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The U.S. President recently visited Australia and was greeted with gushing adulation from almost every part of our society. This came not just from the people one expects it from, like our lapdog politicians or lazy media, but also from ordinary people, even those who are generally quite politically aware. I was particularly disappointed by Senator Bob Brown, who rightly heckled George Bush in 2003, but who shook Barack Obama’s hand and gushed about it on Twitter later. Australians apparently don’t pay enough attention to foreign politics to realise that it isn’t November 2008 anymore, and rather than being the reincarnation of Martin Luther King, the anti-Bush, the answer to the evil of the last decade, Obama has instead turned out to be a disgrace to his office and a traitor to his country – for all the same reasons Bush was.

A quick recap of why Obama is a terrible President and a bad person:

1. Failure to prosecute Bush Administration officials for what were clearly war crimes. (The usual cop-out argument appears to be “it would tear the country apart/it was a time of war and bad decisions were made/it’s an outrageous Radical Left-Wing idea. Apparently the President is above the law. I see why America went to the trouble of deposing the monarchy.)

2. Engaging in his own war crimes, such as kidnapping people and throwing them into prison for years on end without trial. (Astute readers will note that this is a continued Mao Stalin Bush policy.)

3. Slaughtering Pakistani civilians by the bucketload with flying robots, which will breed a new generation of terrorists more efficiently than anything else I can think of. (This was a policy that began under Bush and was honed and cultivated to successful new levels under Obama.)

4. Assassinating anybody, anywhere in the world, at any time, with no independent judicial oversight, including American citizens. And their children. (Even Bush never dared do this.)

5. An unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers who expose government waste, wrongdoing or criminal acts.

6. Total subserviance to the reckless plutocrats who obliterated the U.S. economy and ruined millions of lives.

I was genuinely excited in November 2008, when Obama was elected President. I have long since accepted his betrayal, and come to the realisation that no matter who sits in the White House, the U.S. government will always be the U.S. government. What I now have to accept is that intelligent, progressive, left-wing politicians like Bob Brown are either too ignorant to realise or to shallow to care that Obama is just as much of a murderer, bully and tyrant as George Bush.

I love Wikileaks. I love everything about it, not just the delicious caches of secret information it releases; I love the fascinating international man of mystery who controls it, I love the way it regularly sends the U.S. government into an explosive panic, and I love the way it represents the digital age being used for freedom of speech and the press, exposing all of our governments’ shameful secrets. Some of the best revelations from the cable leaks:

When Afghanistan’s vice president visited the United Arab Emirates last year, local authorities working with the Drug Enforcement Administration discovered that he was carrying $52 million in cash. With wry understatement, a cable from the American Embassy in Kabul called the money “a significant amount” that the official, Ahmed Zia Massoud, “was ultimately allowed to keep without revealing the money’s origin or destination.”

Aside from the implications of that (i.e. that the government we have established in Afghanistan is hopelessly corrupt), how does one actually carry $52 million in cash? $2 million alone fills up a briefcase, doesn’t it?

Counselor of the Department of State Eliot Cohen and CSIS Director Jim Judd in Ottawa on July 2 discussed threats posed by violent Islamist groups in Canada, and recent developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (CSIS is Canada’s lead agency for national security intelligence.) Director Judd ascribed an “Alice in Wonderland” worldview to Canadians and their courts, whose judges have tied CSIS “in knots,” making it ever more difficult to detect and prevent terror attacks in Canada and abroad.

Urggh, God, how dare the courts try to maintain the rule of law?

In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.

This is a huge deal. The question of whether China’s desire to maintain a buffer state between itself and a country with a permanent US troop presence would translate into actual combat support in the event of a war has now been answered, with a resounding no. North Korea now has zero chance of winning a war against the South. That still makes a war undesirable for all concerned (except Northern citizens languishing under a barbaric regime), but now that Southerners are aware of this, it could make a huge difference in the level of public support if push ever comes to shove.

