Tuesday, May 31, 2011

So I finally read "...Tiger Mother"

Given that Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out in January, this post is not exactly topical, but I figured it was better late than never. Plus I did have a bit to say about Chua and her book at the time (here, here, here and here), without actually having read it, so perhaps this will complete the circle.

Amy Chua is a woman who has garnered an enormous amount of hatred in the last few months. The problem is this: the vast majority of the people directing the hatred at her have not actually read her book.

Instead, what most people base their Tiger-Mom-expertise on is the Wall Street Journal article which rocketed Chua to fame. Thing is, that article takes bits and pieces of her book out of context, slaps a provocative title on it (Why Chinese Mothers are Superior) and garners both fame, dollars and death threats for Amy Chua. The WSJ piece comes across as simultaneously an assault on the alleged moral laziness of "Western" parenting, and an unabashed glorification of sadistically hardass Asian parenting, the kind that presumably leads to straight-As in math, a place at a prestigious university, and possibly a stress-related burnout and therapy by age 24. But that's not really the entire story of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Chua complained about being taken out of context, and she's right. And for anyone who actually wants to dig even a centimetre below the surface of this issue, it's not too hard to see why. Firstly, check the front cover, underneath the title. It reads:
This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
So straight away, it's apparent that there's more to this than "Chinese mothers rule, Western mothers suck."

Secondly, anyone with basic levels of comprehension should be able to discern that there is a cheekily humorous streak that runs through the excerpts in the WSJ article, in passages like this:
Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences. That's why Chinese daughters can't have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can't go to sleepaway camp. It's also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, "I got a part in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I'll also need a ride on weekends." God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.

So my assumption from day one was that what to some came across as cruel arrogance in that article was at least partly Chua exaggerating for effect. Which is why I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt, and defended her on a few other blogs where commenters tore into her for all kinds of things, either real or imagined. (Those things include being married to a white guy, and being born in the Philippines and thus being insufficiently Chinese.) I just figured that it's best not to rush to judge something you haven't actually read yet.

The book itself is very easy to read, while occasionally causing great discomfort at the extremes Chua describes going to in order to bend her rebellious younger daughter to her will. She seems to be often brutally honest about this, and in writing it was almost certainly aware of how horrible it sometimes makes her sound. Indeed, much of it is obviously self-parody. But most of all, understand that this is a warts-and-all story of a journey through parenting, in which Chua gradually comes to the realisation that Chinese parenting (or at least her idea of it) is far from perfect.

That's a key point. This book is not a parenting manual. It is a memoir, which details both ups and downs, and which ends up questioning many of the assumptions that are stated at the beginning of the book.

I certainly didn't finish the book thinking Chua was a great parent, or deciding that this kind of Chinese parenting model would be the right one for me. But it did make me think a lot about what kind of parent I'm going to be in the future, and what kind of discipline and encouragement I will apply to my offspring. Particular for me as a person whose social circle contains a large number of Asian high-achievers, but whose own more relaxed upbringing has led me down a path that is rather less orthodox, yet just as rewarding in different ways.

Any artist or writer needs to be mindful of how their work will be interpreted by the public. And it is true that Amy Chua's work has stirred up a heap of anxieties from Asian-Americans worried about the perpetuation of the model minority stereotypes, and from traumatised survivors of Tiger parenting. As well as a fair share of racists looking to vent their resentments towards Asians and their academic achievements. My main gripe with Chua is that she has made Chinese parenting synonymous with Amy Chua parenting. And while there are many Chinese (and other ethnicity) kids who identify with the hardassed-ness Chua describes, that quality may have manifested itself only in certain ways, to a less extreme extent. In a sense, it may also serve to devalue the intelligence of Chinese youngsters in the public perception, promulgating the view that rather than being smart or creative, they are merely super-efficient products of some kind of parenting sweatshop.

But by the same token, virtually any person whose writings appear in the public domain would agree that you can't control how others take you out of context. And it's not Amy Chua's fault that a lot of people only know how to interpret things in the worst way possible.

