns of men of a generation and of reference points very far from his own. When Tom Wolfe made the leap from reportage to novels, I’m not alone in thinking that he lost a little of his gift for dialogue. Fountain shows us what Wolfe has, in his later writing, tried to do.

The book doesn’t make the list for its writing style alone. This is important reading because of what it reminds us about Iraq, about our military and about the dishonest and abusive ways that our society uses the young people who enter the military profession, usually with few alternatives. Fountain brilliantly shows the rich and powerful working their talking points and using the soldiers as props, drowning the protagonist in a sea of clichés that he (and we) cannot escape; they talk about defending our freedom (as if Iraqis planned on taking it), about 9/11 and terrorism (as a reason for the invasion of Baathist-ruled Iraq) and they talk about victory and success as if the war ever had a clear and militarily deliverable end goal.  The book’s characters are our America, making our soldiers into coat hangers on which to drape our epithets – brave, patriotic, etc. etc. – until Fountain’s nineteen year old embodiments of American ideals turn to drink. In the end, they show that all the talk is hollow. Nobody wants to let the enlisted men say much or gain from all the profits that big businesses have found in the war games. The metaphors in the book are subtle, the realizations are harsh and Fountain has finally held up the mirror to a country that is addicted to wars and highly tolerant of nonsensical justifications for them.

Jarhead by Anthony Swofford may find new readers as the author’s recently published second book, about life as a veteran, is on the current best seller charts.

Swofford served as a Marine in the first Gulf War but Jarhead, published in 2003 and still relevant now, is about more than that brief phase in our country’s wars.  It is about the American soldier’s culture and experience more generally. It is about why people join, whether as enlisted soldiers or officers, about what they dream for and what they fear as much as what they finally do when deployed.

The great irony of the book is that it was turned into a movie in 2005. Swofford devotes much of his best writing to the idea that all war movies, regardless of their directors’ political beliefs or artistic aims, glamorize war just by being movies. He shows the unpleasant truth about Americans our age and younger, who watch supposedly anti-war films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon as combat porn, psyching themselves up from boot camp (well, from puberty) until deployment. The Americans who served in the Second World War grew up imagining noble wars against evil enemies. Those who went to Vietnam, whether by volition or draft and regardless of what they did when they got there, grew up playing WWII in their childhood playgrounds. They dreamed of fighting armed and wicked enemies to free civilian victims. Our generation grew up thinking about Vietnam. Our soldiers grow up dreaming of a war full of prostitution, drug abuse, callousness toward the local culture, and the massacres of civilians. This is what we watched in beautiful, cinematically excellent perfection as kids and this is our image of a real war. Swofford recalls the cheering when Marines see soldiers killing the innocent on screen and he shows us how young men trained for violence break down and cry when they realize that they’re going to finish and go home without getting a kill. The movie, showing some of America’s best-looking actors in visually captivating scenery with inspiring soundtrack, makes a mockery of the book. Still, the book is out there waiting to be read and examined.

Generation Kill is another brave piece of reportage, written by Rolling Stone report Evan Wright, who embedded with Marines in 2003. Staff Sergeant Eric Kocher, who took care of him in the field, has stated that Wright earned credibility with the troops because he stayed with the Marines for “every firefight.”

Marine commanders have encouraged the officers of 1st Reconnaissance to read the book as preparation for the realities of war. Maybe American voters would do wise to do the same.

Again, film-makers made a mess here. If you’re considering reading the book, don’t let the mindless 2008 HBO miniseries discourage you. HBO seems to have made some hard choices about how much reality a hawkish public wanted and made the script fit the market’s tastes.

Babylon by Bus won’t make a lot of people’s best war books but I think that our country would be a smarter place if more people paid attention to it. No, I am not referring to the Bob Marley album but to the cleverly named memoir of Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann. Fun, funny and unfortunately light-shedding, this is a great story by two guys who left behind a business selling Yankees Suck t-shirts at Boston’s Fenway Park to go to occupied Iraq and seek adventure and a chance to be a part of history.  By drinking and goofing off with every American they can meet, they make the right connections in no time and they do just what an intelligent person would never let them do. The Coalition Provisional Authority puts them in charge, through a non-profit organization, of providing humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people.

It is worth reading something honest about how our military establishment handles everything that goes under the umbrella of “nation-building” and stabilization. This book is a great reminder of how carelessly Defense really treats humanitarian aid, democratization and civil society capacity building. Lemoine and Neumann, two cool dudes with no experience in anything they are hired to do and no understanding of the place where they are hired to do it, are obviously just outsourced in order to check off the “we are rebuilding” box. We are lucky to have such an enjoyable and detailed account of the fiasco. Besides, I’m from Massachusetts and no list of best American writing in any genre can be complete without someone from the home team.

Onward, brave readers.


  1. I laughed (in a sad way) when I read your post about dying languages and parents who don’t pass their language down for whatever reason. There’s the other side of the coin, those of us who come from single-language families and will therefore start spending a great deal of money, as early as preschool, to raise bilingual children.

  2. I think you should include The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, 2017, by Tom Nichols. If you haven’t read it, I think you should, and then you should give everyone your opinions about it.

    • There are several great books about the anti-science push in American politics but I suggest the title above because they ought to have bipartisan appeal. Without intending offense to Republican friends or readers, the anti-science trend is, well, a Republican problem.

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