4. (C//NF) Grinda stated that he considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual “mafia states” and said that Ukraine is going to be one. For each of those countries, he alleged, one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC groups.

//Identifying The Scope of The Threat the Russian Mafia Poses//

5. (C) Grinda suggested that there are two reasons to worry about the Russian mafia. First, it exercises “tremendous control” over certain strategic sectors of the global economy, such as aluminum. He made a passing remark that the USG has a strategic problem in that the Russian mafia is suspected of having a sizable investment in XXXXXXXXXXXX 6. (S//NF) The second reason is the unanswered question regarding the extent to which Russian PM Putin is implicated in the Russian mafia and whether he controls the mafia’s actions. Grinda cited a “thesis” by Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence official who worked on OC issues before he died in late 2006 in London from poisoning under mysterious circumstances, that the Russian intelligence and security services – Grinda cited the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and military intelligence (GRU) – control OC in Russia. Grinda stated that he believes this thesis is accurate.

An intriguing alliance: American diplomats in Rome reported in 2009 on what their Italian contacts described as an extraordinarily close relationship between Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and business magnate, including “lavish gifts,” lucrative energy contracts and a “shadowy” Russian-speaking Italian go-between. They wrote that Mr. Berlusconi “appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin” in Europe.

You know how you watch those old movies set in medieval times, like, say, Robin Hood or Braveheart or whatever, where the upper class lives in insane luxury and malevolently rules over the populace with unrestrained power? That’s basically still how the modern world works.

Speaking of the monarchy:

9. (C) Addressing the Ambassador directly, Prince Andrew then turned to regional politics. He stated baldly that “the United Kingdom, Western Europe (and by extension you Americans too”) were now back in the thick of playing the Great Game. More animated than ever, he stated cockily: “And this time we aim to win!” Without contradicting him, the Ambassador gently reminded him that the United States does not see its presence in the region as a continuation of the Great Game.

This entire cable is worth reading, written as it is by a wearily cynical American diplomat. A privileged jackass runs his mouth while surrounded by people who are better educated and more hard-working than he is, but they smile and nod throughout because he’s part of the royal family. Ah, the delights of monarchy!

On a final note, while many of the leaks themselves are highly entertaining, none can live up to the reaction of the U.S. government, which has again accused Wikileaks of “[putting] people’s lives in danger.” You can see a list of the people who have died as a result of Wikileaks’ various disclosures here; meanwhile, you can see a list of the people who have died as a result of the U.S. government’s actions here.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (2003) 688 p.

A People’s History of the United States is a revisionist history text that attempts to document U.S. history as it appeared from the eyes of “the people” – the poor, the black, the American Indian, and the female; in other words, all the people who until recently had no say in how the United States was governed. It attacks the elementary-level view of American history as one full of heroes fighting for liberty, and instead paints a particularly bleak picture of oppression and control. This is a book that reminds us that Christopher Columbus personally engaged in genocide, that Lincoln did not particularly care about freeing slaves, and that the Founding Fathers created a government of, for and by rich white slaveowners.

The ultimate impression the book leaves one with is that the United States is controlled by a slim percentage of extremely rich people, that domestic and foreign policy is entirely revolved around protecting “the national interest” (i.e. corporate interest), that the government, judiciary and media all work diligently to maintain this status quo, and that this state of affairs dates all the way back to the Revolution. Most people already know this, but to see it so thoroughly and articulately documented and summarised is quite shocking.

The book is, obviously, quite biased. Zinn openly admits this, and declares that he is “not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the opposite direction – so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements – that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”

I’m not sure to what level I agree with that; I certainly thought he was stretching it at some points in the book, such as his portrayal of Native American society as a perfect harmonious utopia, or his steadfast opposition to all wars, even World War II and Korea. I do not subscribe to the belief that when arguing a point you should misrepresent, or entirely omit, the viewpoint of your opponent. If you are in the right, their arguments will ultimately be defeated; if not, perhaps you should rethink your opinion.