I enjoyed reading the book very much, but I'm not in any rush to be a Tiger Parent. And personally, I'm very glad that my own mother was and is nothing like Amy Chua. But those of you who are looking for a villain in this story would be better off pointing fingers at the Wall Street Journal, which presented Chua's story in the most controversial and sensationalist light possible.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

RIP Gil Scott-Heron (1949 - 2011)

Another giant of music, the legendary singer Gil Scott-Heron, passed away this week aged 62. A prolific artist who released an album every year of the 1970s before his life began to go off the rails, Scott-Heron carved out a distinctive style of his own, blending jazz, soul, blues and funk with an early form of rap poetry.

Scott-Heron was one of those cats who never had anything resembling a hit on the pop charts, yet inspires reverence among those in the know, and was extremely influential to artists in a number of genres. He was also a complex and deeply flawed character; while his songs spoke eloquently and powerfully about the ills facing African-Americans, he spent most of his life from the early 80s onward in the grip of crack cocaine, and spent several years in jail in the 2000s for drug-related offences. It always seemed almost inconceivable that such a fate could befall a man as intelligent and positive as he. He did manage to release an album in 2010 (his first in 16 years), entitled I'm New Here.

I managed to catch the man live in the mid-90s, touring off what was his then-comeback album, Spirits. Gil was only in his mid-40s but I'd guessed him to be at least 20 years older due to his weathered, emaciated appearance. From that underrated album, Don't Give Up is not one of his better-known tracks, but it represents the breadth of his musical oeuvre, with his distinctive spoken/rapped delivery and blues-soaked singing over a jazzy groove. It's sad listening to these lyrics today, which reflect on his many frailties yet offer hope for a salvation that was never to come.

The song that most people know Gil Scott-Heron for was one of his very earliest releases, The Revolution will not be Televised. While the song's many pop-cultural references have long since dated, its fierce critique of television and mass consumerism's effect on societal consciousness is just as relevant now as it was back in 1970.

Scott-Heron has often been dubbed "The Godfather of Rap", something of a misnomer and a label he was apparently not fond of. His distinctive brand of poetry set to music did not directly give rise to hip-hop, although he was very influential to later generations of rappers. In many ways he resembled his contemporaries, The Last Poets, and like them is frequently associated with the black militancy of the era. But Scott-Heron's politics were often more nuanced, and in his poem Brother he skewers those so-called black revolutionaries who were more concerned with superficial displays of pride than actually bringing about positive change.

While his first album was primarily poetry accompanied by conga beats, his subsequent work revealed his more musical leanings. He played keys while singing in an unmistakable baritone that was unpolished but soulful and jazz-inflected.

We Almost Lost Detroit is from his 1977 album Bridges. Hip-hop fans might recognise chunks of the song sampled in Black Star's Brown Skin Lady and Common's The People.

The Bottle is one of Scott-Heron's better-known works, from his 1974 album Winter in America. On flute is his long-time collaborator Brian Jackson.

Making pad thai, the vegan black metal way

I wouldn't say this is an authentic version of pad thai, but if you are a vegan black metal type of guy, you probably don't care.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

South Asian diets and flatulence

Originally posted at Brown Pundits.

“Beans, beans, the musical fruit/ The more you eat, the more you toot” – children’s song

As you probably know, legumes (beans, lentils and peas) have high levels of oligosaccharides, which result in increased levels of flatulence. Whenever I hear someone mention eating baked beans (one of the principal legume-based dishes of Anglophone culture), someone else almost inevitably makes reference to their fart-producing capacity.

But brown people eat legumes like no one else. The average person in South Asia eats some kind of dal at least once a day, and probably more.

There are of course numerous other culinary cultures that revolve very heavily around legumes – Egyptians, Ethiopians and especially Mexicans – but South Asia is the global capital of legume consumption. India especially, given that around 400 million of its people are vegetarian and thus rely on dal as their primary source of protein; although due to poverty, I figure dal is still the main protein source even for the majority that do eat meat.

That would seem like a lot of farting.

Now, I haven’t done the research on this, and frankly I don’t want to. But would it be fair to say that Indians are the farting-est nationality in the world?

Or does one’s digestive system acclimatize to a diet high in legumes, to the point where flatulence is no longer a problem?

