Back on the Chang gang

>> Monday, April 13, 2015

This is too good to not share: over at Esquire, Charles Pierce draws attention to Marco Rubio's magic sword, in turn leading us to Steve M., Timothy Noah, and Brad DeLong quoting the Gainesville Sun:

After more than an hour of solemn ceremony naming Rep. Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, as the 2007-08 House speaker, Gov. Jeb Bush stepped to the podium in the House chamber last week and told a short story about "unleashing Chang," his "mystical warrior" friend. Here are Bush's words, spoken before hundreds of lawmakers and politicians: "Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down."

Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift. "I'm going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior," he said, as the crowd roared. The crowd, however, could be excused for not understanding Bush's enigmatic foray into the realm of Eastern mysticism. We're here to help. In a 1989 Washington Post article on the politics of tennis, former President George Bush was quoted as threatening to "unleash Chang" as a means of intimidating other players. The saying was apparently quite popular with Gov. Bush's father, and referred to a legendary warrior named Chang who was called upon to settle political disputes in Chinese dynasties of yore. The phrase has evolved, under Gov. Jeb Bush's use, to mean the need to fix conflicts or disagreements over an issue. Faced with a stalemate, the governor apparently "unleashes Chang" as a rhetorical device, signaling it's time to stop arguing and start agreeing. No word on if Rubio will unleash Chang, or the sword, as he faces squabbles in the future.

The reason this is wonderful, however, isn't the prospect of Rubio (who is expected to announce a Presidential campaign sometime today) going all Connor MacLeod on Congress, shrieking "There can be only one!" and embarking on an arguably overdue and much-needed decapitation spree.  No, what's wonderful about it is that Rubio may be an even bigger ignoramus than previously suspected, while George H.W. Bush once again offers evidence he spent much of his career hiding his light under... (sigh)... under an archaic word for some kind of basket or bucket container used to measure volumes of dry goods, okay?  Take it away, Mr. Noah:

"Unleash Chang," or the more historically precise "unleash Chiang," is something Jeb Bush's father, the 41st president of the United States, liked to say when he was about to smash a tennis ball over the net. It meant "give you the best that I've got," and it was partly an expression of sincere competitive spirit and partly a self-mocking acknowledgment that he had what his daughter Doro Bush Koch, in a memoir, lovingly describes as "a bit of a weak serve." (I use the past tense because, at 87, former President Bush has, I assume, given up tennis, but with these old Wasps you never know. According to Doro, Poppy was still unleashing Chiang on the tennis court in 2006.)

Doro explains in her book that "Unleash Chiang!" is a reference to the nationalist Chinese exile leader, Chiang Kai Shek. Specifically it was a battle cry of the American right during the Korean War. It meant that the U.S. should remove the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait (there to keep the peace between the mainland and Taiwan) so that Chiang could re-invade communist China and whup Mao. One of the principal reasons Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the great postwar right-wing hero, was relieved of his duties by President Truman was that he bypassed the White House and publicly urged Congress to allow him to unleash Chiang. Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea because Chiang could not win (he'd already been whupped once by Mao's army) without the U.S. dropping a few atom bombs on mainland China, and perhaps not even then. (You'll recall we had a hard enough time with the Chinese in Korea.) [internal links omitted]

I was not a fan of the elder Bush when I was a younger man, and I can't say I've changed my mind about his Presidency.  Still, I have to give the man grudging credit for having a sardonic sense of humor that appears to be lost on his sons' generation of conservatives and an independence of thought that doesn't appear to have been widely inherited within the modern GOP (unless you're counting awkwardly misplaced libertarians like Rand Paul).  Using "Unleash Chiang!" as a battle cry for your lousy tennis serve isn't just a reference to Asian history, it's grade-A, high yield snark of startling purity.

The Kraken
You have to remember that throughout WWII and well into the postwar era there was a great deal of dissension in American political circles, and particularly within the American right, over the headaches caused by  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek or whether he was really a headache at all.  America's "China Lobby" considered Chiang to be the world's great hope in the face of the International Communist Conspiracy's expansion into China.  This despite the fact that during WWII Chiang was not only helpless before Japanese invaders, but also proved himself incapable of uniting a country divided among a motley of local regional warlords and a surprisingly effective insurgency led by Mao Zedong.  Indeed, Chiang's ineptitude was so gross he was kidnapped and held hostage by his own generals in 1936.  Postwar, Chiang's Nationalist government haplessly gave ground to the communists until they literally had nothing left under their feet to give--in 1949, he withdrew with what remained of his forces to the island of Taiwan, where he pretended he was still governing China.

