Victory at Hue

I briefly watched a documentary about Vietnam yesterday. The documentary was exploring the heroic efforts of the United States Marine Corp at the battle of Hue during the Vietnam war. The snippet I watched was about 5 minutes long, but the tale it told was a little disturbing to me.

The battle of Hue began on 31 January 1968. The USMC mopped up their operations on 2 March 1968. The marines involved served heroically. This was the gist of the documentary’s narrative. I do not dispute this.

My first objection is a quibble. The battle of Hue seems to have been a marine battle these days. The efforts of the US Army and ARVN forces are forgotten, at least in the contemporary narratives. I may be able to blame the movie Full Metal Jacket for this, but since media analysis is not my forte it is hard to say. The only point I am trying to make is that battle was won by the combined efforts of US forces.

My main objection is that the battle is considered a US victory. The communist were driven out after a month of battle. This is true to an extent. If you can imagine that no communist sympathizers returned to the city after the battle, then you can undoubtedly declare victory. I doubt it was that simple.

The city was destroyed. People’s lives were ruined, military and civilian. The US controlled the rubble after the battle. However, the Tet offensive, of which the battle of Hue was a small part, played a large role in turning American public opinion against the Vietnam war.

What I find ghastly is that here we are, just a little shy of 50 years later, being shown documentaries that display no critical analysis skills. We are showing the battle of Hue as a great victory for the USMC.  We are being shown the Vietnam war as a noble cause.

What I thought about was all the death and destruction brought about by the war on people who thought that the capital and profits of a society ought to accrue to all citizens equally. Essentially, the US invaded Vietnam to be the thought police. That a contemporary documentary can advance the thesis that a city can be destroyed to save it from people who do not think correctly is an abomination.

An Introduction to Maya

Maya is a big deal for me. I discovered maya years ago when I was taking a comparative religion class. Maya is a Hindu concept that loosely translates as “illusion.” However, as is true with many religious concepts, there is far more to maya than mere illusion. I will now attempt to make the case for why maya is a concept I use to make sense of the world we live in.

Ellwood & McGraw (2002) define maya thusly, “Brahman manifest in the world of forms; illusion when these forms are seen as other than Brahman” (p. 500). In this definition, the illusion mentioned is maya. To understand this definition you have to know that “Brahman (always with a capital b)” is tantamount to existence and reality. We humans have imperfect perceptions of reality and thereby we misunderstand our existence. The patterns and belief and experiences we possess trap us in this state of illusion. Consequently, we do not see the world as it is.

John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live provides an adequate representation of the concept of maya. In the film, a drifter played by (Rowdy) Roddy Piper discovers a box of sunglasses that allow him to see aliens when he wears them. The sunglasses allow him to pierce the veil of illusion that exists around him. While wearing the glasses, he also discovers the consumerist messaging hidden within advertising.

I reiterate that this is an adequate representation. The issues that the movie explores: class, social control, consumerism, colonialism, and others are all fodder for consideration of maya, but do not completely explain its scope. The forms that Ellwood & McGraw reference in their definition encompass everything in our lives and experience: childhood, education, socialization, that is, everything that we do and say in order to live our lives as comfortably as possible.

There are aspects of maya that seem easily discernable; propaganda and marketing being prime examples. However, propaganda and marketing are only discernable if we realize what they are. If we view them as types of information, such as news and entertainment, what motivation exists for us to seek out their meaning?

The context of maya that I find most relevant is in its role as a deceiver or a limiter of knowledge. A Christian theologian might link maya to the works of Satan. I think this is reasonable but misses the point; maya as a concept is based more on self-deception than the evil intent of outside beings. This is also the weakness of the They Live analogy.

However, I cannot argue that outside intent precludes one from labeling something as an aspect of maya. Consider the field of agnotology, which is the study of the cultural production of ignorance. This ignorance can be produced as a result of what we are told by the media or in our education. The technical term for this type of ignorance is an information asymmetry. One of the biggest reasons that information asymmetries exist is that they can be exploited for profit. Advertising is a prime example of this; if two products are indistinguishable then branding can help push a consumer to buy one over the other.

Anyway, this is meant to be an introduction to the concept. It is important because I intend to reference maya often going forward. I don’t want to just spring it onto people whilst I write on other topics, so, here it is. This explanation is woefully incomplete, but it is enough to allow you to know what I am talking about when I do mention it in the future.

References

Ellwood, R.S., & McGraw, B.A. (2002). Many people, many faiths: Women and men in the world religions, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Brave New World

I lost my grandmother this month. She succumbed to cancer on July 19. She was 89 years old, just a few months shy of her 90th birthday.  Though logically I realize that the longer she held on the more pain she would be in, I am saddened by her death.

I am a very analytical person. Therefore, I have been thinking about things. My cousin made a speech about my grandmother at the funeral. Listening to him reminded me of some things that I take for granted now without even thinking about.