When describing the SS Mayaguez incident, for example, Zinn makes passing reference to “a revolutionary regime” that had recently seized power in Cambodia. That regime was, of course, the Khmer Rouge, one of the 20th century’s most incomprehensibly evil governments. Perhaps the Mayaguez incident really was all about propaganda – and Zinn makes a compelling case for that – so why avoid mentioning the Khmer Rouge? Because Zinn knows the connections a well-educated reader will draw? Because it brings up the fact that regadless of motive, rescuing the captured crew was the correct course of action? Zinn details how the crew were well-treated by their captors, as though that made it okay, despite previously discussing how the relatively happy lives of many American slaves did not make their slavery one jot less cruel.

This is just one example of many small incidents throughout the book where I found myself disapproving of Zinn’s technique. I hesitate to draw comparison to Michael Moore, because Moore is much less elegant and refined and serious than Zinn, but he’s the only comparable figure I can think of: somebody presenting a one-sided argument that might even be called propaganda, and which should not be tolerated simply because it’s propaganda for what is good and right and just.

Of couse Zinn, as mentioned above, openly acknowledges his bias and the motive behind it, and I would greatly prefer for people to read something that admits its bias rather than falsely claiming objectivity. The other important factor is, of course, that I am not the intended target for this book. A People’s History of the United States was written by an American, for Americans, in an effort to undermine the false assumptions and accepted wisdom prevalent in American culture, and particularly in American schools. As an Australian, I come from a culture where the United States is generally regarded quite poorly. Yet I could still draw parallels; although Australia is a far more egalitarian society, with a political system less corrupted by lobbyists and business interests, we too have classes, and politicans here also exploit our fears of foreigners as a convenient boogeyman. Here, too, the lower and middle classes are often bizarrely opposed to trade unions. Huge swathes of A People’s History of the United States, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, revolve around the labor movement: the strikes, the protests, the sit-ins and the struggles. Although I also found these sections to be the most tedious, it was quite eye-opening to see a vision of the United States during a time when the poor were not held in Stockholm Syndrome with the rich.

Clearly I’m not the best person to judge the value of this book. I certainly don’t think it’s a book you should read uncritically, nor without reading other books on American history. But it certainly has a valuable place in American political and historical discourse, and the purpose Zinn wrote it for is a noble one. Apparently he copped a lot of flak because the outlook of the book was so depressing, but I actually found his personal opinion to be quite positive, particularly in chapters towards the end where he describes his vision of the future, where the military-industrial complex has been overthrown and the American government concerns itself with all of its people, not just the wealthiest. This is not a belief I share; I look at Americans protesting Obama, a man no different from any of his predecessors except in the colour of his skin, chanting about how he is a socialist and a Marxist and a communist. I look at them and I wonder how they can possibly be so oblivious, how they can possibly not realise that all their beliefs and values have been shaped by think-tanks and politicians with the delibarate intent of keeping theem in check; no different, except in volume, from working class Australians who vote for the Liberal Party because they’re frightened of boat people. I could wish that every American would read A People’s History of the United States, but a good chunk of them would throw it aside as “communist rubbish,” and another good chunk would lap up every thing Zinn says without thinking laterally, and would then go spraypaint a local council chamber while listening to Muse. I think what I’m saying is that most people are idiots and deserve what they get from the government.

Um, I mean, it was a bit boring sometimes but a really thought-provoking book. Recommended.

1. The military’s decision to immediately “light ’em up” when the men in question are anything but hostile. (Just because the ROE mean you can engage doesn’t mean you should engage).

2. The Apache gunman hoping that the mortally wounded man crawling along the road in agonising pain will reach for a weapon, so he can open fire again.

3. The military’s decision to open fire upon a van the pulls up and tries to medevac the wounded men.

4. The Apache crew’s hoo-rah fuck ’em up exaltation of their own cowardly actions, even after discovering there were children in the van.