It is notable that both Mexican and Indian cuisines make extensive use of ingredients which supposedly lower flatulence levels. In India it is the powdered resin known as hing or asafoetida, while Mexicans add the herb epazote to their bean dishes.

As a vegetarian myself, and one who is very partial to Indian food, I eat a lot of lentils and chickpeas, and thus can personally testify that things can get pretty windy afterward. But I still don’t eat legumes quite as much as the average Mexican or Indian. So does the average desi household resemble dinnertime with the Klumps?

See also:

Foods that make you stink - Fenugreek

"Die 100 Augen Der Ninja"

Salvatore sent this to me, asking "Do you find this funny, or is it just me?"

Answer: It's not just you. I'm not sure why, but Ninjas speaking German is funny every day of the week.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Asian kids, Jewish education

Having just spent a couple of weeks doing teaching placement at a Jewish school, I by chance happened to meet the father of one of the students. Nothing unusual there, except that he was Asian - as far as I could tell, an immigrant from China - and as far as I could tell, not one of the Chosen People. His son was one of a couple of students of apparent Chinese background who I had noticed at this school.
I asked this parent, in as tactful a way as possible, about the Jewish connection. There was none, he happily said, but he figured that it was a good school and that was good enough for him. His son, as far as I could tell, is content and accepted as the rare Asian face amongst a student body that is overwhelmingly made up of Ashkenazi Jews. The school is fairly secular, but is nonetheless very proud of its Jewishness and connections to Israel; it's culturally rather than religiously Jewish.

In any case, it's still an unusual choice for a non-Jewish Chinese student. Yet my Hong Kong-born friend Helen did her high schooling at a Jewish school in Melbourne as well. She was the only Asian student there. Like the Chinese parent I met recently, Helen's parents presumably figured that the Jewish emphasis on high academic achievement bode well for their daughter.

I've spent time in a lot of schools, and come across Hindu and Sikh students in Christian schools, which I assume is due to those schools being the best in a particular district.

I guess it's not altogether surprising, really. Certain Asian cultures are obsessed with their children's academic achievements. So some Asian parents have reasoned that having their child immersed in someone else's religion or culture is a small price to pay for a top-class education. Indeed, they may even regard the exposure to a different religious tradition as beneficial to that education.

So there are some shared values between Jews and Asians in regard to the primacy of education. But do they value the same type of education?

Coincidentally, BigWOWO has a good post up about Jewish culture valuing the humanities as a core aspect of education in a way that Asians typically do not. I happen to agree. At the Jewish school I observed a explicit push in the curriculum to teach students to think critically and philosophically from a very early age. I think it's fantastic.

Asian parenting tends to have a different focus though. Amy Chua, who put Chinese-style parenting (or at least a version of it) in the headlines with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, makes it quite clear in the opening pages what the priorities are in her children's education. Maths is big. Piano and/or violin are essential. Drama and sport, not so much. Other instruments, not so much. Indeed, I had to do a double take the first time I met a young woman of Chinese background who had not learned either piano or violin, but instead was learning to play the djembe. You don't see many Chinese parents clamoring for their kids to learn African drums. Chua ironically has a Jewish husband, and daughters who are raised to see themselves as Jewish, yet her approach to education is thoroughly Chinese.

As someone whose circle of friends is dominated by South and East Asians, it almost goes without saying that virtually everyone I hang with either has a university degree or is studying for it, and got grades in high school that put me to shame.

But particularly among East Asians, I notice plenty of business-brains and math-brains and IT-brains, but very few humanities-brains. Which is fine; it's not hard to see the greater perks of a degree in medicine or pharmacy as opposed to say, a Masters in philosophy. But I fear that Asian culture is so obsessed with churning out children who grow up to have only traditionally-valued careers, that we will lose something in the way of imagination and innovation. Or even just the ability to be interesting in conversation.

As is pointed out in BigWOWO's article, and returning to the theme with which I began this one, there is perhaps something Asians can learn from the Jewish approach to education. In the US, ethnic Indians, Japanese and Jews are amongst the very highest-performing groups in terms of wealth and education, yet notably Jews have achieved their success in a broader range of fields, from hard sciences to the entertainment industry. To my mind, that suggests that their community is maximising the diverse range of talents contained within it, rather than trying to turn everyone into a doctor.

