Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

RIP, Pat Morita

Lawrence Downes, a NY Times op-editorialist, has a fitting memorial to Pat Morita in today's Times. In it, he questions where the quality roles for Asian American actors, particularly men, are.

But it's distressing to think that the life's work of one of the best-known, hardest-working Asian-American actors is mostly a loose collection of servile supporting roles.

I know nothing about Mr. Morita's ambitions; if he had a longing to interpret Eugene O'Neill on Broadway, I have not heard of it. But actors generally have to work within the range of what's available. And with Asian-Americans, particularly men, what's available generally stinks.

I was taken by the piece because it's rare that East Coast papers, especially the "paper of record," discusses the paucity of APIA representation on screen. However, Downes does a great job of paying tribute while questioning (bitch-slapping) the system that Morita worked within.

Mr. Morita was one of the last survivors of a generation of Asian-American actors who toiled within a system that was interested only in the stock Asian. Harold Sakata played Oddjob in "Goldfinger" and was typecast as a mute brute forever after. Philip Ahn played houseboys and villains for decade upon decade.

Some actors - well, a couple - broke out, like George Takei, Mr. Sulu in "Star Trek," and Jack Soo on "Barney Miller." B. D. Wong's role on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is a major improvement, but it will be a long, long time before we erase the memory of the bucktoothed, jabbering Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," or Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan. . . . . .

Mr. Miyagi remains everybody's idea of a positive character. Who can forget "wax on, wax off," his wise counsel linking car care to karate? But still, it bother me Miyagi-san so wise, but find so hard use articles, pronouns when talk. [Emphasis mine.]

Perhaps this piece will be used as a launching point for the fat cats in Hollywood to look within themselves or the creative agencies or the writers' workshops and to come out with some meaty roles for Asian American men. I can still try to pin my hopes on runaway trains. At this rate, I would even welcome a character who has a model minority job like a nuanced Asian American male doctor role, as long as it's not the wacky sinister dentist with the coke bottle eyeglasses from Alias. The only thing that guy lacks is a Fu Manchu mustache.

Playing the "Asian" card

I know I've written about Jun Choi and his successful race for mayor of Edison, NJ, before, but now that the November 8 hype and hubbub is all over, his defeated opponent has decided to file for a recount. William Stephens, who ran as an independent, lost by 269 votes, and

On the most recent election night, Stephens said race played a role in the outcome. The next day he said Choi "played the Asian card."

Stephens has apologized if his remarks offended anyone, but he believes Choi catered to an Asian voting bloc.

I am sorry, but who does Stephens think he is fooling? Jun Choi has said all along that he does not consider himself an Asian American politician, but rather that he wants to represent all of Edison. He has said that he does not want his identity to be an issue:

“I’m very proud of my Korean and Asian heritage,” says Choi, “but during the campaign, it got so much coverage. Quite frankly, [my heritage] is not the primary issue, or one of the top three, four or five issues. But it became an issue.”

Moreover, when his identity became an issue because some idiot shock jocks caricatured his run. While speaking in a fake "Chinese" accent, the "Jersey Boys" asked why anyone would vote for someone called "Jun Choi" and "labeled Asian Americans as “foreigners” and declared that “Chinese should never dictate the outcome of an American election, Americans should.”"

After outrage and protests from local community members that was not instigated by the campaign, the shock jocks invited him onto their show for an on-air apology, which Choi received with great class, "handled the shock jocks with firm statements and a bottle of soju. He also redirected the spotlight and focus onto his platform."

Jun Choi offered open government ideas and sound policies at a time when Spadoro and the Edison County Democratic machine was running out of fuel and closed to discussion. He had novel ideas for education, health care and smart growth, not overcongestion. He ran on a reform ticket and won, and no wonder, when you read about how standoffish and unfair the Spadoro regime was in an op-ed from the local paper entitled "Edison Democrats need a lesson in democracy":

Where is the mayor when the real issues in town — like overdevelopment, the controversial Wal-Mart application or the hotly debated Edison Memorial Tower funds — are being discussed?

