Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Not Your Model Minority?: The Complexity of Asian Americans in 21st Century American Film

Asian Americans are perpetuating white racism in the United States as they allow white America to hold up the “successful” Oriental image before other minority groups as the model to emulate. White America justifies the blacks’ position by showing that other non-whites – yellow people – have been able to “adapt” to the system. The truth underlying both the yellows’ history and that of the blacks has been distorted. In addition, the claim that black citizens must “prove their rights to equality” is fundamentally racist.
 -- Amy Uyematsu, Asian American activist, 1969

The “Model Minority” designation so often ascribed to Asian Americans in the late 20th century remains a badge of pride and shame. Writers like Glen Omatsu have pointed out that “Model Minority” stereotypes have cast Asian Americans in the unsavory role of “best minority”, demoting other less successful groups. Robert G. Lee points out that due in part to Cold War pressures, ideas about Asian Americans as “politically silent and ethnically assimilable” grew in the post WWII era. As American military forces occupied Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the need to illustrate American benevolence toward Asian peoples emerged as a key foreign policy priority. Once considered unassimilable and “perpetually foreign”, Asians came to occupy a new position in American society.

Though its origins remain debated (some give credit to a 1955 Time magazine article, others to William Peterson in the mid-1960s), the term "model minority" came to carry great weight over time. Critics like Lee, Omatsu, and the impassioned Amy Uyematsu (quoted at the articles outset), suggest that Model Minority paradigms created a new racial hierarchy, in which Asians remain above Blacks and Latinos but still subordinate to Whites. Additionally, the title implies some level of condescension. Asians have played nice, worked hard, not complained, and remained apolitical, therefore, whites bestow upon them most favored minority status. The discourse around the Model Minority obscures the efforts of Asians and Asian Americans in overcoming decades of racial prejudice and discrimination. Rachel Parrenas observers that it also functions to imply that all Asians are middle class professionals, free of economic worry, when in reality the immigration flows of the past 20-30 years have been increasingly feminized and poor. Through the forces of globalization, American military expansion, and/or the various reunification acts (whether through the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Act or 1980 Family Reunification Act), the last 30 years have witnessed Southeast Asian and South Asian immigrants arriving on US shores in what are sometimes dire economic straits. Often hailing from more rural areas and lacking the educational or professional attainment of those who immigrated under the Hart-Cellar 1965 Act, this new Asian migration flow suffers from higher levels of economic stress, social difficulty, and political invisibility.

The opening of immigration in 1965 to Asian peoples in many ways completed American attempts to reform Asian immigration. Ironically, reforms to America’s discriminatory immigration polices occurred in large part as result of American military expansion abroad. American G.I.’s stationed abroad in Korea and Japan engaged in relationships with local women. Some married, which presented the US government with serious problems. Several states had banned interracial marriage and the federal policy had yet to alter its anti-Asian immigration biases. Still, the US government eventually passed a series of War Bride Acts granting citizenship to these new wives and at least governmentally, legitimizing the marriages. By 1965, the Cold War required greater technical and scientific expertise. Wanting to lure individuals proficient in these areas, the US government enacted the Hart Cellar 1965 Act (though it took 3 years to implement) which ultimately encouraged increased Asian immigration to America. Thus, many of these new arrivals carried with them advanced skills and educations that were soon employed by the American military and private industry. Undoubtedly, the image of highly skilled Asian professionals working on American shores helped to solidify the Model Minority image.

Few movies in the past decade have illustrated the dynamics of this bifurcated immigration flow than the Clint Eastwood vehicle Gran Torino, the John Cho/Kal Penn vehicle Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. Though each remains problematic in its own way, they at least begin grasping, even if unwittingly in Eastwood’s case, at just what the Model Minority label implies.

Unfolding in deindustrialized and depressed Detroit, Eastwood’s Gran Torino explores the place of the Hmong and Hmong American population through the medium of lovably racist Walter Kowalski. One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves Kowalski’s armed stand off with a local Hmong gang who have offended his sense of property rights. Kowalski, the gruff native Detroiter and apparent Korean War veteran, grumbles something sufficiently racist about how he used to pile “zips like you” ten feet high. Did know he was intervening to save the neighboring Hmong family’s henpecked boy, Thao, from a beating or worse? Or was Eastwood’s character a crotchety old man who hated people on his lawn? Maybe both. After catching the boy trying to steal his invaluable Gran Torino, Thao’s family forces him to work off his crime by basically serving as Eastwood’s lackey. Along the way, Kowalski teaches Thao how to be a man and the boy’s family teaches Eastwood about tolerance, family, and atoning for regret.

Stop here. One wonders whether or not Eastwood knows that he has fallen into Orientalism in his depiction of the Hmong. While the family is clearly modern, there remain aspects of mysticism and feminization. At a family gathering, which Eastwood attends (and gets ripped mind you), the Hmong are portrayed as clearly modern but with eccentric twists like “ethnically attired” shaman and livestock. Moreover, Thao’s family is dominated by women; his own mother and sister believe that Kowalski can teach the boy how to be a man. One might suggest Eastwood feminizes Thao, a traditional construction of Asian male masculinity under Western Orientalism. Then again, maybe Eastwood is sharper than one might think. After all, his movie does challenge the middle class nature of the Model Minority myth that has proven so pervasive. Eastwood’s charge and his family are decidedly low income, female dominated, politically translucent, and subject to violence from various corners of the twenty first century “Motor City.” Most striking is the apparent brutality that occurs within and between Hmong community members. The local Hmong gang terrorizes its fellow Hmong Americans. Rape, extortion, and murder are only a couple of activities in which the local gang excels. Eastwood acknowledges the difficult place the Hmong occupy in Detroit; a position pressured by external forces like a declining economy and urban infrastructure fracturing within. This is certainly not the vision of Asian American life perpetuated by Model Minority paradigm. In many ways, Eastwood’s Hmong resemble numerous portrayals of struggling black families, female led with a generation of sons apparently deficient (according to some observers) in or not understanding proper masculinity. The absence of fathers in lower income black communities remains a divisive and controversial issue (the recent comments by Jalen Rose regarding Duke basketball and Grant Hill in ESPN’s recent Fab Five Documentary and Hill’s pointed response in the NY Times serves as only the most recent controversy over this subject). Thus, it is hard to tell if Eastwood is falling back on Orientalist stereotypes regarding the masculinity of Asian males, Patrick Moniyhan-like assumptions about pathological black families, or reflecting an accurate image of modern day Asian immigration that Parrenas goes to great lengths to uncover. [Note Thao’s family has no surname at IMBD's webpage for the movie implying they have no last name – "perpetual foreigner" anyone?].

Still one would be foolish to underestimate Eastwood. Anyone who has followed his career from High Plains Drifter to Pale Rider to Unforgiven to Mystic River knows the crotchety old movie star refuses to traffic in simplicity. His movies are not so much dark morality tales as movies about human community. Eastwood’s conclusions about humanity are at once disturbing and thought provoking. The ending of Gran Torino flips the violence that Eastwood’s career cashed in on for decades on its head, while also subtly illustrating that law and society continue to value white lives over those of minorities. Remember, Detroit is the same city in which Vincent Chin was murdered by two unemployed auto workers. The two men resented Chin’s appropriation of a local white stripper at a Detroit gentlemen’s club. Confusing the Chinese American Chin for a Japanese American, the two autoworkers beat Chin to death. Early 1980s automotive competition with Japan stoked nasty nativist fervor. The two men yelled “It’s Because of you motherfuckers,” at Chin, a non too veiled reference at the Japanese auto juggernaut of the 1980s. If there was a silver lining to the Chin tragedy it lay in the emergence of an Asian American activism that reached across ethnic lines as evidenced by the pan Asian American Citizens for Justice (ACJ). Likewise, Eastwood’s death in Gran Torino serves to mobilize local authorities but also unified the local Hmong community against the youth gang that had been terrorizing them.

Gran Torino’s depiction of Hmong-American life may challenge the Model Minority myth but Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow warps the identity all while clinging to it tightly. The story of a group of middle to upper middle class Socal Asian American high school teens, Better Luck tomorrow is probably as much about middle class boredom and conformity as it is the Model Minority. Yet, Lin plays with the concept circumscribing his characters worlds by it, yet granting them agency to harness it for their own ends.

Tracking a four month arc in the lives of four teens, the film focuses on Ben, who gets lured into a life of petty high school crime by selling exam answers to other students. His sojourn into crime culminates in an unfortunate act of violence. As their activities increase exponentially, almost unbelievably if not for Asians being so damn industrious, the criminal exploits of Ben’s gang bring them notoriety and infamy. This also encourages them to indulge in various unsavory activities including gun play, drug use, and armed shenanigans with a Las Vegas prostitute. As Ben narrates, their fame spread far and wide such that “it got to be people came to us.” Ben even gets the lady he’s been chasing, the girlfriend of “frenemy”, Steve (John Cho possibly the most famous Korean American actor around, he stars as one of the leads in Harold and Kumar as well), in whose demise Ben plays a central central role. If this sounds a little David Green’s remarkably fast crystal meth addiction (fellow contributor Professor Cummings has pointed out and noted that David took his crystal meth with orange juice, a means of drug use not since seen on network television or really anywhere) and rehab on 90210, well it’s a movie about high school so you need to suspend disbelief sometimes.

Lin divides the plot into sections that foreshadow aspects of the story. For example, Ben defines the word "punctilious" at the outset which essentially described his approach to life. More words follow such as "quixotic", "temerity" and "catharsis". One might argue this approach is a bit overbearing especially since Ben also narrates much of the movie. Other aspects of Lin’s take on the Model Minority ring truer. For example, writers like Yen Espiritu have argued that many Asian Americans see their identities tied more to transnational existences than a linear connection to nation states. Two prominent characters in Better Luck Tomorrow exhibit a transnational existence. Daric Lu’s family resides in Vancouver while he tends to their home in Socal, attends high school, and throws “crazy” academic decathlon competitions that involve obscene amounts of tequila, sexual hijinks, and apparently the coolest set of academic decathletes this world has ever seen. Of course, the national championship is held in Las Vegas … really? Again, you must be in the moment.

