Fresh Off the Boat

The so-called new golden age of television has mainly passed me by. While I can respect the quality of the storytelling of dramas from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones, watching even a few minutes of their bleak plotlines and copious violence leaves me both depressed and queasy. I can’t consider that entertainment.

Fortunately, we’re in also in a less-remarked upon golden age in television, an age of diversity in sitcoms. Following a decade or more in which the success of the admittedly brilliant Seinfeld led to a host of lesser imitators, all centered around the putatively mirthful misadventures of an interchangeable crop of young straight white people, the prime time airwaves have become a little more colorful.

One of the best new sitcoms in recent seasons is ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, loosely based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name. Although the conventionality and nonthreatening nature of the show has been criticized by none other than Huang himself, the show is groundbreaking for the very reason that it aggressively normalizes a viewpoint hitherto unglimpsed on American television. This is, after all, only the second network sitcom in the history of American television to focus around an Asian family, and the first to qualify as a genuine hit.

The show is deliberately designed to be relatable and comfortably familiar to the average sitcom fan. It’s a show about a rebellious and attitudinal young pre-teen with a goofy dad, an overbearing mother, and two goody two-shoes younger brothers –in other words a fairly standard assortment of sitcom standbys.

The fact that the main characters are all Asian is something new and different, but at first glance the majority of them come across as uncomfortably stereotypical. The father is inoffensive and assimilationist, a fan of all things American. The mother is a “Tiger Mom,” and the little brothers are overachieving Asian wunderkinder.

What puts the “fresh” in Fresh Off the Boat, however, is one simple fact. When you watch the show, you watch it entirely from the Asian characters’ perspective. You aren’t laughing at them, you’re laughing with them, a fact that makes all the difference in the world. It gives the white viewer a chance to see what being the minority looks like from the inside –and what white culture looks like from the outside.

In summary, Fresh Off the Boat is definitely fresh. Go check it out.

Sylvie and Bruno

As one of the most popular and enduring writers of children’s fantasy, Lewis Carroll is much revered for his two titanic bestsellers, Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, each dealing with a young girl’s journey’s through a bizarre dreamworld. Much less well known, however, is Carroll’s forgotten epic, Sylvie and Bruno, an even odder and more inventive work of literature startlingly ahead of its time.

Boldly experimental, and arguably post-modern, Sylvie and Bruno was too far distant from any ordinary narrative to find much of an audience even at the height of Carroll’s popularity. A strange mashup of Victorian romance, twee fairy tale and theological treatise, the book is narrated by an elderly man who moves to the country for his health, and finds himself caught up between reality and an increasingly lurid lucid dream.

The book begins by alternating between two separate stories observed by the narrator. The initial story is an odd fairy tale set in a strange kingdom called Outland, where the loving and wise king inexplicably disappears, leaving his two precocious children (the eponymous Sylvie and Bruno) in the dubious care of his scheming brother and sister-in-law. That story has barely started, however, when the narrator suddenly awakes into the setting of the other main story, which revolves around the romantic triangle between a young doctor, the beautiful daughter of a local aristocrat, and her dashing but sadly atheistic cousin.

As the story proceeds, the narrator begins to see strange echoes of the dreamworld in the real world. As the line between waking and dreaming grows thinner, the scene begins to shift more erratically, with a sentence begun by one character in one world sometimes being finished by another character in another world. This culminates in the transition of Sylvie and Bruno out of the dreamworld into the real world, where they interact with the other set of characters, before journeying back into their own realm.

Even this summary hardly begins to tap the surface of the weirdness of a novel that was reportedly a key inspiration for James Joyce’s impenetrable classic Finnegan’s Wake. The book begins midsentence, and many chapters begin and end in the middle of a scene. The entire book obeys its own logic and rules, which appear to remain consistent, despite the fact that the author delights in offering insoluble paradoxes. For instance, it’s strongly suggested in the book that the dream characters might be based on the real world characters, just as in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, all of Dorothy’s dream companions are versions of people from her real world. Yet it is often unclear which character is more primary and which is the imitation. For another instance, it can be easy to read the book as the narrator’s descent into madness and dementia, yet when his dream figures brave the passage into the real world, they interact with the other real life characters in a way that precludes all possibility of them being merely figments of the narrator’s imagination. Then, in the middle of the book, apropos of nothing, a figure appears who bears a startling resemblance to one of the dream figures, yet who might potentially be an alien from outer space. After delivering a series of increasingly satirical tales of his home planet he vanishes from the narrative, never to be seen again.

