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[personal profile] ericcheung
Since moving to Brighton in September, my commute has changed drastically.  I live on the B-Line and work in Downtown Crossing.  Therefore,  my ride into the city is one long straight shot.  This has also drastically changed my reading habits.  Before I would take a bus to Davis and grab a Metro before catching the train.  Riding a speedy Red Line train to Park Street, I only had time for the quick paper.  But now, I have forty minutes on one vehicle.  So now, having moved and placed my books on a shelf, I can tilt one back, stuff it in my bag and ride through pages on my ride to work.

Having started right away, I've read three books so far, and am reading a forth--when I'm not reading news on my phone.  They were: Chinese in America: A Narrative History, Eating Animals, Obamanomics: How Bottom-Up Economic Prosperity Will Replace Trickle-Down Economics, and currently Future Shock.

What struck me with all three of these books (more on the fourth later), was that, despite their ostensibly disparate topics, they're all books about capitalism and its relationship with cynicism.  By this I mean not just the cynicism of the corporations or governments in power, but the cynicism of the presumed powerless.  They're are so presumed, again not just by the powerful, but by much more damagingly, by themselves.  These books attempt to rectify that by shedding light on they ways the public can affect social change in large and small ways.  These books mean to empower the reader.

Let me get more specific.

Chinese in America was written by Iris Chang.  Author of The Rape of Nan King: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, she committed suicide just a few years ago, under mysterious circumstances.  Judging by the subject matter one could speculate that her work had something to do with it.  These are heady, daunting topics.  But one can read the hope in the final pages of Chinese in America.

The story begins on two continents.  A brief history of contemporary China sets the stage for Chinese immigration as the Qing Dynasty inflicts itself upon the Chinese as boats to America promise a Golden Mountain in the wake of Sutter's Mill, a transcontinental railroad gets built in the United States.  Largely a story about labor, there are stories of the labor vacuum left after the slaves were finally freed, the exclusion laws which lasted decades, the World Wars, the rise of Communism in China, and the steps toward a cultural integration between the many factions of Chinese, Asians, and the rest of America throughout the 20th century, and up through the case of Wen Ho Lee.

And regarding this last story, as much as Chang praises the work ethic and ingenuity of the Chinese as a whole, she laments the lack of Chinese immigrants in the humanities, feeling that a better represented force in politics and the arts would do much to prevent the stereotyping and suspicion of the Chinese.  This is her call to action, a word of encouragement to a new generation which seeks to change public perception.

I agree with this in that I think that each oppressed minority follows a similar almost linear path: stereotyping by the majority, integration, token representation in the media, diversified representation in the media, and finally, hopefully, a complex portrait is painted.

Eating Animals is written by Jonathan Safran Foer.  The reviews I read for the book gave me two impressions: Jonathan Safran Foer is a precious, condescending, pretentious veggie activist whom the reviewers seemed to want to punch in the mouth...and he's not wrong in his arguments.  Chinese in America may have been about Chinese Americans written by a Chinese American but, for better or worse, given those descriptions, this book seemed much more my style.

This book is even more about capitalism.  Here the story is about how one farmer had an idea several decades ago which led to the factory farming system which now pervades an industry and pollutes a planet and its inhabitants, all for a corporate addiction to money.

Here too, hope shines through.  Through all the tales of packed animals that see no light, sadism that has nothing to do with food production, breeding and genetic engineering designed to make animals that buckle under their own heft, corporate secret-keeping, stealthy adventures trying to find all this out, and testimonials from all sides, there are examples of farmers who try their hardest to raise animals for meat in the most humane way possible in the face of the realities of capitalism and cynicism.

This book alerted me to the good work people are doing in the meat industry.  It's a point that almost goes without some saying, but in the wake of the horror stories surrounding the good, it gave me pause.  I had just become vegetarian this January, but this book simultaneously had me considering veganism and going back to eating meat, albeit in a more conscientious way.  I pondered which would have the bigger economic impact on factory farming: not eating meat at all or eating meat only from conscientious growers?  I don't think I know the answer, but I'd like to know.

For now, I'm going to remain a vegetarian, but I suggest you go to  There you'll find resources and message boards on the topics discussed in the book.  Even if you choose to continue eating meat, you may consider eating the meat grown on the non-factory farms.  As it's more expensive, you might eat it less, but I hear it's actually much more delicious.

Obamanomics is quite obviously a book about capitalism.  It's also quite obviously a book which analyzes cynicism and hope (how can't a book on Barack Obama not only mention hope, but fail to escape that word's now-charged connotation in that context?).  This book is written by John R. Talbott, the economic analyst who predicted the housing market crash.  Here he cheerleads for his candidate, points out his differences with Obama, and makes suggestions to him, should he win.

One of the reasons I voted for Barack Obama, and a reason stated in this book, is because the expectations he laid out were not outrageous...if you paid attention to what he was saying.  In speech after speech he meant to spark a movement.  He echoed John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said that the American people must also contribute and innovate and serve in order for his promises to have any chance of being fulfilled.  Like Eating Animals, Talbott's book suggests to the reader ways in which this sacrifice can serve the greater good, and eventually they themselves.  It appeals to the logic inherent in each individual, if everyone would just stop to find it within themselves.

Having read The Audacity of Hope, I feel pretty good.  I feel like I voted for the man in that book.  So far, he's been governing more or less exactly as he said he would there.  His biggest failure as president has been to communicate with his opponents, and with the American people, to sell his ideas and to seek help where his ideas fall short.  This is not entirely new.  His agenda does not fit into soundbites, nor does it involve simple solutions.  The book Obama and the campaigner Obama ran for president alongside one another, but it's only the campaigner that the media seemed to see.  They packaged his concise and choice slogans and catchphrases over the air, catapulting him to the White House, but the media, as it is now, is not suited for the wonkier side of Obama.

It's odd how a book like Talbott's, written and released less than three years ago, can feel like the naive daydream of a completely different era.  Yet here we are, living in a world in which the House has gone back to the Republicans and the Senate is long since filibuster-proof.  Barack Obama had staked his presidency on bold policies actively seeking the suggestions of the Republicans, who in turn suggested only that he think smaller, that capitalism works best when unrestrained.

I'm not convinced that's the case.  Capitalism does have merit.  It is largely responsible for the innovative ideas generated over the past couple of centuries.  But while it can spark new ideas, it often launches the keepers of those ideas into a security blanket wherein they can rest in their laurels, napping on a mattress made of the money they are now compelled to make, at the expense of new ideas, and the expense of fairness to the people that helped stuff that mattress.

What then is the alternative?  I have no idea.  I'm obviously no economist, but I do think we need an entirely new model.  Communism and Socialism are probably out because instead of massive monopolistic corporations, it's massive monopolistic governments.  With Communism it's even worse as the supposed egalitarianism usually devolves into brutal, dictator-enforced states with little regard for freedom.

I suggest half in jest looking at models that exist in different spheres.  Perhaps looking to democracy?  What would be the economic consequences of having every corporation's administrative staff subject to the quick turnovers of elections in which the workers vote for their bosses?  Would it mire the processes of the company or would it instill just the right amount of fear in the leadership?  What about the scientific community?  Is there a way to harness the Scientific Method and the goal of science that it cooperate on a global scale?  My digression sounds like a preview of my review of Future Shock.

For now let me close by saying repeating that the above books warn against complacency.  They warn against yielding to the powers that be, they warn against rewarding cynicism with cynicism.  Never ever assume that you can't chip away at a giant slab of marble with your finger nails.  For better or worse, it doesn't matter who's in office, you are the sculptor of your own situation.

September 2012

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