Ben and his gang consist of Virgil [the irrational , sensitive, crazy one], the aforementioned Daric [the social climber, club joiner, schemer, schmoozer type], Ben [the level headed one trying to balance two worlds] and Han [the brawny, sexually virulent, muscle – it must be noted Han also has easily the best style in the movie, his shirt in the Vegas scene is fantastic]. Even as they operate as criminals they do so in a way that remains circumscribed by their middle class nature. Virgil notes elite schools’ predliction for early admissions, “it makes them all wet.” In another scene, Virgil babbles on manic depressively as three real gangbangers relate to the four teens how middle class they are when one flashes a semi automatic in the boys direction. Finally, when planning to rob the home of Steve’s parents, who Steve thinks need a “wake up call”, he casually mentions that he can get Ben a valuable internship. Not exactly Menace to Society. Nor are the four young men oblivious to their Model Minority status or white America’s ignorance of them. The very activities the teens engage in remain obscured by their high GPA’s and Asian identity. When they pull off an electronics scam at a Best Buy like retailer, they do so under the assumption that whites cannot distinguish between Asians.

Interestingly, Stephanie, Ben’s love interest and Steven’s girlfriend, is Asian but raised by a white family. Is Lin drawing attention to the complexity of Asian American identities? American military expansion and the reach of adoption agencies have led to increasing numbers of white families with Asian children. Laura Briggs has suggested that such systems of adoption to some extent have been attempts to overshadow the negative effects of US foreign policy in nations like Vietnam and Korea while highlighting the generous nature of Americans. Additionally, the advertising techniques adopted in the 1950s to promote such adoptions suggested Asian parenthood was somehow deficient when compared with that of American parents. To be fair, there are those who question some of Brigg’s premises. Besides, one doubts Lin based this plot device on Briggs. Still, Lin is saying something,

This brings us to the most famous of the three movies Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. What can be said about this film that has not already been said? The movie tackles Asian stereotypes, Black Asian relations, interracial relationships, and the right of Asian Americans to engage in the very negative activities white counterparts like Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Jeff Spicoli made so famous, [“What was that? That was my SKULL MAN! I’m so wasted!”). Harold and Kumar overlaps with many of themes that Lin addresses a bit more dramatically. It goes without saying that sexuality in Harold and Kumar occupies a central place in the movie. These are not effeminate Asian stereotypes. Harold pines for and eventually earns some intimate moment with his hot neighbor played by Paula Garces. While Kumar seems at least marginally interested in women, it must be noted that the scene with him copulating with a giant bag of marijuana suggests a true love that dare not be spoken. Like Lin’s characters, Harold and Kumar enjoy life’s finer substances. In Gran Torino, with Eastwood’s guidance Thao earns a date of a local Hmong-American girl. In contrast to Thao’s more innocent sexual interest, Better Luck Tomorrow’s Han and Steve serve as exemplars of male virility. Steve even scores a white girlfriend on the side as he cheats on Ben’s love interest

Who is part of the Model Minority also remains a question. Does the moniker include South Asians? Kumar both fulfills and rejects the ideal. Despite his apparent innate skill at doctoring (a scene featuring a cameo by dreamy Ryan Reynolds), Kumar refuses to follow in his father’s medical footsteps, going so far as to sabotage medical school interviews. The crushing pressure of middle class life and the weight of internal and external Model Minority expectations necessitate only one response: drug induced consumption of White Castle sliders. The characters of Better Luck Tomorrow refused to be satisfied by weed and fast food. Cocaine, crime, and nihilism appear to more their speed. Nonetheless, Kumar undoubtedly should be operating on someone, somewhere in the future. This too hides the fact that while many South Asians have migrated to the US for jobs in medicine, technology, and science, since the 1980 Family Reunification Act many others who lack the education or professional skills of their better off counterparts have also arrived. What of the targeting of South Asian Muslims by Federal authorities under the Patriotic Act? What about the racializatoin of many South Asians, most prominently Sikhs, as terrorists due to their brown skin? (The scene in Spike Lee’s fantastic Inside Man when a hostage of the Sikh religion is subject to accusations of being “Arab” and a “terrorist” is fantastic in illustrating this prejudice. It also clearly reveals differences in how racism manifests itself for various racial groups as Denzel Washington’s detective interrogates the Sikh cabdriver reflecting on the more positive aspects of such racializations, “At least you can get a cab.”) These poorer immigrants have found themselves in the odd position of adopting more skeptical forms of citizenship identities. As Sunaina Maira points out, these lower income South Asians, particularly Muslims, have been subject to higher levels of Patriot Act scrutiny. In addition to Maira's work, Stanley Thangaraj's research on South Asian basketball leagues in Atlanta contributes key insights into this discussion.

Critically, of the three movies, only Gran Torino gives women a prominent role. Thao’s sister, Sue, though enduring various levels of tragedy in the film, serves as the family anchor. Smarter, confident and more outgoing than Thao, She drives much of the film. It is interesting that the movie about a working class minority would do this while its middle class variants exhibit obvious gender blind spots. Additionally, though debatable, one might argue that Eastwood’s means of resolving Gran Torino could be gendered as submissive since he basically submitted to the local gang’s fetish for violence to achieve his goal. Stephanie of Better Luck Tomorrow does play a reasonably central role but the movie is clearly a vehicle for Asian American male masculinity as she remains identifiable more by her relation to Steve and Ben than her own person. One could suggest the similar issues for Harold and Kumar. Despite this difference, each movie features a main male character that simply must “man up”. Be more assertive. Be tougher. Don’t accommodate.

At the very least, these three films illustrate an increasing complexity within Asian American life. Model Minority paradigms obscure as much as they reveal. Immigration flows and American military expansion of the last 30 years have helped to facilitate a more diverse Asian American population. The expansion of material culture representing this growth serves as a harbinger of things to come. USA Today declared American society to now consist of a minority population that accounted for 36% of the population. Only time separates the US from a majority minority society. The racial hierarchies and cultural normatives the Model Minority myth imposes will serve only to make this transition more difficult. One wonders what future movies about Asian American life will bring.

Ryan Reft

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

America’s Ace in the Hole Is, Of Course, Its Awesomeness

The United States likes to think of itself not just as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but also as the world’s heartland of homegrown optimism. Since at least de Tocqueville, visitors have commented on Americans’ predilection for thinking big and looking on the bright side – a cultural trait that has often been linked to the American fixation with free enterprise and capitalism. A depressive poet is not likely to conquer a continent or invade everything from Mexico to the moon. As a Latin American history professor once told my class, the American businessman’s idea of history is a 45-degree angle into the future, quite unlike the squiggly, ambivalent line most historians see. 

Yet the US also has a history of recurrent lapses into pessimism, when its self-ordained status as a felicitous hybrid of Eden and the Promised Land seems to be in danger of failing miserably. Any American over the age of 30 today likely remembers the spasm of self doubt that gripped the nation throughout the 1970s and 1980s; Jimmy Carter immortalized the troubles of his own presidency by speaking of a very un-American “malaise” and an age of limits, rather than excess, while movies like Gung Ho dramatized worries that Japan was zooming past an aging, lagging America. (The latest version of this story tells how Americans will end up subjugated to China and India.) The US seems to vacillate between periods of robust confidence in its boundless future, and bouts of deep-seated insecurity and defensiveness. This bipolar quality likely explains why American exceptionalism evokes such strong responses among liberals, conservatives, and Americans of all political stripes – some see the idea that America is destined for great things as unwarranted and unrealistic, while others worry that America’s own specialness is threatened by such doubts and hope to quash them whenever they come up. 

The debate over exceptionalism has been reignited by two epochal (and interrelated) events: the severe economic crisis that began in 2007, and the rise of Barack Obama to the White House. The collapse of the real estate market – itself a perfect example of starry-eyed American dreams of infinite prosperity – shook the world economy almost to its foundations, and called into question the supposed triumph of capitalism that followed the end of the Cold War. If deregulation, free markets, property rights and the like could leave millions around the world jobless, hungry, and homeless, maybe the neoliberal project of globalization was not all it was cracked up to be. 

For many conservatives, this failing of capitalism has been less troubling than the emergence of a charismatic political figure who campaigned for office by promising to fix the system. Commentators such as Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich have been quick to accuse President Obama of deliberately trying to worsen the economy, using the crisis to destroy American institutions of private enterprise and democracy and engineer the final downfall of capitalism. Liberals may find this characterization hard to recognize, given what they see as the Administration’s cautious and pragmatic approach to issues such as healthcare and financial reform, but the cult of dread created by leading conservatives has given shape to a number of powerful anxieties about culture, race, and the future of the economy. It is also worth noting that the current crisis of confidence on the Right taps into some of the deepest historical currents of conservatism – the boosterism and cheerleading that has defined much of Republican political rhetoric in the last few decades actually represents a deviation from an intellectual tradition that has more often emphasized the wickedness of human nature and the dangers of democracy, going all the way back to Burke and Hobbes. 

Into this gloomy scenario we find Joel Kotkin marching. The futurist and "uber-geographer" has written a book called The Next Hundred Million, which purports to show how “the addition of a hundred million new Americans” will change the country for the better and assure its continued prosperity, even as other countries struggle and shrink. The legendary sociologist Herbert Gans wrote a comparable book a few years ago, envisioning how Americans might employ progressive solutions to clean up the wreckage of the age of Reagan and Bush, but Kotkin is clearly more interested in trumpeting how the free flow of people and goods – i.e., markets and globalization – can resolve the problem of how to maintain programs of healthcare, education, and retirement benefits in the face of inadequate revenue and an aging population. America is a place people want to move. For Kotkin, recent debates over immigration are painfully shortsighted, as he believes that migrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America will infuse America with much-needed entrepreneurial energy and fiscal stimulus. 