And yet, many on the American right nevertheless continued throughout the 1950s to insist that Chiang's Taiwanese government-in-undeclared-exile had some miraculous potential they'd simply never been able to muster when fighting the Japanese, the communist insurgents, and their own damn selves through the 1930s and '40s.  To say that "Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea," is one of those transcendent understatements that is so severe it's nearly false in its truth.  Those in the United States who clamored for the chance to unleash Chiang were at best fools and at worst disingenuous to a horrifying degree: the only way to "unleash Chiang" would be to use a Nationalist re-invasion of the mainland as cover for a full-scale invasion of China or an atomic bombardment, so the suggestion was either a nadir of foolhardiness or a thinly-veiled plea to begin a holocaust (there were people, like Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who plainly wanted to bomb somebody into the Stone Age and lobbied at every opportunity).

"'Unleashing Chiang'--watch this, I've got nothin'," is basically what H.W. Bush was saying, and the former Ambassador to China and WWII Pacific veteran knew it.  It's funny stuff.  I've got to give the old man credit, that's a good one.

But then what do we make of Jeb Bush picking this up?  Did he get the joke?  Not get the joke?  Did he tell Marco Rubio about "unleashing Chiang" and Rubio misheard him and didn't get the reference, or did Jeb really say "unleash Chang" and they're both really that gormless?  And they both apparently want to be President, eh?

I'm not quite sure just how educated and historically-literate a Presidential candidate needs to be.  Given that the collapse of China played directly into the fiascoes of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, I also can't say that not-knowing about the history of mid-Twentieth Century China is relatively harmless the way not-knowing some other historical subject might be; that is, you can learn something useful from almost any historical subject, however trivial, but in the specific case of Chinese-American relations in the Twentieth Century you have a trove of cautionary tales about backing bad horses, throwing good resources after bad, getting swept up in one's own fantasies, not repeating recent mistakes, the limits of American power and influence, keeping a line between domestic and foreign politics and the proper boundaries of party politics, etc..

Plus, there's this enormous irony in what Steve M. correctly observes: "Jeb took a joke about conservative zealotry and turned into a celebration of conservative zealotry."  Yes, this.  Even if Rubio had the right "mystical warrior" (and there's an ironical expression when you're referring to Chiang Kai-shek right there), you'd still have to grapple with H.W. Bush's snark being turned into some kind of triumphalism.  Chiang Kai-shek was never someone who you wanted by your side because he'd never let you down; he was the "buddy" who'd beg you to loan him money for the electric bill that he'd set aside for back-due rent he wasn't going to pay, either, and who'd eventually end up sleeping on your couch and double-parking his busted, oil-leaking, fume-spewing, can't-pass-inspection, expired-tag hoopty in the neighbors' assigned spots.

So what have we (re)-learned?  Marco Rubio is probably kind of dumb.  Jeb Bush is also probably kind of dumb.  And George Herbert Walker Bush was a lot funnier and smarter than some of us usually gave him credit for.  Unfortunately, only one of those men is ineligible for the Presidency.






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The Presidential Job Application: Seven even better questions we should ask anyone who wants to be president

>> Thursday, April 02, 2015

Al Gore said that a presidential campaign is like a job interview. If that’s true, then when these candidates announce, we should hand them a few preliminary questions at the start of the process. After all, that’s even required of the average Starbucks employee. Presumably this job is harder.

Fair enough, but unfortunately Dickerson's questions just... well, they aren't that good.  I like Dickerson alright: he's an entertaining regular on Slate's "Political Gabfest" and he recently started his own solo spinoff podcast about American political campaign history, "Whistlestop", that's a lot of fun to listen to.  But these questions....  "What's the biggest personal crisis you’ve faced and how did you handle it?" is a question all the candidates are going to answer even if we don't ask them, and will possibly be an entire chapter in each one's Obligatory Campaign Memoir (a chapter with a title along the lines of, "A Time of Crisis," natch, just in case you weren't sure where to find it).  Ditto, "What’s your greatest governing triumph?"  And the superficially best question, "Tell us a joke," is (1) actually an imperative sentence, not a question, and (2) can probably be answered by most of the candidates' fiscal policies.  Indeed, in some cases, the candidate themselves can be regarded as a kind of conceptual performance art joke following in the footsteps of Andy Kaufman's Tony Clifton... unless... oh gods, some of them are serious, aren't they?

Which segues quite naturally into Standing On The Shoulders of Giant Midgets' "The Presidential Job Application: Seven even better questions we should ask anyone who wants to be president," starting with:

1)  Are you serious?

Because, honestly, a lot of the people who we can expect to run for President--including all of the people who have officially announced they're running as of this date--really have to be joking, don't they?  Surely.  Surely they must be.  In fact-- 

2)  No, really, are you serious?