See also:

Gina Yashere - The Pushy Nigerian Mum

Goodness Gracious Me - Typical Asian Parents

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Rapture that never came

I woke up and I'm still here. So The Almighty didn't destroy the world after all. Well I'll be.

Guess I shouldn't have called everyone at work a bunch of c***s on Friday as I left, then. Couldn't resist an opportunity to settle a few scores. This is going to make for some awkward water-cooler moments.

Anyway, while waiting until the next scheduled Rapture (2012 I believe), pass the time by enjoying some Raptures that did actually happen, and were in fact very cool.

THE RAPTURE: Get Myself Into It by rooroo

Those raptures in Jurassic Park were pretty awesome too.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"The very foreign correspondent"

I was a fan of the UK series Balls of Steel. Sure, it was occasionally puerile, and prank-based humour can often be annoying rather than funny, but it did the genre better than most. Now Balls of Steel Australia is out on Foxtel. I haven't watched it since I'm too cheap to pay for Foxtel, and I'm a bit sceptical anytime someone tries to take a winning British comedy and replicate it in another culture. But here's a taster, and it features comedian Nazeem Hussain of Fear of a Brown Planet and Salam Cafe fame.

Satoshi Kanazawa and black women

Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist and a lecturer in the management department of the London School of Economics, ran into some controversy this week over a blog posting, entitled "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?"

It's part of his Scientific Fundamentalist blog at the Psychology Today website, in which Kanazawa's subheading claims to take "A look at the hard truths about human nature". Psychology Today soon removed the offending article, and the London School of Economics is considering Kanazawa's future at the institution.

Fortunately, someone managed a screen-capture of his blog post, which you can see via BigWOWO's blog, here.

Here's an excerpt:

"It is very interesting to note that, even though black women are objectively less physically attractive than other women, black women (and men) subjectively consider themselves to be far more physically attractive than others… Nor can the race difference in intelligence [...] account for the race difference in physical attractiveness among women."

So is he a nasty racist, or truth-telling scientist who fell foul of political correctness gone mad?

Or a bit of both, perhaps?

It's telling that the title is not "Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?"...

"Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?"

In other words, Kanazawa seems to accept unquestioningly that black women are less physically attractive, and thus straight away focuses on why this must be so, rather than whether such a highly controversial statement could be true, or how such a conclusion could be reached.

It's also interesting that such an article comes from a member of another group - Asian men - that is frequently perceived as undesirable and less attractive. The same study cited by Kanazawa that indicates that black women are seen as less attractive also paints a less-than-rosy picture of Asian male attractiveness. Would Kanazawa be so quick to accept the conclusion that Asian men are "objectively" less attractive than others? I wonder.

In any case, Kanazawa's approach is problematic.

Firstly, "black women are objectively less attractive than other women"? How the hell does someone measure black women's beauty, objectively? By popular vote, perhaps?
I would have no problem with Kanazawa writing a post about how people tend to find black women comparatively less attractive than other women. If surveys show that, then sure, write about it if you wish. But to treat this as some objective means of measuring the physical attractiveness of anyone is deeply suspect.

So how did the study come up with the objective evaluation of beauty?
"Add Health measures the physical attractiveness of its respondents both objectively and subjectively. At the end of each interview, the interviewer rates the physical attractiveness of the respondent objectively on the following five-point scale: 1 = very unattractive, 2 = unattractive, 3 = about average, 4 = attractive, 5 = very attractive. The physical attractiveness of each Add Health respondent is measured three times by three different interviewers over seven years."

Oh, I see. So the opinion of three different interviewers constitutes objectivity.

