Monday, December 23, 2013

Understanding Taiwan's Tobacco Labels

A Disassociated Press Public Service Memo [黑色幽默, kuso, satire]

by Eric Mader

The Chinese writing system is the world's most difficult--by a long shot. Foreigners who move to Taiwan engage in a daily uphill battle to read shop signs, posters and product labels.

Having been here awhile, and studied Chinese, I thought I should do my part to help newcomers make sense of their environment. Today I'll post these translations of Taiwan's tobacco warning labels for the foreigner smokers here who can't yet read Chinese.

Label 1

This one says: The wife and kid getting on your nerves? Time to step out for a quiet smoke. And why not stop in at the pub for a pint while you're at it?

Label 2

This one says: One of these lungs belongs to a street-smart big city detective always one step ahead of the game. The other belongs to a suburbanite flake who believes in crystal healing. Can you tell which is which?

Label 3

This one says: Yes, it is possible to continue smoking while having sex. Just be careful you don't stub your cigarette.

Label 4

This one says: Colas and other soft drinks not only rot your teeth, they can also lead to obesity. Tobacco, a known appetite suppressant, can help you shed those unwanted pounds.

Label 5

This one says: Smoking is one of life's great pleasures. Given the current state of smoking technology, however, you will have to wait to be born before you can begin.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Megyn Kelly can't whitewash her Jesus and Santa rant

Dear Megyn Kelly:

So you went and said something moronic on air about how Santa Claus and Jesus are both "white men". I have to admit, when I first saw your quoted remarks I wasn't really surprised, because I know you work for a network where everyone is paid to say moronic things. Comments like these are pretty much par for the course, no?

But still I'm disappointed, Megyn. And when I watched the actual clip, the seven-minute segment of your show where you went on repeating your "white" assertion, I felt I really needed to drop you a note. I think it's time you and your colleagues grew up and started recognizing what the world is really like.

"Santa just IS white. . . . Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change, you know. . . . Jesus was a white man too." --Megyn Kelly bringing the Christmas cheer on Fox News.

From the outset I should point out that I think it's fine if you picture Santa or Jesus to yourself as "white". If you are a Christian, you probably have an image of Jesus in your mind, and of course you have your own mental images of Santa Claus too. People all around the world do.

What bothers me is that it seems to matter so deeply to you that Santa and Jesus "ARE white", as you put it--that they are actually in essence somehow white. So that you start to get angry if you see them depicted otherwise, as if real history were being distorted or your rights were being trampled on.

As for me, though I am "white" like you, Megyn, and come from the "American heartland", I now live in a country where Santa is often shown as Asian, and I have also been in churches where Jesus and his apostles are shown as Chinese, churches where they are shown as black, churches where they look like Central American farmers.

None of these depictions bothers me in the least. Maybe if you got out of your little white shell now and then, you would feel less bothered yourself. The fact is that each culture will tend to represent Jesus or Santa as one of their own. It helps people feel closer to these figures. And this, after all, is the point, is it not?

But I want to consider the problem of your remarks in a bit more depth. I find your assertion that Santa is white and your assertion that Jesus is white each troubling in its own way. Because whereas the one remark suggests almost a kind of psychosis, the other can only come from deep historical ignorance. Yes, it's true your network has accomplished much by repeatedly combining these two (psychosis and ignorance) but I remain kind of old school when it comes to thinking through cultural or religious issues. I prefer to separate out the strands, as it were.

Let's consider Santa's case first. When I hear you assert that Santa is a white man, I feel kind of like I might feel if an adult were to tell me in all seriousness that the Tooth Fairy is a brunette and NOT a blonde, and that I SHOULDN'T START THINKING OF THE TOOTH FAIRY AS A BLONDE. That IT WOULD OFFEND THE TOOTH FAIRY TO TALK THIS WAY.

Are you actually an adult, Megyn? Because this is how ridiculous you sound. After all, Santa Claus, as gift-bearing benefactor from the North Pole, doesn't even exist. He's a legendary figure, as even Sean Hannity might know, and any community can represent him as whatever race they want. And this is in fact what they do.

But here is the image of Santa you ran on your show as an example of what Santa "really" looks like:

This guy is fine if it works for you, Megyn. But everyone is entitled to have their own Santa. My Santa, for instance, looks like this:

Or sometimes like this:

But the simple truth, Megyn, is that Santa Claus, to the extent there is a verifiable historical figure behind him, wasn't even what you would call "white". Our legendary Santa is historically based on St Nicholas, a 4th century saint who lived in what is now Turkey. Based on careful study of his relics, combined with knowledge of the historical community he was born in, a facial anthropologist working with a digital artist projected what the saint may well have looked like. The project was completed in 2004. Here, then, is as close as we can get to the "real" Santa:

I know you, Megyn. If a man looking like this sat down next to you on a flight, you would feel a bit uneasy. Certainly you'd never mistake him for what you think of as a "white man". And if he then told you, a minute after seating himself, "Did you know, Megyn? I'm not just any old flyer. I'm actually Santa Claus. And I've brought something just for you in my luggage"--if he told you this I think you'd try to get yourself off that plane before takeoff. But that would be very ungrateful of you, Megyn, wouldn't it? Because next to you in that seat was the REAL Santa Claus! And you, in your hysterical fear, went and offended him!

But let's move on from Santa to a historical figure I care much more about, namely Jesus of Nazareth. Again I want to say, Megyn, that it's fine with me if you imagine Jesus as a "white man". Here are a few images of the Jesus you probably conjure in your mind when you think of him:

There's nothing wrong with these images (although I find the first one kind of frightening, as if Jesus were a mix between Orlando Bloom and E.T., with a bit of Taylor Swift thrown in). Still, we know from history and forensic anthropology that the actual Jesus almost certainly didn't look like these images, that instead he probably looked more like this:

This is a projection of Jesus' possible appearance based on the historical time and place he came from. This image of Jesus doesn't bother me at all. Does it bother you?

In any case, Megyn, I think you need to ask yourself the question: Is this an image of what you would consider a "white man"? I don't know. But the ball is in your court. Is this the kind of face you have in mind when you insist so confidently that Jesus was white? This face of a Middle Eastern man, which is what, of course, Jesus was?

Your remarks were deeply disappointing, Megyn. In front of millions of viewers you let yourself get angry that people outside your narrow community want to represent Jesus or Santa as closer to their own racial group. As if these people were out to distort the truth, a truth you think you somehow own. It's this last thing that disgusts the most: that you really seem to think you own the truth.

Though I am a "white American" myself, I don't at all feel black or Asian or Latino Christians are out to distort the truth. I think you need to grow up, Megyn. You don't accept that others will represent Santa or Jesus in their own way, and yet your white community has done exactly same thing: You've represented Jesus and Santa as "white men", simply because this suits your racial preferences.

Yours Caucasianally,

Eric Mader

* * *

Update: After a storm of criticism, Megyn Kelly now claims her remarks were "tongue-in-cheek" and that her critics are "race baiting" and willfully misunderstanding her. She claims she was trying to inject a little "humor" into the discussion. At this one must cry foul. It's clear to anyone who watches the original exchange that Kelly was was not trying to get a laugh: her tone is one of peevish annoyance, not humor. She ends the segment by trying to dismiss comments by a guest who points out, contrary to her wishes, that our images of Santa can be "inclusive". "You had to go there, didn't you?" she says.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Vaginal Knitting: Yarn and Yawn

If a man trains himself to thump out a ditty on a piano using his erect penis, we think of it as a joke, a kind of sick gag. YouTube will cut the video soon enough. But if a woman somehow manages to knit using her vagina--well, that's what we call "performance art". It is considered art in part because the reason the woman did it was, as she says, to raise awareness about a shunned and supposedly misunderstood part of female anatomy.

Uh-huh. Cue Casey Jenkins.

Now Casey Jenkins seems like an easygoing and open-minded woman. And she certainly seems earnest about her work here. But I would have to suggest, even so, that she is drowning in a narcissistic craving for attention. And she is perversely exploiting her own sex organs to get this attention.

When last month I read about the poor dope who nailed his scrotum to the pavement on Red Square I thought a new low in attention-grabbing antics had been reached. And I thought this new low might hold for awhile. At least for a year or so.

Russian artist Petr Pavlensky

But I was too hasty in my judgment. Not even a month has passed and this Australian "craftivist" Jenkins comes in and, uh, snatches the trophy away. She gets the trophy because her work, regardless of the earnestness she seems to show, cannot escape being ridiculous--reaching a new level of ridiculous in fact. It is the stuff of humor and scoffing and a vague or even strong sense of aversion. And these emotions are not, contrary to what her ideological statements suggest, because there is anything inherently scoff-worthy in a woman's vagina. No, the humor and scoffing and revulsion are not due to her vagina itself, but to the way she is exploiting it to get attention.

Some consider her work a "brave" feminist statement. Yaaaawwwwnnn. In what is it brave? Is it brave because she is openly courting ridicule by doing something so evidently ridiculous? Jenkins' performance doesn't even subvert any boundaries (unless you consider the boundary between scarf and tampon worth subverting, which I don't). Vaginal motorcycle repair, now that might provoke some thought, but vaginal knitting? C'mon. Muffs and knitting go way back. My grandma knit muffs in her day.

