Dec 25, 2020

Minari and Merica

'Minari' (A24/Plan B Entertainment)

The message by Hollywood, and really the American culture at large, to Asian people in America has long been clear as day. "We don't give a damn what those papers say, you slit-eyes, or how much you contribute to our country and to our communities, or how proud you are to call yourselves Americans. You will never, ever, EVER be American ENOUGH in our eyes."

"Minari," it should be noted, is a film produced by Americans; filmed, directed, and edited by Americans; features a cast made up of mostly Americans, including the lead actor; and tells the story of a family of Americans trying to live out the American Dream. It's the type of tale that Americans of all stripes and colors love to tell about ourselves and our ancestors: an immigrant family striving to make good in the Land of Opportunity™.

And on a personal level: while my own family's story was set in urban Florida rather than rural Arkansas, many of the details from the plotline are deeply familiar to me: a multi-generational immigrant family working earnestly to become acclimated and to set down roots in our new surroundings, and aiming to achieve our own American Dreams in whichever form they come — complete with the ever-present cultural and language barriers that are part and parcel of every immigrant tale.

In shunting this quintessentially American story to the "Foreign Language" category, the Golden Globes aren't just depriving those involved in the making of this film a chance at winning the top prize. They're also declaring — in the subtlest of ways to most, but in a direct and visceral manner to not just Asians, but to anyone in America who grew up in a non-English speaking household — that their own stories and experiences don't matter; that they, too, will never, ever, EVER be American enough for them, either.

Nov 2, 2020

Dispatch from a Failing State

Author's note: I debated whether I should put this out there in public, since I had originally sent this as a private message to someone living overseas. Ultimately, I decided to post an edited version of it here, with most of my thoughts and commentaries left intact. So here goes...

Hello again,

Kenny here. First things first: I have to apologize for being so god-awful about keeping in touch these days; it's been impossible for me to put into words how the events of the past seven or so months, with the challenge of it becoming more and more daunting with every single day. I'll try and put together a letter without sounding like some madman; I can't absolutely guarantee that I won't come off like one here.

How have you been doing lately? I've somehow managed to go seven months without catching so much as a common cold, let alone the dreaded covid. I'm still debating whether that's a result of luck or design; I was already something of a recluse who didn't find much comfort at all in densely-packed places (like house parties, night clubs, and anywhere I would have to wait in long lines) even before the pandemic hit, and the findings of how the virus works only reinforced that mentality for me. Either way, I try and take as many precautions as I can whenever I'm outside, not so much for my own protection, but for everyone else's.

Life for me has shifted in a major way from the work perspective. I'm still working at the same place, but the pandemic has forced the big boss men to really change the way they look at how we actually work. The entire "white collar" portion of my company was ordered to work from home in the middle of March, and that continued until late May, until 25% of those workers was given the option of coming back to the office. I was among that 25% and actually returned to the office every day during the first week back; nowadays, I only go to the office once or maybe twice a week, with my go-to rationale being that the commute from my bedroom to the make-shift office at home is orders of magnitude shorter than the commute from home to the actual, physical office. The situation still isn't perfect or ideal, but I have little to complain about on that level.

Otherwise, everything else about my life in the Coronacene Era is strangely similar to my life before this all went down. I still shop at the same food stores and supermarkets that I shopped at before. I still keep to myself on most days, and rarely make public appearances. I still talk to and interact with the same circle of people that I rolled with before covid. The first couple months of the lockdown were certainly tough, as I couldn't see anyone from that circle in person; on the other hand, I’ve never really been the touchy, huggy type that a lot of Americans are.

As for the virus itself: on a purely personal level, the possibility of contracting it, on its own, seems less scary than the possibility that I might pass it onto someone else... and on a purely personal level, even that is far less scary than the reality that no mask or facial covering might provide enough protection for me against virulent racists who can't separate the actions of a country's government from its people, and would use covid as an excuse to assault Asian people on the street. It saddens me that this is the biggest fear I have about the whole pandemic, but once the circumstances of its origins became apparent, it was always going to be open season on people like me.

"45" and his minions at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW could have taken any number of cues from the countries that had managed to get the virus under control in their countries at an early stage, and done more than to puff their chests about soft travel bans and the number of cases going back down to zero in no time; instead, they adopted, and have stuck stubbornly to, the "if people die, then people die" plan. While much of the country went along with soft lockdowns for a while in spite of 45's protestations, many states, including Florida, rushed to resume normal services (or at least some variation of it), even as the deaths and case numbers continued to zoom upwards. Certain states (again, including Florida) are now operating under the same set of restrictions, or lack thereof, as those in East Asia, with zero justification to do so from the vantage point of virus containment.