Notably, the Los Angeles Times’ Ron Brownstein wrote a provocative piece last year arguing that such demographic changes would actually lead to prolonged conflict. As America’s young population grows more diverse, Brownstein argued, politics will begin to coalesce along both generational and racial lines. Young families – browner and more multiracial than ever before – will want government funds to go toward services such as daycare and schools, while an older, whiter electorate will fight tenaciously against any effort to diminish the resources committed to the retired. Such a scenario is not entirely implausible, especially given the ferocious outburst of dissent by elderly Americans who demanded that “their” Medicare not be harmed by a “government takeover” in 2009. Liberals can snicker about the mind-boggling contradictions that underlie such protests, but their emotional power can be discounted only at progressives’ peril. 

For his part, Kotkin is too busy trying to shake America out of its recession blues to worry about the potential nastiness of such conflicts. He asks us to look at the big picture, pointing to the fact that America has assets of space, diversity and democracy to help it cope with the political and economic headwinds of the future. The US is simply not bursting at the seams like some of its so-called rivals, like India or China or even the United Kingdom, where 61 million people live on a set of islands slightly smaller than the state of Oregon (home to about 4 million people). The US could afford to accommodate a hundred million (or more) new citizens who are clearly eager to come here and buy property, start businesses, and feed, clothe, and educate their children. Meanwhile, politicians in Germany, Russia, and Japan ponder ways to incentivize procreation, as their birthrates fall and young people look to exciting lives that are more fulfilling than changing diapers and assisting in math homework. If one hasn’t noticed, China is not exactly eager to increase its own population by encouraging immigration. 

The author breezily suggests that Americans are happier with their lot, which consists of working, on average, 300 hours more per year than their European counterparts, with less of a social safety net and much less job security. Yet a more Eurocentric critic would have very little trouble digging up one survey after another that finds the Danes or the Norwegians reporting a greater degree of personal satisfaction with their lives.  (By one measure, the US doesn't even crack the top ten.) The Next One Hundred Million does not engage this contrary evidence, which is perhaps forgivable in a manifesto for the general reading public, but the fact that Kotkin seems to take for granted the superior quality of life in America is troubling nonetheless. 

Kotkin believes that one of the biggest problems facing America is “maintaining the prospect of upward mobility,” but he seems to be more concerned with preserving the mirage-like illusion – the “prospect” – of opportunity than upward mobility itself. “The promise that ‘anyone’ can reach the highest levels of society has been and remains fundamental to the American ethos,” Kotkin says, yet his own scare quotes around “anyone” suggest that he himself doubts whether this central myth is really real. One gets the sneaking suspicion that the American Dream is one of those Big Lies, the necessary public stories that hold people together in a common enterprise even when the promised fruits of the partnership never materialize for many of the partners. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said the public needs “necessary illusion[s]” and “emotionally potent simplifications” to accept the status quo, and Kotkin’s version of the American Dream seems to fit the bill. 

Kotkin lauds the fact that American society has successfully elevated “outsider groups,” such as Jewish and Asian Americans, into the ranks of the prosperous and the elite, yet these exemplars of success only serve as symbols of the “anyone can make it” philosophy, providing a comforting reference point for the system’s goodness while so many others lag behind. This is not just a question of tokenism. The Catholics and Latinos and African Americans who have broken through to success in fields such as academia, business, and law made it there on their own wits, not as the carefully selected representatives of an out-group. But Kotkin’s idea of opportunity still has a glass menagerie quality to it. Where American capitalism is concerned, the idea of diversity serves a failure of metonymy, where the part is taken for the whole. The race, religion and ethnicity of a handful of successful people serve as proof that anyone can make it, when really they only prove that some people can make it. Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi is all the evidence you need of the American economy’s virtuousness. 

Opportunity means new vistas for capital accumulation, which can be found in Houston more readily than old, exhausted England. He tours the city with Romulo “Tim” Cisneros, the brother of former Clinton Cabinet secretary Henry Cisneros. “What makes a city great is opportunity,” Kotkin says, going on to quote Tim’s rhapsody: 

It’s amazing. Every time I go out there’s something new out there… Houston is so big that you don’t have to worry about the dream getting too expensive because there’s so much new product. It will take a generation to fill it in.

In other words, America has the land, the institutions, and, above all, the people to keep the capitalist economy chugging along for at least another fifty years. One need not think of the painful contraction that has reduced cities like Detroit to shadows of their former selves in the last fifty years, as workers fled unemployment and social disorder to follow fickle employers to the sunnier vistas of the South and West. One need not worry about the gross inequity that means the poor and even the middle class cannot afford a decent education for their children in most of America’s cities, while the affluent and well-connected engineer their own children’s continued access to the best the wealthiest society in history has to offer. There is still another field to exploit over the horizon. When land and water run out, and the continued reproduction of the labor force becomes untenable, the whole machine may run out of steam – but Joel Kotkin is here to let us to know that the whirligig can keep spinning for a while. Then again, as Shakespeare told us, “the great whirligig of time brings its revenges.”

Alex Cummings

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mapping the Ineffable: The Nebulous Flow of History in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

Three or four times only did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides . . . I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life’s voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn’t I give now for a never changing map of the ever constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.

- Timothy Cavendish in Cloud Atlas (373)

If only we could have some sort of “never changing map of the ever constant ineffable?” Yet, would not such a map only be relevant for a brief moment? The ineffable maybe indescribable but is it fixed? In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, souls flow across time and space inhabiting different physical bodies but encountering their spiritual counterparts repeatedly, revealing that our actions in the future might influence ours in the past. For Mitchell’s characters, time exists more as an abstract open space within which our spiritual selves flow backwards and forwards, often intertwining with others. Even the structure of the novel suggests that our linear progressive understanding of history may be flawed. Mitchell tells six different stories, in six different time periods, in six different genres, unfolding in ascending and then descending order, visiting each story twice except for the sixth which takes place in one sitting (think of it this way, the stories are told in this order: 1,2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1). Throughout, Mitchell’s characters experience not only deja vu from the past but also evoke feelings or memories from actions their souls commit in the future. If anything the future seems to disrupt the past as much as the opposite.

Released in 2004, Mitchell earned praise on both sides of the Atlantic for his third novel, Cloud Atlas. Though the Sunday Telegraph’s critic initially refused to review the novel because it was “unreadable” even those critical of the work acknowledged Mitchell’s prodigious talents. New York Times reviewer Thomas Bissell conceded that Mitchell “is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel's every page.”  Yet, Cloud Atlas left Bissell wanting as the New York Times critic found the book more form than emotion, more skill than heart. For Bissell, Cloud Atlas may prove innovative, a novel that might propel literature forward, but he wondered aloud “to what end things are being moved.”

Hopping from colonial New Zealand to interwar Belgium to 1970s California to the 1990s multi cultural UK to futuristic Blade Runneresque Korea to post apocalyptic Hawaii, Cloud Atlas proves at once transhistorical and transnational (it’s also chock full of transfiber). In New Zealand, Adam Ewing a young lawyer from California provides the storyline, engaging in discussions of imperialism, exploitation, morality and race. Robert Frobisher’s letters to friend and lover Sixsmith narrate the second chapter. The cynical bisexually adventurous young musician details his trials in the service of a decrepit but notable composer of the period. Mitchell’s third piece remains the only one told in the third person and not from the direct viewpoint of a protagonist. Journalist Luisa Rey battles a corporate nuclear conspiracy in Reagan California. Elderly, self-centered, and deeply indebt book publisher, Timothy Cavendish, serves as the novel’s fourth protagonist. Cavendish, a Londoner uncomfortable with his fellow UK members (“The London Irish unnerve me at the best of times.” 153), finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home after fleeing some rather aggressive debt collectors. Fast forwarding to a futuristic Korea, Mitchell then deposits the reader at an archival rendering of Sonmi-451, a replicant-like figure who had ascended to human intelligence and awareness only to be deemed threat by the consumerist corporate dictatorship Neo So Copros. Sonmi-451 recounts her life’s story to the “state” archivist before her execution. Finally, the only story told in one chapter, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After”, is narrated by Valleyman Zachary. Inhabiting a post apocalyptic Hawaii, Zachary’s tale unfolds in a dialect created by Mitchell that somehow remains intelligible as the young man witnesses the possible fall of civilization. Despite traversing such disparate times and places, Mitchell presents the constant tension between transience (empires fall, enslaved people are freed, free people are enslaved) and persistence (the groups may change the but the central structure remains fixed; the thread of history that connects Adam Ewing and Zachary, the survival of Sonmi’s legacy, the fact there is always a struggle between master and slave).

Perhaps even more confusingly, Mitchell implies that some of the stories may not even be real, Luisa Rey appears in Cavendish’s tale, but as manuscript for an airport thriller type work written by a man Cavendish describes as a “lardbucket”. Likewise, Cavendish appears in Sonmi-451’s interview but as a movie from humanity’s early days. Frobisher’s lover Sixsmith appears in Luisa Rey’s story as key source in her investigation. Rey reads the very letters Frobisher sent to Sixsmith which constitute the previous chapter. Realizing she has the same birthmark as Frobisher the journalist concludes that she and the musician are the same soul. Cavendish reading the Rey novel pronounces such plot twists as “Far too hippy drug-new age” but then unwittingly reveals that he carries the same birthmark. Though true Cavendish’s form the curmudgeon mentions in an aside (Mitchell places it in parenthesis despite its importance) “(I, too, have a birthmark, below my left armpit, but no lover ever compared it to a comet)” (357) Frobisher reads Ewing’s journal while composing for his syphlytic employer. Sonmi-451 serves as the god of Zachary’s tribe (“birthed by a god o' Smart named Darwin”) and so it goes.