So you see I'm starting to take the humorous end of this yarn and run with it. Ouch. Because I think this is what Jenkins' work calls for.

I can credit Femen with bravery when they do actions in authoritarian states and risk arrest. I can certainly credit Muslim women with bravery when they stand against forces like the Taliban. But a woman in Australia publicly fetishizing her own sex organs is not bravery: it's silly narcissism grasping for the status of art. She knows she's almost certain to make a name for herself among the community of like-minded feminists and "artists". And she risks nothing but being laughed at for her trouble.

While we're on the silly antics of performance artists in rich Western countries, why not try to craft a vaginal art project of our own? I'm neither a woman nor an artist but even I have better ideas how to make political statements with vaginas than Casey Jenkins. If such a sentence as this last one offends and incites feminists to rage, all the better.

"Misogynist asshole! So you think you understands women better than women do, huh? Typical! What a fuckin' jerk!!! We need more women like Casey in the world!!!!"

Thought you'd say something like that.

But in fact I don't think I understand women or vaginas better than women do. I just think I, along with millions of other people, understand the subversive potential of art better than Casey Jenkins does. Even if this art involves employing the vagina.

You doubt it? Consider: We all know our planet is it trouble, and we all know one of the reasons is the unnecessary over-consumption that comes with capitalism. Many people try to link an ethic of environmental protection with the nurturing feminine, claiming that our destruction of the environment is mainly a result of patriarchy. I don't buy it, but no matter. For performance artists it's plausible enough. So here's my plan, my own contribution to snatch art: How about a group of women activists/artists who come forward and pledge that for the duration of a year they will buy nothing from shopping malls that they can't insert and carry out in their vaginas? Now that would constitute a subversive political statement! What's more, if enough women took up the cause, it would actually put a damper on excessive consumption. Just think--a whole year with no high-end bags being sold. Or a fall season without any chic urban trench coats going. Because who's going to be able to buy a new trench coat? If you've ever tried to stuff a whole trench coat in your vagina, you'll know what I mean. Yes, it's true those first-floor cosmetics companies wouldn't really be hurt, given the smooth little canisters they sell, but guys like Louboutin would be in deep trouble.

If my project sounds utterly ridiculous, if it sounds like a joke even as it's being formulated, there's good reason for that. It's because making art with your sex organs is a dubious strategy in any case. But putting the ludic element aside, I would still insist: my project is way more subversive and consciousness-raising than vaginal knitting. And maybe, you might be saying, I should actually start work on this project.

But look: there are two things that keep me from making a name for myself as the creator of Vaginal Shopping: 1) I have a penis and so am disqualified from even proposing the idea; 2) I have a sense of the positive aspects of the mild taboo we in the West still hold in relation to genitals, and so would consider the project degrading.

The one redeeming element I can see in Jenkins' project is that she's knitting just a single long scarf rather than a series of scarves. One long scarf can't be worn, and that's all for the better, I'd say. I shudder to think of her knitting and selling wearable scarves. And so I close with the following:


"Mom, why does my scarf smell like . . . ."

"Like fish, dear?"


"That's because that scarf is very special. It was made by a performance artist."

"What is a performance artist?"

"A performance artist is a person who does something obscene or ridiculous to get attention, but claims they're doing it because they care about some social issue."

"Do they really care about the social issue?"

"Maybe a little, honey. But the important thing is for them to get their name to appear in the media."



"Why do I have to leave this little hair stuck in the scarf?"

"That's like a signature, honey. I paid extra for the scarf because it had that hair. Try not to lose it."


Sunday, November 24, 2013

It's a start, Canada

An open letter to Canadians on the recent happenings in Toronto.

Dear Canadians:

Don't think we Yankees don't know what you're up to. Your Toronto mayor fiasco, which may or may not be finally winding down, has envy written all over it. We your neighbors to the south can see clearly what it's all about. You're trying to be like us.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that we blame you for it. It must be hard sitting up there in the snow watching the superpower beneath your border melt down in such spectacular psychotic dysfunction while you have nothing even remotely exciting to match it with.

While we Americans have our annual school shootings, face-eating zombies, banana republic income disparities, Orwellian spy programs with more funding than God, Koran burners, serial killers, 9/11, Lady Gaga, you have what--Alanis Morissette? Problems with graffiti in Ontario high schools?

We know it's been tough.

So in truth I kind of gotta hand it to you. The Rob Ford scandal shows initiative. And it was pretty well done all around. Of course I know it was all staged; but still, the conception of the thing wasn't bad.

On the one hand you've long wanted a Rush Limbaugh of your own; on the other hand you were really smarting recently from all the global attention Miley Cyrus got with her little atrocity show. So what to do? Why not create a single national figure who combines the best of Limbaugh and Cyrus. A Rush-Miley hybrid. Voila Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in a city council meeting, November, 2013.

You see I'm onto you, no? It's obvious that your Rob Ford was conceived and hatched as just such a hybrid. He has the Tea Party politics and roly-poly dumb look of Rush Limbaugh; at the same time his skin is smoother and pinker than Limbaugh's, and is actually quite like Miley's. Do I need to even mention the Miley-like drug use?

Ford also clearly channels Miley in his upfront orality: while the singer hyper-extends her tongue as often as possible, the mayor jaws on and on about his diet of cunnilingus. Apparently as he speaks we are meant to imagine him in his living room in Miley-like oral action.

Then there's the mayor's clumsy tackling of city councilor Pam McConnell--who can't see this move for what it is, a subtle Canadian allusion to Miley's graceless twerking on Robin Thicke? But maybe this dramatic touch was a bit too subtle for most Americans, who pride themselves on their thickness. Still it wasn't lost on me. I'm a reader of Leonard Cohen, you know. And Margaret Atwood sometimes.

And just now I realize: isn't the idea of giving your idiotic mayor his own reality show a veiled reference to Sarah Palin and her reality show? At least, unlike us, you can boast the good taste of canceling the show before it even got off the ground.

Since the world is coming to an end soon, you Canadians don't have much time left to catch up to us in this game of large-scale Cultural Pathology. But your Rob Ford scandal is at least a start. I wish you well in any further attempts you may make. And I'll be paying attention to Canada in coming years. Which is something few Americans have ever done. So congratulations.

* * *

Addendum: My friend JS Porter just informed me by email that someone had already Photoshopped Ford's face onto Miley's "Wrecking Ball" video. So I guess I've been scooped. --E.M.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Thomas Pynchon Stalks the 9/11 Attackers

You really need to read The Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s latest. Especially if you’ve ever been a devotee of the writer in years past. You need to get your hands on a copy and start in right away.

This time the American master of paranoid inklings focuses his kaleidoscopic vision on New York in the months before and after September 2001, offering up a portrait of our 21st-century selves that is by turns rollicking, poignant, bleak. Bleeding Edge is both a great New York City novel and a far-reaching meditation on the attacks and what they’ve done to us.

Pynchon’s narrative follows disbarred fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow as she struggles to make sense of the financial shenanigans of a handful of Internet startups. The question nags: Are the shoddily disguised money transfers made to the Middle East in recent months by net guru Gabriel Ice in any way linked to the attacks? In the wreckage left by the dot-com bust, Ice is breaking up and buying damaged firms left and right, adding his recently acquired properties to a nascent net empire whose purposes are largely hidden. The money transfers, the secrecy, the unexplained need for Arabic speakers in Ice’s organization--it all begins to prod the otherwise levelheaded Maxine toward grim suspicions, which only deepen with the murder of one of the peripheral players.

Spy thriller, whodunnit, comedy of manners--the genre of this novel is hard to pin down. Thematically speaking, one might do worse than focus on the recently hot topic of the value, positive or negative, of irony in American culture. Following the attacks, as Maxine herself points out, conservatives argued the country had somehow been vulnerable to such large-scale evil because of our "wallowing in postmodern irony"--a cultural state, according to wingnut pundits, that made us unprepared to deal with real evil in the world. To go by the cast of characters in Bleeding Edge, Pynchon, unsurprisingly, is having none of it. Rather, it is the literal-minded among us, those who are too confident in their rightness, that bring about our worst disasters.

Irony always suggests distance, whether it be the distance between what we say and what we mean (verbal irony), the distance between our intentions and a contrary result (situational irony), or distance felt when a reader or an audience member is aware of an outcome characters don't foresee (dramatic irony). This last, of course, is everywhere felt in The Bleeding Edge. As we read, we know the disaster coming on September 11th; Pynchon's characters do not.

Of course ironies of all sorts are crucial to Pynchon’s vision, and the dramatic kind doesn't by any means upstage the usual brilliant array he employs. This is testimony to his art. As ironic trickster, Pynchon has only gotten more wily with years.

Maxine’s revulsion/infatuation for right-wing fixer Windust is ironic, as is the fatal tension between cyberspace and meatspace made so much of here. Also sadly ironic is the way the vaunted freedom of cyberspace will, as Maxine’s father Ernie presciently suggests, lead to a world without freedom, a world where one’s every contact and purchase and movement is monitored, the world we now find ourselves in. In the novel such situational irony reaches its peak when the deep-Web territory DeepArcher is finally invaded and colonized thanks to the drop in randomness in the numbers chain generated by the Princeton Global Consciousness Project, that randomness itself having been compromised by the collective human reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Upshot? The attackers, whoever they are, end up winning on both fronts.