Well, he won’t be found at a Township Council meeting, where most of the questions are asked. Instead, the mayor holds office hours during council meetings for residents who have complaints.

This conveniently keeps any nasty problems out of the public limelight of a council meeting. . . . . . .

Even the Democratic Party in Edison seems to have taken a page from the mayor’s book.

Consider the recent “screening” meeting for mayoral candidates for the June primary. The party bigwigs made certain that Jun Choi, Spadoro’s challenger in the primary, wasn’t given an opportunity to address the municipal committee members at a recent meeting.

Spadoro was speedily endorsed. Choi was not screened because he didn’t submit his résumé in time for the committee meeting deadline, according to party Chairman Thomas “Doc” Paterniti.

But when he asked if he could informally address committee members, the answer was “no.”

Remember that one of the first groups to support Choi during the primaries was not even the county Democratic club, but rather Middlesex County for Democracy, a county arm of New Jersey for Democracy (which is in turn part of the Howard Dean affiliated Democracy for America.) They backed him because Choi, unlike " the Edison Democrats have focused on serving the political insiders and their network of developers, attorneys and special interests over the public interest." They supported Choi because of his open-government policies, get it? Moreover, Middlesec County for Democracy hardly qualifies as an "Asian organization."

Another prominent group that backed Choi during the primaries and which continued to support him in the general were a number of unions which can hardly be considered to have a high number of Asian Americans in their ranks. Specifically, a Teamsters local, a United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local, and a RWDSU (retail workers) local supported Choi because he was on the side of working families and opposed the construction of a new Wal-Mart in Edison, which Spadoro had ushered through the planning and development boards. These unions had typically been silent on Edison politics but jumped at the chance to support Choi because of his smart growth policies and Spadoro's intense favoritism of developers over the public interest. Again, another constituency who saw that Choi had great ideas and supported him.

I was reading more of the press on Choi, and it appears that not only was he whipsmart in getting endorsements from base constituencies, he managed to win the endorsement of his previous Republican challenger, Carl Perlin. Due to some discord in the Republican camps over the Edison Republican chairwoman Sylvia Engel throwing her support behind William Stephens in the general, some angered Republicans formed their own club and supported Choi, as did Carl Perlin.

Now, I gotta say that Choi has simply been practicing some smart politics - gathering together progressive constituencies, thinking outside the box, and winning over former enemies. Stephens is simply being a poor loser, and let's face it, when even Republican candidates are endorsing your opponent, you know your chances are shot. Choi has a bright future in politics and I'll be watching his ascendency with avid interest. I know that he was originally interested in running for the State Legislature because he invited me to a fundraiser once, so we know he has his eyes set on a higher office. Let's ask why anyone wouldn't want to vote a man named Jun Choi for oh, say Governor?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Travelling While Brown: Tribune staffer detained for speaking Arabic

When we talk about a post-9/11 America, we often mean how our national security is threatened, our anxiety is increased and how we have to be more "on guard." We see this caution carried out in random searches on the NYC subway, and in the judging eyes of fellow airline passengers. What we don't talk about is how this culture of fear has decreased feelings of security for Muslim Americans, South Asian Americans, Arab Americans, and anyone who looks like they might be any of the above.

In the Sunday Chicago Tribune, Ahmad A. Ahmad says that he decided to take a train to New York City instead of a plane because he was sick of getting searched 8 out of 10 times. The train ahead went off the tracks, so they had to get on buses. He called his mom to let her know that he would be delayed, a fellow traveller heard him speaking Arabic, and called the police while claiming that Ahmad was going to blow up the train. It's a strong, coureageous piece, and I recommend reading the whole thing:

So there I was, 30 minutes outside Albany, waiting for a bus to pick up the displaced passengers. A middle-age tall, muscular white man came up to me and started asking questions.

"Are you Jewish?" he asked.

I was caught off-guard.

"No, I am Jordanian," I replied.

"Why are you going to New York? How many times have you been to New York?"

The questions kept coming.

I knew where this was going. I could hear it in his voice.

