28 February 2007

Politics: National and Local

First off, let's get one thing straight: I'm no kinda "...ist." When I was a teenager in the '60s and number eight in the draft lottery for Vietnam, I was a dope-crazed, anarcho-syndicalist, Yippie, draft-card burning (cutting-up in my case), SDS organizing marauding gang of one. Then I mellowed a bit, don't we all?, at which point I might have refered to myself as a "Groucho Marxist."

Now, arrogantly enough, I prefer to think of myself, if anything, as a "rationalist." But that's not really any sort of ist at all.

So while I have some basic ideas as to what's better or worse for the world, those ideas are not tied to any particular ideology. They're fluid. I figure that sometimes something will work better somewhere than something else; and sometimes not. Countries and circumstances are variable and the problem with ideology is that it gets in the way of flexibility.

But I am certain of where I stand on the issue of tacos. Or more specifically, taco trucks. I've written about this before. The L.A. City Council has passed a law that makes it very difficult for taco trucks to go about their business unmolested by either ticket-writing or bribe-soliciting cops. (There are undoubtedly a whole lot more ticket-writers than bribe-solicitors out there, but the law creates opportunities for both.) And it also restrains trade that is more often than not harmless, while providing a welcome service to mostly poor and underserved neighborhoods.

My city councilman - a nice enough fellow, he's a neighbor of mine - was one of the big supporters of this stupid law. He's currently up for re-election and that (with a couple of other things thrown in) would be enough for me to vote against him. But he's running unopposed, there isn't even a write-in candidate for me to vote for. Other city council seats will be voted on next Tuesday though, and I'm pleased to see that Bandini, whose The Great Taco Hunt blog is a wonderful and useful guide to one of Los Angeles' most vital resources - tacos, has made his electoral endorsements for the upcoming vote. If you live in any of the districts where Bandini has made his recommendations, I urge you to go to his blog and consider what he has to say. (Click on the red words to get there.)

It has been said, frequently, that all politics are local. The ravening pack of would be presidents has been descending upon Los Angeles - Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Malibu in particular - to raise money. I don't think anyone has asked Barack or Hillary where they stand on the issue of taco trucks. My guess is that the taco truck issue is beneath them, far beneath them. And I suppose that's as it should be. All things considered I'd rather that they pay more attention to Iran and North Korea's bombs than to al pastor or carnitas. But I wish someone would ask them anyhow. If they had a real answer to the question it might tell you something about how they view the world.

Now don't get me wrong. I like Barack and Hillary just fine and I'll happily vote for nearly anyone - not everyone, but nearly - the Democrats nominate to run next year. But there's a lot that I don't like about their candidacies.

The big problem is what their front-runnerdom says about money and the electoral process. There are other candidates, several who I like a whole lot better - Bill Richardson for instance - who aren't getting heard from because they don't have the money. If Bill Richardson were to somehow get the nomination, I think he'd be easily elected and he'd be a great president. But it will be almost impossible for him to get the nomination unless Barack and Hillary are discovered snorting coke and orgying together or something. (At this point they're both smart enough to put that sort of thing off until after the election.)

My state, California, isn't making any of this any easier. For years we've felt neglected because by the time our primary election rolled around in June, the nominees were pretty much already decided. So the most populous state in the nation didn't have much say in who runs for President. Other than, of course, by contributing enormous sums of cash. Our state legislature and governor have decided to remedy that by moving the primary to February.

It costs millions, tens of millions of dollars to run an effective statewide campaign in California - most of it on TV. What that means is that candidates for the nomination will have to spend everything they can here, if they have any hope of winning the nomination. They'll pretty much have to neglect all the other, smaller, cheaper states.

In the past, lesser known, less well-financed candidates would concentrate on the smaller, cheaper states in the hope of winning some early victories and building up momentum that would help them raise the money to run in the bigger, more expensive states later. That's how Carter got the nomination. Clinton too. And Kerry - but we won't talk so much about that.

Moving California - and several other big states' - primary elections up, means that candidates who don't go into the race with a whole lot of money from the start, have far less of a chance than in the past to get anywhere. And that sucks.

Meanwhile, Hillary? I thought her husband was a good president, not that that has anything to do with her running. But I also think she'd be a good president, and I'd like to see a woman elected. But for whatever reason - most of them bogus, but still with resonance - she is a divisive figure in this country. She might well get elected but an awful lot depends on who the Republicans nominate, who she takes on as a vice presidential candidate and a lot of other factors. I don't think she'll have an easy time getting elected. (I'm also getting tired of this whole dynasty thing. What are we, England? If Hillary gets elected and serves two terms, that would make 28 years during which we've had a Clinton or a Bush as president. After Hillary, who? Jeb? Then Chelsea?)

As for Barack, I wish I was, but I'm just not sure that this country is going to elect a black man president. Not yet. Even if he is half-white. (Stephen Colbert asked the question: "Why isn't he running as a white man?") Now I would personally love to see a black man or woman elected president. I'd be especially pleased if it was someone whose color we couldn't figure out and didn't give any thought to. Is Barack half-black? Or is he half-white? Who cares? That's one of the things I like about him. After eight years of Bush though, I'd like him a lot better if I thought he could be easily elected. Racism runs deeper in this country than we like to own up to.