Yes, I’m aware these last sentences can only be nonsense to anyone who hasn’t read the book. I don't want to suggest by them that this book is especially arcane or hard to follow if you aren’t a Web programmer or philosopher. It's true that readers with some knowledge of Internet programming and Web history will doubtless get the most kicks out of the book. But if little old me could tag along through Pynchon's few tech-heavy pages, knowing there were jokes I was missing but still generally keeping up, then anyone who’s read some tech press or kept a blog should be able to manage.

Besides, The Bleeding Edge isn’t just about the Internet and political paranoia. It’s also about adultery, parenting, ethnic squabbling, evil and redemption. And the ever-winking presence of pop culture in the narrative is a Pynchon trademark, this time becoming a hilarious writerly tic. Rather than allusions to Rilke, we get riffs on Journey lyrics, the Monica Lewinsky story, The Brady Bunch, and, of course, The Simpsons. How this book will ever go over in Hungarian or Chinese I can’t imagine. Though the existential questions are deep and global, the cheery detritus of Americana bobs everywhere on the surface.

The Bleeding Edge is infused with a strong lyricism that most would find a hard match for the pop-cultural antics. But Pynchon pulls it off. Light and darkness--city light at various hours of the day or the charged darkness one gazes into at the borders of cyberspace--are especially well served. If you finish the book, go back and reread its first and last pages. Pynchon has framed his one-year narrative with musings on morning light and the overnight blooming of pear trees outside his heroine’s front door.

The writer is now in his mid-seventies. That he writes so well about youth, the Internet boom, hip hop culture and computer games is itself a wonder. Pynchon is seemingly too curious a traveler not to get into everything at once.

A couple early reviewers have doubted that The Bleeding Edge can stand with Pynchon’s major works, one critic comparing it to his relatively flimsy 1990 novel Vineland. I beg to differ. In Bleeding Edge we have one of America’s great writers writing in top form about the defining event of our new millennium. It is not to be missed.

Check out The Bleeding Edge at

Sunday, October 13, 2013

台北101五百年後 -- the grim future of Taipei 101

All empires rise and fall. With very few exceptions, the great architectural monuments civilizations erect end up as ruins. The Egyptians, Romans, Maya, Greeks--most of their greatest constructions are now rubble. Why?

I discussed this problem with my teenage students in Taipei. Most of them agreed with me that the ancient Romans, when looking at their glorious city, could hardly imagine that one day it would nearly all be gone. Cultures build great monuments and imagine that they will last.

I then asked them to consider their own city’s towering monument to cultural pride, Taipei 101. Though Taiwan is not a large country, for several years this building, completed in 2004, was the world’s tallest, finally being outdone by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Still, impressive as Taipei 101 looks now, what will it look like in a century, in five centuries, in five millennia? Will it still be standing? What, if anything, could cause such a massive building to become a ruin?

My students had fifteen minutes of class time to write short essays on the question. What I got showed me much about how Taiwanese teenagers understand the future. I post the pithier essays here. I’ve made slight grammatical corrections, but changed nothing of the content.



I think Taipei 101 will become a ruin because of a terrorist attack. But why do I think the terrorists will attack Taiwan? The answer is that I think Taiwan will belong to America in fifty years. And then some terrorists will attack our landmark Taipei 101 just like they did the Twin Towers.

Another possibility is that Taipei 101 will become a ruin because of an earthquake in five years. Since the 921 earthquake, there hasn’t been another big earthquake in Taiwan. So I think there is going to be a big earthquake in five years and it will destroy Taipei 101.


I think there are two possibilities that might cause Taipei 101 to be ruined. First, everyone knows the economy is going down year to year. And the rate for Taipei 101 space may become more and more expensive. Maybe thirty or forty years later, nobody can rent the place to be office or restaurants.

Second, global warming is more and more serious. The climate in different places is becoming strange. Maybe one-hundred years later Taiwan will be too hot for people to live and everyone will need to move to the north.

There will be no people living in Taiwan, so Taipei 101 will be a ruin.


Taipei 101 is the tallest building in Taiwan. Because of its height, it may collapse easier than other buildings. Taiwan is a country that has many earthquakes every year, so I think it will happen in two-hundred years.

Sinking into the water is another possible way to make Taipei 101 a ruin. The water level of the ocean is getting higher and higher because the Arctic ice is melting. Maybe just like the move The Day after Tomorrow, the whole city will be underwater, and Taipei 101 will become an ice tower in the center of Taipei. It will probably happen in five-hundred years.


Taipei 101 is a symbol for Taiwanese. It means we are strong enough even though our land is pretty small.

I think America will hit Taipei 101, because their economy relies on China now. America knows China always wants to control us. If they destroyed our 101, we would lose our confidence. And there would be only one China in this world.

They would destroy it after fifty years, and China’s industries will become higher quality to help America.


History shows that all great buildings eventually become ruins. This will likely happen to Taipei 101 too.

Maybe it’ll be under-sea in about the 22nd century. Because of global warming, the ocean water will become more and more, and at last the water will cover everything. It’ll be like an “Under-sea tour spot” if humans are still living.

Maybe it’ll amaze the world in a different way at around 2150. All the buildings in the world will become taller and taller in the future--100 floors, 200 floors, 300 floors, even even 1,000 floors. Taipei 101 will become the shortest building in the world. People will be amazed by that.

There are many kinds of possibilities in the future, but no one can know what will happen at last.


I think in twenty years it will still be there, but after about five-hundred years it may not be so popular because there will be more constructions better than it. Maybe in 1,000 years it will become completely ruins because there won’t be any creatures on the earth except cockroaches.

Yoyo (not ELT Yoyo)

History shows us that all great buildings eventually become ruins. This will likely happen to Taipei 101 too.

The weather is getting hotter now. Maybe in 2513 all the land will be drowned, but Taipei 101 will have just a little top on the ocean, all the ground will be under the ocean, all the humans will be dead too.

Or maybe in 2213 Syria will shoot a missile at Taiwan, and Taiwan will become nothing. All the humans in Taiwan will be dead and Taiwan will become ruins.

Or maybe in 2113 there will be the third World War, and many of Taiwan’s people will go to fight, and Taipei 101 will become a ruin, because no one will buy things there.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pope Francis on Hope and History: "the time in which we seek God"

Pope Francis poses for a photo with teenagers
on pilgrimage to the Vatican

Pope Francis' extraordinary recent interview with Antonio Spadaro has understandably provoked a whirlwind of commentary from Catholics and others as to what his words mean for the future of the Church under his guidance. Will he be pushing the Church to the "left" or the "right", and on which issues?

For myself the interview has mainly kindled new hope. This man seems too serious about the Gospel, about the radical immediacy of its call, to be bothered with convenient boxes like "conservative" or "liberal". Especially powerful for me (and helpful given my own historical obsessions) are the Pope's words on God's presence in history and in our contemporary, despair-inducing present.

Francis speaks of our projected notions of past or future history and how a focus on these may mislead us to mistake the more "concrete" truth of the present. He speaks of discernment and how it relates to uncertainty--the uncertainty we must always acknowledge if we are to keep ourselves from self-serving delusions. As I understand him, he is stressing discernment and movement as a corrective to (the more comfortable) knowledge and stasis. As he reminds us, gesturing to the biblical accounts, "God is always a surprise".

Below I quote some paragraphs from the interview, as narrated by Spadaro.


Francis on Hope and History

At the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis repeatedly declared: “God is real. He manifests himself today. God is everywhere.” These are phrases that echo the Ignatian expression “to seek and find God in all things.” So I ask the pope: “How do you seek and find God in all things?”

“What I said in Rio referred to the time in which we seek God,” he answers. “In fact, there is a temptation to seek God in the past or in a possible future. God is certainly in the past because we can see the footprints. And God is also in the future as a promise. But the ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today. For this reason, complaining never helps us find God. The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is – these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defence. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today.

“God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallises them. God is in history, in the processes.

“We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.

“Finding God in all things is not an ‘empirical eureka.’ When we desire to encounter God, we would like to verify him immediately by an empirical method. But you cannot meet God this way. God is found in the gentle breeze perceived by Elijah. The senses that find God are the ones St. Ignatius called spiritual senses. Ignatius asks us to open our spiritual sensitivity to encounter God beyond a purely empirical approach. A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God – this is the sign that you are on this right path.”

I ask, “So if the encounter with God is not an ‘empirical eureka,’ and if it is a journey that sees with the eyes of history, then we can also make mistakes?”

The pope replies: “Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions – that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

“The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: ‘God is here.’ We will find only a god that fits our measure. The correct attitude is that of St. Augustine: seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever. Often we seek as if we were blind, as one often reads in the Bible. And this is the experience of the great fathers of the faith, who are our models. We have to re-read the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. Abraham leaves his home without knowing where he was going, by faith. All of our ancestors in the faith died seeing the good that was promised, but from a distance.... Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing.... We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.