Through it all run any number of Carrollian idiosyncrasies. First, as with the Alice books, Sylvie and Bruno is filled with a quantity of indelible poems, some of which rival those books’ famous “Jabberwocky”, “Father William” and “Walrus and the Carpenter” in humor and inventiveness. Second, the book is interwoven throughout with any number of weighty monologues and dialogues on morality, Christianity, philosophy, science and mathematics –a true challenge to the book’s supposed juvenile target audience. Third, the narrative combines a treacly sentimentality with a slyly cynical and sardonic sense of humor.

It isn’t the easiest book by any stretch of the imagination, but once encountered it can never be forgotten. Easily one of the most original books ever written, it’s a mind-expanding must read.

The Marianne Trilogy

I recently revisited what I consider to be one of the most critically underappreciated works in modern fantasy fiction, Sheri S Tepper’s Marianne Trilogy (Marianne, the Magus and the Manticore; Marianne, the Madam and the Momentary Gods; Marianne, the Matchbox and the Malachite Mouse). Never released in hardcover, and long out of print, this luminous and dream-drenched narrative seems to be sadly unknown, even among devotees of Tepper’s more popular work.

The trilogy centers around Marianne, who begins the books as a shy and bookish graduate student living under the thumb of her sinister half brother. The details of the plot, however are secondary to the series’ most distinctive traits: A multifaceted heroine, a slyly feminist viewpoint, and a an ever-shifting setting that guides the reader through a seemingly endless series of richly imagined, psychologically rich dream worlds.

Although Marianne, the title character, is nominally the same person in all three books, she is also, in some sense, a new person in each book, since at the end of the first and second books she travels back in time, and relives her life in a different way starting from infanthood. Thus, the Marianne of the first book is an orphaned survivor of abuse, who discovers deeply hidden internal reserves of strength and power. The Marianne of the second book is the pampered child of wealthy immigrants, who grows up in the shadow of magical events, a profound and continual sense of deja vu, and the occasional intrusions of a ghostly and morally ambiguous version of her former self. Finally, the Marianne of the third book represents a more confident and psychologically stable integration of her two earlier selves.

Whimsy and feminism are not concepts often found in close companionship, but Tepper’s combination of the two gives the series extra spark and edge. Much of the dynamic of the first two books revolves around Marianne’s relationship with her mentor, lover and would-be savior, Makr Avehl, who spends much of the first book trying to rescue Marianne, only to find out at the end that she is in no real need of his assistance. The feminist subtext is sharpened in the second book when Makr Avehl consciously attempts to cast himself as a knight in shining armor, only to end up the butt of the joke as a parody Prince Charming in a revisionist fairy tale. Interestingly enough it is only in the third book, where Marianne is finally a figure of strength and confidence, that Makr Avehl is finally allowed to save the day for real. Perhaps Marianne is finally strong enough to enjoy being rescued? Be that as it may, the book does not completely abandon its feminism, featuring as it does an extended episode in a mythical matriarchy in which the men campaign for male rights and male liberation while secretly longing to be dominated by strong (and bloodthirsty) women.

While the characters and their relationships are quite different in each book, the overall structure remains constant, as each features Marianne becoming trapped in a series of nightmarish false worlds, from which she must escape despite suffering from a dreamlike amnesia. It is in this series of settings that Tepper’s imaginative gift is on fullest display, as she paints portraits of fascist bureaucracies, libraries with no exits, infinitely tall towers built of mud, people trapped inside posters, mechanical monsters, and cats and chickens that hunt human beings for sport. Few other authors have ever better captured the combined magic and menace of the dreamworld, with its bizarre juxtapositions that somehow make perfect psychological sense.

These books are all but impossible to obtain, and only at high cost, but if you’re a fan of this type of literature it will be worth it, I consider them a must read.

The Aesthetics of Football

In honor of the OSU Buckeyes’ continued dominance, please enjoy my recent essay from Partially Examined Life.