5. The U.S. military’s decision, upon realising they had fucked up royal, to forego launching a clear and open investigation in favour of covering it all up.

6. The harassment of Wikileaks by U.S. intelligence agencies in the lead-up to the release of the video, including the detention and interrogation of a teenage project volunteer.

7. The apathetic attitude towards this video displayed by most major media organisations, who would prefer to devote headlines to Tiger Woods’ return to golf.

So, as you can see, this video is abhorrent on almost every imaginable level. Props to the Marines on the ground who hustled the wounded kids to safety, however – a timely reminder that not every member of the American war apparatus is a dehumanised killing machine like our friends hovering safely in the Apache. Wikileaks editing was also quite biased; the facts speak for themselves, and the pre-video montage of the deceased journalists was unnecessary, as was sticking the word “eventually” into the sentence describing the Marines evacuating the wounded children; their tone of voice is quite urgent, and they run across the road while holding the kids in their arms, so it’s anything but “eventual.”

On the whole, though, this video neatly encapsulates everything wrong with the American political and military status quo. Removing soldiers from the consequences of their actions by having them peer through lens a thousand metres away as though it’s a video game? Check. Covering up your transgressions rather than coming clean about them and working to ensure they don’t happen again? Check. Waging an illegal and unjust war that leads you into murky ROE territory? Check. Assuming that terrorists attack the US simply because they hate freedom, and that there are a finite number of them that can be killed, and that incidents like this don’t serve to create even more terrorists? Check!

I’ve learned some valuable lessons reading the news in the last few days. If you are a Muslim and you use violence for ideological purposes, you are a TERRORIST. If you are a white Texan with an Anglo-Saxon name, and you use the exact same kind of violence for ideological purposes, you are not. This is good to know!

American Journeys by Don Watson (2008) 326 p.

America holds a fascinating sway for Australians – for foreigners in general, certainly, but more so for an English-speaking nation with little history and a feeble culture. I grew up watching the Simpsons, eating at McDonalds, reading Calvin and Hobbes, going to see Hollywood blockbusters and playing Grand Theft Auto. For me, names like “California” and “New York” are on par with “Narnia” and “Oz,” equally fantastic and unreachable.

And yet there is a vehement anti-American streak running through Australian society; perhaps a kneejerk reaction against our children being bred as quasi-Americans, or a way to compensate for our own inferiority complex, or simply the fact that most of the world, by and large, dislikes America. This creates a paradox, one which Australian journalist Don Watson tasked himself with exploring:

On The United States of America my senses swing like a door with no latch. They are moved by fierce gusts and imperceptible zephyrs. Love and loathing come and go in about the same proportion. But then, one rages about one’s own siblings from time to time, and one’s own country: it is not rational, in the main. Yet there had been a time when anti-Americanism took on a gleam of reason. As earnest student radicals in the late 1960s, we saw the thread that joined the vicious white mobs of the South to the very foundations of the republic – because we learned that such founders of American democracy as Washington and Jefferson took slaves. We learned what we took to be the real truth about the Indian Wars, the Mexican Wars and the Monroe Doctrine, and it persuaded us that Vietnam was part of a pattern which, when you looked at it hard, revealed IMPERIALISM.

But just as we were thinking it was in the “nature’ of America to be brutal, racist and imperialistic, a paradox appeared. The Freedom Marchers had been American. Martin Luther King was American. Sidney Perelmen was American. Mark Twain was American. Portnoy was American. Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, William Appleman Williams, Herbert Marcuse and Robert Crumb were all American. Our jeans were American. The most articulate critics of America – the most articulate people on earth, and the most liberal – were American. The America of my most avid anti-American phase was the America of my first rational adult heroes. The paradox, greatly modified though it is, animates me still.

