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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Vaddey Ratner and the Birth of a New Meme

Truth, she believed, lies in what is said as much as in what isn't, in the same way that a melody not only is a sequence of audible notes but encompasses the spaces and pauses in between. When listening to music, you must learns to take in even the atmosphere of an echo. - Vaddey Ratner, Music of the Ghosts
I don't like gambling. I've done it just a few times and have found that the thrill of winning pales in comparison to the deep sickening feeling I get when I watch money that I earned while spending time away from my family and video games disappears for no other reason than the wrong card being given to me at a blackjack table. If I did, though, I would still bet against the United States descending into an authoritarian nightmarescape. Even if I wrote a book about it once.

Depending on which side of the aisle you're on (because American politics is essentially a wedding where you're either related to one or the other (ideally) but could never possibly know both of them) we were either the closest we've ever gotten to dictatorship from 2008 to 2016, or we're on the very brink of it today. What this tells me isn't that this country is careening towards autocracy and it's going to be a coin flip of who is in power when it finally happens, but that the way we talk about our politics has gotten so extreme that every election is now life or death; it's either the end of the world or the sunrise after an endless period of darkness.

Here's what December always brings up for me, and it's one of the few things about social media that I consider genuinely worthwhile; and that is variations on my year in review. Because I am prolific on Facebook and Instagram in a way that I can only assume is an embarrassment to my friends and family, these retrospectives are more or less accurate portrayals of the year I had so far. The fact that I have to face every time is that wow, I had a pretty good year.

This year my wonderful grandpa died, and that sucked, but also I had some time to really think about what an amazing influence he had and continues to have on my life. I've had some fun visits with my grandma since, and seeing aspects of her personality emerge that I hadn't seen before has been kind of a delight. I watched my son sack a ton of quarterbacks while playing flag football, my daughter win first place in a Taekwondo tournament, and my other daughter write an adorable prize-winning poem. I had a great garden, wrote a novel, and got to watch Thor: Ragnarok while holding hands with a pretty girl. Kesha came out with an amazing album. My kidney numbers have held steady and the estimate on their function came back as the highest it has since my diagnosis. We're well on our way to fulfilling the wishlist of this year's refugee family and then some. That's a lot of good stuff.

We lost some cool rock stars, which I tend not to get worked up about in general but had a hard time processing Tom Petty and Chris Cornell, especially. But Roger Ailes and Hugh Hefner died and the world is a slightly nicer place without those Crypt Keepers' musty stank hanging over it. I hope Marilyn Monroe gets to personally push the button to the trapdoor that drops Hugh into hell. May they never rest in eternal torment, amen.

I know that tons of people are dealing with terrible years for various reasons. This year I spent at least a dozen nights in emergency rooms around the county comforting victims of sexual assault who are inevitably still dealing with that fallout, approximately 800,000 kids whose only home is and has ever been the United States are spending their Christmas holiday anxiously awaiting some kind of decision on their future here while they are tossed around like a political hacky sack, and in the midst of what is almost certainly the worst refugee crisis in written history, we are offering escape to the fewest number in over ten years and two presidencies. I won't pretend to extrapolate my good fortune to the whole world, but have to face the fact that while the news articles I read daily suggest that the world is only a dark place and getting darker, somehow pleasant and even inspiring things just keep on happening.

It would be silly to not recognize that I stand to specifically benefit from many of the horrible headlines I read, and I won't pretend that as a white Christian man I am at anything but the least risk of the current administration. When I hurt from reading headlines that lead to more people being hurt, oppressed, harassed, and killed, I can usually hide from it without it intruding specifically into my life on a daily basis. I have not been left stranded at an airport, suddenly without a country to live in, or deported while trying to drop my daughter off at school.

In spite of all this I still feel like the checks and balances put into place at the foundation of this country are holding remarkably well. It's ugly and gross and counter-productive sometimes. The political posturing and metaphorical throwing of bags of dog doo from one backyard to another by neighbors who never speak to each other directly is tiresome. But like a vulnerable community sitting under a massive reservoir, I'm pleased to see that while it doesn't look like much, the dam has worked. The checks and balances I remember my son singing about in elementary school actually exist.

I say all this because I just read my second book by Vaddey Ratner about the Cambodian revolution and subsequent years of mass murder and oppression. I just reread my post about her first book, In the Shadow of the Banyan, and I'll be darned if it wasn't pretty good! I never know right after I write them, but revisiting this one from August I ended up kind of proud of myself. That part is neither here nor there, though. What is here and also there somehow is what I talked about then, which is probably a common theme from these posts. That point is this: there are no guarantees whatsoever that any thriving democratic society will remain that way without a fight.