If you're smart, you might surmise that it might just be possible that these interviewers' judgement of beauty is subject to their own prejudices and preferences.
Even if there were not three but three thousand interviewers measuring people's beauty, it still wouldn't be worth a damn.
You could poll the entire world on their racial preferences in beauty, but what would it prove, in objective terms? A similar approach to music and food might reveal that Lady Gaga is "objectively" better than Aretha Franklin, and a hamburger and fries is "objectively" the best food in the world.
The other problem is one that you can commonly observe amongst the HBD crowd: treating social phenomena as if they have a basis in human evolution or genetics, and disregarding the importance of social context.
There are plenty of different social contexts that will affect the way we perceive the relative attractiveness of different races. But let's start with this one: since the dominant forces in global popular culture are mostly white and American, most of us are conditioned by a standard of beauty that is mostly white and American.
So rather than leaping straight to the assumption that black women are less physically attractive probably because they are dumber and have more testosterone, as Kanazawa does, he might reflect that the results represent the predictable outcome of a study conducted in a predominantly white country.

Does Obama’s brownness have any impact on Islamic radicalism?

Question: Does having a brown man in the White House do anything to shift hardline Islamists' hatred towards America?

Check my post on this over at Brown Pundits.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What I've been doing this week...

This blog has been unattended for almost a whole week, because I've been as busy as a bee with a deadline. I'm back now though. I'll give you a moment to rejoice before reading on.

I'm studying to be a teacher right now and the last couple of weeks have been my teaching rounds. That involves full-time work and plenty of after-hours preparation, which leaves little time for ruminations on a blog. But I thought I'd share with you one of the highlights of my teaching experience, which came out of my humanities lesson focusing on the Antarctic.

Me: "So why do you think dogs proved to be more successful than ponies at pulling sleds in early Antarctic exploration?"
Grade 5 boy: "Because ponies are for girls."

Love it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Kung Fooled"

The new short film from Wong Fu Productions has fun with racial stereotypes while also turning them on their head.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Blogging and cross-posting elsewhere...

Obviously one blog is not enough to contain my blogging mojo, and I'm writing at a couple of other blogs at the moment.

I'll be posting some stuff over at Brown Pundits, a South Asian-focused blog run by Razib Khan and Zachary Latif. My first proper post is up, in which I look at the family-centric approach of so many Asian and African cultures and question whether it has negative implications on a broader social level. You can read that here.

I'll also be guest blogging at Peril, an online Asian-Australian arts and culture magazine, and my posts should appear sometime in the next month or so. Keep an eye out, the content will be exclusive to Peril, but I'll link to my posts from here.

This dude is just amazing.

Forget all the choreography that you see in so many modern urban music videos... this for me exemplifies what hip-hop dance is all about.

Friday, May 6, 2011

This week in Ninja news...

Don't look now, but the ninjas are taking over. Remember you heard it here first. Not to fear, because as we all know, ninjas are awesome. Although I'm not sure that they are quite as awesome as they once were, if the below evidence is any indication.

There just seems to be an inordinate amount of ninja-related stories in the news recently.

Fortunately some of the ninjas are out for the cause of righteousness:
Ninja protects the not-so-mean streets of Tunbridge Wells
For a crime-fighting Ninja has begun patrolling the streets of Royal Tunbridge Wells scaring off yobs, helping pensioners and rescuing cats from trees. The 25-year-old, who calls himself the ‘Neighbourhood Ninja of Tunbridge Wells’, claims to be a ‘grandmaster’ of the Japanese martial art based on ‘stealth and infiltration’.
His mission is simple – to clean up the streets. Speaking on condition of anonymity he said: ‘It’s my aim to help people, I am inspired by Neighbourhood Watch, which people seem to have forgotten about, so I’ve created Ninja Watch. There is still lots of trouble in Tunbridge Wells and the community does not seem to be as together as it used to be.
‘The message I want to get across is serious, which is about people keeping watch, sticking together and reporting incidents.’
Ch Insp Simon Wilshaw, of Kent Police, said he had not ‘made himself known’ to officers.‘Although we support public spiritedness we do not condone anyone taking the law into their own hands.’
Resident Sally Everson, 43, said: ‘It was very odd, this man dressed all in black was helping these old ladies across the street and they were quite happy to have someone help them.’

All power to the guy, but I'm not sure I'll be truly impressed with his ninja powers until he starts cleaning up the streets of a town slightly more menacing than Tunbridge Wells. To be sure, helping little old ladies across the road is a worthwhile pastime, but I'm not quite sure that it was what the founders of the ancient mystical ninja arts had in mind.