America itself is a paradox. It is a country responsible for the lion’s share of the great technological and scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, yet a country where evolution is widely disbelieved and the vast majority of the population is religious. It is a country that, in spite of its Christian values, executes convicts by the truckload and craves a war every twenty years or so. It is a country full of people who call for “smaller government” while supporting the erosion of civil liberties. None of this is this a new phenomenon; the phrase “all men are born equal” was coined by slaveowners.

It is on this paradox that Watson bases his book, part travelogue and part social commentary. His journey took place in 2005 and 2006, beginning in Katrina-devastated New Orleans and spanning a very respectable chunk of the country, crossing back and forth almost as much as Jack Kerouac in On The Road. There are several recurring themes – race relations, the plight of America’s underclass, the pervasive influence of Christianity, the political polarity. Watson is a fine writer and an intelligent scholar, and while American Journeys can be tedious at times, one is never short of food for thought.

For a book supposedly about the Great American Paradox, however – which would mean both the good and the bad – American Journeys paints a very bleak picture. Black Americans continue to occupy a low socio-economic rung. The prison-industrial complex leaves penitentiaries overflowing with inmates. Violence seems ingrained in the history and the culture. There is no universal healthcare, the state values the rights of employers over employees, and the minimum wage is appallingly low – many people live day-to-day, dollar-to-dollar, teetering above the poverty line. The political sphere is rife with slander, pettiness, and unebelievable ignorance.

Watson mentions only two arguments in favour of America. The first (and minor) one is the kindness and friendliness of its individual citizens, which I’ll come back to in a moment. The second – a major theme which he bases his entire conclusion around – is American freedom.

Freedom is such an old chestnut of American rhetoric that it does not impress outsiders as perhaps it should. The more the president speaks of it, the less meaning it registers… And yet, when one travels in America, the chestnut sheds at least some of its shell. You come to see that, to Americans, freedom means something that we incurable collectivists do not quite understand; and that they know freedom in ways that we do not. Freedom is the country’s sacred state. Freedom is what must be protected. All over, they will tell you what is wrong with America, but freedom is the one thing they think right. And whatever the insults to my social democratic senses, that is what I find irresistable about the place – the almost guilty, adolescent feeling that in this place a person can do what he wants. He can grow absurdly rich; he can hunt a mountain lion; he can harbour the most fantastic ideas; he can shoot someone. He can commune with God and nature, buy anything he wants, pay anyone for any service and at any fee. He can be a social outcast or even a prisoner and yet, being American, believe that he is free.

If I am American, I am as free as a person can be. If I am free, I can do – or dream of doing – all the things it is in my nature to do or to dream; no other place on Earth need interest me. So long as I am guaranteed this freedom, I will forgive the things my country does that are not in my nature or my dreams. I will be “spared all the care of thinking about them.” This is, of course, unless my country or some other place threatens freedom.

This comes completely out of the left field in the afterword, as though Watson suddenly realised he’d written a comprehensive tome detailing every one of America’s flaws and felt compelled to balance it out somehow. It feels quite hollow when he has been told numerous times throughout the book, by taxi drivers and barmen and retirees and countless others, that America is a unique stronghold of freedom – and which he counters every time with the plain and simple fact that dozens of other countries are equally free. More free, perhaps, given the current American penchant for trading in civil liberties for security.

The lasting impression I got from the book (one which I mostly already held) was that America is, among Western countries, an extremely dysfunctional nation. A fascinating place, yes, when held at arm’s length and viewed through the lens of movies and video games, and a place which I already have plans to visit. But not a place where I would like to permanently live, or raise a family. Not a healthy society.

I probably shouldn’t cast judgement on a country I’ve never been to, only experienced (a lot, mind you) through popular culture. But I’ll do it anyway. I think that, under my personal definition of “great,” America is far from being the greatest nation on earth. I think it is nonetheless the most interesting nation on Earth, by a long shot. I think it’s important to separate people from their governments; I’ve met many Americans in my time, and found, as Watson did, that they’re quite friendly and likeable. I have nothing but disdain for Australians (invariably, Australians who’ve never actually met an American) who accuse American citizens of being arrogant and rude and stupid – without a shred of self-awareness. It’s one thing to criticise the sweeping history of the American nation/government’s brutality; quite another thing to generalise 300 million people.

