Monday, April 30, 2007

The Collapse of the High Road (first of 2 parts)

I watched the Warriors game last night between updates on the collapse of a freeway interchange on the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge. A few days before that one of my favorite if not my favorite non-fiction writer, David Halberstam, died in a car crash in Menlo Park. There was another mass shooting in Kansas City, this time at a shopping mall. Astronomers found a new planet that might have water some twenty light years away from earth. The Alberto Gonzales matter continues to unfold alongside Dennis Kuckinich’s recent attempt to file articles of impeachment against George and Dick. In the meantime, there’s been the usual daily mass killing in Iraq. I know that smarter bloggers would break all these events into separate posts. In fact, I was in the midst of doing separate posts about both Gonzales and Halberstam late last week. Sometimes though, things stick together.

The last time the Cypress collapsed, it happened during the World Series in 1989 which just happened to match the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s, the first and only time btw. That was an earthquake with forty five thousand people in the increasingly creaky Candlestick Park (talk about cursed ballparks) and post-rush hour traffic still on the Bay Bridge. This was a fuel truck crashing catching fire at 3:45 in the morning with no one dying.

The more recent incident haunts me more. This was not a terrorist act, but all disasters now make me think of what a purposive act with even relatively low-tech weapons might do. Many of the 9/11 skeptics insist that a steel structure would not have melted just from the fireball from a jetliner’s fuel burning. I don’t know if this was a renovated part of the freeway post 1989, but the fact that a single tanker trunk caused a freeway overpass to collapse makes me, as a non-scientist engineer, a bit less skeptical of the capacity of everyday items to manage what even the most potent bombs from the beginning of the twentieth century couldn’t.

Last Wednesday, Retired General Robert Scates’s testimony before Congress flew well under the news on behalf of an idea called the “Language Corps.” Scates’s notion is simple. Modern wars are won across multiple dimensions. While the United States has a huge advantage technologically, its resources for fighting a cultural and diplomatic war are much more meager. At some point, you can’t just kill everyone who stands in your way. In the meantime, weapons of medium destruction like fertilizer bombs, chlorine trucks, etc. remain both easily accessible and potentially almost as dangerous as the most sophisticated nuclear and chemical weapons.

Think about it, post-9/11 we can’t exactly ban all airline traffic nor can we seriously consider doing things like eliminating fuel trucks. Both are assumed into any modern city. We can check all the passengers and trucks we want, but that doesn’t address the culture bomb. The danger only gets worse as long as the number of people who might have motives for doing these things continues to increase. It’s not perfect, but the ability to share a language and to understand what matters to someone else does help persuade people to work things out rather than to use planes as missiles and fertilizer trucks as bombs.

As I watched the Warrior game, they kept flashing pictures of screaming fans in the stands. As much as any place in America, I believe the Bay Area can claim that American culture is a suitable vehicle for cultural interchange and inclusion. People whose ancestors came from every part of the world were in there screaming in unison when Baron davis hit a 49 foot shot to end the half, stole the ball and drove for a layup to end the third quarter, and then hit Andres Biedrins , the Warriors Ukrainian big man, with a perfect pass for a layup to clinch the game. It’s possible that the Warriors will lose even this series, but this team reminds me of the 1981 49ers whom no one expected to go deep into the playoffs. There were two signature moments in that season as well. During the season, the 49ers beat the Cowboys big behind Fred Dean, acquired mid-season from the Chargers. They got to the Super Bowl against the Cowboys when Dwight Clark made “The Catch” the single greatest moment in Candlestick history in the corner of the end zone.

On Super Bowl Sunday in 1981, the Chicago Symphony performed at Davies Hall, still relatively new at the time. Before the performance, cars up and down Van Ness honked their horns continuously in celebration of the 49ers first championship. You could hear it inside Davies. In tribute, Solti changed the program slightly to play Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Overture. Wagner was very self-consciously building a German cultural identity, Germany the political entity was still relatively new, through Opera. It struck me that all those honking automobile horns were a kind of American symphony celebrating our own cultural identity that afternoon more than a quarter century ago.