My cousin talked about how nobody ever went into her house through the front door. Everybody knew to come in through the side door that led to the kitchen. When we heard a knock on the front door we knew that someone was visiting from somewhere else. There were no strangers at my grandmother’s house, only visitors.

My grandmother welcomed everybody. One of the first thing she always did was to ask if you were hungry. Didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, she would try to feed you. And my cousin also reminded me that my grandmother welcomed anyone when they needed a place to stay.

He reminded me that she could be pretty tough at times. If you did something wrong, she was quick to scold you or spank you depending on the severity of the wrong. She was always a tough woman.

My grandmother survived many tragedies during her lifetime.  None of these tragedies ever seemed to slow her down or change her ways. She was always the same loving and welcoming person no matter what was going on in her life.

I guess the biggest lesson I can take from my grandmother’s life is that it is possible to be tough and loving at the same time. There is no contradiction between these terms. My grandmother was always tough with us. She never babied us. But never in my life did I ever doubt her love.

On Quixotic Behavior

I have seen the news about an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department Officer firing a shot from his firearm while confronting a group of teenagers near his home. I watched 2 different versions of a video that documented; one that ended as the officer pulls out his firearm and fires, and one that continues after the shot and shows the scattering of the crowd; they both appear to be from the same source though one is edited to achieve a particular reaction. I observed a couple of things about this event, some from the video itself, but mostly from the reactions of the people who watched the video on social media.

Both of the videos I saw started after the altercation started. I noticed that the officer was seemingly surrounded by hostile teens and what seemed to be a large number of watching bystanders. Neither version shows how the altercation started. When the videos start they both show a teenager being manhandled by an adult male.

I am unaware of there being any sound attached to the video. I remember only the video of what happened. An obviously exasperated adult, surrounded by hostile teens, is trying to gain control of a situation that he clearly has no control over. His actions are predictable. He is reacting to hostility with hostility.

The actions of the surrounding teens, seeing one of their own being assaulted by an adult, are also predictable. Several teens tried to pull the teen being manhandled away from the adult. I saw the adult punched solidly at least once. They too were reacting to hostility with hostility.

What I was unable to tell from the video was whether the adult was a police officer. There was nothing I could see that showed whether the teens knew this was a police officer or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were announcing that fact to the teens. However, given the circumstances, seeing their peer being manhandled by an adult, I will not pretend that the teens were obligated to believe a man who has his hands on one of them.

I suppose the reactions were what shocked me the most. I presumably watched the same video that others were watching, but I did not react the same way. I saw people assigning blame to one party or another. Ascribing guilt and motive to either side from the same basis of  information. The kids must have been doing something wrong. The cop is a monster who can only communicate with his gun.

I don’t know how it started. I don’t know who started it. I saw bad behavior on both sides. That teenagers lack impulse control hardly needs to be stated; this does lead to bad behavior. Without the full context, however, it is hard to blame the teenagers for the way they acted.

The police officer could also be held blameless for feeling the hostility being hurled at him. However, I would expect that the police officer should have some tools to help him deescalate these situations. His manhandling of a teenager is what caused the problem. I cannot say that he was not within his rights as a citizen and a peace officer because I do not know what really happened. What I did see was someone who looked like a civilian pull out a gun and fire it to scare off a bunch of teenagers.

As a specialist in conflict resolution I am not trying to assign blame. What happened was the result of poor decision making on both sides of the confrontation. It does not surprise me that a large group of teenagers might lack the skills necessary to deal with conflict, though it is saddening. What shocks me is that a police officer, a person who presumably deals with people and conflicts on a daily basis, also lacked those skills.

The Road to Chicano Identity

I was very young when I first heard the word Chicano. I asked my mother what the word meant and she explained it as a term for militants. Apparently this explanation was sufficient because I didn’t question it even though I was far too young to understand what a militant is.

It did not come until several years later when I was a teenager in high school. That was then when I first read Hunter S. Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. The book is a recounting of a drug addled weekend Thompson spent in Las Vegas with his attorney Dr. Gonzo. I was fascinated by this book and wanted to learn everything I could about it.

One thing I did learn was that Dr. Gonzo was a stand-in for Oscar Z. Acosta, a Los Angeles based civil rights attorney who was investigating the death of journalist Ruben Salazar with Thompson. Then I read Acosta’s books Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People. These books introduced me to Chicano activism without necessarily motivating me to involve myself in that activism.

I then joined the army where I went into a militaristic phase and forgot all about the idea of Chicano activism. The idea of activism did come back to me after I left the service. This next phase of interest was more encompassing. I read Rodolfo Acuna’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, though instead of going deeper into the Chicano literature I turned to books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I read authors like Victor Villasenor, Ilan Stavans, and Luis Rodriguez, but I was also fascinated by the work of Joseph Campbell and the translations of Thomas Cleary.