Clearly, Mitchell wants to challenge concepts of time, history, and reality. In his earlier novels, Mitchell frequently employed Joycean techniques to create dream like sequences in which discerning reality from fantasy proved difficult. Determining what is real in Cloud Atlas and what is “fiction” can be difficult. For example, though Cavendish reads the Luisa Rey mystery as a prospective publication, he also exhibits clear connection to Rey through the aforementioned birthmark. If Rey remains only a fictional story in a fictional story why does Sonmi-451 in her testimony to the archivist recall a feeling of de ja vu during her initial escape from authorities, “The final drop shook free an earlier memory of blackness, inertia, gravity, of being trapped in another Ford. Where was it? Who was it?”(314) Without revealing any deep plot lines, it is safe to say Luisa Rey may have endured an unpleasant experience in a certain American made automobile. (Of course, if Luisa Rey is only a pulp mystery and not a reality, it’s possible Sonmi-451 read it at some point and remembered the events within as her own.) Similarly, when stealing away from his sleeping employer, Robert Frobisher hovers over the sleeping old man and fights off an “unaccountably strong urge “ to slit the old man’s throat. Frobisher reflects “Not quite Déjà vu, more jamais vu”. Likewise, as Zchary sits perched over a sleeping Kona sentry, a member of the savage tribe that had killed his father and enslaved his people, he debates whether or not to slice the unconscious guard’s throat “See, murderin’ was forbidded by Valleyman law” … If I’d been rebirthed a Kona in this life, he cold be me and I’d be killin’ myself” Ultimately, the Valleyman slayed the sleeping enemy but knew it came with a price, “I knowed I’d be payin for it by’n’by, but like I said a while back, in our busted world the right thing ain’t always possible.” (300-301) Like the Maori in Ewing’s story, the Valleyman banned murder yet because of this apparent “civilization” they later find themselves enslaved by more brutal peoples.

Ironically, within the Luisa Rey mystery, Mitchell even lays out fragments of his logic through the writings of a doomed scientist working for the corporate malefactor Rey investigates. According to Isaac Sachs, there exists two pasts: the real past and the virtual past. The real past fades and becomes increasingly unreachable as its participants die off and its remnants collapse or disintegrate. However, the virtual past which we construct from the real past is as Sachs explains “malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.” The present “presses” the virtual past into work, using it to legitimize mythologies and justify the “imposition of will”. Power “landscapes” the past. The future has an actual and virtual reality as well, “We imagine how next week, next year or 2225 will shape up – a virtual future constructed by wishes, prophecies, + daydreams. The virtual future may influence the actual future, as in self fulfilling prophecy, but the actual future will eclipse our virtual one as surely as tomorrow eclipses today.” (392-393)

If all this seems highly theoretical, it is. Mitchell’s skill lay in his ability to interweave these intricate ideas into a text that fluidly explores issues of time, reality, and collectivity. From a historian’s point of view, Mitchell’s world remains a troubling comment. The soul that each of these characters represents fights against various forms of subjugation. Though each character seems to recognize their apparent vulnerability, they nonetheless engage in acts that doom themselves but also their reincarnations to subservience. This permanence pushes back against historian’s belief in contingency.

Mitchell’s work suggests our souls remain hardwired, persisting in their various traits. Though they experience success (Rey defeats the corporate behemoth that threatened to ruin California with an ill advised nuclear reactor/Cavendish emerges a new man with new book deals and movie options), defeat (Sonmi-451 is executed, failing to lead an uprising of replicants/Frobisher’s turn from a cynical gigolo to a love sick suicide case/Zachary and Meronym witness the potential collapse of civilization) and ambivalence (Ewing devotes his life to anti-slavery after having his own life rescued by a Maori once destined for execution but does so with the knowledge as his father in law promises his future descendants pain and suffering for Ewing’s new devotion/Sonmi-451’s death results in her ascending to god status among Zchry’s people) the structure of the novel suggests not a march of progress or linear growth, but an expansive but bounded world, where ascendancy and decline seem locked in a perpetual lover's quarrel. While historian’s precious contingency remains, it does so in a circumscribed way that results in a permanent struggle or as Frobisher writes to his lover Sixsmith, lamenting the death of his brother Adrian in WWI, “We cut a pack of cards called historical context – our generation, Sixsmith, cut tens, jacks, and queens. Adrian’s cut threes, fours, and fives. That’s all.” (442)

Throughout, Mitchell also questions ideas of empire and capitalism. Cavendish appears completely out of sorts with the multicultural England of the 1990s. Scottish resentments, dangerous Irish, and intimidating pot-smoking West Indians seem to bedevil the crotchety old Englishman. Yet, Cavendish’s salvation comes at the hands of a nearly autistic Scot who in a critical moment marshals Scottish anger over English footballing and attitudes of superiority to crush the attempts of an enraged nursing home staff modeled after those seen in the famous movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Adam Ewing’s own acceptance of imperialism soon collapses as he suffers near death at the hands of a serial killer/grifter who embraces the most savage form of Social Darwinism. Both Ewing and Cavendish, though skeptical of the value of other ethnic/racial groups at the novel’s outset, see the falsity of their beliefs writ large in the more harrowing moments of their tales.

Economic systems based on capital accumulation draw a jaundiced eye from Mitchell as well. Sonmi-451’s world exists as a hyperconsumerist tyranny. Citizens seem little aware that the very voracious appetites they feed, have drained the world outside Korea of its life. Luisa Rey’s fight with corporate America reveals a nation less under the thumb of an overbearing government, than one at the mercy of private sector plots and machinations. If anything, government never develops the kind of control we attribute to totalitarianism until it embraces the techniques and language of hyper capitalism as evidenced by Sonmi-451’s tormentors Neo So Copras.

How we know history seems at play with Mitchell as well. Incorporating numerous devices for conveying historical memory, we come to know the protagonists through journals (Ewing), personal letters (Frobisher), pulp fiction (Luisa Rey), state sanctioned recorded archival testimony (Sonmi-451), and first person accounts. Yet, the characters within the text come to know history through a variety of means both “authentic” and replicated (the movie optioned for Cavendish serves as Sonmi-451 last wish). How the past comes to be known filters through these means as Sonmi-451 attains god status through recorded state testimony. When Mitchell insinuates that Luisa Rey existed as both the fantasy of an overweight man and an earlier incarnation of Sonmi-451, Mitchell exhibits the very tenuous structures we have used to scaffold our own knowledge. 

Mitchell’s latest book The 1000 Autumns of Jacob De Zoet follows a more traditional narrative structure but remains as engaging and historically founded as Cloud Atlas. Historians might be troubled by Mitchell’s implications that in some ways humanity remains an unchanging entity, one in which the tensions of subservience and domination serve as permanent features of life. However, Mitchell’s grasp of history, postmodern theory, nineteenth century racial logic, and countless other subjects dazzles even the most jaded reviewer, well except for the aforementioned New York Times critic. Ultimately, the book has a melancholy sweetness, our souls no matter how tortured tumble along time, backwards and forward, making decisions they know full well will doom them. It is in this acceptance that Mitchell’s characters exude an iridescent quality that illuminates the very ineffable Cloud Atlas Timothy Cavendish pines for. 

Ryan Reft

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sporting Solidarities: The Pro-Union Potential of ESPN

The controversy in Wisconsin over anti-union legislation has riveted observers for weeks. The attempt by Wisconsin Democrats to avoid a vote on said legislation by absconding to neighboring Illinois drew guffaws, indignation, and resignation from various political corners. The subsequent vote forced by Republican Governor Scott Walker may have transformed the proposed bills into law but legal experts have been amassing in the Midwestern capital of cheese and beer to unhinge GOP dreams of a union free Madison.

The “Wisconsin 14” returned to Madison on Friday to both praise and condemnation. New York Times journalist A.G. Sulzberger noted that for some Sconnies the 14 state senators had become “the unlikeliest of folk heroes.” Of course, Republican officials rejected such idealizations as Governor Walker labeled the same elected officials “the most shameful 14 people in the state of Wisconsin”. Predictably, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka denounced the Governor: “Scott Walker and his Republican tools in Wisconsin showed just how far they’re willing to go to pay back their corporate donors."  For Trumka, Walker’s act served to reignite both a stagnant labor movement and energize progressives that have shrunk in the face of tea partying Americans. Trumka exclaimed, “Thank you, Scott Walker. We should have invited him here today to receive the Mobilizer of the Year award!" However, with ever diminishing membership and a national public expressing a fundamental ambivalence about unions, the truth of Trumka’s revelations remains unclear. While the comments section on internet websites serve as the 21st century equivalent of writing on the bathroom wall, many internet denizens disagreed vociferously with the union leader.

Having been a union member for nearly all of my adult life (2 years a union for grocery store workers, 9 years as a NYC public high school teacher in the United Federation of Teachers, and for the past three years, a UAW teaching assistant) and having a brother-in-law who works as a labor lawyer for the AFL-CIO means I am probably not a neutral observer. Yet I can understand the public’s reticence over union labor. With fewer and fewer people as rank and file members, the kind of union connections Americans once had under the Fordist model (1950s -1970s) simply do not exist. Moreover, as the private sector has reduced benefits, outsourced, and generally found cheaper ways to produce products or provide services, fewer workers expect the kind of benefits union membership has traditionally bestowed. Even worse, in moments, unions have been their own worst enemies. Teachers’ unions have sometimes opposed meaningful school reform in the name of protecting teacher’s rights. No doubt this has been necessary on a number of occasions, but at times, organizations like the UFT have taken approaches that alienate other workers and retard real improvements for urban school systems. This is not to say the UFT is bad or should be eliminated, just that in the push and pull that occurs between institutional actors and their rank and file, no one entity will be right all the time. The elimination of collective bargaining serves as one example of overreach. After all, even the business oriented Economist argued that while it agreed with other aspects of Governor Walker’s platform, his attack on collective bargaining went “too far.” (Economist, “Showdown in Madison”, Feb 26, 2011)

As fate would have it, just as the Wisconsin turmoil reached its peak, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and owners announced that they had been unable to come to an agreement over a new collective bargaining agreement. The NFLPA officially decertified on Friday (March 11,2011) when talks broke down and are now pursuing an anti-trust lawsuit against the owners for locking out players, a move that would have been impossible had the union remained in place. What’s at stake? According to the New York Times and other sources, roughly nine billion dollars annually.