As I said earlier, I like Bill Richardson. He's got a ton of experience, both domestic and foreign. He's a governor - and a whole lot more governors get elected president than senators. (For the excellent reason that they have hands on administrative experience that comes in very handy when doing the job.) He's liberal on civil liberties and the role of government in such things as education and health care; and he's moderate to conservative economically, all of which I like. He doesn't strike me as anyone with imperial ambitions - like the current crowd in D.C. He's even half Latino or Hispanic. (I haven't heard him bother to characterize it himself, so I don't know what he calls himself. And I don't care.)

And he's the governor of New Mexico. I've eaten some mighty fine tacos in his state. I'd bet he could give me and Bandini an answer we'd like on the taco truck question.

08 February 2007

Race, as an Issue, Rears its Ugly Head in Hong Kong

Here's a link to an Agence France Presse article in which I'm quoted. It is what most recently set me to thinking about race.

Actually, I've been thinking about race a lot lately. The novel I'm currently working on is a sort of coming of age story that deals with it. I'm writing it as the all-seeing narrator. I spend plenty of time letting my readers know what's going on in the heads of my three main characters. One of them is a 20-something black woman in Southcentral Los Angeles in 1946. I'm a 50-something white guy in a trendy neighborhood in Central Los Angeles.

Race and sex are two subjects - near and dear to my heart - that are seldom dealt with honestly. One of the reasons that Chester Himes is one of my very favorite writers is that he, more than most, often dealt very honestly with both topics.

All that is only peripherally germane to the current ruckus that is unfolding in Hong Kong, at the Literary Festival which I attended last year. So I'll get to the other stuff later, but for now, here's what's going on in Hong Kong.

Nury Vittachi was one of the original organizers of the Hong Kong Literary Festival. Nury and I used to work together on Asian Finance and Executive magazines when I first moved to Hong Kong in 1986. (We are both now recovering journalists, if anyone out there knows of any good 12-step programs...) Nury went on to fame and, I don't know about the fortune part, as a columnist, humorist, novelist, public speaker and all around public personality and bon vivant in Asia. (You can find Nury here.)

When I participated in the Festival, I was very impressed by the work that Nury had done; how well the festival ran, how well it was attended, the remarkable mix of people from around the world who showed up for it. A lot of its success was clearly due to Nury's work.

Now he's been fired by the Board of Directors, essentially, they say, because he's a pain in the ass to work with. (My words, not theirs.) I think that's a lame excuse. Over the years Nury has rubbed a lot of people the right way and some the wrong way, as anyone in the public eye is likely to do. When we worked together we had our share of differences, but we always respected each other and when working together were easily able to come up with mutually satisfying compromises long before anything ever threatened to erupt into fisticuffs.

Near as I can tell there are two real reasons for all the trouble, one having to do with corporate loyalty, the other racial.

The corporate loyalty comes into play because Nury, whose books sell very well, switched publishers from Chameleon Press and distributors from Paddyfields (now maybe I'm in trouble, I think Paddyfields distributes me too) both companies of which are heavily represented on the Board of Directors of the Literary Festival. According to Nury, that caused some bad blood.

But that wasn't enough to cause an eruption. The present rumpus got underway when Nury noticed that the judges for the first Asian Literary Prize to be awarded by the Festival, weren't Asian. Initially the judges were almost entirely white and male. Since a fuss was first made, the Board has added a Canadian-Chinese woman, a mixed-race Australian and an Egyptian - none of them resident in Asia. Nury then, quite rightly, employed the R-bomb, "racism."

The fur has flown.

Now here's where I attempt to connect my work on my current book to all of this. Here's the questions. Why should the race of a judge for a literary prize matter? Isn't literary excellence the only criteria, and shouldn't any smart, conscientious reader be able to judge that?

On a personal level; I, a white man, am trying to write from inside the imagined mind of a black woman, so who the hell am I to talk? In my detective-thriller series I write about Asia, but not from an Asian perspective, at least not yet. I write from an American expatriate's perspective that depends as much on my memory as my imagination.

If some readers think I've got my head up my ass with regard to black women, I can hardly wait to hear about it. Maybe I'll learn something. Or maybe my imagination really is that good. You tell me when you eventually read the book. I think it's educational when people of a particular race, culture or gender write about other people. It's a good way to see yourself through other people's eyes. Here's a book recommendation: "Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White," Edited by David R. Roediger.

But judging literary merit isn't the same as writing. A big part of what makes a writer great, especially within a given region (remember, we're talking about an "Asian Literary Prize" here) is the cultural resonance of their work. I lived 11 years of my life in Asia. I've spent many months, probably another year or more added up, traveling there before and since. I'm still an outsider in Asia. I always will be, even if I do retire to that village in Central Java or Cambodia.

An outsider's perspective can be valuable. So sure, put one or even two on the panel of judges. But for a group of people, none of them born in Asia or resident there, to award an Asian literary prize that they expect to be taken seriously, is just plain stupid, arrogant at best, and yes, racist.

I was hoping, what with a new book coming out this Fall, to be invited back to the Hong Kong Literary Festival next year. I haven't yet decided what I will do if I am invited. I wouldn't go without speaking up, loudly, about its faults. Or I might not be willing to go at all.