Whole volumes could be written, whole volumes have been written, about the ethics of American college football, a gladiatorial pastime whose unpaid participants risk on a weekly basis both their health and (due to the prevalence of concussions) their sanity, to the obscenely exaggerated enrichment of millionaire coaches, administrators and other more-or-less parasitic entities. This essay, however, is about the aesthetics of college football, both a more rare and a more rarefied subject of inquiry.

Read the full essay…

Kierkegaard’s Narrative – Part II

Please enjoy this repost of the continuation of my 2004 essay: “Kierkegaard’s Narrative”

Even without the religious and spiritual dimension that was the ultimate foundation of Kierkegaard’s work, the narrative he inspired continues to garner resonance and popularity among a wide audience wrestling with his characteristic existential themes. The book/movie of recent times that perhaps most completely embodies Kierkegaard’s Narrative is Nick Hornby’s “lad lit” classic, High Fidelity (1995, the title is a pun that juxtaposes good audio quality against sexual faithfulness). The story of a young, but not-as-young-as-he-once-was record-store owner, it was hugely popular among an audience of twenty- and thirty-something Generation Xers who could deeply identify with the protagonist. Like Percy’s Binx, and Kierkegaard’s Aesthete, Hornby’s main character Rob is deeply, passionately and compulsively dedicated to an aesthetic pursuit, which, in this case, is the collection, appreciation and occasional sale of classic vinyl records. His aesthetic orientation is so strong, he even claims that “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” or in other words, that your aesthetic choices are your most important characteristics. When he breaks up with his girlfriend Laura, who is transitioning into a mature adult, and who is frustrated by Rob’s refusal to do the same, he attempts what amounts to a combination of Kierkegaard’s concepts of repetitions and seduction, by pursing a renewed connection with each one of his former girlfriends. Later, following the death of Laura’s father, Rob realizes that what he most wants is not an exciting new sexual partner, the repetition of an old relationship, or even a perfect collection of records, but rather the chance to marry Laura, and move forward with his life.

Few other books or movies exemplify the model to such a perfect extent, but echos of the narrative abound in popular culture. The title character in the 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) is a male, forty-year old virgin whose aesthetic obsession is action-figures. Don Jon, from the recent movie of the same title (2013), is a young man whose aesthetic preoccupation is pornography. In the seventies cult classic, Harold and Maude (1971), Harold is a callow, but troubled youth obsessed with the aesthetics of suicide, and in the Northern California romp Sideways (2004), the protagonist Miles has an aesthetic fixation on wine that is indistinguishable from alcoholism. In the critically acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook (2012), the protagonist is trapped, not by aesthetics but by a repetition, the desire to reconnect with his ex-wife. In the Oscar-winning American Beauty (1999), Kierkegaard’s three obsessions are combined uniquely into one, as the main character’s attempts to repeat and recapture his lost youth are symbolized by a series of aesthetically striking fantasies about the seduction of a young girl. In each case, the main character has to make an existential choice to move beyond self-absorption and the tyranny of freedom in order to achieve a genuine connection with another human being.

Jedi Philosophy

Please enjoy this repost of one of my most popular essays (originally written in 2005):

For many people, the main appeal of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” movies is the “Jedi Way,” the philosophy/religion that guides the mystical Jedi knights. But where does this philosophy come from, and does it hold up under scrutiny?

At root, the Jedi Way is a synthesis of three Eastern religions or philosophies, with an overlay of courtly behavior drawn from the medieval knights of Europe.

The most important source for the Jedi Way is Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy whose name is generally translated as “the Way” or as “the Way of Nature.” The two main goals of Taoism are to achieve balance and to exist in harmony with nature (and with all living beings). There is no deity as such in Taoism, which conceptualizes ultimate reality as a primal energy. This energy is expressed in the world in the form of two equal and opposing forces, the “yin” or passive female force, and the “yang” or active male force. These forces are neither good nor evil, and what is desirable is that they be in balance at all times.

The tension between yin and yang creates “qi” (pronounced “chee” and sometimes transliterated as “chi”) or life energy. Qi is found in all things, but particularly living creatures. The manipulation of qi is at the root of many traditional Chinese practices including acupuncture, feng shui and tai chi. According to legend, command of qi flow (as practiced by “qigong” masters) brings many mystical powers similar to those of the Jedi, such as the ability to move objects with the mind. In the movies, the name of Jedi Master “Qui-Gon Jin” is probably a deliberate reference to “qi gong.”