The last time the NFL endured a work stoppage was in 1987, a time when the league lacked the economic and social capital that it has today. In 1987, scabs or replacement players took the field in place of their professional counterparts. Some performed well enough to remain in the league but most played a couple games and returned to their day jobs. Today, the NFL has ascended to the heights of American sportsdom. The appeal of fantasy sports, the decline in popularity of baseball, and the enormity of the Superbowl, as an event enjoyed even by non-fans, has helped make American football the nation’s national pastime. Players salaries have also improved enormously since 1987 as have owner’s profits.

While the NFLPA had been satisfied with the collective bargaining agreement as negotiated previously, in 2008 owners decided to opt out of the agreement, which meant a new one had to negotiated by the end of the 2010 season. Owners claim operating costs have increased, thus they want to add an “extra billion dollars to their immediate revenues to cover” these increased expenses. This means the players would then get 60% of the remaining 7 billion. As part of this new structure, the owners hope to add two more games to the schedule, making the NFL season 18 games rather than 16. Over the past month, some progress was made as the owners reduced the original billion dollar give back to about half, agreed to guaranteed contracts for more than one year, and promised not to institute an 18 game season without union approval. However, when the players union demanded that the owners show them their books for the past decade to confirm rising operating costs, the owners balked. When the players union walked out, the owners and some NFL officials reacted rather negatively. Jeff Pash, the NFL’s chief labor negotiator spoke to ESPN minutes after talks broke down and clearly leveled blame with the player’s arguing that they entered negotiations with one commitment, “to litigate”. Moderate and often quite New York Giants owner John Mara came out swinging as well. Mara bemoaned the fact that, in his eyes, the union had not changed its “position on the core economic issues . . . one iota. Their position has quite literally been ‘take it or leave it,’ and in effect they have been at the same position since last September." NFLPA counsel Jim Quinn speaking to reporters denounced Pash’s statement. According to Quinn, Pash had “lied to them about what happened today and what’s happened over the last two weeks and the last two years.”

So what’s different about this stalemate from the one in Wisconsin. First, one must acknowledge NFL players and public sectors union members do not exist on equal terms. Teaching and other public sector professions, though vital to the running of our nation, are jobs within reach of most Americans. Reaching the NFL is not. Second, the kind of salary NFL players are negotiating for obviously exceeds the kind of renumeration that any teacher enjoys. Brothers and sisters in arms? Probably not. Third, NFL players have a key advantage that teacher’s unions and the like do not, a media outlet known as ESPN.

In 1987, ESPN existed but not with the reach or cultural cache it enjoys today. The worldwide leader in sports has come to be the main source for most sports fans in terms of not only sporting events or television sport news, but also in its ever expanding media empire. Bloggers like Bill Simmons, sports pundits like Michael Wllbon and Tony Kornheiser (hosts of the wildly popular show Pardon the Interruption or PTI), and writers like Gregg Easterbrook command audiences of millions. Sportscenter, ESPN’s popular sports highlight show, occupies a central place in American culture. Undoubtedly, ESPN exerts a cultural influence that pervades American society and in many ways crafts narratives. One need only look to the recent 30 for 30 film series in which 30 filmmakers crafted 30 documentaries on various sports related events and individuals over the past three decades of ESPN’s existence. However, ESPN’s rise has brought with it problems of legitimacy. After all, when you provide sports for fans you must also negotiate contracts with owners and leagues. Who does ESPN represent here?

The ESPN balancing act must be difficult to maintain. In the immediate meltdown on Friday, the sports network spoke with allegedly neutral observers like sports law expert Roger Cossack or past negotiator Andrew Brandt to breakdown the terms that each side could and could not agree on while also tracing for fans the possible trajectory of the conflict over the next few months. Yet, as ESPN has grown so has its stable of ex NFL coaches and players. Today, ESPN shows and sports commentary feature countless ex professional athletes. What will be there role via ESPN in the lockout? For example, on Friday during a Sportscenter segment, former New England Patriot defensive standout Teddy Bruschi came out clearly on the side of players. While his ESPN counterpart played devil’s advocate, offering up the logic of owners in response, it is hard to imagine his viewpoint outweighted Bruschi’s passion and charisma. Having established a media voice, one wonders if the sports network might provide a platform for individuals like Bruschi to pursue NFLPA interests. Considering the general media bias against unions, the NFLPA seems to have a unique means to disseminate its message. If ESPN has become the arbiter of sports narratives, might this prove decisive in gaining public opinion? Granted, ESPN reporters and employees have long debated the networks new role as sports behemoth. Some suggest the network sometimes abandons its principles to assuage the various professional sports leagues it televises. For example, when an original series about professional football players titled Playmakers ran afoul of NFL officials for a plot line that seemed to highlight domestic abuse, ESPN immediately canceled the series. So one should not be too Pollyannish about ESPN’s intentions, it is a corporate network after all. Still, one of its most popular writers, the aforementioned Bill Simmons (who is NOT an ex player) came out two weeks ago with a column that squarely placed the blame on the owners, more or less blaming them for overt greed. In a recent podcast, he wondered aloud whether or not fans could place faith in Commissioner Roger Goodell suggesting that it remained to be seen whether or not Goodell was little more than the owners’ puppet. Say what you want about Simmons, and there is plenty of critique to go around, but his blog and podcast reach a lot of eyes and ears.

One can assume that many fans will simply fall back on a “pox on both houses” approach in which millionaire players and billionaire owners prove reliable targets of derision and resentment. Still, as the lockout went to federal court numerous commentators noted that the issue boiled down to trust, which as has been the fundamental reasons for union organizing for decades. The owners believe the players want to litigate rather then negotiate. Operating costs, owners claim, have bitten seriously into profits. Considering the league’s growth, players find this hard to believe, so they demand to see the books in order to confirm owners’ claims. The fact that a federal court recently banned owners from using the 4 billion dollars in TV revenue they had socked away to survive the lockout did little for trust between the two groups. In the end, NFLPA executive director Demaurice Smith pointed out that it came down to basic business sense. When entering any agreement business partners agree to vet all financial aspects. According to Smith, over the past two weeks “the National Football League has said, 'Trust us.' But when it came time for verification, they told us it was none of our business."

In the middle of a recession the site of any workers protesting might rankle some observers, let alone professional athletes. Certainly, the sight of millionaires suing the NFL in federal court under anti-trust law will draw harsh criticism from some. However, if current and former players working for ESPN along with organization’s various writers can articulate a vision of the lockout that somehow supports organized labor, wouldn’t that be a net positive? Public sector unions have to work through the “filter” of various news agency interests. While the return of the Wisconsin 14 drew both applause and tomatoes, one can imagine the sheer joy the return of football for the 2011-2012 season would bring to nearly all football fans. If the ESPN could be harnessed to promote a message that if not pro-union at least refuses to demonize organized labor, is it possible that could trickle down to other aspects of life? Maybe it is a reach, but if the NFL lockout doesn’t accomplish this, the NBA has its own work stoppage on the horizon. Who knows -- maybe a bunch of millionaires can help out some working stiffs.

Ryan Reft

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

“Clearly, Someone Is Controlling This Here Water”: Rango and the Recession

“With great privilege comes great responsibility.” So says the corrupt old tortoise who runs the town of Dirt in the new animated film Rango. Not long ago, Americans flocked to theaters to hear the truism that with great power comes great responsibility; in one of the biggest hits of the immediate post-9/11 era, Peter Parker realized that he had no choice but to crusade against evil. Americans wanted to believe that being a superpower (or having superpowers, in Spiderman’s case) meant one simply had to go out and beat up the bad guys. The good guy-bad guy matrix is more muddled today than it was in 2002, and the venal mayor of Dirt knows it – he engineers an economic crisis to swindle the town’s citizens out of their land. Big business uses its pliant friends in government to cheat the public and reap a windfall. Where have we heard this one before? 

Equal parts Chinatown and Blazing Saddles, Rango offers an inspired reworking of some classic themes in American political culture. Its surrealist visual flair suggests how Tim Burton or Quentin Tarantino might rework the Western genre, while its poignant political narrative manages to connect the pulse of populist outrage that underlies many tales of the American frontier to the politics of today’s Great Recession. The frontier was often the story of booms and busts, and the town of Dirt speaks to a rich tradition of big dreams crashing into bitter reality; given the nation’s latest brush with economic disaster, the adventure of a chameleon who tries to outwit corrupt politicians and speculators seems all too familiar. 

This interpretation is no stretch – the message of the film is so straightforward only the most blinkered Tea Partier could miss it. When Rango comes to town, the residents of Dirt are clinging to a meager existence in the scorching desert, where water is the currency of everyday life. They pay their bills with water, and the bank traffics in water. It is the crucial ingredient that allows the farms of the community’s grizzled moles, mice, and geckos to survive. “Control water and you control everything,” the sinister mayor intones at one point, as he reroutes the local water supply to Las Vegas and uses the subsequent crisis to force farmers to give up their land. The political allegory works on two levels, one environmental and one financial. The politicians stand to benefit as precious resources are diverted to both big scale human development and a tiny, rodent-size suburb is built on land the mayor hopes to steal; memories of Chinatown and Los Angeles’s vampiric rise amid the Southern California desert are clear enough.

But the mayor’s scheme also works as a parable of the bailout era. Money is not just a natural resource for the people of Dirt – it is plainly a metaphor for money or capital. A bank run breaks out when one panicked villager announces, “There’s no water in the bank!” The locals are like many Americans, who wondered how the country had so much money one day and then the next they hear that jobs are disappearing, budgets are cut, and the banks no longer have money to lend. We used to have water – where did it all go? It just disappeared? The mayor and his cronies are caricatures of the financial and political elite. The tortoise speaks in an old, patrician voice, snickering with his Eurotrash cronies and playing golf. As farmers, workers, and small businesspeople go belly up, they laugh about getting all the water for themselves.