If the US death toll from covid (over 229,000 at last count, according to the CDC) were counted as its own municipality, it would be on the list of the 100 biggest cities by population. The US as a whole is registering more new cases a day than most other countries have recorded since the very beginning of the pandemic. Florida alone, with its 21 million residents, has nearly 8 times the number of cases and nearly 10 times the numbers of deaths as Japan with its 125+ million people; based solely off of how each country has gone about responding to the pandemic, I have to believe that Japan's numbers are far more accurate and believable than Florida's.

(As a side note, Florida in a lot of ways resembles a banana republic: way too reliant on a single commodity (tourism) to keep its economy running, a massive underclass propping up that single commodity (many of whom are still out of work and getting little to no institutional support after many months), and comically corrupt and sketchy governments at state and local levels that are mostly run by power launderers who serve themselves and their "donors" and very little else. An Irish proverb holds that "he who loses his reputation loses his shame," and it seems to have been crafted with the people who run this state in mind.)

Equally as galling, people here have been left to fend for themselves money-wise for months on end. In normal, functioning nations, the governments are paying out sizable sums to businesses large and small to save them from going under, and to the general public to keep them from ending up on the streets. In the US, the government appears to have crossed out everyday people from the list of groups that should be supported. While it did send a one-time "get-me-over" check to everyone worth $1,200, it was barely enough to paper over the cracks of the financial situations of millions. (When Trump, in one of his rare lucid moments, suggested another round of stimulus checks last month, it was both the House and the Senate who balked at it, each for different reasons.)

Looking back on it all now, it's easy to see how the US in its current state would find itself ravaged by the virus and its after-effects. America as a whole was so uniquely f---ed in so many ways heading into the thick of the pandemic that it's impossible to figure out where to start. I'm not sure if even the best, most reasonable response at the national level would have stopped us from taking a downward spiral into a dumpster fire, which is precisely where we are now (from just the covid standpoint).

Meanwhile, the low-level, barely-visible civil unrest had been brewing in America since at least 2015 (and in hindsight, well before that), and it exploded into full-blown chaos after the death of George Floyd. Days and weeks and months of nationwide protests followed; certain elements of America saw them as an excuse to raid shops and malls across the country, while still others cosplayed as military members, with the silent approvals of the police and the National Guard, and took to the streets to "defend" their turf.

It was hardly shocking that 45 would equate the peaceful protestors with the looters, and that he would order the same crackdowns on the protestors that are normally reserved for rioters: attacks by uniformed agents, teargas and pepper sprays being deployed at will, people being thrown into unmarked vehicles and hauled off to heaven knows where, and in extreme cases, executions in cold blood... at which point, the cycle of violence began anew. America had witnessed these types of tensions bubble over multiple times in recent years, with the most high-profile case happening just outside of St Louis in 2014; even still, and even by America's standards, seeing those scenes unfold across virtually every major city in the US at the exact same time was jarring.

All of this, as you're undoubtedly aware, is happening against the backdrop of an election cycle that is more cynical, scandalous, utterly uninspiring, endlessly horrific, and frankly hell-bound for anyone who had anything at all to do with it than the 2016 version (and let's just say that each and every one of those descriptors would have applied at least ten times over then). I can only imagine that much of the Western world, and really the whole world, is looking at the state of the election in America the same way they're looking at the state of the country itself: in varying degrees of shock, bemusement, anticipation, and horror. It's not terribly easy to find Japanese coverage of America, so I don't know what its view of our country is, but I would assume it's much the same out there as well.

I've been reading up on scholars and researchers of authoritarianism, and the experiences of those have personally lived through civil wars, dictatorships, and other forms of societal meltdowns, including those who eventually sought and found refuge in America. They've all been sounding alarms at the highest decibel levels about the same story playing out on these shores. I had long suspected that the US was vulnerable to a nationwide implosion on this scale, but it wasn't until I started seeing all the warnings from those who were intimately familiar with it that I saw how grave the situation really was here.

I'll flat-out say it: The United States, as a nation and as a concept, may have already collapsed at this point. It certainly looks more and more like a failing state with each passing day.

On an even greater scale: what's happening here in America should serve as a red alert for the entire world. If a nation as outwardly powerful as the good old USA can be brought to its knees by an attempted internal coup, then every other country should check whether the foundations of their own systems and institutions are still solid enough.

I think the important thing to remember here is that as much of a hollow, villainous, emotionally-vacant horror show of a man as Trump is, he is merely a symptom of all the diseases that have stricken America as a whole, rather than the source of the diseases itself. The crumbled system of public goods that the rest of the "first world" takes for granted (education, health, transportation, security, social safety nets, you name it); an economic structure that merrily pushes more and more people down the proverbial ladder; a cowed news media world where the obsession with ratings and advertising dollars overrides inconveniences like helping to maintain a functioning society; and a political system that seems more preoccupied with inventing increasingly cruel ways to toy with people, rather than make any attempt to help improve the lot of our lives... and who knows how many other markers of a collapsing nations are on full display in America at this time.