“Because God is first; God is always first and makes the first move. God is a bit like the almond flower of your Sicily, Antonio, which always blooms first. We read it in the Prophets. God is encountered walking, along the path. At this juncture, someone might say that this is relativism. Is it relativism? Yes, if it is misunderstood as a kind of indistinct pantheism. It is not relativism if it is understood in the biblical sense, that God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him. You must, therefore, discern the encounter. Discernment is essential.

“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists – they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else – God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

The pope’s words remind me of some of his past reflections, in which as a cardinal he wrote that God is already living in the city, in the midst of all and united to each. It is another way, in my opinion, to say what St. Ignatius wrote in the Spiritual Exercises, that God “labours and works” in our world. So I ask: “Do we have to be optimistic? What are the signs of hope in today’s world? How can I be optimistic in a world in crisis?”

“I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude,” the pope says. “I like to use the word hope instead, according to what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, that I mentioned before. The fathers of the faith kept walking, facing difficulties. And hope does not disappoint, as we read in the Letter to the Romans. Think instead of the first riddle of Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot,’” the pope suggests.

At that moment I recalled more or less by heart the verses of the riddle of the princess in that opera, to which the solution is hope: “In the gloomy night flies an iridescent ghost./ It rises and opens its wings/ on the infinite black humanity./ The whole world invokes it/ and the whole world implores it./ But the ghost disappears with the dawn/ to be reborn in the heart./ And every night it is born/ and every day it dies!”

“See,” says Pope Francis, “Christian hope is not a ghost and it does not deceive. It is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”

Read the interview in full.

On the photo above, see The Telegraph

Thursday, September 5, 2013

America's One-Party System

A Facebook post I put up August 31 along with the comment thread:

Many complain about America's two-party system, the limited choice it offers. I think they're getting it wrong. Our politics makes more sense when one recognizes it as a one-party system. Where some see a Democratic Party and a Republican Party, I just see two versions of the Republican Party. One the one hand there's the Republican Party that wants to outlaw abortion, on the other the Republican Party that wants to legalize gay marriage. This is what Americans get to choose from.

CJL: So what would you choose? I'd choose gay marriage if I were an American citizen.

DA: So, oligarchy or plutocracy.

Eric: Exactly, DA.

PR: Better dead than red, Eric Mader.

Eric: As I've said before, PR: They will pry my Che Guevara action figure from my dead frozen fingers.

K: Eric, I think your assessment is accurate, but overly granular. I think there is more value in moving up the so-called zeitgeist totem pole. Even the choices in terms of plutocracy versus oligarchy are actually archaic notions if you ask me. I do understand that my preferred word is not even a word, and is probably already overused too. It is corporatocracy. Spell check never finds this word, so that's how I guess it isn't a word. But, if you look closely at what is wrong with all things "structural" in our times, there is no "one" to blame. Everything is run either by a corporation or other grouped-together, 3rd-party-controlled mechanism (a corporation is run by shareholders) wherein no individual is actually responsible for the corporation's actions. If a corporation knowingly sells a deadly object/chemical/device and it actually kills dozens, or hundreds, or let's just say, millions... there is no one who is actually responsible. No one hangs. Sure you can sue, and force corporations to pay up, but there is no moral responsibility that is imbued into the corporate soul. If a human being were to commit the many sorts of acts that corporations do, they would suffer other than in the wallet. The human version of "personhood" has enormous cultural, and individual, and real expectations. To the contrary, corporations are only legally bound, with the threat of job loss or jail to the CEO, of return on capital to the shareholders. If a company attempts to do long-term thinking, or even provide notional constructions that one might call "moral fortitude" to any decision, the CEO can be fired or jailed. What complicates matters is that our culture is so deeply specialized and individuated that the experts in any given field are the only ones who are qualified to work in government as a watchdog. But if you live long enough in our system, you find out that the price to pay for being a watchdog in your career/profession is much higher to you as an individual. However, the rewards are vast if you are not a watchdog but instead support your professional colleagues' endeavors. In this context, any "political" party is nothing but a bobber on the corporate current. It has no real power, except around the edges. So, I do agree that the USA has a single party, one that provides choices around certain issues, that generates pretend differences, which are, however, of little impact on the actual direction of the consumption and distribution of resources. Gay marriage and abortion are merely issues that generate lots of emotive energy, but change nothing in terms of: Is there too much radiation in the Pacific Ocean? Should we burn all the coal on Earth if we finish burning all the oil? How much insecticide should a corn plant actually ooze from its pores before it is not safe to eat? At what point is the price of war too high when it comes to human deaths? Since these sorts of questions require rethinks on the direction our humanity goes, it's better to argue about unborn humans, and what genitals are suitable for legal contracts to be state recognized. Why are those more suitable issues? Because it is always better to inject the question of what the Invisible Man in the sky, who sees all, knows all, and loves all (except for the millions of specific little situations where he hates and needs to destroy you for all eternity), thinks about these matters. And as we know, only the ballot box can discern the almighty's actual feelings on such matters.

Eric: K: Yes, I agree with some of your points. In fact I would argue that THE main problem the world now faces is the centrality of the profit motive as combined with the nearly total irresponsibility that corporate structure allows for. Corporations privatize profits and (given their almost hand-in-glove collaboration with states) both socialize losses and leave all environmental fallout to the future to swallow as it will. To the degree the corporate model continues to dominate, to the degree our governments continue to dance as its paid puppets, it seems obvious to me that we are headed for extinction or something similar. Our own government has been more or less overthrown by a corporate coup, democracy for us is increasingly window dressing, and there is little chance, given the technologies of control now employed, that our population will be able to right this situation. Yes, I think America is VERY different from what it was through most of the post-war period. Ten more years of drift in the current direction and we will be justified in talking of "soft totalitarianism" Or perhaps not so soft. / I understand why you insist terms like oligarchy aren't really applicable here, but I still think the term has its use. After all, those who benefit from the central place of corporate structure in our society are largely that top 5 percent. And it is largely the needs of corporations that our government is responsive to: again ensuring that top 5 percent always ends up at the top, no matter how their card houses may topple. / The question of the day of course is how the left might begin the work of transforming this Doomsday machine we're riding. I say the left because I think it's only from the left that solutions are going to come--the right is still too busy applauding itself for the fall of the Soviet Union. / In terms of this discussion, the following deserves a careful read. In any case, Ackerman's article addresses the issues that need be addressed if there's any hope capitalism can be transformed before it takes us over the cliff it's heading to. But what kind of social upheaval would be necessary to enforce the kind of reforms he suggests? Is such a coordinated political platform even possible beyond its presence here in article form?

The article is largely on economics. Ackerman argues that the triumphalism of mainstream economics is unjustified given the evidence. For one, the maintenance of a laissez-faire environment is not as relevant to an economy's performance as is often assumed.

And here the discussion ended.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Pope Francis Reacts to Miley Cyrus Performance

A Disassociated Press Report

In a surprise to Vatican watchers, Pope Francis today alluded to an American pop star when he said that God loves all people, "even Miley Cyrus." The Pope, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, made his remark during Tuesday's homily.

A Vatican spokesman later in the day clarified the Pope's remark, insisting that it should not be interpreted to mean the Pope appreciated Miss Cyrus's VMA performance of August 25th, but that the Catholic Pontiff was simply stating a Catholic teaching.

"The Holy Father meant to stress that God's love was unconditional and available to all," Vatican spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica said. "If Miley Cyrus can stop twerking long enough to get her wits about her, and if she can put her tongue back in her face where it belongs, then yes, God's love will be there for her too."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Is 9/11 Slowly Killing Us?

In the aftermath of 9/11, our leaders in Washington insisted a wide-ranging security upgrade was necessary if we were to protect our "freedoms and way of life". Shocked by the attackers' success, citizens both Democrat and Republican largely supported the Patriot Act and the enhanced security it entailed, recognizing that our government would have to be slightly more invasive if we were to be kept safe. Americans could tweak their civil liberties a bit if it meant keeping al Qaeda at bay.

But no further attacks were forthcoming--at least nothing even remotely as successful as 9/11. Which was either to say that al Qaeda wasn't as deadly as we'd assumed or that our security efforts were paying off. In any case, al Qaeda continued at least to exist, and thus the Patriot Act was renewed, to enforce which our government had earmarked generous funding for Homeland Security and related agencies, which now took on a life of their own in the race to protect us.

And soon we began taking our shoes off before boarding planes (thanks to British high school dropout Richard Reid) and allowing for X-ray scans and intimate frisking, all in the interests of enhanced security, and it didn't seem much of a sacrifice compared to the sacrifice our troops were making in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And soon we noticed that our metropolitan police departments had significantly beefed up, and could now appear in force at the drop of a hat, armored cars and all, policemen looking more like high-tech shock troops than city cops. They showed up in force to protect us from those "hippie radical" Americans who tried to protest the no-strings-attached Wall Street bailouts and the staggering corruption in our financial institutions. Across the nation mayors called out their new "anti-terrorist" forces so that firms too big to fail (JPMorgan, BoA and friends) could continue with business as usual.