Meanwhile, Rango’s love interest (the requisite feisty heroine/sidekick) dreams of a better world, an impossible place, where “there’s enough water for everybody.” She could be thinking of a socialist promised land where everyone shares resources, but the vision is likelier that of the classic American yeomen/homeowner – landed independence and broadly shared prosperity. This is among the most resonant themes in American politics, pop culture, even economic policy. It reflects a concept of citizenship in which everyone ought to have a piece of the pie, even in the pieces are not the same size; its critical weakness is the perennial conflict between physical property ownership – land, homes, farms – and the paper power of stocks, contracts, and intellectual property. The message of Rango is that there is “enough water for everybody,” but malign corporate interests and their willing collaborators in government game the system to enrich themselves. 

Rango, clearly, is Obama. He’s a stranger to the town – “not from around here,” as a local points out. He uses his rhetorical gifts to spin tales that gain the townspeople’s confidence, yet their patience wears thin in the face of straitened circumstances and impending catastrophe. Rango warns the people that they might blindly turn against each other if the water runs out, and a contagion of mob violence remains a constant threat. One angry taxpayer scores Rango for his inability to end the hard times, saying, “You said you’d bring back the water!” Rango implores the people to hold on to hope, to believe in him and the rule of law, yet all evidence suggests that the system is hopelessly corrupt. 

The film is not just an allegory of the current economic crisis, but a story that taps into deeper contradictions in the American enterprise. In one of his more improvised turns of speechifying, Rango speaks of “the spirit of the West, the eternally unattainable ideal.” The West has, of course, represented the possibility of economic liberty, usually tied to land, from Jefferson’s ideal of the independent, yeoman farmer, to the westward rush of settlers under the Homestead Act, to the suburbanization of cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, where each family could (it was believed) tend to their own little patch of paradise. 

That these dreams ultimately disappointed many is the stuff of much American historiography. Lenders, borrowers, and speculators in one frontier boomtown after another found themselves overextended, and millions of farmers filled the Plains and glutted world markets with produce. The Populists of the 1890s asked why they sank deeper and deeper in debt even as railroad interests and Chicago financiers grew rich off the sale of their crops. Like the citizens of Dirt and its outlying farms, they wanted to know why the system seemed to benefit only those who did not actually work the land. The recent populist fury against the bailout of Wall Street reiterates the theme of wealth over work; financiers picked the pockets of government and forced ordinary Americans out of their homes, just like the clique who sought to use debt and political connections to force the lizards and rodents off their land in Rango

Like any Hollywood film (especially a cartoon), Rango serves up the easy answers. The hero has to confront self-doubt before learning to believe in himself and triumphing over the forces of evil. Significantly, hardscrabble folks who previously did the mayor’s bidding recognize their bond with other oppressed citizens and rally against a common enemy. But the final scenes of the film are more telling, as the artificially restrained source of water is finally unleashed. Something previously scarce – water (capital) – erupts throughout the little animal town and nearly destroys half of it. The locals are thrilled that the water is back again, barely noticing that it has ripped through and demolished many of their stores and saloons. What better metaphor for capital in an age of tight credit and Wall Street profiteering? Rango shows capital’s creative destruction at its most corrupt, creative, and destructive.

Alex Cummings

Monday, March 7, 2011

Patton Oswalt's Flying Saucer

I discovered Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by delightful accident. Patton Oswalt, the lonely schlub Spence from King of Queens is a favorite stand up comedian of mine, and one of the few working comedians today who can give Louis CK a run for his money. However, I was pretty skeptical about the book. Even the best comedians have a sad history of transcribing their act down on paper and calling it a book in a lazy and transparent cash-grab -- remember Seinlanguage? But, I grabbed Zombie Spaceship Wasteland anyway. I knew I could count on a few disposable laughs, and then figured I would go my way.

The book consists of essays chronicling Oswalt's journey from awkward, pre-adolescent, Star Wars acolyte to his early days wandering the barren roads of the comedy circuit, in no particular order. My personal favorite, “Ticket Booth,” accounts Oswalt's high school days working in a locally owned multiplex. This tale best exemplifies the author's potent mixture of hilarious prose and soul crushing insight into the complexities and inroads of the human psyche. Oswald can send the gut reeling and keep a sardonic tone, even when dealing with world of local theater:
Who would rise to take the reins at the Towncenter 3? Who would push through the double glass doors of the street-level entrance and stomp his way down the stairs, like Gene Simmons and Wilt Chamberlain about to set a basement full of uppity pussy straight?

Yet there is a touching intensity here; Oswalt experiences adolescent epiphanies through the graces of R.E.M. and Philip K. Dick, all while working the ticket booth.  The comedian re-lives childhood days spent with one leg in this world and one leg in the wonderland planet of his imagination. Oswalt successfully plays the funny and absurd against the sad and meaningful, evoking the same spirit embodied in Freaks and Geeks, a much loved (by more than just me) but short-lived television series. The title essay, “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland,” transforms adolescent peers into zombies, inhabitants of a wasteland, or living in space; each responds to life by simplifying, escaping, or destroying their world. The theory doesn't quite hold up, but it makes for a fascinating read.

Another essay, “Peter Runola,” explores a young Oswalt’s introduction to the magic beyond the veil of everyday life, while witnessing his uncle's descent into madness. As his uncle retreats further into the hedges of schizophrenia, he becomes the symbol of a man stuck in a small life:
Still, the world felt bounded. Uncle Pete was the first one ever to heave open the gates that sealed ancient pages and make me suspect there were worlds within and without the world I was in. That there were worlds outside of the time I was living in. All of this he carried against his will, in his head. But unlike the other adults, with their resentments and their anxiousness or anger, he seemed eternally, uncontrollably entertained. I really envied him.
Like David Sedaris, he captures the virtue of not fitting in, and the sense of otherness that drives a creative mind to explore the world.

There are a few missteps. A series of comically strange greeting cards as well as a wine list from hell start out amusing but become tedious and repetitive. But, if you loved Catcher in the Rye and were offended by the Star Wars prequels; if you love This American Life and Indiana Jones with equal gusto, then go and find Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. It's “for us, by us.”

Amy Heishman

Amy Heishman teaches English at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Market Volunteers: The Role of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the All-Volunteer Army

During the 1981 confirmation hearing of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, numerous Senate committee members expressed significant reservations regarding the armed services. Speaking to Weinberger, Senator John Tower (R-Texas) suggested the all volunteer force (AVF) lacked the requisite fortitude to succeed. For Tower, new recruits in the AVF lacked the skills necessary for armed services. Tower told Weinberger, “You are on a talent hunt.” The Texas senator believed that service personnel in the AVF lacked “brain power …. raw courage and other things.” In Tower’s mind, the kind of soldiers the military required could not be found “at the crossroads or the street corners.” Then Indiana Senator Dan Quayle revealed his own doubts. Quayle confessed, “ I don’t know if the volunteer army is going to work.” Even Weinberger acknowledged a wider sense of skepticism regarding the military, promising that under his leadership he wanted the public, Congress, and others “to regain the respect and the honor and the appreciation that I think we should all feel for people in the uniformed services.” Weinberger continued pointing out that the service personnel in the AVF were “not militarists seeking glory abroad in a lot of bold or disastrous adventures, but they are shouldering, really, the burdens that enable us to continue to live in peace and freedom, and I think we should honor them for it.” (Confirmation Hearing Caspar W. Weinberger Secretary of Defense, Committee on Armed Services, 97th Congress, US Senate, Jan 6 1981)

Not even a decade old in 1980, doubts about the AVF pervaded Congress, the public, and the military itself. Many doubted its continued existence. In 1980, Jimmy Carter signed into law the Registration to Military Service Act, which required all 18-26 year old males to register with the government for possible selective service. Many observers suggested the legislation represented the first step toward reestablishing the draft. Yet, through the final decades of the Cold War, US intervention in Latin America, “peacekeeping” in East Africa and Eastern Europe, and the current “War on Terror”, the AVF persists.

Coming into existence at the same time that neoliberal policies and New Right rhetoric came to dominate economic policy, the establishment of the AVF reflects the blossoming of these political and economic trends during the 1970s and 1980. Such developments influenced both the tangible and theoretical aspects of this “new military”. In America’s Army: Making the All Volunteer Force (2009) Temple University historian Beth Bailey examines the creation of the all-volunteer Army. Bailey traces developments in the AVF from its inception in the 1970s through its role in the 1990s and early 2000s. In America’s Army, Bailey reveals the complexities of race and gender in creating the AVF and the various debates that unfolded as it came into existence. While the AVF and its officials displayed an open mind about race and class, gender and sexuality continued to bedevil both proponents and opponents of the AVF. Though women’s roles expanded in the years since its creation, the AVF reveals the blind spots and contradictions that continue to complicate ideas about women’s role in the modern military.

Military conflict itself provided the opening for the “new army.” The Vietnam War proved the catalyst for the emergence of the AVF. As Bailey points out, it “created a political perfect storm” justifying and lending credence to a wide spectrum of arguments promoting an all-volunteer military. (3) If liberals saw the selective service system as inherently unequal, benefiting the middle class at the expense of working class white and minority populations, then conservatives viewed conscription as yet another form of government intrusion. The failure of the Vietnam War and the social problems that emerged internally including drug use, racism, insubordination, and numerous other issues had even convinced some military officials that “‘Reluctant’ draftees did not make the best soldiers.” (3) Nixon, ever the politician, grasped the opportunity to reshape the military but did so under the guidance of “free market economists and libertarian thinkers.”