(Since Taoism is more of a philosophy than a religion, it is often combined together with religious beliefs from other traditions, such as Buddhism or Christianity.)

The second major source of the Jedi Way is Buddhism, specifically Zen, a variant found largely in Japan. As with most forms of Buddhism, Zen preaches “non-attachment,” the letting go of emotional bonds to people, places and things. The ultimate goal is to reach a selfless state of dispassionate compassion for all living things. Like the Jedi knights, Buddhist monks are ascetic and celibate. Zen monks are known, at least in the popular imagination, for developing a particular ability or craft to the point where it can be practiced with no conscious effort and nearly superhuman skill.

The third major source for the Jedi worldview is Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion which viewed the world as an eternal battlefield between the forces of good and evil. Although Zoroastrianism has only small pockets of practitioners left in the modern world, it was a major influence on many other philosophies and religions. Echoes of it are present in many places, including the way many modern Christians conceptualize the devil as a force opposite and nearly equal to God.

Finally, the Jedi philosophy is overlaid with a code of chivalry based on that practiced by the medieval knights of Europe, who operated by a code of ethics including strict rules for combat, high standards of courtesy, warrior virtues such as honor, loyalty and bravery and a veneration of courtly love. The knightly facet of the Jedi is exemplified in the movies by their preference for the “elegant” light sabers as opposed to the “barbaric” blasters.

The remarkable synthesis Lucas achieved in placing together these disparate elements has proved compelling for more than one generation of viewers. However, as a workable philosophy it has major flaws.

The first and most subtle of these is the conflict between Taoism and Buddhism. Although often linked in real life, Taoism and Buddhism do not always line up. In the first chapter of the “Tao Te Ching” (the chief text of Taoism) it says “let go of desires in order to observe the source, but allow yourself desires in order to observe the manifestations.” This indicates that both “attachment” and “nonattachment” are seen as having value in Taoism, as opposed to Buddhism. In addition, the Buddhist seeks to transcend the world and earthly existence, whereas the Taoist seeks to be fully integrated into the world as a part of nature and natural existence. In the movies, this becomes an issue in the way that the Jedi Council is aloof and independent from politics, yet simultaneously also deeply involved in the galactic political landscape.

The second conflict is between Taoism and Zoroastrianism. There is no “good” and “evil” in Taoism, only balance and imbalance. Neither Yin nor Yang is preferable, and both are necessary, as apposed to Zoroastrianism, where the ultimate goal is the triumph of good and the eradication of evil. This disconnect shows up as a major plot point in the second series of movies (I, II & III), where the prophecy of “balance in the Force” may possibly mean the rise of evil.

The third conflict is between Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Again, the concept of a fight between good and evil is somewhat alien to Buddhism. A fallen Buddhist would not be an equal and opposite force to a good Buddhist, but simply someone who had become too caught up in the illusions and the material temptations of the ordinary world. A person of this sort might be cruel, venal and selfish, but would not be expected to have any particular spiritual power. This creates a paradox in the movies, in that the Jedi draw power from controlling their emotions, but the Sith draw power from their inability to control their emotions. In addition it creates another instance of cognitive dissonance as the wise and dispassionate Jedi choose over and over again to resolve their problems through violence.

The final conflict is between Buddhism and chivalry. Buddhism preaches non-attachment, but one of the key characteristics of the medieval knights was passionate attachment. Loyalty to one’s lord and to one’s comrades-in-arms was among the highest virtues, and a courtly, romantic (and theoretically chaste) love between a knight and his lady was celebrated as an ideal. Also, in as much as chivalry stems from Christianity, it carries the idea of love as a powerful redemptive force.

This disconnect creates some of the most powerful paradoxes in the movies. In the first series (IV, V & VI) Yoda and Obi-Wan counsel control of emotions, and warn Luke against the dangers of his affection for his friends, and his unreasonable love for his father. Yet it is Luke’s decision to ignore this seemingly wise advice that provides most of the high points of the first series. In the end, Luke is proven right when his ill-advised love for his father finally uncovers the good left in Darth Vader, and brings about the final end to the Sith. Therefore, love is ultimately shown to be even more powerful than the light side of the Force (which failed to conquer its counterpart in all five chronologically previous movies).