In fact, if you want another example of how ninjas just ain't what they used to be, here's a guy who appears to be invoking the ninja ways in the cause of some mindless destruction and petty crime.

Masked 'ninja' carrying samurai sword terrorizes Pa. town; breaks into 11 cars, attempts to stab man
A man dressed as a ninja and carrying a samurai sword broke into 11 cars in southwest Pennsylvania and tried to stab a man who confronted him, cops said. Cops said the masked-marauder terrorized an area of South Union Township between midnight and 1 a.m. on Sunday, smashing the windows of cars and creeping through yards.
Resident Santino Guzzo told Pittsburgh's WTAE television he was in his car investigating after neighbors repeatedly heard glass breaking and car alarms when he spotted the black-clad goon hiding out in a yard. When he confronted the ninja, Guzzo said the thug thrust his samurai sword through his open window of his Jaguar and sliced open his hand. The masked man then shattered the rear window of Guzzo's car before taking off, Guzzo said. Cops on the scene found blood on the shattered glass, a blunt tool the assailant used to break the windows and a bottle of booze, WTAE said.
In fact, these days it seems that all you need to do to be considered a ninja, is to wear a pair of trainers:

No they WEREN'T Ninja Nuns!
The secret identities of two nuns who took pride of place next to Prince William and his new wife at the Royal Wedding have been unveiled. They were seen by two billion people around the world, looking on demurely as William and Kate listened to prayers during the service.
But despite their unassuming appearance, rumours began to surface that one of the women was a secret 'ninja nun' intended to protect the Royal couple, after she was pictured wearing black trainers.
Speculation was rife that the taller nun, wearing Reebok Classics with her traditional habit, was on hand to pounce on any intruders.
One internet user wrote: 'I guess they were undercover agents, MI5.'
But today she has been revealed to be Sister Annaliese Brogden - a 52-year-old nun from the Community of the Sisters of the Church. Her identity was disclosed by her bemused father Geoffrey Brogden who said she always wore trainers - no matter what the occasion.
It even seems that the President of the United States is down with the ninja arts too. Forget being the First Black President, being the First Ninja President is the real milestone.
Bill Maher: I’d Bet My Own Money On ‘Multi-Tasking Ninja’ Obama Getting Re-Elected
Bill Maher was in high spirits last night appearing with Joy Behar to celebrate President Obama’s national security success with Obama and laughing, “this has got to eat at [Republicans] because this is supposed to be what they’re good at.” Maher was so impressed with our President, the “multi-tasking ninja,” that he concluded if Republicans can’t give Obama credit now, then they probably wouldn’t ever be able to do it for anything.
More ninjas cleaning up the streets here.

See also: Lame self-defence.

The ninjas just keep on coming.

The underprivileged white male

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bin Laden is dead. Why are some of you being grumpy?

They got him!

Now, I'm going to assume that the Yanks didn't just make this up for propaganda purposes, or shoot some beardy brown guy who looked vaguely like Bin Laden and decided that was good enough. Let's assume that it's actually happened.

Not sure how to react? Here's how. Be happy.

I know it's weird to be happy that someone died. But this is Osama Bin Laden. I know he doesn't have the same kind of body count as say, Hitler or Pol Pot, but make no mistake, he's cut from the same cloth. So be happy. This is a guy who was a figurehead for mass murder and terrorism, for whom civilians were mere expendable pawns, no matter whether they were Muslim or non-Muslim. He'd kill your mother without a second thought, so don't feel bad that he's dead.

And no, this doesn't mean that the threat of militant Islamism is over. And yes, they probably should have got him a bit sooner.

But he's dead and that's a good thing. I abhor violence as a rule, but a select few people have forfeited their privilege to be alive, and Osama was living on borrowed time. Be happy, he deserved it.


I notice some of you are finding reasons to whinge about this.

Yes, certain radical lefties, I'm looking at you. Yes, certain Muslims, I'm looking at you.

I know that it's cool to be anti-establishment, and anti-American. And I can dig it, I was once like you, and still am in some ways.

But really, stop complaining, just for a moment. Yes, the death toll of the War on Terror is obscenely high. Yes, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has caused a mountain of unnecessary problems.

