Thursday, October 16, 2008


If you happen to be in Chicago these days, you may want to take a look at the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago. It currently has a small but interesting exhibit of four artists that deals with the Four Gorges Dam in Sichuan, and its effect on the surrounding population (which, it must be noted, is just about all Western commentators seem to care about when it comes to that monumental project).

I thought the most interesting artist at the exhibit was someone named Ji Yunfei, a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Beijing. His painting, called “Water Rising,” was a long, thin canvas that crept along the wall, wrapping around the corner of the gallery. It played off one of the most persistent themes in the history of Chinese art: landscapes.

Landscape painting, which became widespread during the Tang dynasty and gained popularity in the Song dynasty, has had different meanings for different painters. It’s sometimes represented a kind of alternative, idealized setting from chaotic dynastic upheavals and other political catastrophes. For Buddhists and Daoists, landscapes have been a place of retreat, an escape from the world. A more modern reading of landscape scenes seeks to tie the essence of being Chinese to China’s geography; in a passage about his painting displayed at the museum, Ji Yunfei invokes this idea.

Detail from "Water Rising"

For Ji, such a drastic man-made alteration in the nation’s geography goes to the heart of what China is. His beautiful landscape, with a quiet lake, a peaceful mountain, and beautiful, jagged trees, is covered with the detriments of a population displaced. Rubble litters the landscape, and the people, whose skin and clothes seem to blend in with the land itself, stand in hesitation, not quite knowing what to do. This village, once a place of peaceful retreat, has been targeted by the outside world.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Another one about US politics

Well, I’m back in the US, and what’s more, everybody’s doing it… so here’s another post about US politics.

Probably the most interesting quote I’ve heard so far during this presidential campaign was on NPR, from a democrat in Virginia as she wrestled with her own feelings about Obama’s ethnicity. The woman had voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary, and she said something along the lines of: I don’t know about racism, but I’m just afraid that he’ll be supporting his own people, and he’ll just be doing things for his own people. “His own people”—of course this is racism, and the opposite of what she fears is precisely what civil rights activists have been fighting since the dawn of the United States: that white presidents—as well as a white Congress, a white Supreme Court, white mayors, white governors, white businesspeople, and every other kind of white person with any kind of power—have tended to support their people, to the detriment of blacks and other ethnic minority groups.

In the past, exploiting this kind of fear would have easily won the Republicans the election. The fact that they haven’t been able to do that represents true progress in this country. Every election is a referendum not on any candidate but on the electorate, and the American electorate, if the polls are to be believed, is finally willing to elect a black president. The fact that Obama—who grew up in countries other than the United States and whose middle name is Hussein—is ahead of a white, experienced, well-liked (at least up until a month or two ago) war hero politician is simply stunning.

Race has been strangely ignored during this campaign, at least on the surface. But it’s always present in American politics, and it will continue to be present for a long time to come. However, even if McCain wins the election, change is coming. White people will be a minority in the US within the next 30 years or so, and the Republican party—whose contemporary incarnation was largely forged out of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement—will change if it wishes to remain a viable political force.

Racism is not a clear-cut issue, and it runs through nearly every facet of American society, in the north as well as the south. Many people forget, or have never learned, that Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Chicago—a thoroughly northern city—and was horrified by the racism he saw there. Neighborhoods in American cities still have clear boundaries, and most white residents would probably admit, if only to themselves, to being more intimidated by a black man on the street late at night than a white man. I sympathize with the woman mentioned above, and I admire her for voicing her fears. Confronting one’s own racism is something most Americans are not yet capable of doing.

10 October: After publishing this post I read a fascinating article by George Packer that deals with the hidden presence of race in the current election. It includes this passage:

[In Ohio, Obama's] name often evoked a sharp racial hostility that was expressed without hesitation or apology.

These were not views that many Americans had been willing to reveal to reporters. For obvious reasons, neither Obama nor McCain wants to address the conjunction of race and class in this election. The national press corps—which more and more confines its political coverage to politicians, campaign officials, strategists, and itself—has often discussed the role of race in the campaign, but the conversation is inevitably softened by euphemism. Americans accustomed to discussing race politely, or not at all, might follow the campaign without a real sense of the potency of skin color.

Turns out the intertwining of race and class in US politics (whose history up until the first Bush is pretty well laid out in "Chain Reaction" by Thomas and Mary Edsall) is not quite as dead as I had hoped. But, as Packer's article shows, people are more aware of it, and there's an active effort to combat it.