And of course we knew all along that the Internet was being scoured for clues of terrorist plots and that phones were being tapped here and there. We accepted it as reasonable that frequent attendance at a mosque where men ranted against US foreign policy would bring about one's phone getting bugged or one getting an FBI file at the very least--though somehow the FBI didn't manage to nab the Chechen brothers who planted pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon.

Though we accepted a little inconvenience in terms of government intrusiveness, even a little overreach if necessary, that didn't mean we were prepared to learn that all domestic phone calls of all US citizens were being logged and stored by our government. Or that all Google searches conducted by everyone at any time were fair game for government collection and mining. That the initial revelations of these government actions were slightly exaggerated didn't alter the basic fact: our government had begun collecting and storing private data on millions of Americans.

Finding out about these programs (though they were really little more than implementation of the Patriot Act supported by so many) made a lot of Americans angry, but most, it seemed, just shrugged it off. After all, these agencies had strict procedural rules and ultimately they were there to protect us from people who, we knew, were spending their days dreaming up ways to kill us. Besides: it wasn't as if government operatives had starting using anything against me personally. And then we heard that reasonable explanatory phrase: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.

And many of us did a double-take.

Nothing to hide? Did that government spokesman just say If I have nothing to hide? What does that even mean? Do I maybe have something to hide? Is there something I maybe should be trying to hide? What, Mr. NSA talking head, are you getting at?

Like many, I felt the appearance of this phrase in our national discourse--If you have nothing to hide--was evidence of a new low being reached.

Previously I had had a large domain of my life that was considered private, a domain that included things like: whom I called and when I called them, what articles and books I read, what programs or videos I watched, what ideas or rants or declarations I decided to share in correspondence with friends or others, etc., etc. But now I was being asked whether I might not "have anything to hide". That a citizen would ever think to ask this question, before sending off an email or clicking on a YouTube lecture, was in itself proof that our private realm had suddenly shrunk enormously.

Again: Is this "hiding" strictly in relation to Islamic terrorism or does it perhaps include other things? Will it maybe, in the long run, come to include other things?

Anyone with political or historical sense knows that it is in fact very likely that such government powers, once instituted, will sooner or later drift in their application and come to include other things.

Privacy--the normal space of a private home or phone conversation or email exchange--used to mean by definition that I didn't have to worry what an eavesdropper might make of what I said or wrote. Once others are logging or mining or eavesdropping, regardless of the protocols they operate under, it is no longer quite privacy, but rather something else. I become a member of the kind of transparent citizenry dreamed of by every totalitarian regime in history. This is what Edward Snowden has shown us. The programs that we have already implemented are but a half-step and a shuffle away from a Big Brother government more far-reaching in its powers of control than anything Orwell could have thought up. Perhaps Americans haven't been more outraged by these programs because they haven't yet realized how threatening such caches of information can be: how easily they can be used against anyone.

Such government programs pre-empt the possibility of civil resistance to the state, because the state, if it feels even slightly threatened, will use these programs to defend itself. Since democracy recognizes the need for robust civil resistance as a corrective, such programs are inherently incompatible with democracy. Only an authoritarian or totalitarian state will have such programs at its disposal.

Was it really our desire to protect "the American way of life and freedom" that led us to accept these police-state government powers? If so, it's a sad irony. And it's pathetic too--pathetic in the common sense of shameful and ridiculous. I say so because those who now threaten America--militarily the most powerful nation in the world--are little more than a ragtag bunch of second-rate thugs, men without access to serious weaponry, men who have to make bombs from cleaning materials and wear explosive underwear onto planes--and still they can't manage to pull off their attacks. Meanwhile we, better defended by far than any nation in the world, must face the shameful fact that this is the bunch of losers who have scared us into changing our country into something unrecognizable. Will we ever live down the shameful truth that we willingly gave away our liberty to keep a ragtag bunch of unarmed criminals at bay?

We're so damned worried about a plane going down or a bomb going off in a subway terminal that we create the basis for a totalitarian regime in our own homeland. As a domestic population we're apparently such cowards that we'd rather let NSA analysts read our emails than risk a 1 in 100,000,000 chance that we might lose our life at the hands of an angry Muslim youth. It seems it doesn't much matter to us if we die in a car accident or from obesity or killed by a nutcase neighbor with a private arsenal of guns--but Please, God, please don't let me die in a terrorist attack!

If it could be shown that al Qaeda had access to actual WMD, if we were at risk of a suitcase nuclear device or a sophisticated biological attack, then such programs might become debatable. But as things stand, our enemy is not nearly deadly enough to warrant the extensive erosion of liberty we've allowed.

Our ever-hysterical and scare-mongering media is partly to blame for this of course, but more to blame is a public so gullible as to accept such media as anything other than sensationalist entertainment. And to think that large sectors of our public call themselves "conservative"--which in American parlance means in part "wary of large government or expanding government powers". How is it that between such "conservatives", on the one hand, and liberals, who are supposedly concerned about civil rights, on the other--how is it that these two American constituencies have let things get this far?

What is happening to America is akin to what might happen to a boy allergic to bee stings. He's playing in the meadow, against doctor's orders, and is stung by a bee, fatally so. It's not the bee sting that kills the boy, of course, but his own body's reaction to the sting. He puffs up, he can't breathe, his throat contracts. He dies before help arrives. The boy's own physical overreaction has killed him. Another child in the same meadow stung by a bee would cry awhile, then get on with life, but not this unfortunate boy. Somehow his body doesn't understand that a mere bee sting does not require a life-threatening general mobilization.

America is like that boy. 9/11 was the sting, and we are suffocating ourselves in overreaction to it.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Please Rise

Apelike allegiance
tooth and fang
To the United Wraith of Behemoth
An Urtech republic
of Witches bland
Unto Gaud
A last Ditch for all

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dragged through the Mire of Gary Lutz

Of Gary Lutz's work I'd only read Stories in the Worst Way, which showed me a master of physical grotesques, a very sophisticated potty mouth. At least one of the stories in that collection offended me too, the one about oral birth, and I'm not easily offended. Finally I let the book get boxed away with others I didn't plan on rereading.

Taking up Lutz's more recent Divorcer, I see he's still plucking away at the same hairs. Doubtless Lutz is our most painstaking analyst of the bland horrors of everyday bodily existence; in this regard, with Divorcer, the writer's mastery has only deepened.

I don't find the new work offensive in the usual tedious shock way: instead there's depth and strength that wasn't evident in the earlier stories. What this depth is exactly I can't pin down; Lutz is still mostly narrating the same daily grind between psyche and oily flaking body. Perhaps it's a matter of the now more accomplished poetry of his sentences: really most writers would kill to be able to write like this.

Given the rhetorical complexity of Lutz's prose, combined with the narrow spectrum of things it treats (bodies, household furnishings, hygiene, unfulfilling sex) it's surprising the reader doesn't get cloyed up after a handful of pages. Actually, sometimes the reader does: typically I can read a dozen pages before I find myself needing to put the book down. Still, what a wonder those dozen pages are! I will quote a slew of sentences from the tale "I Have to be Halved" placed toward the end of Divorcer:


. . . I was lunking through late middle age, my even spongier fifties, and living with a man younger by decades.
     . . . .
     My heart kept bullying me into letting people like him pull anything.

. . . .


I had found him in an onlookers' bar on a short street that squinted off an avenue. This was in the extremity district. He was got up in some rayon trashery with three-quarter sleeves, a girl's slippery belt, fingernails flashened. I was a workingman after work after all. I menaced myself with examinations of his manner, his spruce, sweatproof practice of himself.
     I sent out a hand, let my fingers pile themselves into his.
     . . . .
     He pointed dimly to some further indefinite figure on the dance floor.
     "Let me go finish a goodbye."

. . . .


A hashy complexion, hair pluffy and unmastered, a blush in bare arms barely offered--some days there was no bouquet to be made of him.

. . . .


I never got the truth out of him, only things peeled off from the truth, things the truth had shed.
     Then one night a woman, young, was asking for him at the door. She was scrawny and obscure in some sleeveless construct. Matte-black hair hung from her head like curtains stiffened.
     The face? Homely, abrupt. The nose? Respectified with cosmetics.
     There was fight, though, in the eyes.
     I did not have to ask who she was, only what she thought she was doing.
     "I am asking for him back."


Another night, another visitor at the door: a regretful man my age but more hit-or-miss in his panic: hands so swooping and opposed to each other, he seemed to be crossing himself out as he spoke: "He won't be needing the rest of his clothes?"


. . . .

One day got chocked into the rest: there was a blockiness to time, like a month's evident rectangulation on a calendar tacked fast to a wall.
     His mother and father made the trip aggressively from a metropolis of stone lawns and unhumid heat. They looked me over for signs that life by my side would not mean years lopped off his future.
Lutz's work in Divorcer, as with his earlier work, is bisexual in scope: some tales deal with male-female relationships, others with male-male relationships, others with female-female.

Preciosity might be the word that best describes this kind of prose. It has typically been taken as a stylistic fault. But Lutz's preciosity mostly escapes censure through sheer stylistic ingenuity. Reading Divorcer is a privilege, the occasional gagging sensation notwithstanding.