But at least for just a moment, allow yourself to be happy that amidst all the horrible things the world has seen in the last 10 years in the cause of the War on Terror, it ain't all bad. You don't have to run out into the streets and chant "USA! USA!" That might be a bit excessive. But the guy who's life's mission was to create an all-consuming world war between the Islamic world and the West just got got. That's cause for at least an approving nod of the head.

Tomorrow, you can go back to being mad about something and normal service can be resumed.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Obama's birth certificate, and the racist impulses behind Birtherism

This week President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, that proves that he was born in Hawaii. Not Kenya, not anywhere else.

So, thankfully, that will be the end of the "Birther" movement, and the deluded conspiracy theories that naturally flow out of it.

No? Oh.

The discussion amongst the birther crowd has simply shifted from: "He doesn't have an American birth certificate," to: "His birth certificate is fake".

Anyone seriously thought showing everyone the document would alleviate the constant speculation surrounding his birthplace, should perhaps reflect on the fact that Obama already satisfied the legal requirements for the Presidency over 2 years ago when he ran for the job, and that he has also previously released the short-form certificate. Neither have prevented a substantial proportion of Americans believing he was born elsewhere.

An example is the recent claim by former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, that Obama deliberately withheld the certificate in order to make Republicans look foolish. A claim that, while it sounds outlandish, at least comes with it some acknowledgement that the birther crowd and the Republicans who associate themselves with it have indeed looked foolish.

The latest person to put the Obama birth issue in the headlines has been Donald Trump, who looks like he is going to try running for President, and is thus competing with Sarah Palin for the honour of "candidate whose Presidency would be most likely to convince the world that Americans are all morons".

The Donald has been beating the birther drum for a while now, claiming that the document was missing. Now that it's most definitely not missing, he's shifted focus to the President's academic records, claiming that Obama was apparently a terrible student in college, yet somehow got accepted into Columbia and Harvard Universities. Trump doesn't say who his source about Obama the bad student is, and it's not clear why it is suddenly relevant that Obama needs to release his academic records.

...unless of course you are someone who fervently wants to believe that there was a massive conspiracy to elect a Kenyan Muslim Socialist Nazi President.

One of the questions that has arisen is whether or not the whole birther issue is driven by racism. The Left will say yes, the Right will say no and complain about the Left's eagerness to play the race card.

Well, the Left is spot-on; right-wing figures keep the issue of his birthplace alive precisely to scare the public and capitalise on the lucrative xenophobic vote.This doesn't mean Trump must be racist against "the blacks" as he calls them, but he's definitely relying on racist attitudes to fuel his road to candidacy.

It must be stressed that the deep well of racism the Republicans are trying to tap into is not the obvious variety. It's the entrenched racism that people often don't know is there, or at least don't acknowledge is there. It's not the kind of racism that says, "I won't vote for Obama because he's a nigger." Rather, it's the sort of racism that says, "I won't vote for Obama because there's something about him I just don't like." (That certain something they don't like is that he's black and seems foreign, of course.)

Even Trump's latest academic angle seems like a racial dog-whistle. The veiled implication is that Obama (who is black, by the way) did not deserve to get into Ivy League schools. So despite him being voted by his peers as President of the Harvard Law Review and graduating magna cum laude, Trump says that something is fishy about that. Of course, George W Bush got into the Ivy League, but he was a rich white man. The implication is that as a black man who was not wealthy, Obama did not really belong in that esteemed strata of society, and must have only got there through affirmative action.

The political genius of this kind of attack is that it is not OVERTLY racist. Indeed, the same has been true of many of the right-wing talking points about the President - he's got a anti-colonialist mindset, he's a socialist, he's a Muslim, he's a Muslim sympathiser, his middle name is Hussein, he has a problem with white people, he wasn't born in America.

Those who keep these myths floating around are doing so in order to prey on conservative America's suspicions about the brown guy with the foreign-sounding name. Yet the racism behind these fears is hidden enough that those who have them don't see themselves as being racist. So when anyone on the Left points out that racism is at play, they are accused of "playing the race card". The general perception on the Right is that the Left play the race card as a way of silencing any debate they don't want, shaming right-wing opponents with the label of racist. Thus Obama is seen to be using this tactic to maintain his hold on power.