This restructuring of the military along the lines of New Right market-based ideologies illustrates the pervasive influence of the burgeoning libertarian movement. Milton Friedman best represents this consortium of the New Right that was to play such a crucial role in reorienting the military. Friedman and others altered many of the principles that had underpinned military service. Along with his fellow Chicago school economists, Friedman jettisoned the ideal of military service as civic duty or an obligation of citizenship. In its place the language of markets and consumerist desire would prove the key to staffing the all-volunteer force, releasing Americans from what Friedman and others classified as a form of 20th century “slavery.” (87) As Bailey points out, Friedman’s consortium had replaced “the logic of citizenship with the logic of the market.” (4) Though many military officials bristled at the idea of service as simple “employment” or a market based decision, it nonetheless became policy. Nixon promised higher pay and increased benefits, illustrating the free market ethos of the neoliberal movement. Though Nixon hoped to quell leftist criticism of his administration by ending conscription he did so through the auspices of free market libertarian thinking that has become the business card of the right. Still, this shift mattered for more than just economic reasons or ideological trophies; Nixon had fundamentally altered the military’s relationship with society. Working from two principle assumptions – “individual liberty is the most essential American value, and the free market is the best means to preserve it” – Nixon and the New Right had pushed the military’s relationship to citizenship into the background, downplaying or muting issues of sacrifice, fairness, and obligation.

America’s Army
is not Bailey’s first journey into the United States military. Her collaboration with David Farber on The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in WWII Hawaii explored the racial and sexual dynamics of Hawaii as thousands of service personnel poured into the then territory, altering gender and racial hierarchies. The transgressive nature of interracial relationships at the time illustrated the surging tensions of race and sexuality that simmered under American social relations. Though fundamentally a different book, in America’s Army, Bailey remains attentive to these issues. Limiting herself to the Army, Bailey uncovers dialogue between officials that reveals the discomfort many leaders felt toward the shift. Nonetheless, recruits were needed, hence the army’s new reliance on market logic. The advertising that came to dominate military commercials (print, radio and television) focused “on the ‘important psychological needs’ and desires of potential volunteers.” This approach, Bailey writes, “was given added weight by the market surveys and social science research that offered quantitative evidence about what young men and women wanted.” (76) Of course, the realities of Army life made meeting these desires more difficult than one might imagine.

Race emerged as a central concern of the new AVF. Advertising agency N.W. Ayer carefully drafted ads that featured African American men and women but attempted to avoid over representation. While racist arguments employed against the legitimacy of Black military service affected advertisements, fears over an AVF staffed by lower income minorities also gave officials pause lest accusations of using low income populations as cannon fodder (an issue that arose during the Vietnam War) came to symbolic fruition. Ayer’s racially inclusive ads featured men and women, black and white, in identical environments. “Each man was shot on a loading dock; each woman in an office, standing beside a mail cart. Sex changed the surroundings dramatically; race changed nothing,” writes Bailey.”(79) Two aspects of this campaign seem notable.

First, the racial/ethnic binary ignored the possibility of Latino or Asian recruits. One might ask why? Considering the decorated military service of Latino and Asian Americans in WWII, one wonders why officials had not included these populations in their plans. It proves even more perplexing when one considers that the early 1970s were the high water mark for the Chicano movement. Even though the Chicano Movement offered a dissenting voice toward Vietnam and the “American establishment” as Lorena Oropeza illustrates in !Raza Si! !Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam War Era, many Chicano anti-war leaders often voiced their discontent with military service as a central frame. Many highlighted the long tradition of decorated Mexican American military service and argued that Vietnam extracted an unusually high toll on Chicano soldiers. Take activist Rosalio Munoz: “Chicanos came back from World War II . . . and they put on their uniforms and medals and they’d say ‘We served; you can’t call me a wetback, you can’t tell me where to go.” Munoz continued suggesting there were consequences to this way of thinking. The Chicano activist identified this martial tendency as a “cultural and psychological thing.” Military service served as a means to ”prove yourself.” (Oropeza, 149) Like Munoz, some even accused officials of taking advantage of an inherent and/or socialized Chicano trait toward soldiering. There were even those in the movement that openly supported prosecution of the war. (Oropeza, 143). Why the officials ignored such developments in terms of recruitment remains a fair question. Bailey addresses this issue noting that in discussions of the all-volunteer force, the word minority had come to mean Black to most speakers. If the public discourse of elected and appointed officials lacks the proper language or conceptual model such that participants cannot even break from binary thought through speech, it is probably asking too much to expect it of an ad campaign.

Second, as Bailey notes and explores in greater depth later, gender remained a problematic construct for officials to untangle. Early adverts for women seem to suggest the Army as a useful place for finding a husband as much as a venue for acquiring skills or martial discipline. To be fair, as Bailey points out, advertising for men sometimes sold sexual intrigue as one reason to join the Army. For example, one widely used advertisement featured a young man interacting with an attractive blonde European woman. The ad even played to none too nuanced sexual innuendo featuring the women ”holding an open lipstick tube to her mouth.” (79) Not all advertising centered on sexuality. Some appealed to recruits’ desires to travel the world and sharing that bonding experience with others. As one ad boasted, “Mike, Leroy, Rocky, Vince, and Bunts are taking the Army’s 16 month tour of Europe. Together.” (79)

Undoubtedly, the discussion of gender during the transformation of the United States military serves as one of America’s Army’s strongest insights. Developing in the same period as the countervailing forces of the ERA amendment and Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative resistance, the AVF struggled to deal with the role of women. If the military proved, in comparison to broader society, somewhat progressive on racial issues, it remained far more cautious (one could just say sexist but the author digresses) on the issue of gender. Buffeted by these political winds, the expanded use of women drew derision from Schlafly and conservatives and applause from NOW and liberals. Despite attentions from the left and right, often debates regarding the AVF focused primarily on male soldiers, as Bailey notes “[officials and others] almost always assumed they were talking about men.” (133-134) Yet, when the issue of women in the military came up, it only did so as a difficulty. Military officials framed discussions of women’s place in the Army as “one of the problems,” that required attention. (134) Nonetheless through juridical processes and social change, women had normalized their role in the AVF while also increasing their numbers (in 1971 women made up 1.3% of enlisted ranks, by 1979 it had risen to 7.6% - this was for the armed services as a whole, the Army actually experienced a greater increase from 1.2% to 8.4%).

Simultaneously, women in broader American society had entered the workforce in larger and larger numbers. As Bailey points out, the increase in female enlistment functioned in part with ideas about what women could and could not do but also served as a “by product of the move to the market, the shift from the powerful cultural traditions of military service to the structural imperatives of labor market competition.” (133) Further while the ERA waited for confirmation, its existence “opened the door for women in the 1970s.” (134) However, though military officials openly insisted that women now played a key role in the Army, conservative opponents and even the Army’s own Women’s Army Corps (WAC) questioned or expressed hostility toward female enlistment. The aforementioned Schlafly articulated concerns over loss of femininity and worse, images of “America’s wives and daughters – drafted and dehumanized, sent into combat, brutalized maimed, raped and killed.” (134) Schlafly declared the idea of female soldiers an abomination. For Schlafly, the idea of women serving in military combat was “unnatural” and ”ugly”. Falling back on hyperbole, she labeled it “a death wish for our species.” (169) Generally, those in favor of increased female enlistment used the “language of law and logic” while opponents marshaled “timeless truths, personal experience and God’s will.” (167)

WAC leadership expressed concerns as well but framed their doubts around “cultural assumptions and prejudices, . . . differences in the average physical capacities of men and women, and … the unknown impact women would have on unit effectiveness and morale.” (135) Unsurprisingly, the debate over women in the army illustrated broader attitudes about gender and sexuality that one could only describe as misogynistic. Speaking to the Washington Post in 1976 (the same year the academies were opened to women), retired General William Westmoreland revealed the tip of the misogyny iceberg. Westmoreland surmised that it was possible to "find one women in 10,000 who could lead in combat," but that such an individual would be a human oddity. The general concluded by pointing that he and other officials were "not running the military academy for freaks.” (135) Even General Hoisington, former director of the WACs, testified to Congress rejecting the idea of women as active combatants. Hoisington, stated that she believed that it was “a matter of . . . whether we are going to preserve the things our Nation stands for … Our constitution, our flag, our family life.” Westmoreland also spoke his mind. Marshaling ideas of masculinity and honor, the former General argued that “no man with gumption wants a women to fight his nation’s battles.” Even worse, he characterized female enlisted personnel as sexually deviant, condemning “female soldiers who bore babies ‘out of wedlock”” and arguing that “this is the first time that our nation has by its official policy sanctioned an immoral policy.” (169) Bailey rightly notes the good General had somehow forgotten about slavery, not to mention other dubious government policies (Native American removal to name just one). In this fetid mix, women remained prohibited from “combat roles” yet as civilian and military officials knew, during actual combat, lines between non-combat and combat positions blurred. Thus, every decision regarding women from “initial military occupation specialties (MOS) of accessions to the percentage of promotions by gender to the design of equipment and the provision of uniforms” underwent debate and scrutiny. (135-6)

A 1982 Virginia Pilot article illustrates the changing role of women in the army and the dynamics at play in public discourse. Focusing on the experiences of Private Linda Brooks, journalist John Cott conveyed the armed services new orientation: “It is no longer this man’s Army. It is this person’s Army.” Describing Brooks as “small, pretty and quiet”, Cott also pointed out, almost cartoonishly, that she had been “trained to kill an enemy soldier with a knife, rifle, or her hands and feet.” According to Cott, the women’s barracks were more “dainty” than their male counterparts’. Brooks maintained a neatly organized closet and quarters adorned with a “Have a nice day” poster, and “a fat jolly teddy bear.” After reflecting on Brooks’ apparent skills in warfare, Cott wrote “[s]omehow looking at the bear, the posters, her school notebook full of dreamy poems, it seems impossible.” Yet when speaking with non-commissioned officer Sgt. 1st Class Robert G. Scott, Cott found open support. Wearing a black Harley Davidson t-shirt, “greasy blue jeans”, boots, and an earring, the “grisseled” “salty” “highly respected” tattooed adorned Doors loving officer endorsed female enlistment. “Hey you give me a boat with nothing but girls and I’ll give you the best boat in the Army,” said Scott. Brooks’ Captain, West Point grad Michael J. Lally, appeared broadly supportive as well, though he fell back on ideas of women’s ability to tame male passions while also implying that the major obstacle to women’s enlistment was sexual. “Among the girls,” the captain noted, “I got ones who get around and one’s who don’t. Frankly, I like having the women. The guys like it. It settles them down. It makes life in here a little more like home, like normal.” (Cott, John, Virginia Pilot/The Ledger Star, “The Army, Inside Private Lives”, June 27, 1982.)