I shot back. "Where are you from? How old are you? What part of New York do you live in?" He said he was Italian, 41 and from Brooklyn. As the buses arrived, the man said to follow him to the bus for New York City.

He said he and his girlfriend were also heading there. I was skeptical but grudgingly followed him. I decided to call my mother in Chicago to tell her what happened. We spoke in our native tongue, Arabic.

The man whispered something into his girlfriend's ear.

How many of us have experienced this, or have friends who've undergone the same thing? At least he had the guts to stand up and fire questions back at someone who has no authority to be interrogating a fellow passenger. People assume that just because someone looks different that it's their perogative to question their existence, their birthright, their citizenship. These people are never satisfied with the answers that I give them: "I'm from here. Corner of Main and Appleton." If they press, I feign ignorance of their objectives: "Before that? *bats eyelashes in mock confusion* Well, we moved from the city a few years ago. Why? Where are you from?" but in Ahmad's case, it became situation critical.

I heard sirens approaching, and the bus suddenly came to a stop on the side of the highway. Police cars came--so many I couldn't even begin to count them. The man and his girlfriend ran down the aisle, past me, and off the bus.

We all stepped out to see what happened.

There was the stranger, pointing to me, "He is going to blow up the Amtrak!"

The man told police he understood Arabic and had overheard my conversation. He thought I was talking to some terrorist cell when I was chatting with my mother.

The police put me in the back of their vehicle. Dogs were sniffing around, and officers from the state Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Unit were interviewing my fellow bus passengers.

My cell phone was low on battery and had turned off, but they would not turn it back on. For all they knew, it could have been a bomb. I was shocked, confused, speechless.

The authorities questioned me for nearly three hours at an Albany police station.

Fortunately for him, the police figure out pretty quickly that his accuser is a lunatic who speaks no Arabic, and they let Ahmad go.

Just when I was leaving, I saw that man again.

He cursed at me and called me a terrorist. "Come and fight me!" he yelled. "You're lying out of your teeth! You know you want to blow up the Amtrak!"

I know people say Americans are living in a new America, after what happened on that Tuesday morning four years ago.

For the majority of Muslims, who are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, we, too, are living in a new America.

This is our reality.

When you essentialize people, you reduce them to their physical characteristics. You judge them based only upon what you can see, or hear in some cases. People have asked me if I'm Mexican or American Indian based upon my features, which bewilders me. I guess to some people, all brown-skinned people look similar. But what Ahmad points out with simple dignity the loss of freedoms that have disproportionately affected a part of our America. Call it "Flying While Brown" or "Travelling While Brown." It's an insidious meme/stereotype that worms its way into our eyes and ears from our TV screens, and it riddles our brains with holes, turning countryman against countryman (and woman.)

Wedge politics of this, the basest nature, turns us against some of the weakest people in our country, those who deserve the most protection because they are the easiest to scapegoat. This isn't a new phenomenon, it dates back to the Yellow Peril and the fear of the Other. It's "give us our planes back," "Stop stealing our jobs," "Nuke China!" and "You look like you just bombed the World Trade Center." It's the same old diversionary tactic, the same closed-off look in some people's eyes that has persisted since people migrated to other regions and immediately remarked on each others' differences, and unable to communicate, watched as "they" came closer and closer. Uncertain of "their" intentions, we built forts to better distinguish "us" from "them" and showy weapons to demonstrate our might. Frightened of "their" intentions we posted guards at the borders and encircled our women and children. Someone heard a noise, we all jumped to arms, and all was lost.

Republican power struggles leading up to '08

The way I see 2008 playing out on the Republican side is a triangulation of power amongst three main groups and candidates:

  1. the Bushies/Establishment and their man Jeb
  2. the Christian Coalition base, and George Allen
  3. the old school conservatives-libetarian wing, and McCain

That said, if they're going to have Cheney step down before 2008, I pray that they don't fill it with Jeb. He has been an undistinguished governor who doesn't deserve to be president. It wuold be a pure example of more cronyism and mediocrity from the folks who brought us Brownie, the self-nominated "fashion god." But if wishing made reality, we wouldn't be in Iraq, Bush wouldn't be president, and the CEOS of Fortune 500 companies would be toilet scrubbers. He'll probably get it because the insiders want to install someone who they can trust.