At that time, another incident, the first time I ever heard of David Halberstam, was still fresh in my mind. My parents sent me off to a private school in New England for high school. Although my grandfather was wealthy, my parents were decidedly middle class. They were part of the first generation of Chinese to raise their children in the suburbs. For whatever reason, the Kennedys resonated especially strongly with my father. Joe Kennedy had been a bootlegger and my Grandfather owned a gambling house. Both had taken an interest in politics for their children as a means to completing the arc of success in America. To get his children ready, Joseph Kennedy, the scion of the Irish Catholic family, sent his sons to decidedly English-protestant Prep Schools in New England. I went to one of the schools that had been attended by several prominent JFK advisors.

When Halberstam’s portrait of how JFK/LBJ’s advisor had drifted into Vietnam came out, my Dad went straight to Tower Books because it contained some long sections about my high school. I don’t think it occurred to my Dad that Halberstam’s description wasn’t necessarily flattering though it wasn’t damning either. My Dad simply liked pointing to sections in a real book and saying “That’s where my son goes to school.”

Actually the man who had taught the presidential advisor the lessson of Munich and appeasement that got overgeneralized to Ho Chi Minh, was still teaching at my school. In any case, a few months later Nat Hentoff, the Village Voice columnist, was a guest speaker at the school and he chose the occasion to riff off Halberstam’s book and announced that “JFK’s chief advisors were war criminals.” Both the history teacher and three of the man’s sons were in the audience.

A long emotional encounter mediated by both the teacher and the headmaster ensued. Honestly, I didn’t really understand the very strong emotions of my three fellow students, none of whom I ever got to know all that well. I even sort of sympathized with Hentoff who kept saying that he’d had no idea that they were in the audience, but that he still believed that the best schools would teach people to honor the “human” impact of the decisions they made. It was a strange moment for me as well in understanding the place of this school in my life and my place in it. My parents desperately wanted me to do well there as an “open door” to a future. I was looking around at all these dope-smoking school mates, many of whom were also very bright, diligent, and committed to improving the world and thinking there was something wrong. The problem was that I never could articulate it nor could I choose between pleasing my parents and setting my own course, a fairly common adolescent issue just in an odd setting.

It struck me though that Halberstam recognized the mixed legacy of Brahmin institutions and the odd role they had played in getting us to Vietnam. I became a fan of his writing and followed him through his explorations of the fall of the U.S. Car Industry, the Fifties, the Trailblazers, the newspaper business, the Cardinals, Dimaggio’s hitting streak and Williams’s .400 season, etc. One time I gave my father a copy of Halbertsam’s Robert Kennedy book, An Unfinished Odyssey, and that remains one of my best memories of my dad. We both read the book in a single setting and my Dad kept reading passages from it aloud. It didn’t occur to me that my Dad was different in some ways. He wanted me to go to the best schools to some day make money, but money wasn’t what mattered to him. It was what one might do with money to make the world a better place that mattered.

Halberstam wrote about a huge variety of subjects starting with his early indictment of the Vietnam War. In another sense though, he always wrote the same book. Invariably, his theme was the pursuit of the kind of transcendent excellence in the world that somehow touches the soul. As I watched Bill Walton broadcast a Warriors game over the weekend, the reason why Halberstam’s writing resonated with me so much finally came home to me. He was writing about my parents’ own take on the American Dream which they wanted to live through me. (Yes, I know that one has other implications as well)

End Part I continue to Part II if you care to.



At 5/02/2007 02:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the Language Corps idea is fabulous. Just think if we put a smidgen of the resources we pump into weapons into teaching kids languages. I'm not sure where Gen. Scates starts, but very young children have stem-cellish or undifferentiated brains wherein they can take in another language like a sponge. They don't have to 'learn' it.

No greater gift than to give a kid that multilingualism. We assume everyone will speak English. Imagine how powerfully respectful it would be if we spoke their native language!

At 5/02/2007 05:46:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Scates is mostly talking about the armed forces, so I doubt that he has young children in mind.

IT's a great idea, but it's also true that peoples who speak a common language often go to war against one another.

At 5/06/2007 02:19:00 PM, Blogger inkyhack said...

I read several of Halberstam's books. The guy was brilliant.

At 5/06/2007 06:56:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I'm not exactly sure what always made him compelling, but he always had great anecdotes and never seemed to lose track of his larger points about why excellence happens in some places but not others.


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