No, I haven't quoted anything that counts as gag-inducing.

Check Lutz's Divorcer at Amazon.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Things Jesus Wouldn't Do

Jesus wouldn't do wrong. Jesus wouldn't have a prayer among the far right. Jesus wouldn't have no suits or nothin fancy like that but he'd be dressed good. Jesus wouldn't say nothin to Greg or get mad at him cuz of what he said about me in lunch that one time. Jesus wouldn't skulk outside an abortion doctor's kitchen window and shoot him. Jesus wouldn't picket a gay man's funeral and shout "God hates fags." Jesus wouldn't vote a straight Republican ticket. Jesus wouldn't be living in Virginia. Jesus wouldn't have those big round nostrils. Jesus wouldn't like German philosophers. Jesus wouldn't need a web page to get laid. Jesus wouldn't offer to bubble bathe only with young women. He'd bathe with lepers, geeks, whatever. Jesus wouldn't blatantly market himself to the masses. Jesus wouldn't neglect to pack his lunch day after day. Jesus wouldn't support a company that preys on children. Jesus wouldn't do what you're doing, now would he? Jesus wouldn't drive an SUV. Jesus wouldn't be like that. Jesus wouldn't do that; he'd go home alone before he ever did that. Jesus wouldn't have to go much of anywhere, and rarely need to get anywhere fast. Jesus wouldn't be driving at all. Jesus wouldn't bless the status quo or cheerlead our culture wars. Jesus wouldn't drop bombs. Jesus wouldn't tell a falsehood about spiritual matters, even within a parable. Jesus wouldn't buy anything more expensive than the Volvo that I own. Jesus wouldn't slam your finger in the door if you made Him mad. Jesus wouldn't be afraid to walk into this joint or any other speakeasy to preach the gospel. Jesus wouldn't have made the best all-American quarterback in the history of football. Jesus wouldn't come today as a freak. He'd be a normal guy. Jesus wouldn't be driving around in a sports car. Jesus wouldn't budge. Jesus wouldn't stand for the stuff you're handing out. Jesus wouldn't dance when they piped. Jesus wouldn't have asked me in that tone of voice. Jesus wouldn't call down fire from heaven to burn up a city. Jesus wouldn't kill. Jesus wouldn't teach us to do something unethical, yet if I were to find a treasure on your property and not tell you, then buy it from you and reap the benefits of the treasure, I would be considered unethical. Jesus wouldn't use auto-responders that said things like "Thanks for the email, but I'm too busy to answer you." Jesus wouldn't get mad if the level of competition dropped because a lot of people played who had little experience. Jesus wouldn't have had pale blue eyes. Jesus wouldn't want you to ignore Mary and Joseph today when they are so close to him in Heaven. Jesus wouldn't belong to the human race but to another species or order not human. Jesus wouldn't want me to be unhappy, not after all I've been through. Jesus wouldn't have said this stuff if he expected everyone to meekly answer "Yes sir, whatever you say sir" to all the things He was teaching them. Jesus wouldn't pay and so we don't need to either. Jesus wouldn't submit himself to their theological view of the world. Jesus wouldn't be crucified by Christians, would he?

[Googlism. Text generated 2003 by Google search of "Jesus wouldn't"]

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A.C. Grayling's False Dichotomies

Last week a writer friend tried halfheartedly to convert me to atheism by sending me a link to a 2011 talk by British philosopher AC Grayling. The friend in question is not so much strongly anti-religious as incredulous that Christianity or any particular religion can address the complexity of the universe.

Grayling spoke in Sydney to promote his compendium of secular wisdom The Good Book. I'd willingly read into Grayling's book, but was not much impressed by the talk. It's the old "new Atheist" tendency to set up straw men. I replied to my friend:

[for the Grayling talk, search YouTube "A.C. Grayling the Good Book 2011". LeCaNANDian posted it]

Dear ----:

I watched the Grayling talk, and found him obviously very learned and eloquent, but didn't come away much changed by anything he said. For one, I feel he posits too strong a divide being between traditions that are "secular" and those that are "religious." This is something I find true of most figures in the "New Atheism" movement: they assume a strict divide where often there isn't one. Here the issue becomes more salient because Grayling is concerned to valorize ancient thinkers like Aristotle or Socrates as against the "religious tradition."

The problem is that one can't set up a clear border between religious/secular and then put Socrates on one side and, say, ancient "religious" thinkers on the other. Yes, there is a real thing called philosophy, and Socrates fits the definition: "thinking for oneself," weighing and sifting and proceeding by dialectic, etc. But still the Greek philosophers had a very strong sense of the divine--Socrates had his daimon, and Plato certainly conceived the realm of Pure Forms as both transcendent and existent--while much of the ancient Christian tradition, even books in the biblical canon, engage in dialectics similar to those we find in the Greeks. Not to mention what happens when we reach the third and fourth century (cf. Augustine). So, on the one hand, the biblical canon contains masterpieces of skeptical reason (Ecclesiastes, for one); on the other, the Greek and Roman philosophical writers contain religious enthusiasm (as the Platonic tradition develops, for instance). A similar kind of overlap can be seen in the Renaissance and Enlightenment--though it's true that a stronger secular tradition breaks away in the latter period.

Grayling posited another suspect dichotomy when he addressed how we create ethical systems. So: Either 1) the ethical is a response to a requirement from some transcendent source, or 2) it is developed from human reason based on human experience. Again, talking of ethics, I don't think the dichotomy holds up. Or: It holds up only at a very "popular" level, such as when you put a Texas fundamentalist with scant education face to face with a young atheist with scant education. In this kind of debate thinking is scarcely approached by either side. Thinking, so prized by Grayling, only begins once discourse develops beyond a certain level (particularly: once discourse begins to put itself in question). When that happens, the two kinds of ethical "ground," as Grayling might say, often start overlapping. Secular ethics begins positing metaphysical entities that can't be proven to exist, while, in return, religious ethics begins talking about human experience.

Grayling remarked about Buddhism that it was originally a philosophical movement, not a religion: "The Buddha didn't intend to be a god." This is certainly correct, and it led me to think again of a very interesting Christian tradition, namely that represented by the Gospel of Thomas, an ancient Christian text only recently rediscovered during the last century. I'm sure you've heard of Thomas, but don't know if you've read into it (read the text, I mean, or read any commentary). The Thomas tradition does not present Jesus as a god, but more as a charismatic teacher seeking to lead disciples to an awareness of "the kingdom," which is understood as present already but unrealized. The true disciple in this tradition isn't saved by Jesus, as by some divine being of a different essence, but rather awakened by him, whose "twin" he or she is called to become. In Thomas' understanding of Jesus (as is also often true for writers in the Gnostic tradition) you get a kind of deconstruction of Grayling's ethical dichotomy. Because the point for the Thomas tradition is that the "divine source" from which we might get ethical insight is already part of us: it is inside us to be discovered and developed. I.e., to use Grayling's terms, we see in Thomas a "religious ethics" which also depends on a keen awareness and study of the true nature of the "human self in the world." But this latter, according to Grayling's dichotomy, is precisely what a "secular ethics" is supposed to do; it is precisely not what a "religious" ethics does. Does this make Thomas less "religious" and more "humanistic" than the canonical gospels? One might argue so. But my point here should be clear: the divide Grayling seems to want to hold up proves unstable once one gets closer to actual religious, or indeed ancient "secular," traditions.

Further, I believe Grayling's "secular" ethical systems, those created mainly by human reason, are liable to the same kinds of gross superstition and abuse we find in the "religious" ethical systems. Look what happened with Marxism in the last century. And look how our own secular liberalism has become merely a kind of catechism upholding the religion of consumerism and unregulated capitalism. I find similar kinds of fetishization and superstition in popular medieval Christianity as I find in Stalinism. Certainly each had its priesthood and its Inquisition. We in neoliberal society fall prey to like kinds of fetishization, only being lucky in that our own Inquisition hasn't quite developed yet (although I note various trends that way).

I'd really be interested to know your reaction to some of the Thomas-related writing out there. I don't agree with Ron Miller on much as regards his theology, but his book on Thomas is quite good; he gets at an authentic core in Thomas. What's more, you might agree with him:

Ron Miller: The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice



Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Joys of Bitter Laughter

Anecdote has it that when Kafka was working on The Trial he had friends over to read them the opening. According to Max Brod, the writer's friends "laughed quite immoderately" at this first reading. "And [Kafka] himself laughed so much that there were moments when he couldn't read any further."

It isn't often enough recognized that our most despairing and nihilistic writers--Céline, Beckett, Kafka--are essentially humorists. Or at least that there is usually a substratum of humor beneath their bleakest work. What kept them writing was a perception of the dismal hilarity of the world, the ludicrous absurdity of social life, and in particular the overweening claims of language to be able to make sense of or transcend such a world. As Beckett had it: "I can't go on, I'll go on." He was never quite through blasting away at French and English, struggling to dispel the miasma of euphemism that allowed language to obscure the landscape. And the grim humor of the blasting, more than any real hoped-for epistemological gains, is what made the work worthwhile in the rough day to day.