Conversely, the second series suffers from taking its doctrine of non-attachment too seriously. The Jedi Council consequently comes across as cold and uncaring –a fact which drives Anakin into the more hot-blooded arms of the Dark Side. In addition, this set of movies is in the strange position of positing love as the enemy. Although Anakin clearly has psychotic tendencies, the movie insists on blaming his moments of indiscriminate slaughter on his “love” for his mother and his wife. Even Obi-Wan’s platonic love for his padawan does nothing except cloud his judgment.

It is this too-fully-realized disdain for emotion that, more than anything else, makes the second series inferior to the first.

Opinion: Emancipate Birth Control From the Abortion Debate

It’s rare for me to do an opinion piece, and I’m in dangerous waters on this one –tackling one of America’s most explosive issues with a position guaranteed to anger everyone. Nevertheless, I feel this is is an important stance that has gotten lost in the debate.

I think it is time to emancipate birth control from the abortion debate, politically speaking. As a pragmatic matter, the single most effective way to reduce demand for abortions is to have widely available, safe, effective, inexpensive, preventative birth control, and to educate people in how to use it. With preventative birth control, those who are unwilling or unfit to be parents are able to avoid procreation without resorting to abortion. This, in turn, prevents an untold number of children from having to grow up in adverse circumstances.

I am strongly against a blanket ban on birth control such as that currently advocated by the Catholic church. The rejection of birth control by many members of the anti-abortion movement is counter-productive not only in terms of reducing mainstream support for the movement, but also in terms of increasing the number of unwanted pregnancies and the resultant demand for abortions. The only justification for such a stance is an absolute moral opposition to all non-procreative sexual activity. I don’t feel such a stance is morally justified in light of the current global conditions of overpopulation –in addition to the practical impact of harming the effort to reduce numbers of abortions.

I think the marriage of abortion and birth control is equally injurious to the other side. An often repeated statistic is that Planned Parenthood, the largest American provider of reproductive health services, only spends 3% of funds and efforts on abortion. The implication is that abortion is a relatively unimportant part of what Planned Parenthood does –by the numbers. Yet the fact that Planned Parenthood is unwilling to give up that 3% suggests that abortion is actually quite important to their mission. It is not possible to simultaneously argue that abortion is too important to Planned Parenthood for it to be given up, and yet also not important enough to Planned Parenthood for opponents of abortion to worry about.

Given that 97% of Planned Parenthood’s activities perform a relatively uncontroversial, vital and necessary service for women’s health, and 3% of their activities are morally abhorrent to a sizable percentage of Americans, why hold the 97% hostage to the 3%? Just as I recognize that there are people who feel that sex is morally wrong, I also recognize that there are people who believe that ensuring continued access to abortion is a key moral necessity. But is it more of a key moral necessity than other reproductive health services, including preventative birth control?

I don’t oppose those with strong moral convictions on either side continuing to work for what they think is right, with regards to abortion, but preventative birth control shouldn’t be a hostage to the abortion debate. I would venture that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of preventative birth control, regardless of their views on abortion, and that a considerable number of those nominally opposed to preventative birth control would nevertheless view it as a lesser evil than abortion. Preventative birth control meets both the objective of reducing the number of abortions, and increasing the control of women over their own bodies and reproductive choices. It’s a gain for both sides.

It’s time to emancipate preventative birth control from the abortion debate.

God of the Gaps

The “God of the Gaps” argument –that God is the explanation for all the things we don’t (yet) understand –is more popular among atheists than believers, because of its apparent weaknesses. Yet is it as bad an argument as it seems? Read my full essay on the topic of this much despised argument over at Partially Examined Life:

…Given how thoroughly “God of the gaps” has been discredited by the best minds on both sides of the debate, it may seem a fool’s errand to seek anything worth salvaging within it, and yet I have recently become convinced that there is a core insight hidden in this argument, unappreciated by any of its modern critics…

Click here to read the full essay

Jason Chu: Illegal Immigration

This week, I’m showcasing the ever-righteous Jason Chu dropping a little knowledge on the hot button topic of “illegal immigration.”