That said, Trump has spent almost all of 2020 (and in retrospect, since the very beginning of his 2016 campaign) publicly broadcasting his dreams of becoming the type of dictator that the US has traditionally tried to drive out by force in other countries. These tendencies are starting to show now in his obvious desire to steal the election, rather than even make any attempt at winning it straight-up, and his declarations of not leaving the White House no matter the results of the election. It's no coincidence that he seems to have far more admiration for the likes of Putin, KJU, Xi, Duterte, and Erdogan than for the leaders of most traditional Western nations. Those names are all what Trump aspires to be: strongmen who project and wield power through tough talk, divide-and-conquer tactics, mob-like violence on the opposition and perceived enemies, and oftentimes through sheer aura and cult of personality.

And the current version of the GOP has been strangely eager to go along with his plan; either they're being compelled to fall in line out of the fear of their wealthy "donors" and some hardcore, heavily-armed Trump supporters who are preparing to become America's own version of the SS, or this kind of power grab is simply what they've strived for all along, and they're willing to lay in bed with whatever devils would help them reach that goal. Regardless of the reasons for their complicity, they're resorting to the kind of underhanded tactics now — erasing millions of people from voter rolls, putting people through near-impossible hurdles just to get to the polls, throwing out so-called countless "illegitimate" ballots under some bogus premises, rushing to confirm a hard-right Supreme Court nominee literally days before Election Day — that would make the people responsible for tipping the 2000 election in Dubya's favor break out in cold sweats during the middle of the night.

Even more mystifying to me is how supremely overconfident the Democrats seem to be, not only about how this election cycle will turn out for them, but also in their ability to convince Trump and the GOP to give up power in the event of a Biden victory, and especially in their ability to quickly undo the extensive damages of the Trump era. There appears to be a bizarre complacency about what the consequences of this election could be for this country; for all the talk about how this is the most important election in US history, the sights and sounds from the Democrats and their supporters seem to betray a real lack of understanding about how dire and desperate the situation has become here. I don't see how these people would have enough guts to put up a legitimate challenge in a contested presidential election (which this almost certainly will be), let alone take Trump and each of his accomplices to task for every last atrocity committed under his watch.

More to the point: I don't think anything less than an outright rejection of the American brand of conservatism will ever get us out of this mess, and this year's Democratic presidential nominee, the unofficial head of the party and possibly the next leader of our nation, counts his appeal to the other side of the political aisle as one of his major selling points. That appeal might have been useful and effective had the Republicans retained anything resembling a sense of sanity, and American politics in general hadn't devolved into an irredeemable shitshow; but they didn't, and it did. Ultimately, I ended up voting for Biden, because Florida's status as a "battleground" state meant that I couldn't risk voting for a third-party candidate or leaving the section blank. I still believe, however, that even the very best outcome of a Biden victory would merely be a more milquetoast version of the Obama presidency (as much as I still like Obama as a person, I don't share anywhere near the same level of enthusiasm about his time at the White House as his biggest backers do).

We're now just two days away from Election Day, and I feel a heavy sense of dread and anxiety about what the upcoming days, weeks, and months ahead might look like. Given the stakes of the contest, and how deeply bitter and contentious the whole sordid affair has been, I don't think either side could declare outright victory on the 3rd without sparking off another round of civil unrest (though 45 seems much more likely of the two to try and pull this if the numbers work out his way). And given those stakes, I fear that the scale of the disorder and violence on display has a potential to be orders of magnitude worse than at the height of the George Floyd protests.

Realistically, the only thing that much of America and I can do right now is to see what the results are on Tuesday, and just kind of hope that the hounds don't come after us all during the weeks and months leading up to inauguration day in 2021 — or, god forbid, in the months and years following inauguration day in 2021.

But I've blaggered on for far too long; this is all just a roundabout way of saying that I don't hold out much hope in things returning to anything close to "normal" in America anytime in the near or intermediate future.

Please let me know what life has been like for you these days. I would definitely be interested in knowing what the situation is like on the street level, on the surface level, and also on a personal level as far as your daily life and interactions go. I've only read briefly into how all the countries in the region that you live in now responded to the initial outbreaks, but it seems like whatever strategies they ran worked out infinitely better than what places like the US and almost all of Europe tried to roll out.