Thomas Bernhard is part of this tradition of gleeful, methodic destruction. His novel Woodcutters is a two-hundred page one-paragraph rant against Vienna and one married couple, the Auersbergers, who host a dinner party the narrator reluctantly attends there. The calculated and recursive bitterness of the narrative voice, after sixty or seventy pages, finally has one grinning and occasionally laughing aloud. The novel follows the narrator's musings as he waits among the guests, people he's been avoiding for decades, for his hosts' "artistic dinner" to begin. I quote the latter part of a long and brilliant passage that lays out the many ways the cultured Viennese around him, and indeed he himself, are almost insatiably mean-spirited in their dealings with one another.

Or else we try to curry favor with them and they push us away, and so we avenge ourselves by slandering them, running them down wherever we can and pursuing them to their graves with our hatred. Or they help us back on our feet at the crucial moment and we hate them for it, just as they hate us when we help them back on their feet, I thought as I sat in the wing chair. We do them a favor and then think we are entitled to their eternal gratitude, I thought, sitting in the wing chair. For years we are on terms of friendship with them, then suddenly we no longer are, and we don't know why. We love them so fervently that we become positively lovesick, and they reject us and hate us for our love, I thought. We're nothing, and they make something of us, and we hate them for it. We come from nowhere, as people say, and they perhaps make a genius out of us, and we never forgive them for it, just as if they'd made a dangerous criminal out of us, I thought as I sat in the wing chair. We take everything they have to give us, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, and we punish them with a life sentence of contempt and hatred. We owe everything to them and never forgive them for the fact that we owe everything to them, I thought. We think we have rights when we have no rights of any kind, I thought. No one has any rights, I thought. There's nothing but injustice in the world, I thought. Human beings are unjust, and injustice prevails everywhere--that's the truth, I thought. These people have never done anything but pretend to be something, while in reality they've never been anything: they pretend to be educated, but they're not; they pretend to be artistic (as they call it), but they're not; and they pretend to be humane, but they're not, I thought. And their supposed kindness was only pretense, for they were never kind. And above all they pretended to be natural, and they were never natural: everything about them was artificial, and when they claimed--in other words, pretended--to be philosophical, they were nothing but eccentric, and it struck me again how repellent they had seemed to me in the Graben when they told me they now had bought everything by Wittgenstein, just as twenty-five years earlier they had said they had bought everything by Ferdinand Ebner, with just the same tasteless pretense to a knowledge of philosophy--or at least to an interest in philosophy--because they thought they had to for my benefit, since they believed then--and probably still do--that I have a philosophical bent, that I am a philosophizer--which I am not, for to this day I really have no idea what the words philosopher and philosophize mean. (93-4)
Seated in the "wing chair," off to the side and only half-observed by fellow guests (this verbal tic of the "wing chair" recurs as a kind of musical device over the entire text) the narrator thinks through the many bases of his disgust with both his Viennese circle and himself. But this is but a handful of sentences from what is an almost epic rant. The sheer volume of pent up bitterness and hypocrisy, the pages upon pages of it, ever repeating the same accusations or similar ones in the same exact tone, only occasionally taking up new objects of disgust to add to the simmering stew of hate and recrimination--the effect is ultimately comic. It partakes of one of the most important devices of comic art: human subjects fallen into mechanical repetition. Beckett too is a master of this, particularly (as far as the novel is concerned) in his wartime work Watt.

I've recently also been reading a more current writer, the novelist Tao Lin, and it would be worthwhile to consider how his work relates to these great 20th century novels. Tao Lin's disgust plays out in the post-digital and slavishly consumerist America of the new century, and he's especially a master of narrative boredom and how boredom and aimlessness come to underpin a kind of flippant linguistic drift that itself makes for much of the content of the work. His early novel Eeeee Eee Eeee stands apart for this.

Check out:

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters

Samuel Beckett: Watt

Tao Lin: Eeeee Eee Eeee

Friday, March 8, 2013


Those trying to identify the world's most horrific totalitarian state would be hard pressed to argue for any candidate beyond North Korea. Any hopes that the recent generational change in the country's leadership might lead toward reforms have been more or less dashed. The hermit kingdom's latest nuclear test has even prodded its main ally China toward tightening sanctions. Still, in yesterday's paper I came upon this striking paragraph:

The new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has adopted a confrontational approach toward Washington, although he did deign to meet last week with former US professional basketball star Dennis Rodman.
Checking elsewhere online, I found that indeed Rodman and Kim sat down together in Pyongyang to watch some hoops. So yes: the Young Dear Leader may scorn meeting diplomats, don't expect him to give up the chance to hang out with Dennis Rodman. It's good to know that the head of this new nuclear state is basically a 12-year-old.

And that our sports stars are, still and always, basically idiots.

"I love him--the guy's awesome," Rodman said of the young ruler of a nation of brutalized, starving citizens.

Good job, basketball. You should be proud of yourself. I am among those who feel your best players are if anything underpaid.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On Stylish Academic Writing

With an apt nod to Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," Bradley Winterton took on Helen Sword's Stylish Academic Writing in the Taipei Times yesterday. Though I haven't read Sword's book, I wanted to respond to a couple points in the review.

In general I agree with Winterton that much academic writing suffers from a serious addiction to theoretical discourse. Like many heavy addictions, this one often proves fatal. Every passing month sees dozens of academic journals reach libraries dead on arrival.

But the excesses of what is often an addiction only make for part of the story. The theoretical terminology used in the humanities, especially in literature departments, can't be explained in any one way; it can't always be labelled "jargon" or "obscurantism" and that is the end of it. Rather, each instance--each academic paper, say--must be characterized on its merits.

I find most academic writing falls into one of the following three types. Of course they sometimes overlap. And of course I'm sometimes at a loss to be quite sure what type of paper I'm reading:

1) Very often what looks like needless jargon and obfuscation really isn't. Rather it is a matter of a serious scholar using language, the language of his or her specialty, as precisely as possible. And there's nothing wrong with scholars advancing a discourse in some area of study: scholars developing difficult arguments for other scholars to assess. Philosophy, linguistics, psychoanalysis--each has given us important new ways of understanding literature or other cultural practices, and each has its necessary terminology, which will always sound like "jargon" to people who don't study it. That these terminologies are difficult to master doesn't mean that they are simply nonsense. Like literature profs, electrical engineers discussing problems in their field will not be understood by outsiders. Nonetheless the engineers are rarely accused of spewing jargon. This is because most people believe in electrical engineering in a way they don't believe in literary study.

2) Very often what looks like needless jargon is just that: it really is a scholar using theoretical terms to window dress the writing so as to make it more suitable for academic publication. Sad, but true.

3) Very often what looks like needless jargon is terminology being employed as a kind of safe in-language. It counts as jargon because it's being used in the way Winterton stresses in his review: as a shibboleth. Such usage is legible to those in the know, thus establishing who's "in,"' while it keeps out the prying eyes of others. Yes, it seems academics often avoid saying too bluntly what they and their peers have agreed to already. Namely, that what is wanted is a radical reworking of society--heads will roll--one which, however, they personally aren't quite brave enough to fight for in their present circumstances. As a student in Comparative Literature in the 1980s, I was often impressed by how very radical the discourses were and how very conformist the professors were.

So in cases 2 and 3, yes, I think we should talk of jargon and obfuscation. But I believe many academics are writing work that should be seen as category 1.

I was having coffee the other day with an English Dept. professor here, at Taiwan Normal University, and she lamented how grad students always feel they "have to insert theory into their work one way or another." The problem is right there, in the verb. "Inserting theory" is something these students are doing almost after the fact of reading. If they were really engaged in the theoretical approach in question, their very approach would determine the content of the essay: the theory in terms of which they work would unveil things about the text, and these discoveries would be the basis of their paper. Instead, many grad students are reading literature much like other people read, they're coming up with normal readerly insights about the text, then having to window dress these insights with terminology that such insights don't really need. This is where a lot of the problem with "jargon" in the humanities comes up. Because some of these grad students (the lucky ones?) will become academics and continue to work in much the same way.

Wouldn't it be better if academic literature departments could support the existence of both very learned literary people, in the traditional sense, and more theoretically inclined scholars--all under the same roof? I mean, on the one hand, the department would have people who could read difficult works of literature and recognize from the get-go nearly all the allusions--this precisely because they've done almost nothing but read literature for decades--and, on the other hand, people who could adeptly write worthwhile work on what Lacan can teach us about Keats. Instead, what we get, because of the need (which Winterton points out) to ape the sciences, is literature departments that ONLY accept work done under the directives of theory. The former ability, that basic ability to read and present texts at a high level of cultural literacy, is downplayed. Which is doubtless part of the reason we are seeing our societies in general ever more skeptical of the value of literary study.

And while some people say we are entering a new period--"after theory"--I feel sadly that we might be entering a different kind of new period: after literature departments.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Targeted Slippage

In his testimony Mr. Brennan sought to put to rest various rumors, assuring the committee that a citizen would be considered immune from lethal drone strike while seated on a toilet, provided the toilet was on US soil and connected to a plumbing system "in the main" on US territory.