That's the brilliance of using thinly-veiled xenophobia as a political strategy, and why so many political parties around the world love using it. So many vehement Obama-haters spout arguments which are based in racism, without seeing it as racism. So when someone on the Left brings up racism, it's as if they brought it up out of the blue.

Try this analogy:

A: "Tell me, what foods do you really dislike?"
B: "A few things: I dislike lasagna, I dislike fondue, also quesadillas, pizza and saganaki.
A: "Well, it sounds like you have a problem with cheese."
B: "What? Who said anything about cheese? I have no problem with cheese, you brought it up. Why are you so fixated on cheese, anyway?"

If you oppose Obama, credit to you if you are opposing him strictly on his policies and character. Because I know that there are plenty of you out there. But there's not as many of you as you might think.

Seen this video? Obama has digs at Trump and the birthers at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama got jokes.

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Pennywort (Centella asiatica)

You may have come across this edible herb at your nursery. A creeping groundcover, it grows prolifically in my garden. Native to Southern Asia from Iran all the way out to Melanesia and Northern Australia, pennywort can grow anywhere where it gets sufficient water, particularly in ditches. It's also known as gotukolle or gota kola (its Sri Lankan name).

It is promoted primarily as a medicinal herb, for its alleged healing properties, which are impressive. It is considered to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities, and is used to treat conditions such as leprosy, hypertension, cancer and diabetes. Eating 2 leaves a day is said to markedly reduce the symptoms of arthritis, and it even is thought to be beneficial to brain functions such as memory and concentration.

I can't comment on how much of that is true, but there is surely something to it. And given how easily it grows, it makes sense to grow some. But here's the rub - it doesn't taste all that great. It's not horrible, but it is somewhat bitter and astringent, and not something you'd naturally wish to munch on.

Yet cook it in the right way and it can be delicious. The key is to balance its bitter taste with salty, sour and/or sweet flavour components. Numerous South and Southeast Asian cuisines make use of pennywort in such ways. Here are a few.

The Sinhalese cuisine of Sri Lanka makes great use of pennywort, in a vegetable preparation called mallung or mallum. There's a recipe for it here, which comes from Charmaine Solomon's classic The Complete Asian Cookbook. You can use any green leafy vegetable for mallung, or a combination of them, but pennywort is a common choice. It's simple and delicious as an accompaniment to rice and curry.

In Vietnam, where it is known as rau ma, pennywort is blended into a drink with water and sugar. You may have seen this green liquid in Vietnamese cafes and grocers. It has a taste which is slightly odd but not unpleasant.

The Kachin people of Burma make an unusual salad from pennywort which I came across on SBS's My Family Feast program. They combine the leaves with sliced tomatoes and red onions, coriander leaves and chilies, while the dressing comes from a combination of lime juice and salty fermented bean paste (easily found in Asian groceries). You can get a recipe and watch it being made here.

The way I most often eat pennywort is in a salad that comes from the Indonesian province of Aceh. It is called sambai on peuga-ga in Acehnese. I've adapted it from this recipe (written in Indonesian) via the Indonesia Eats blog. The leaf is little used in the rest of Indonesia - where it is known as pegagan - except in herbal concoctions. My recipe is a bit rough with measurements, so use your own taste as a guide.

- 1/3 cup grated coconut (fresh is best)
- a bunch of pennywort, finely chopped
- several lime leaves, finely sliced
- 1/2 stalk finely chopped lemongrass
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- juice from 1 lime
- 1 or 2 fresh chilies, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup roasted or fried peanuts, chopped
- a few fried shallots to garnish
- salt to taste
If the coconut is dried, moisten it slightly with a little warm water. Add to all the other ingredients and mix. Serve as an accompaniment to rice and main dishes.

NOTE: There is other plants often known as pennywort (genus Hydrocotyle), which look similar and some of which are edible, but I don't think they have any of the health-giving properties of Centella asiatica. Hydrocotyle leaves tend to be round, while Centella asiatica's are kidney-shaped.