This is not necessarily going to fly with the theocrats, who have seen that Bush and his gang are in it for themselves and their own increase in, and preservation of power. In their eyes, Miers was Bush's 30 pieces of silver. I suspect that they'll make a strong case for someone like Sen. George Allen (R-VA) who knows how to play the inside game but also opposed Miers. Once upon a time it would have been someone like Bill Frist, but, ahem, his stock has gone down. In 2012, it'll be ::shudder:: Ralph Reed. I suspect that if the Bush machine can't get their man in 2008, they will support Allen over McCain.

The partisan in me says, I hope it's not McCain, because he is someone who the American public actually views as a leader (and more independent thinking), and I believe we would have a harder time defeating him in 2008 than any other candidate. He is also someone who the independents, libertarians and true conservatives would be more at home with.

It'll be interesting to watch what goes down, and how much of their fight spills into the public, versus the GOP having the equivalent of private hunting parties and keeping their battles in-house. I'm also keeping my eyes peeled for how Harry Reid manipulates tensions on their side. Go Harry, go!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Of War and Plates

Actually, I was thinking about Sun Tzu today when I heard about Harry Reid's strategic manuever of the day. (This also applies to his handling of the Harriet Miers nomination - feign weakness, and exploit divisions within your enemies' ranks.)

"Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him."

It is also something that a friend has proposed, that perhaps the Democrats are feigning disorder or weakness to lure in the Republicans, a possible method behind the seeming mayhem.

But perhaps the American people have simply tired of Bush, for he does not maintain the manner of a sage as described by the Tao Te Ching:

" In this manner the sage cares for people:
He provides for the belly, not for the senses;
He ignores abstraction and holds fast to substance."

Most recently, with Hurricane Katrina, the public saw that Bush was unable to provide for Gulf Coast residents' hunger for both food and leadership. Instead, he gave Americans photo ops (sitting comfortably on Air Force One surverying the damage) and canned speeches, instead of fulfilling the needs of his constituents.

Reid and the Democratic party seem to be taking advantage of the leadership void. As a tactician, he has earned my trust, and a few of my dollars. I believe in rewarding gutsy behavior.

Second, White House officials anonymously admit that their agenda for this year is scuttled and that they will try to cast Bush in a new, favorable light in January with his State of the Union address. However, I believe that if the GOP grants that the next 2 months are a wash, and Reid and the Democrats can keep BushCo. off kilter for the majority of that time, then Bush will have lost his ability to dictate the national agenda.

When I think of Bush right now, I see the stereotypical joker/juggler, trying to spin umpteen sets of plates, or scandals, on a dining room table. He's got a look of trepidation mixed with severe concentration on his face, like when he was reading My Pet Goat to elementary school kids. He's looking nervously at the stacks, trying to figure out which one, which one to save. One tall stack, wobbling something ferocious, curving towards the ground is Scooter Libby. Another set is Rove - I always thought he was made of Pyrex, but he's looking more and more like clay to me. The war on Iraq represents a third, Delay a fourth Corningware pile with large tacky corporate logos emblazoned all over. Frist makes an aristocratic Waterford fifth. Domestic issues make for a sixth tower that is no less deadly to step on when shattered. The joker veers far far away from this one. He glances up and down the table, back and forth at these rotating piles of plates in front of him in an attempt to judge who is worthy of being saved. Then he rolls up his sleeves, grabs his beloved Courvoisier XO, and hightails it outta there.

Who ever said he was a man of the people?

I think it's quite possible that Democrats can keep Bush running to prevent the scandals, I mean plates from breaking for the rest of the year because Rove is under increased scrutiny and therefore cannot operate with his usual impunity. Furthermore, if Reid's actions today and for the next 2 weeks don't solidly unite the republican base, then Democrats will have successfully wrested the momentum away. I think that the media might even cede more print and TV time to the Democrats, since they will be eager to watch a true opposition party in action, with a definite David vs Goliath backstory. (And yes, it gets boring to continuously watch and report that David got trounced and to note his many fractures and visits to the ER.)