Asked if this applied to both private and publicly owned toilets, Brennan clarified: "For the time being we can only guarantee immunity in the case of privately owned toilets. In other words, a toilet on the private property of the American citizen in question."

Asked if a citizen could be subject to a targeted killing while buying an ice cream cone for his child, Brennan reiterated the administration's position.

"It depends on the flavor," he said. "Also, is the citizen in question in the vicinity of any women wearing Muslim garb: a veil, for instance. These are factors we will take into account."

Asked if a citizen could be subject to a killing in his or her dreams, Brennan said: "We don't envision such actions at present. We're working on the technology, but we're not there yet."

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Doing Everyday Business in Chinese: What Is the Problem Here?

I want to be clear from the start that I'm not writing this to complain and I'm certainly not writing it to imply that the people I deal with every day are idiots. No, I'm trying to raise certain questions about communication in English, say, vs. in Chinese. I'm trying to present what to me is a cultural mystery because, really, the people I deal with every day are clearly not idiots. The mystery is why they choose to communicate as they do.

The following runaround happens to me all the time. In fact it has happened to me so many times during my years in Taipei that I'm now going to take the trouble to type out an example of it verbatim. Today I walked into a restaurant to order food and the ordering process went like this:

At Mos Burger, a fast food restaurant. About 1:00 p.m. All dialogue is in Chinese:

SERVICE PERSON (a woman, about 23): I can help you here, sir.

ME: Yes, I'd like to order three original flavor MosBurgers, two for here and one to go. On the one to go I'd like no mayonnaise or butter.

SP: Okay, three original MosBurgers. Would you like them with a meal or a la carte?

ME: A la carte. All three a la carte. [I repeat the order exactly] Three original flavor MosBurgers, two for here and one to go, the one to go with no mayonnaise or butter.

SP: Okay. [she incorrectly repeats the order to me] Three MosBurgers, two to go and one for here. And you don't want any mayonnaise on them.

ME: No. I want two for here and one to go. And I only want no butter or mayonnaise on the one to go. The two for here are just regular, with everything.

SP: Okay. Three MosBurgers, two for here and one to go. No mayonnaise on the two for here. [she starts to pass my order to the prep people] Three MosBurgers. . .

ME: No, no. Excuse me. The one to go is for someone who is allergic to dairy. So it's the one to go that has no butter or mayonnaise. No butter on the bread or mayonnaise. The two for here are just regular, with everything.

SP: [she thinks for awhile] Okay. Do you want the original sauce on the three burgers?

ME: Yes, original sauce. Three original flavor. It comes with the sauce.

SP: Okay. So you want three MosBurgers, the one to go with no mayonnaise. Do you want mayonnaise on the ones for here?

ME: Yes. It's only the one to go that has no mayonnaise.

SP: Okay.

[Another service person has been listening. She helpfully pipes in:]

SP2: Would you like cheese on the one to go?

[I begin to feel like I'm on a sinking ship. Consider: 1) original flavor MosBurgers don't come with cheese, and original flavor is what I've now three times expressly ordered; 2) I've already said the one to go is for someone who is "allergic to dairy"!]

ME: No. I don't want cheese on any of them.

SP: Okay. Three original flavor MosBurgers, two for here and one to go, no mayonnaise or butter on the one to go.

ME: That's it.

SP: Would you like those with a meal or a la carte?

[What should I say at this point? Yes, a few years ago I'd have angrily pointed out that I'd already answered that question earlier, and that in fact I'd already given my order four times and it should all be clear by now. But I want to be helpful, the girl is in fact polite, so I just repeat:] All three a la carte.

So I've finally placed my order. But wait. Now the woman has to pass my order to the food prep people. And it happens almost just as I predict. I stand there and listen as almost the same conversation she's just had with me, only slightly less involved, occurs between her and her coworkers. In fact I have to talk to the food prep people myself to clarify what the order really is.

I go sit down at a table and wait for my food to arrive. In my experience, after all that has transpired, the chances are about 50/50 that the order will be screwed up. But when it comes, I check it and it's correct. I then go back to the counter and order a medium iced tea.

Why, you may wonder, didn't I order the iced tea to begin with? I made the omission intentionally. It's because I've been here many years and didn't want to add any further complicating elements to my order--radically complicating elements such as a drink. Since I knew I'd already have to place my order half a dozen times, I wanted to be sure the burgers were straightened out before even thinking about drinks.

This is how it has gone for me countless times in restaurants and other businesses. It was the same again today. Now let me make a few things clear.

1) This is not happening because the service person is stupid.

2) It is not happening because the service person is especially irresponsible or inattentive. No, she was polite and clearly trying to do her job.

3) It is not happening because the restaurant is busy or the service person feels rushed or is otherwise multitasking. No, I was the only customer ordering at the time.

4) It is not happening because Mos Burger doesn't like to deal with special orders. No, they deal with such orders all the time. And after all, my request wasn't even very special: I wanted three of their most common product, one with slight modifications to go.

5) It is not happening because of my Chinese. Though I'm a foreigner speaking Chinese to a native speaker, my Chinese is certainly good enough to conduct a simple hamburger order. A few years ago I used to suspect otherwise--that maybe these runarounds were my fault because I wasn't communicating clearly. Now I highly doubt it. Why? Because I regularly watch locals getting into the same kind of back-and-forth dialogues with each other that I myself just underwent. And today again it seemed the counter person had nearly as much trouble communicating my simple order to her coworkers as I originally had communicating it to her. But why? Why couldn't she just put it into a sentence and they listen to each of the separate elements of the sentence and make sense of them? Why all the back and forth for God's sake?

6) I am not exaggerating this phenomenon. In fact today I wish I'd recorded the whole thing so I could type it out in Chinese as proof. If anything, I've simplified the dialogue.

7) I'm well aware that such things occur in every culture, my own American culture included. But in the West so much back and forth is certainly not the norm. And the point is that even before walking into that Mos Burger restaurant I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen at the counter--that I was going to have to repeat myself at least four times. Because for some reason, in many situations here, repetition of details is the norm.

So what gives? There seems to be something like the following going on: When I as a Westerner go into a shop to place an order or conduct business of some kind, I expect that if I carefully formulate my request in a simple sentence that the service person listening to me will absorb my sentence and organize the elements in his or her head so as to get the desired result. But-- When the Taiwanese goes into a shop to place an order, things are quite different. What he or she expects, and the people taking the order expect, is that there will be a repetitive and circular back and forth about the order, a kind of verbal touch and go, that will continue until the order is all clear in both parties' minds. Further: If the person listening to the order misunderstands it the first two or three times around, this is not rude or inefficient service but rather just how things are expected to be. In short: Taiwanese don't mind repeating themselves: for them such repetition is part of the nature of communication. And further: Taiwanese don't bother to listen carefully, because they know whatever they hear will be repeated anyway.

Am I right about this?

My anthropological suspicions on this point perhaps get some support from another aspect of communicating with Taiwanese that I've long noticed--and one that has often driven me nearly mad. I'm talking about the tendency not to answer Yes/No questions with a simple Yes or No.

Example, on a Taipei bus:

A: Excuse me. Does this bus cross Chung-Hsiao East Road?

B: Where do you want to go?

A: Uh. It's hard to explain. I just need to know if the bus crosses Chung-Hsiao East Road.

B: Are you going to Chung-Hsiao East Road?

A: No. I'm going north of Chung-Hsiao East Road. It's straight north of where we are now. Does this bus cross Chung-Hsiao East Road?

B: What section of Chung-Hsiao East Road?

A: Never mind. Thanks for your help.
Now of course in this case the person might be commended for wanting to know precisely where I was going so as to better help me. But the gist of my question was clear. Either the bus crosses the road in question or it doesn't. The man I was talking to knew the answer, I believe. He just didn't want to tell me with a simple Yes or No. There were so many other issues to be raised, it seems.

I'm afraid this bus dialogue isn't the best example though. It's hard to capture these exchanges in print. It's true that at least weekly I will find myself posing questions to people--friends, strangers, etc.--that have simple Yes/No answers, but I will never get the answer I need. Instead I will get comments on tangential issues or answers to questions I didn't ask. I almost wish I'd kept a journal on these kinds of dialogues: some of them are almost uncanny in the sheer irrelevance of the evasion.

When I want to know if a bus crosses a certain road, why should I be made to feel that I'm trying to coax some secret out of someone?

I'm aware that in business negotiations refusing to give clear-cut answers is often a matter of strategy. And that Asians--Japanese and Chinese in particular--are particularly good at being noncommittal as the terms of a deal are hashed out. Still, why should this kind of dogged avoidance of clear-cut answers happen when the stakes of the discussion are minuscule?

I overhear Taiwanese conversing with each other and notice the same kinds of non sequitur. Namely, 1) a clearly stated order at a counter is not taken as such, but is rather a kind of invitation to go round and round restating the order's elements; 2) a direct question is not respected as such, but is instead an invitation to talk about something else.

What gives? I'm aware that linguists and people in East-West relations have probably studied these questions.

Make no mistake. I love Taiwan and its people. I've come to think of these linguistic oddities as a kind of mystery more than an annoyance. At times such runarounds are humorous because they are so predictable. But what are they grounded on?

Comments very welcome.