And say hello to all your friends and family there, too; one of them actually showed me some pics from when they visited you around this time last year, and it looked like you were getting younger as time went on.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Much love,

Jun 7, 2020

"Any society built on a defective foundation is destined to collapse"

"Any society built on a defective foundation is destined to collapse" - Francisco Maturana

It's almost impossible to find the right set of words to describe the current state of America... but to me, the chaos, the dysfunction, the instability, and the open revolt that have marked our nation over the past few weeks and months is revealing this basic truth for all to see:

America as we know it is sounding its death rattle.

More to the point: America, from what I can see, is facing no less than FOUR catastrophic failures all at once, any one of which is serious enough on its own to bring this country to its knees, if not leave it lying on the ground.

On some level, it should be utterly inconceivable that these four existential crises — the unleashing of racial tensions and the resulting violent repression bordering on an authoritarian takeover, taking place against the backdrop of a global pandemic and the resulting mass death as well as an economic meltdown — would take place simultaneously.

On another level, though, considering the historical and social realities of this country, it feels almost karmic that the very worst sins of our nation's past and present have all come home to roost at precisely the same time. To wit: you could easily trace each of them back to an unsavory aspect of the American experience.

A 400 year-long refusal to acknowledge, fully reckon with, or soberly address the (ongoing) discrimination and atrocities committed against the Black and Native American populations, which were later extended to the Asian and Hispanic populations? Check.

A centuries-long pattern of pursuing regional and global domination through ever-escalating shows of nihilistic violence, dating back to Manifest Destiny and highlighted to this day through a costly, perpetual, and Sisyphean "war on terror?" Check.

The decades-long neglect and whittling down of basic public goods and services, which, instead of going from strength to strength through the years, wound up leaving cities, states, and even the feds to survive on, and engage in battles royal for, increasingly meager rations? Check.

A cascade of economic, financial, and operational decisions that have benefited an infinitesimal percentage of Americans at the expense of the rest of the country, and created the level of inequalities that have raised comparisons to the Gilded Age? Check, check, check, and check.

There's no way of getting around it: these simultaneous implosions are the direct consequences of America's utter failure to recognize — let alone confront and/or correct — its wrongs, both recent and historical. America long ago made a conscious decision to accept, and even embrace, its own insanity; in trying to normalize racism, violence, polarization, neglect, and injustice, America allowed so much pent-up anger, despair, and powerlessness to build up within society that their eventual, explosive release was a foregone conclusion.

Cornel West was spot on in his assessment: we are indeed witnessing America as a failing social experiment.

The most troubling aspect of all this: the near-absence of comprehensive, reasonable, or even semi-viable policy responses to all of these crises at the state and federal levels suggests that the power brokers are not only incapable of resolving these issues in a proper manner, but may actually be perfect content with full-blown meltdowns being the solution to all to them.

Equally as alarming: millions of Americans are watching all of these catastrophes unfold in real time: the near-inhumane handling of COVID-19, which have led to 100,000-plus needless deaths; the actually-inhumane treatment of black people at the hands of law enforcement, a legacy that, again, stretches back some 400+ years; the brutal repression of peaceful protesters, the likes of which we would vigorously condemn had it occurred in any other country; mass unemployment and the ensuing lack of governmental support which have left millions fighting for survival; the combination of all four cataclysms leading to a further erosion of faith and trust in our institutions and in our society at large, to say nothing of a further erosion of optimism for our nation's future...

Millions of Americans have seen the chaos of the last three months alone, and have concluded that everything is going perfectly fine, that there is nothing wrong with the overall direction of our country. Millions may even feel that America ought to double-down on the shameless persecution of minority communities, the steady ascent of neo-fascism, the acceptance and justification of mass death, and every other hallmark of a failing state in supersonic descent.

For centuries, America has gone out of its way to portray itself as a land of true freedom, talked a big game about its dedication to ensuring liberty and justice for all, without ever fully backing up those claims. Today, America feels like it's further removed from its self-proclaimed aspirations than at any point in the living memories of my generation. It's surely no accident, then, that people my age and younger make up a huge percentage of those marching in the streets of our cities, and absorbing the realities of all the different American experiences, and generally trying its best to recreate a better, more hospitable, and more equitable America for everyone.

It's definitely encouraging to see the initiative being taken at the street level, because the alternative would have been to keep allowing the neo-fascist actors with brazenly malicious intent to drive our country down to hell in a hand basket. Ultimately, though, it comes down to those on our side of history — on the right side of history — having the willingness and the bravery required to work and fight for an America that actually lives up to its stated ideals; that is capable of fulfilling its vast, untapped human, cultural, and innovative potential; and that can truly be a shining beacon in the global landscape.

Or, if these aspirations feel a little too lofty at this moment in time, simply an America that is able to take good care of every single person who calls it home, and has a solid foundation on which it can be rebuilt.