When my eldest daughter Annette was born I became more pragmatic (I did read William James). Activism was then more of an interest than an activity. I again forgot about the idea of the Chicano for many years. Then, while I was in grad school, I learned about identity theory. Identity politics plays a very definite role in identity theory. Though I did not yet apply identity theory to the idea of being a Chicano, those theories were available to me when the Chicano concept came back to me.

After I earned my master’s degree I took some Chicano studies classes at East Los Angeles College. I was looking to learn enough to generalize my graduate thesis to Hispanic, mainly Mexican, communities. I found something that was not quite what I was looking for.

I found that many of the young people I encountered were trying to establish their own identity. Though I am not sure that they saw what they were doing this way, I recognized it because of my studies of identity theory. They were attending these classes to get a degree in order earn themselves a better income and position in life. They are also, generally speaking, still trying to learn how to learn. I saw a lot of my younger self in those faces. I found much I could identify with in their yearning to better themselves.

I have since learned that Chicano identity is not simply tied to demographics. Technically speaking, as the American born child of American born parents of Mexican descent, I am by definition a Chicano. However, the adoption of a Chicano identity also relates to political militantism as my mother described to me.

I learned from these classes is that I am a Chicano regardless of whether I claim it as my identity or not. I grew up not interested in claiming Chicano as a factor in my identity; that I am Mexican has always been sufficient to explain my origins to anybody who had an interest. The truth is that I am not really a Mexican except, perhaps, in an atavistic sense.

I am an American citizen. I watched American TV growing up. I listened to the Beatles and The Rolling Stones and heavy metal music growing up. I loved Star Wars and Indiana Jones. I served in the US Army.

Physiognomy, however, betrays my fundamental Americanness, at least in the context of United States citizenship. My brown skin invites the question, “Where are you from?” In certain circumstances my command of the English language draws confusion and inquires into how I learned to speak so well. Some people are incredulous when I detail my educational accomplishments. I have never really been the type of person who can abide this kind of contempt. I fight back.

This is where the identity politics comes into play. The color of my skin, my belligerent nature, my interest in politics, and my education all suggest that in American (US) society I do not know my place. That I participate in politics and can stand up for myself when necessary mark me as a militant. I never thought so, I just thought I was exercising my rights as a citizen.

I do know I am stepping out of my place because I have been told so by political rivals. I have been told what is appropriate to discuss and what is inappropriate to civil political discourse. What amuses me about these conversations is that my heritage, that which makes me what I am, is always inappropriate to civil discourse. I have been told time after time that we do not have race or class in the United States. To bring these issues up makes me sound like a militant. Even without trying, it seems that I am a Chicano.

Trump World

My dislike of Donald Trump is no secret. I have been openly railing against him for over a year and a half. I have disliked him far longer, though I cannot recall the origins of my spite for him.

So yesterday this buffoon was elected President of the United States. His running mate is a blithering right-wing moron. In my estimation, maybe the best thing that happens is Trump goes down in infamy (which seems likely) and Pence runs the country over the next four years.

In either case, whether Trump continues to rule or Pence does so in his stead, they got to this office because of their overtly racist attitudes. I will not make any claim that they won the election despite their racism because I am not an apologist for the system; I am a political pragmatist and it is my job to view the political system in the light of reality and acknowledge its ugliness when I see it.

Trump has attacked many constituencies: the disabled, African-Americans, and women come immediately to mind. I am sure there are more that I can speak to, but my big concern is his attacks on Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent. This is not to imply that I think Mexican identity is more important than anything else, though I have no trouble admitting this concern comes down to self-interest. I am an American citizen of Mexican descent.

Trump began his campaign by villainizing Mexican immigrants. Though his rhetoric has since grown to encompass immigrants in general, he started out specifically targeting Mexicans. When Scott and Steve Leader assaulted a homeless Hispanic man in Boston on August 19, 2015, Trump stated “the people that are following me are very passionate.” He later issued a perfunctory disavowal of the incident on Twitter (21 August 2015).

Trump’s attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel earlier this year are what I find most repulsive. In his statements Trump implied that Curiel’s heritage (born in Indiana to Mexican immigrant parents) made him unqualified to be a judge. Trump actually stated that dispite Curiel’s “Spanish” and “Hispanic” heritage he had not asked the judge to be recused.

The promise to “Make America Great Again” means what? It harkens to the days when minority populations in the United States were second class citizens.When minorities were attacked and beaten by groups of white men and then arrested for disturbing the peace. The rhetoric against immigrants, Mexicans, African-Americans, has energized the overly racist thorughout the nation.

At this point we can only wait and see what happens next. I will pour my energy into making sure that any attempts to remake second class citizenship are met with stiff and effective resistance. I want to make one particular point explicit: do not think your citizenship or ideological perspective will save you from the racism that Trump and his cronies promote. White supremacy means that if you are not white, you belong to the underclass.