I think that while America has many flaws, there are plenty of great things about it… but that none of those great things are absent in the other nations of the Western world.

I think that while these other Western nations may not seem to have as many severe flaws as America does, that may just be because we are smaller and quieter and less populous. I think that Australia or Europe or Canada would be equally liable to sabre-rattling and imperialism, were any one of us the most powerful nation in the world.

I think that, while my beliefs about America may be naive or uninformed, at leas I’m fucking consistent and lucid with them, unlike Don Watson.

American Journeys makes a lot of interesting arguments about aspects of America, but ultimately fails to make any kind of cohesive statement on the country as a whole, other than the bizarrely uncharacteristic afterword that suggests Watson felt a book about America would be incomplete without a big stirring speech about trademarked American Freedom – a myth he has previously debunked. (A myth that is self-evidently debunked, for that matter.)

That’s okay, I suppose. America has been the defining cultural, political and economic juggernaut all over the world for nearly a century, and will remain so in the English-speaking world for a long time to come. You can’t wrap your head around it by taking a few train rides and writing a book, let alone by reading that book from your distant home in suburban Australia. I doubt I’ll ever understand a place as powerful, dynamic, intense and loud as America, but if my life goes to plan I’ll be arriving there sometime next year, and I’ll see things for myself.

When the Republican Party harps on and on and on about how the United States needs to “cut government spending,” they are of course referring to the government spending money on stupid, useless things like education and health. Money spent on anything related to the military is money well spent, as seen last week when Boston Dynamics was awarded a $32 million contract to develop a prototype robotic pack mule:

Within the next three years, the U.S. military will test the feasibility of sending a quadruped robot out into the field as a trusty pack mule to carry supplies for its troops, wherever they go… The military already uses unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance or to attack enemy targets, and DARPA has sponsored several contests in recent years to determine the feasibility of developing autonomic ground transportation. Automation has been much more difficult to introduce to the infantry, however, because of the need to traverse rough terrain where robots operating on wheels or tracks cannot go.

Maybe you could, I don’t know, use actual mules? Crazy!

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) 285 p.

It’s always nice to read a classic, revered work of literature and find that you agree with the consensus. To Kill A Mockingbird is a fantastic piece of writing, and its message is nearly as important today as it was when written.

I knew the book followed a white lawyer representing a black man in a racist Southern town; what I didn’t know was that it’s narrated by the lawyer’s young daughter. Scout Finch is as naive as you’d expect a six or seven year-old girl to be, but she’s intelligent. She asks questions that challenge the 1930’s status quo, making people re-examine their fundamental beliefs in the way that only a child’s honest question can. Her father Atticus Finch – who is clearly, even from the very opening pages, a Great Man – does his best to raise her and her brother Jem in the absence of their mother, to conduct himself well as a father, a person and a lawyer, and to teach her about the world as best he can.

The novel could have been quite depressing. It’s about a black man accused of rape on circumstantial evidence, an innocent man who suffers greatly because of the prejudices and stupidity of the white community. Yet there’s a warmth to the book, a great sense of kindness, a call to be fair and courageous and a good human being. Atticus Finch may have gained fame for his personification of Justice, for his selfless defence of an innocent black man, but I found his most beautiful and touching character trait to be his determination to instill these values in his children.

Lee tells her story simply. There’s no great visual language or metaphor or particular skill with prose. This creates an appropriate comfortable sense to the book, as though it’s being related by the fireplace in that homely Southern house. And behind the seemingly simple words are an ocean’s worth of symbolism and thematic depth. This is not just a book about racism; it’s about prejudice in general, about how ignorant and bigoted humans can be, and for that it has a timeless resonance. I read A Passage To India last year, about an Indian man unjustly accused of raping a British woman in the 1920’s, and I didn’t review it – partly because I read a lot of books while camping and didn’t want to face a stack of reviews upon return, and partly because I wasn’t sure how to approach it. It’s a great novel, but it rests largely upon its social commentary about the disparity of the British and the Indians, a disparity that history resolved more than sixty years ago.