Because we're really hoping you're kidding.    We're hoping you're pulling our legs, or at least-- 

3)  This is just a ploy to sell books or promote a reality show, right?

Remember when Newt Gingrich was on that book tour in 2012 and accidentally won the South Carolina Republican primary and Sheldon Adelson bought, like, a million billion copies of The Battle of the Crater but for some reason never came by Gingrich's table to pick up any of them (which was probably pretty good for Newt, actually: he was not looking forward to signing that many copies because he only brought five or six Flair pens along and maaaaan his wrist was going to be hurting after a bit)?  Yeah.  That was pretty fucked up.

4)  Are you trolling?

You know, I already mentioned Tony Clifton, and I would just like to point out that I don't think I've ever seen Bob Zmuda and Rick Santorum in the same room together at the same time.  I mean, maybe I'm wrong and you can find a picture and show me, but I'm just saying.  I have not seen any evidence, myself. 

5)  How do we know this isn't just a mad scheme to get access to the nuclear access codes so that you can get back at the French for that time you went to Paris when you were in college and went into this lovely little bistro and were having a great time until you tried to order an off-menu item and they relentlessly mocked your accent and pronunciation even though you took, like, three whole semesters of college French and thought you were "parlaying lah Franssaissse" like a native, or at least better than Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies?

That's too specific.  Sorry.  Let me edit that: 

5)  This is about the nuclear launch codes, right?  C'mon.  'Fess up.

There we go.  Let's just leave Rick Perry's humiliating junior-year summer-break European trip out of it and ask a question we can ask any of the prospective likely candidates, especially Hillary Clinton who still occasionally gives off that evil supervillain vibe when she thinks no one is looking.  And this really gets to the heart of one of the things we most want to know about our possible future overlords: are they going to nuke somebody?  Matter-of-fact-- 

6)  Alright, let's just say this is not not about getting access to nuclear launch codes: who gets it in the ass and why?

Do we expect an honest answer to this question?  Probably not.  But it's still a good one, albeit maybe with some tweaking.  The way I figure it, what we do is we change the subject after question #5, make idle chitchat with the candidate, and then abruptly, while they're on a rambling tear about Friedrich Hayek, someone shouts, "Who ya' gonna nuke?" and when the candidate unthinkingly blurts out, "Australia," we know how Senator Paul really feels about Iggy Azalea. 

7)  I know we already asked you this... but seriously?  I mean, really?

The ultimate truth is that there's one thing Republicans, Democrats and independents will agree on in 2016: that other guy (or gal) who I'm not voting for?  Really doesn't need to be President, yeah.  Christ on a unicycle doing the highwire act while juggling baby penguins, I really can't stand the candidate I'm voting for, but mercy and forgiveness upon us if ______ wins this goon show.

Okay, so that's not completely true: there will be some subset of the Democrat/Republican (circle one) party faithful who will have somehow managed to be excited by somebody's nomination.  But a huuuuge chunk of the electorate is voting against the other party, which is why a lot of the punditry (even that of relatively reasonable pundistas like John Dickerson) is worth less than an investment in a Bitcoin-style cryptocurrency based on Confederate dollars.  "Will Democrats be able to get over the Clinton State Department e-mail controversy?"  Yes.  Yes, they will, because as soon as they see whatever shambling parody of a candidate survives the shearing forces of the Republican primaries, they will vote for Hillary Clinton even if she shows up in an ISIL decapitation video.  "Will [insert name of shambling parody of a candidate who survived the shearing forces of the Republican primaries here] be able to bring Republican voters to the polls?"  No, but Clinton is going to bring them out in droves so it won't matter.

You know, we shouldn't be asking the candidates anything, when you get right down to it, because it's a waste of time, breath, energy, ink, pixels; it's just a way to kill time and measurably increase net entropy in this small corner of the universe by unleashing more chaos and irrelevance into the junkyards of our foolish minds.  If we want to ask somebody something meaningful about American politics, perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves why we allow ourselves to remain saddled with a screwy, Eighteenth Century, late-Enlightenment, pseudo-democratic, crypto-oligarchical, dysfunctional, better-on-paper-than-in-practice, everybody-gets-represented-by-nobody, lowest-common-denominator-is-zero-which-is-indivisible system of governance?  Why do we stick with a system that was state-of-the-art around-about the same time as the discovery of electricity when everyone else in the world ever sense who has admired our Republican values has elected to not actually model their system of government after ours?  ("Great idea for a democracy!  Let's set up a multi-party coalition parliamentary system!")  Why do we cling to a system where every four years we go symbolically vote for the least-offensive choice of evils so that the Electoral College can actually choose a President who may or may not have a majority of the American people behind him (or her) and certainly doesn't have anything like a mandate, and so that this newly-elected President can then be paralyzed by a Congress created by gerrymandering and bribery?