Here's a bit of what I said then
Instead of saying, "this is just like 1984," when a hypothetical President of The United States questions a judge because of his race, or pushes for torture of political prisoners, or mocks war heroes, or builds the least-educated cabinet in 24 years or fabricates lies whole cloth in order to stir up anger against a certain ethnic group or leads a group of teenage kids in a chant of his name for no reason other than to prop up his pathetic ego when the news makes him sad, say "this is just like the countless other charismatic leaders who slowly eroded the very fabric of a nation that was built to protect us against someone just like him."
That's still a fear I have now, of course. But like I said at the beginning here, I still wouldn't bet on it. Because I'm a curious person and looking things up is a distraction from the many, many responsibilities I have as an adult, I looked up where the term "the fourth estate" in regards to the press came from. It looks like the earliest mention was in 1787 by Edmund Burke. I always thought it meant a fourth branch of the US government, but it goes back way further than that. Early references were in regard to British Parliament. Later it was mentioned in reference to the French Revolution. The other three estates in that context were the clergy (the Lords Spiritual), the nobility (the Lords Temporal), and the commoners (the Commons). Like today, the media has always gotten flack, sometimes rightly so, but I also think that if the dam keeping us safe is the concrete and reinforcements within, the press is the wooden scaffolding that holds it up from the outside.

The reason I was thinking about this was an article critiquing the press from a few days ago. First of all, the writer refers to the debacle as a "humiliation orgy," and honestly I feel like that's kind of redundant because is there any other kind? Second, there's an important thing here that keeps swimming around my brain. To begin with, CNN misreported the dates on an email sent to Donald Trump, Jr. The dates in this case were very important, and could point to severe wrongdoing during the campaign if they were correct. The problem was that they were not. The mistake probably confirmed the suspicions of people who have long thought of CNN as a peddler of yellow journalism.

Which, fine. It looks like it was probably an honest mistake, but for a lot of people who don't like seeing bad headlines about the people they've decided to blindly follow, I'm sure it was a great vindication of what they've been saying all along. The kicker is that the story that CNN blew it so badly was broken by the Washington Post. Right. That liberal rag that exclusively publishes every whim of George Soros as he weaves his secret web of lies while being fed grapes by lizard people and constantly pushing the eggs that will hatch into an army of social justice warriors from his pulsating ovipositor. Like, make up your mind. Is it fake news or it is only fake if you don't like the headline, and the God's honest if you do? If that is the case I submit to you that you are wrong and history will not judge you kindly.

What this tells me is that they system is working. There are so many news sources right now. Some of them are blatant in their bias, others have an editorial staff with clear loyalty but try their best to avoid bias in their news reporting, and some aggressively pursue neutrality to the point of false balance fallacy. But all this noise coalesces like a crowd at a basketball chanting "air ball;" somehow there are enough people in key enough that the overall effect kind of sounds like a chant. In the case of the basketball game it should be a musical chant that results in the utter humiliation of the guy on the court who blew it, and in the press it should be, well, basically the same.

It's hard not to think of this kind of thing while reading Ratner's newest book, Music of the Ghosts. While it tells the story of new characters, it could easily be read as a sequel to In the Shadow of the Banyan. Ratner was a child when she fled Cambodia, and her first-person account of those atrocities was mildly fictionalized in that first book. In Music of the Ghosts, we meet Teera, who also fled Cambodia as a child and returns to Phnom Penh later as a successful adult. At the same time we meet The Old Musician, who was part of the communist revolution that so ravaged the nation. As was common, he fell out of favor with The Organization and spent years in a fictionalized version of one of the country's worst prisons, where he underwent daily torture and betrayed his friends regularly to make it stop.

The two characters: one an innocent victim of the regime and the other a willing participant, eventually meet. Their stories are indicative of the people who have returned to Phnom Penh as ex- soldiers, prisoners, or often both. Teera herself is ambivalent, since it was a young Khmer Rouge soldier who led her out of Cambodia to safety as a child, only to leave her at the border to return to find more people like her to save. The war is still so raw, not even a generation later, and people who were tortured almost to death ride in cabs driven by soldiers who may have participated, both haunted by what they saw and did.

The exploration of a nation in which nearly a quarter of its population was murdered is fascinating, and like in her first book, Ratner does a great job exploring how it occurred, and how families were torn apart regardless of which side they chose. We need to hear these stories, and spread them. There is no substitute for big long books about what happened to help us prevent it from happening again. During the revolution, any skills that were not agrarian were systematically rooted out. In the aftermath, there were no doctors left. The Organization claimed that hard work was the only way to cure ills. Medical students gathered old text books that had somehow survived and taught themselves; often a second-year student would be the only one able to teach the new first-years.

The reason I bet against the worst case scenario is not just because of brave politicians who stand up against the most terrible of human tendencies, even it if means the loss of their job. It's not just because of dogged reporters who verify their sources and break news that is damaging to both parties. It's also because of storytellers like Ratner. Firsthand accounts of what has happened are the best armor against what could happen, but it only works if we know about them. We will never get the nuance and emotion of these experiences from 10 minute videos on Youtube or long Facebook rants. This might be a big surprise at this point but my biggest point of all the points I wanted to make here is this, and go ahead and make a meme of this because it's clever as heck; Books. They're good.