Has America’s racial problem been solved since 1960? Many people said, following Obama’s election, that the US had moved “beyond race.” The outpouring of xenophobia and hatred towards Obama (slotting in neatly with American Islamophobia, despite the fact that he’s not Muslim) promptly exposed that as wishful thinking. Things may be better than in 1960, but the US is a long way from perfect racial harmony.

Even if it were, To Kill A Mockingbird would still be an important book, not just for historical reasons but because of prejudice and ignorance in general. I noted that several times throughout the book, Atticus tells Scout that you should never judge somebody until you’ve walked in their shoes or put yourself in their skin – you may not agree with them, or like what they’re doing, but it’s vital to try to understand their motives. Even if America was a racial paradise, I’m sure the government would still be peddling the notion that Islamic terrorists attack the US simply because “they hate us.”

Courage, compassion, respect, honour, dignity, honesty, integrity and love in less than 300 pages. What a great book.

To Kill A Mockingbird at The Book Depository

American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001) 629 p.

I’ve followed Neil Gaiman’s blog for a long time, finding it interesting to peer into the life of a fairly well-known author, despite the fact that until now I’d never read anything of his except for a handful of Sandman comics (illegally downloaded, no less). I bought American Gods sometime last year, but it kept getting pushed further down my to-be-read pile for various reasons.

And the problem with having a book staring down at you from the shelf for so long is that you develop certain expectations, which are invariably wrong. American Gods wasn’t precisely the kind of book I thought it would be, nor was it quite as good as I thought it would be. I thought it would be a little more… epic, but instead it had quite a casual feel to it, like a run-of-the-mill Stephen King novel from the 90’s.

A few days before his three-year prison sentence is up, Shadow’s wife is killed in a car accident, and he is released early. On the plane on the way home he meets the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job. It soon becomes clear that Wednesday is an old and ancient god, trying to assemble the many other ancient gods, the immigrant gods, against the homegrown American deities representing television, the internet, the media, drugs, cars, shady government agents and every other element of modern American mythology. A battle is coming, and Wednesday wants to win.

The fundamental idea is that gods run on belief – that they need us, not the other way around. If people stop believing in them, they’ll grow weak and eventually cease to exist. It’s a common theme in Terry Pratchett’s work, an author Gaiman has worked with closely in the past, but I don’t know which (if either) of them came up with it. It’s also clearly about immigration – that America is a land of immigrants, from the Muslims and Asians of the 20th century, back through the Eastern Europeans in the 19th, and the African slaves in the 18th, right down to the prehistoric nomads who crossed the Bering Strait, all of them bringing their gods with them. America is a melting pot, and thus we have Norse gods mixing with Hindu gods, Anansi hanging out with Czernobog, Eostre working with Horus.

On the flipside of the coin we have the idea of modern America as a legendary, fantastic place. Neil Gaiman is British, not American, and as such he grew up in a world bombarded with American media and culture, and his ideas about America being a wholly unreal, mythical place struck a chord with my own. There’s a certain power to names like “California” and “Las Vegas” and “New York.” To a foreigner like myself, they’re powerful icons, symbols of something huge and vast and powerful. And that, too, is what American Gods is about: symbols and metaphors and imagery. Because that’s all that religion is, as Shadow says at one point, and if the book wasn’t more than 600 pages long I’d flip through it trying to find the verbatim quote. But this idea felt under-developed; Shadow spends most of the book around Minnesota and Illinois and Wisconsin, that blurry part of the Midwest that is actually the least legendary part of America, the most unknown, the most humdrum and ordinary.

Or maybe that’s just my unfair expectations again.

