Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Aviva Chomsky: "Nos Quitan Nuestros Trabajos!"

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The fact that I read this book proves that I am very smart, or proves that I am very dumb. I really wanted to read Aviva Chomsky's book "Nos Quitan Nuestros Trabajos," and I had it in my mind that this was the title of the English book. So I finally found it at the library, and requested it. It was not until I was walking home from the library reading the book that I realized that I had, in fact, ordered a book in Spanish. It's been almost two decades since I've read a book in Spanish, but I REALLY wanted to read this book, and the library didn't have it in English. So it took me almost three weeks to read a 170-page book

If you don't read Spanish, the title of the book is "They Take Our Jobs! and 20 Other Myths about Immigration." The book is broken into these 21 myths, though the trajectory of the book reads clearly, and it would be hard to just pick out a myth as a soundbite to help convince your anti-immigration friends. (Do you have those friends?) Chomsky covers all the common arguments you've heard, (immigrants take American jobs, immigrants compete with low-skilled workers
and drive down wages, immigrants don’t pay taxes, the rules apply to everyone, so new immigrants need to follow them just as immigrants in the past did, today’s immigrants are not learning English, and bilingual education just adds to the problem, immigrants only come here because they want to enjoy our higher standard of living) some arguments that aren't spoken aloud, but are very much part of the national debate, (the United States is a melting pot that has always welcomed immigrants from all over the world, since we are all the descendants of immigrants here, we all start on equal footing, today’s immigrants threaten the national culture because they are not assimilating) and dispels some common misconceptions (the United States has a generous refugee policy, the United States is a melting pot that has always welcomed immigrants from all over the world.) She also uses the myth framework to discuss conceptual issues bigger issues- my favorite part- like citizenship and immigration itself in chapters like "Immigration is a problem," and "Countries need to control who goes in and out." (Note: I did not translate these chapter titles. I can read in Spanish but it seems ridiculous to try to translate a book originally written in English, translated to Spanish, back to English again. I took them from the publisher's website.)

According to Article 6 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law." Chomsky uses this framework to flesh out an idea of US citizenship: if framers of the Constitution really meant white men, and gradually more and more segments of the population have gained rights, what does it really mean to be a "citizen"  in the US and what does it mean that the US does not follow the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that came out of the end of WWII? It's easy to say cynically that the US unilaterally follows whatever international laws the country feels apply, but there's a much deeper conversation to be had here, that Chomsky traces back to the beginning of the country, slavery, and all immigration since the first colonists. Not only does the US violate international treaties, restrictions on immigration and naturalization are ways around the 14th Amendment, she argues, which guarantees equal rights to everyone. Because the amendment doesn't specify who "all persons" are, or who can be naturalized, the government can and does take a narrow view of citizenship probably intended by the drafters of the amendment: a letter of the law interpretation.

Chomsky takes a fascinating look at the intersection of race and national origin/ethnicity: in most countries, she explains, these are related very closely. In the United States, however, assimilation is all about becoming white and English-speaking: an impossible task for all but those who have white skin. Whenever laws come close to giving rights of citizenship to non-whites, they must be changed to further exclude: Chomsky gives the example of an 1857 Supreme Court case that stated that descendants of Africans couldn't be citizens, therefore denying free blacks citizenship. Though Chomsky's book was written in 2007, one might also look to the current attempts at limiting the right to vote through Voter ID laws. Arguments against immigration and naturalization, are bolstered of course, by racists arguments that immigrants can't or don't assimilate. 

Myth 17, "Immigration is a problem," is a good one. Chomsky agrees: it certainly is a problem, but not like we think of it. It's a humanitarian problem, and the government has made it a worse problem. Immigration needs to be rethought, with an entirely different framework, including a new, more equitable global market and conceptualization of citizenship.  There's a lot going on in this book, and I can only recommend reading it in terms of the concepts and facts Chomsky introduces- I have no idea if it reads well, since I read it in my second language. It should be a short, fast read, though, and worth a shot.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home

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Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" is only the second graphic novel that I've ever read, after "Vietnamerica," and I wouldn't have picked it up if I hadn't read the recent New Yorker article on Bechdel. Like "Vietnamerica," the book is not actually a novel at all, but a memoir, or as the back of the book reads, a "graphic narrative." Tran's story, while a personal one, was also the story of a nation and a people, while Bechdel's is a much more personal story of her childhood and her relationship with her father. Also, Tran's book was as much (or more) about the art as about the story, and I found myself lost in the pictures, and in the act of reading the book. I felt that reading the book was itself part of the pleasure (or non-pleasure- I was confused most of the time.) Bechdel, on the other hand, has a history as a cartoonist, and while her drawings are lovely, they are simple and clear, allowing the reader to follow the words of her story. The words are amplified by the pictures: they work together, rather than being a both/and like "Vietnamerica," "Fun Home" is a whole, like a cartoon. You just look at the frame and understand.