Even with increasing female enlistment, consumerist desire proved inadequate in meeting recruiting needs. The Army now needed to emphasize the armed services as a place where all recruits experienced equal opportunity. The issue of opportunity illustrated more than one dimension. First, in its initial decade, concerns about the quality of new recruits surfaced repeatedly. For example, a 1980 testing scandal revealed that despite official military reports to the contrary, 1/3 of new Army recruits tested into the lowest “mental category”, category IV. Armed Services Committee member and First District Congressional member Paul S. Trible Jr (R-Virginia) lamented the fact that the only way the military could “produce an effective fighting force [was] through a statistical sleight of hand.” (Hatcher, Ed, The Virginia Pilot, “Military Test Scores Called a ‘Scandal’”, August 1, 1980.) The Virginia Pilot editorial board remarked that “all volunteer army is far from what is should be.” The newspaper granted that the all-volunteer force needed more time to develop but noted if things failed to improve, “[Congress and the President] must admit that the volunteer concept doesn’t work.” (The Virginia Pilot, “Intelligence in the Military”, Aug 3, 1980.) The aforementioned Captain Lally presented the quality issue pragmatically. Lally characterized his unit as “the best and worst of American society.” According to Lally, “If it goes on out there, it goes on in here. It covers the whole spectrum from sexuality to drinking and drug.” I’ve got college graduates and high school dropouts. I’ve got guys who grew up picking their nails with switchblades and others who were choirboys.” (Cott, John, Virginia Pilot/Ledger Star, “The Army, Inside Private Lives”, June 27, 1982.)

Though Lally presented the new army as a balancing act between various social markers, much of the “quality debate” unfolded under the auspices of race. Bailey unpacks such controversies pointing out that much of the discussion of category IV recruits masked racial concerns. From the outset concerns about an “‘all-black army’ undercut public acceptance of the idea of a volunteer force, and many of the strongest arguments against the AVF hinged on notions of race,” notes Bailey (108). Some observers New York’s Charlie Rangel openly stated his belief that the AVF would depend disproportionately on poor black citizens that resorted to military service because of a dearth of economic opportunities. Others like former Oakland mayor and California Congressman Ron Dellums embraced “the Army as opportunity” logic. Despite his notable anti-war credentials, Dellums looked to ensure equal opportunity. The efforts of Dellums and others forced the Army to deliver the level of equality in the Army regarding the very opportunities it advertised. This debate intersected with arguments over the Army’s new purpose. Did the Army exist as a “source of jobs for American youth or treated as the fundamental instrument of national defense[?]” While the “social good” versus national defense argument would continue unabated through the mid 1990s, the issue of race in the 1970s overshadowed the opportunity debate.

Clearly, race had long been a controversial issue in the military. As Bailey argues, “debates about the viability of the AVF were, from the beginning, deeply embedded in American beliefs about race” (128). The Vietnam War only exacerbated this tension. Moreover, overseas bases in 1970s Germany reported high levels of racial conflict and violence. The combination of the Black power movement, resentment over Vietnam, and the fear of disaffected Black veterans somehow overturning the proverbial American applecart pervaded debates at the time. When Clifford Alexander ascended to the position of Secretary of the Army (the first Black man to hold the position, appointed under President Jimmy Carter) in February of 1977, he took dead aim at the Army’s entrance test known as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Batter (ASVAB). Alexander found the test culturally biased and of little use in revealing who would be a good soldier and who would not. Bailey points out that even manpower experts expressed reservations about the exam. Consisting of “analogies, general information, and the vocabulary of the educated classes” the test remained “subject to cultural bias and reflect[ed] the results of education disparities.” (119) Even the military’s The Recruiter Journal recognized that the test results were arbitrary enough that it advised recruiters to prevent or convince potential soldiers to avoid a wild night out the day before the test, as “a hangover was … particularly deadly in combination with a three hour test … a bad morning after a long night out could easily turn a Category III recruit into a Category IV.” (120) However, others like James Fallows in Atlantic Monthly presented the dilemma as less about race and more about class. Greater numbers of poor uneducated whites were enlisting. On average Black recruits “were more likely to come from at least the lower ranks of the middle class” while also attaining a high school diploma. (121-122)

The “quality debate” registered with the Black press. When international conflicts like the Iranian Revolution reignited concerns about the military’s quality, Black newspapers and magazines viewed such debates warily. Black Enterprise asked whether or not Cold War fears about Russians really masked domestic concerns about a military consisting heavily of Black recruits. The magazine wondered aloud if the fear was really “of giving blacks good opportunities in society?” (127) By Bailey’s account, the Army did address inequalities instituting policies and programs to increase the number of commissioned officers (3% in 1975, 11.4 by 1995) and senior NCO (by the 1990s nearly 1/3 were occupied by Black soldiers) positions. During the 2003 Supreme Court affirmative actions rulings, numerous retired Army generals supported the University of Michigan’s policies. By the mid 1990s some social scientists suggested the Army had defeated its “race problems” while providing a model for the entire nation. Again, Bailey notes that this conclusion rested squarely on a binary model of race, which ignored the rapidly growing number of Latinos in America and the Army. Moreover, Blacks remained proportionately underrepresented in some high tech areas. College tuition served as a prime incentive as 51% of Black recruits identified money for college as a primary motivation for military service. Eighty percent of Black veterans utilized funding from the G.I. Bill to pursue higher education. The multiculturalism of the 1990s altered military advertising as well. Ads like “Soldiers Pledge” emphasized the diversity found within the army’s ranks. A 1995 New York Times editorial reflects the strides the military had made in this regard. The newspaper’s editorial staff noted that Whatever its ability to wage war , the all-volunteer military has made enormous strides since its creation in 1973.” The editorial continued crediting the military for its efforts at “racial integration” and its commitment to the “upward mobility of men and women who otherwise might not have had the opportunities that the armed services had provided.” (213)

The Army had grown more astute in regard to gender as well. When the Reagan administration took office, some observers expected an end to women in the military and a resumption of the draft. Reagan and Secretary of Defense Weinberger came out solidly in favor of female enlistment. By 1988, the Army had opened more positions to women that had previously been too closely associated with direct combat. Women remained prohibited from direct ground combat and support positions that left them exposed or vulnerable to hostile forces, but the idea of women soldiers was changing. According to Bailey, Desert Storm provided “the major turning point for military women.” The Gulf conflict accorded female soldiers the opportunity to exhibit their martial skills. Five deaths also cemented their place in military service. Fittingly, some pundits also used the results of the Gulf War to celebrate the success of the AVF. By the mid 1990s, the Army reported 14% of its force was female with 48% of the number identifying as Black. A total of 14% of commissioned officers were female but higher positions continue to lack female faces. This inability to rise to the Army’s highest ranks reflects the effects of seniority. This meant that having been banned from the academies and not emerging in larger numbers until the 1980s and 1990s women were at a disadvantage considering the amount of time necessary required for promotion. Furthermore, nearly 2/3 of general officers rose from tactical operations fields, a position women remain prohibited from entering. In the end, by the late 1990s Bailey argues “It is quite possible to argue that, despite remaining problems, the army offered more opportunity to racial minorities and to women than almost any segment of civilian society.” (219)

If gender and racial issues had not been solved but at least addressed by the 1990s, controversies over sexual orientation had not. From WWI and on, the Army had ruled homosexuality incompatible with military service. As Allan Berube’s Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II has shown, despite this decree the military and especially wartime service opened up new possibilities for homosexual experiences. John D’Emilio touches on similar themes in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America as has Nan Boyd in Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. If Bailey argues that Desert Storm contributed to fully legitimizing female military service, have recent American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan provided any similar attitude change for homosexuals? One might argue yes. In a March 14, 2007 Washington Post editorial, 1993 “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” supporter and former Republican Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson openly endorsed the idea of gays serving in the military, arguing that the “policy has become a serious detriment to the readiness of America's forces as they attempt to accomplish what is arguably the most challenging mission in our long and cherished history.” For Simpson, the dismissal of 300 Farsi interpreters crossed the lines of good sense. The former senator asked, “Is there a "straight" way to translate Arabic? Is there a "gay" Farsi? My God, we'd better start talking sense before it is too late.” The primary concern Simpson argued was filling the armed services with ”able-bodied, smart patriot[s] to help us win this war.” Noting changes in social attitudes, the legacy of gay military service, and his own personal experiences with homosexual friends and acquaintances, Simpson suggested the decision to abolish “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” rested on the question of whether or not homosexuals serving openly “would enhance or degrade our readiness.” Between the absence of much-needed interpreters and lower recruitment numbers, Simpson viewed the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy as damaging. While undoubtedly social and military attitudes had changed (after all the issue of homosexuality has become largely generation with many people 40 and under exhibiting greater levels of comfort with gay marriage an similar issues than their older counterparts), one cannot help but note an heir of desperation in Simpson’s appeal. One might argue that defeat of DADT this past December hinged to some extent on the fear of terrorism outweighing fears of homosexuality. Still, whatever results the War on Terror ultimately yields, the abolition of DADT might one day be considered one of them.

In recent years, Donna Alvah’s Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946 - 1965 (2009), Maria Hoehn’s GIs and Fräuleins. The German American Encounter in 1950s West Germany (2002) and her more recent Over There. Living with the U.S. Military Empire (2010) along with Bailey’s previously mentioned The First Strange Place (1994) have begun to unravel the complexities of empire, race, and gender for overseas soldiers and dependents during WWII and the Cold War. Bailey’s newest contribution America’s Army provides invaluable insights into similar issues for service personnel domestically. Bailey’s exploration of these factors from the viewpoint of policymakers and military officials provides critical reflections on the meaning of the all volunteer military in an age of sustained conflicts.

Ryan Reft