General Reid fired a warning shot the size of a cannonball, and I think it will pay off. That sonic boom sent the plates a-spinning off-course.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Power and Politics

It's almost the anniversary of the last Election Day, also known as Black Tuesday. I had fought for the better man to win, for democratic ideas to prevail. I fought because I knew that a Bush reelection would mean that I would spend 50 years, or the rest of my life trying to reverse the damage to our country that his policies had created. Four more years would translate into 25 years of hard work to get us back to what we had under Clinton. It had been a long road to that day, and along the way, Howard Dean had rallied the masses with his words: "You have the power!"

It was rare for a presidential candidate to describe the state of affairs so. Rare, empowering and prophetic. Although his own campaign failed, he helped give hope to many Americans who simply wanted more of an active role in the Democratic Party, and to those who had lost hope that anyone truly represented their concerns. Not all of these people were Democrats, some had been entirely apolitical before this, and some were true conservatives who harbored suspicions about Bushco's role in limiting government. To Dean's banner we gathered, and we held him up as a populist champion. Finally we had someone with the guts to say what he thought, media filter be damned.

We were his troops, and if he wasn't our savior, it wasn't for lack of us trying. He was smart enough to say: "Wake up, wake up, it's time to fend for yourselves. If you want change, you have to create it." People ran for local offices with that idea in mind, that ordinary citizens could and should have a voice in government.

Where does this fairytale go? The message isn't new, it's one of the fundamental tenets of organizing - whether it's community, labor or political. Albeit usually in political organizing it goes: "Here's your script. Knock on these doors and tell them to vote for Mr. Status Roboto. If they've already been visited and can't be bothered, tell them that it's a highly important election. Mr Roboto stands for the status quo."

In the fairytale, Dean would have won the primary. In reality, Kerry didn't even win the general election. But a lot of newcomers joined the fight, and increasingly, people saw the importance that seemingly arcane bills and laws passed by a ghostly fleet of old men and a few women in a far off marble and concrete city had in their daily lives.

Dean inspired a lot of people. A friend of mine even ran for a Democratic State committee and came within one vote of winning. Many Asian Pacific Americans also rallied around his cause, as he was the only candidate to show up to a debate that the community held. His Deputy Political Director came out of Clinton's White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

In 2004, an unprecedented number of Asian Americans ran for elected office. Some notables who won were Bobby Jindal (R-LA) and TX State Rep. Hubert Vo. While we have had a number of elected officials come out of, and represent out community in the past, not very many people know that history. Despite elected leaders like former Washington State Govenor Gary Locke, DNC vice chair and US Rep. Mike Honda, the late US Rep. Patsy Mink and the late US Senator Spark Matsunaga, in the public perception, we have not welded the kind of political power that African Americans have had, or that Latinos are gaining. But we are making a name for ourselves outside of places thought of as having higher Asian Pacific American populations like New York, California or Hawaii. We are shattering preconceptions and making history:

Running in 2005 (show them some love):
  • Supriya Christopher is running to be the first Indian American in the VA House of Delegates
  • In New Jersey, Jun Choi will likely be the next mayor of Edison, and the first Asian American one
  • Bostonian Sam Yoon seems likely to sail to a win in the City Council race, and would be the first Asian American to represent a city where we make up 7.5% of the population
Already won:
  • Madison Nguyen ran for San Jose City Council in a race against another Vietnamese American woman
  • Michigan has state Representative Hoon-Yung Hopgood
  • Texas state Rep. Hubert Vo toppled the second highest-ranking Republican in the statehouse
  • Maryland state Delegate Kumar Barve is the 2nd in command in the House of Delegates
  • Swati Dandekar sits as Iowa state Rep.
  • WA State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos is the Majority Whip
  • And of course we have so much to learn from our friends and state representatives in Minnesota, Cy Thao and Mee Moua
There are many more victories and stories, but I'll leave those for later.