Seven questions or seven hundred: there's no conceivable universe in which I vote for a candidate who survives a process in which he promises to discriminate against immigrants, subvert a living wage, denies science, and swears he'll do everything in his power to eliminate the Affordable Care Act (unless he's going to replace it with a proper single-payer system, which he isn't).  Nor am I going to repeat my campaign 2000 ill-fated experiment in third-party politics; been there, done that, no thanks.  And on the other side, there's a few million Americans who aren't going to vote for a Democrat no matter what kind of raving and drooling lunatic their own party proffers--as long as he's older than thirty-five and a natural born citizen and not to the left of Richard Nixon, he's their guy even if he has an IQ of 38 and the bathroom habits of a feces-flinging resident of the local zoo's Primate House.  So tell us a joke; I know, here's one:

You're running for President.















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Dumb quote of the day--Basically, I have no idea what the fuck this man is talking about Edition

>> Wednesday, April 01, 2015

...A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

These days, you can’t be sure.





Riiiiiiiiiiight--







I have that particular edition of Princess Bride on my bookshelf by the way, and read it a couple of years before the movie came out; yes, it's that Princess Bride, the one with Wesley and Buttercup and Inigo Montoya and the Six-Fingered Man and the Cliffs of Insanity and "Mawwiage" and "Have fun storming the castle!"  The book is a bit different from the film--it's a send-up of all those great 19th Century epic novels by the likes of Hugo, Dumas, Melville et al. wherein one finds dozens of pages of rousing adventure filled out by hundreds of pages of interminable essay-like passages about architecture and fish, and the book's message ends up being "Life Isn't Fair" instead of "True Love Prevails" or whatever.  But it's not nearly as different as the Ballantine paper cover from the '70s might lead you to believe; no snake-humping nekkid ladies, for instance, an absence shared by book and film.

This was on my parents' bookshelf.  I must have been in junior high school.  My literary precociousness as a reader was inversely proportional to my sexual precociousness, so I grokked Goldman's satire and enjoyed the book despite the contents having nothing at all to do with the obvious reason I must have pulled it off the shelf when I didn't think the 'rents were watching.

Anyway, it's what comes to mind reading Torgerson's blog entry, though it can't even be the best example.  Honestly, if there are two literary genres most notorious for false and misleading advertising on the covers, it's got to be Science Fiction and Fantasy.  And this isn't a new thing.  Go into your local used bookstore and find the shelf where they've stashed the SF/F paperbacks published from the tail of the '50s to, oh, the mid '70s, say, and study the covers.  You'll have no idea what's going on in half of them.







I mean, what the hell is that?  I'm pretty sure it's probably Ian Miller,  whose work I adore, but what the hell are you getting when you crack the spine?

I haven't read The End of Eternity, so maybe it really is about... about... can someone tell me what this one's about?  I'm mostly wondering about the giant ball:




[EDIT, 4/2/15: So apparently this one's a bad example.  See the comments below....]

Okay, okay, maybe I exaggerate a little.  Sometimes the cover really does let you know what you're in for.  F'r'instance, yes, this one is a book about drugs:


This PKD cover, on the other hand, is possibly less helpful:




There are tears in the title and in the image, 'tis true.  So... success?

Here's a book that's sitting on the nightstand because I'm re-reading it some evenings.  It's an anthology by several authors working in the style of the mannered, post-Gothic cosmic horror of the primarily-featured author in the volume, and that emphasis on atmospheric, purple-yet-scholarly prose is why the cover features... a face... skull... head... with... uh... I think that's brains?... or mushrooms...?--




Also, he seems a bit miffed that something (steam? albino broccoli florets?) is squirting out his head.  Which is a common reaction of Lovecraftian characters upon being brought face-to-face with cosmic horrors from the bleak abysses beyond space and time--they get a little peeved by the inconvenience of being squashed by squamous godlike non-Euclidean entities.  I feel for the guy, anyway: from the look on what remains of his face, I imagine he was on his way to a job interview, or possibly getting ready for a date, when this happened.  Grrr.  Arrgh.  Empathy, am I right?  It's like having a zit pop up at the worst possible time, except with... really tiny white trees?

I could go on forever, possibly, but I'll wrap this up with the Ace unauthorized paperback of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers, featuring an artist's interpretation of the famous passage in which a Ringwraith rides his pegasus across Utah:



(Spoiler: he falls off just outside Provo and has to catch a bus the rest of the way.  Lucky hobbits!)

(My thanks to everyone I'm stealing images from.  That's probably bad form.  Sorry.  Thank you for taking the trouble to scan these, whomever/wherever/whenever you are.)
 






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