Tuesday, April 27, 2004

9 of 1: A Window to the World, By Oliver Chin, 2003, Frog, Ltd.

What fucking Americans are these? Oliver Chin’s graphic essay/story of a high school teacher giving his kids the assignment of interviewing a stranger about the events of September 11th tries overly hard to teach and as such falls ridiculously short of entertaining. Every single person interviewed is intelligent, thoughtful, very well-informed about the world around him or her, and critical of the U.S. government’s foreign policy goals. Maybe in some idealized version of the world this might be true, but my own reflections of the days and weeks surrounding 9/11 aren’t so candy colored as Chin’s.

The book tries to be serious, with characters who speak in long-winded speeches and students who often interrupt their interview subjects to interject informative bits like “In June 1965, as recorded in his secret White House tapes, LBJ admitted that the U.S.’ inexorable involvement [in Vietnam] was a tragic mistake.” Yes, I know of so many sixteen-year-olds regularly discussing the Johnson Administration’s policy initiatives and using words like “inexorable.” Not that they don’t exist, but every student in this book speaks like that. Hell, every character speaks like that. It’s almost as if Chin wanted to pontificate on the subject and reach “the kids,” so he wrote a work, illustrated it sloppily and primitively, and then put his speeches into every character’s mouth. Regardless of whether the character is a sixteen-year-old high school student, a Russian émigré veteran of the Soviet Afghani campaign, a Japanese gardener’s wife, or a white middle aged businessman, they all speak the same educated Chin-speak.

Granted, Chin’s goals are laudable and his grasp of the international history is fairly complete and even-handed, but his presentation is laughably preachy. He even includes a section of “Reading Questions” at the end and a list of suggested further reading. He’s gone about making sure to get one of every major ethnicity for good balance and such, yet not one character is even remotely lifelike. They are puppets mouthing Chin’s words instead of fully realized characters. Kids recognize when they’re being talked down to or speechified to and they don’t react to it well.

Barely any emotion registers in any character. On September 12th, 2001, while walking down the hallway at work, I was approached by a coworker who suggested to me, in lieu of any evidence or reasoning, that we should simply nuke a couple of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Polls did show a far lower level of blind support for George Bush and his policies among minorities after 9/11 than among whites, but it is surprising to read a book of interviews immediately following that day and not have someone even offer token patriotism. Or even rage. There is a little sorrow, but it is mostly at the U.S.’ reaction to the attacks.

I would seriously love to live in a world such as Chin depicts where people reasonably discuss the role of America in the world with knowledge and facts. However, I live in the real world where jingoism and sloganeering dominate much discourse on such subjects. My own mother suggested during the war in Afghanistan that we should lock up all Muslims—and my mother is a fairly reliable bellwether of person-on-the-street mentality. Most discussions I had outside the circle of my liberal leaning friends would erupt into arguments and name calling, people would simply choose to ignore uncomfortable facts, and any questioning of our goals or motivations would get my American citizenship questioned. Leaving out the beligerent Americans in this book is ennobling in making us appear a country full of high-minded ideals and an active an engaged citizenry, but the raw truth of the matter is that is not the country we live in. Pretending otherwise is fallacious and dishonest, even if it is in pursuit of opening up the eyes of American teenagers to more than FoxNews propaganda and reiterations of such mindless catch phrases as “they hate our freedoms.”

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