Bechdel is a lesbian, and her father is a troubled man of questionable sexual orientation who may or may not have thrown himself in front of a bus.  "Fun Home" (a nickname for the funeral home run by the family) is a poignant coming of age story that manages to hit home in an entirely dry way. Bechdel doesn't mince words, or spare us any feelings. It's a nice read, until the very end when she lost me entirely. Call me poorly read, but I've never read the Odyssey or Ulysses, and you need to understand both of these books to understand the end of "Fun Home." She walks us through the basic metaphors, but it's not enough. I've read some of the other books she alludes to, but they're side-notes, and Joyce and Homer are not mainstays of my oeuvre. I wanted very much to follow this story to the end, but Bechdel's resolution (at least I think she was resolving something) was lost on me. Unfortunate for an otherwise decent and accessible book.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lynn Powell: Framing Innocence

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In 1999 Cynthia Stewart was prosecuted for taking pictures of her eight year old daughter rinsing off in the shower. Stewart lived in Oberlin, Ohio, the liberal college town, and was a well known and liked, if slightly eccentric, bus-driver, appreciated for her slightly obsessive habit of taking snapshots of everything. Families all over town had Stewart's photos of their kids on their refrigerators, and knew she was into documenting everything. She was an oddball, but pretty much so was everyone in Oberlin, and no one had any particular qualms about Stewart's particular brand of eccentricity. Except the clerk at the photolab who developed the pictures of Stewart's daughter naked in the shower that day. Photolab operators are trained to raise the flag on potentially abusive photos, and they did in this case, and the photos found their way to a hardnosed police officer, and then to a hard core Republican prosecutor, and the case took on a life of its own. The case snowballed to criminal charges and community uproar, child abuse allegations and nation-wide attention.

Enter author Lynn Powell, Oberlin resident and author. Mother of a child in Nora's class (Stewart's daughter), she became one of Stewart's many allies, as well as a member of the ad hoc Stewart defense committee that developed in Oberlin. Ten years later, she wrote Framing Innocence, telling the story of "A Mother's Photographs, a Prosecutor's Zeal, and a Small Town's Response." Powell is very much a participant journalist, with no claim of nonbias: She details her initial ambivalent response to the description of the offending pictures, her role in Stewart's life, her sympathetic feelings as a mother, etc. Everyone involved in the situation took detailed notes while it was going on, so the book, though written much later, reads like it was written during the events.  As a sort of true-crime story, the book reads wonderfully.

But Powell seems to miss one of the big questions, and the reason I think this book was on my list- though I never note where I heard about books, so who knows. Powell mentions a lot of the Big Issues in passing, but as the book reads smoothly, doesn't really stop to ponder them.  What is the role of politics in prosecuting crimes? The district attorney in this case, for the county that Oberlin resides in, is much more conservative than the residents of Oberlin, perhaps more Representative of Lorain County, but still quite extreme. Should the law be practiced with an eye towards any one's political views? Stewart's family are historically "down to earth" and practice all kinds of "out there" behaviors, like posing for nude shots as a multi-generational family every year: What does society do with family practices that seem on the edge of acceptability? Where do civil liberties end, and when does big brother step in, as in the case of child pornography and photolabs? When do we *want the government to step in and protect children?

The question for me, though, is when does photography change the act that it aims to capture? There is no question in my mind, based on Powell's account (again, admittedly biased in Stewart's favor) that Stewart meant no harm towards her daughter. Stewart believed that it was important to document every possible moment of Nora's childhood in order to help Nora remember later, as she regretted not being able to remember her own childhood. She took thousands and thousands of pictures, posed and unposed, dressed and undressed. (Mostly dressed.) The pictures that caused the uproar were pictures of Nora rinsing her nether regions with a shower head in a ritual they had developed early in childhood to make sure that Nora had cleaned her whole body, and a picture of Nora posing in the bath like a picture she had seen in a museum: Nora had requested that Stewart take this picture.  Powell mentions that most people involved in the case, even Stewart's allies, were initially disturbed by the descriptions of the pictures, but when they saw them, were not bothered at all. They almost unanimously said that they would not take the pictures themselves, but that the act of the child didn't bother them at all.

Clearly, something about taking a picture of an eight year old child rinsing off her vagina and posing in the manner of an adult bothered everyone, some enough to cry "porn!" And clearly, the act of a child posing or washing in the shower is not lewd. Additionally, the pictures were not taken as "art" but as documentation. So what is it about photography that changes the situation? One of the prosecutor's demands in the settlement was the destruction of the photographs: is it the permanence of photography? The capturing of a fleeting moment forever?  Stewart was intent on showing the prosecutor the intent and context of her photographs. This is not porn, she wanted to say, this is documentation of a childhood, of a life, for my daughter. Out of context, though it still doesn't look wrong, and isn't wrong, she argued, you couldn't possibly understand. So does the photography only change the act in a way understandable through context? If you knew that Stewart was a loving mother, would that make it different than if the photographer was a character in a Law and Order episode? I don't have an answer, but it's a large question that deserves treatment in a powerful case like that of Cynthia Stewart.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pico Iyer: The Man Within My Head

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I wanted to love this book, because I love Graham Greene, and his writing, and Pico Iyer loves Graham Greene, and his writing. Instead, I'm sort of baffled about why it got published. Pico Iyer claims to have a special relationship with Greene, a man he's never met, one of the best writers of all time, and feels and sees connections that really are "within his head." I don't blame him for seeing connections that aren't there- I do this all the time, and expect people to follow along with me, or at least hope they won't think I'm crazy. I don't think Iyer is crazy, and rather enjoy the mental leaps that he makes. But the connections he draws- Greene did this in a similar manner to how he did it, or Greene's characters reveal so much about Greene, or Greene is more of a father to Iyer than Iyer's own father- are much more telling about Iyer, but not in enough of a way to be a memoir, and not in a telling enough way to serve as a biography of Greene. The book doesn't even really work as an insight into the writer's mind: Iyer's claim is that Greene sort of drives his writing, not as much inspires as impels. The book just flails too much for this to work.  I liked the book alright, but I'm lost: was it published because it would surely sell on the strength of Greene's and Iyer's fan base? It was a fast read, fortunately, and a free library read, which made it even better. But I'd rather read Greene again than listen to Iyer's conclusions about the man's work, and I'd rather read Iyer's memoirs than his life story as told through Greene-isms.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Calming Down