This is a pretty rambling review; it’s two in the morning and I’m out of practice. Is it a good book? Yes, it is, although not a great book, and I expected it to be. It wasn’t as good as it could have been, given the very interesting ideas it was forged on, but the majority of it was entertaining, albeit it slowly-paced, and the conclusion was wholly unexpected and very satisfying. I also feel like there were a lot of things that weren’t hidden away, not quite obvious, as one would expect from a book about symbols and allegories; my opinion may very well improve after another read. But it’s a thick book, and that to-be-read pile is awfully tall…

I wasn’t going to write up anything about the election. Jovial scamp that I am, I figured my highlarious Zoolander gif would be appropriate enough. But then I thought that maybe I might regret that sixty years from now. So here I am, writing my thoughts down at three in the morning, taking a break from completing my penultimate university assignment.

It’s a “what were you doing when” moment, only the second one in my lifetime so far. We all know what the first one was. I was twelve years old and already in bed when it happened at GMT +8. Missed that one.

So what was I doing when the United States elected its first black president? Well, I was was on the Internet. I was watching the CNN feed on ABC, browsing political websites, checking FiveThirtyEight.com and the BBC and Yahoo’s electoral map. I was posting on the Progressive Boink forums, making timeless observations such as:

CNN just boldly called Texas for John McCain!

CNN’s Phoenix correspondent has a weirdly shaped face.

ladies and gentlemen: will.i.am as a hologram.
cnn, you have outdone yourself in the fields of professionalism and dignity

And then I watched John McCain’s concession speech and I liked it. It was dignified, and gracious, and every time his asshole redneck supporters booed about Obama he was clearly displeased and told them, in polite terms, to shut up.

And I figured that if I was impressed by McCain’s speech I would be blown away by Obama’s. Naturally, the phone rang pretty much as soon as he opened his mouth. I didn’t budge from the couch. After about a minute it gave up, and then my mobile started chirping: “Chris Mobile.”

MITCH: What?
CHRIS: Answer your fucking phone!
MITCH: What the hell do you want? Obama is giving his acceptance speech!
CHRIS: Oh. What channel?
MITCH: Seven.
CHRIS: Bye.

For the first few moments, as the first black president stood there waving with his family, I had a horrible, overwhelming feeling that I was about to see him get shot in the head. Right there with his daughters, transmitted live to millions of people across the globe, glorious victory transformed to horrific tragedy in a split second. I held my breath.

It didn’t happen. And, after a while, that feeling went away.

He’s gonna be okay.

I went and bought the paper today, so I can keep it and show my kids.

It feels weird. For so long it has been the status quo to hate the U.S. government, to consider them corrupt monsters. Armchair generals who start wars, who wreak bloodshed across the Middle East, who spy on their own people, who kidnap and torture citizens of other countries. Rich men, born with silver spoons in their mouths, concerned only with their fellows in the upper tax bracket, manipulating the public, encouraging the politics of stupidity and fear and divisiveness. The worst kind of human beings.

For good presidents, for men whom we can trust and admire and respect, we have been forced to look to fiction. To characters like David Palmer and Josiah Bartlet. I watched them on the screen and I sighed and I thought, “If only.” I didn’t believe a good president was possible.

It is very, very difficult to imagine a benevolent White House. And that’s the most amazing thing about this election, at this point in time, for me personally. It has nothing to do with the fact that Barack Obama is black, though from an objective standpoint that’s clearly the biggest deal. It has everything to do with the fact that I can’t remember what it’s like to respect the President. I can’t remember what it’s like to have an intelligent man, a compassionate man, a well-educated man as the world’s leader. I can’t remember what it’s like to not roll my eyes at the President, at his idiotic cowboy demeanour, at his inability to grasp the fundamentals of the English language, at his representation of everything that is wrong with America.

Barack Obama represents everything that is right with America.

And I’m looking forward to regaining my respect not just for the man and the office, but for the nation itself.

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