September 20, 2004
(Swans - September 20, 2004)
Wally Shawn is an impish little guy with a grand presence. Some remember
him from "My Dinner with Andre," some from his cameo roles in "Star
Trek" and in a long list of movies.
Shawn has spent his life living down a very famous daddy and carving out a distinctive reputation of his own as playwright and actor.
His short monologue, "Fever," presents a chilling insight into a man confronting the violence and terrifying actualities of Third World life. "The Designated Mourner" has three metro-New York characters dealing with the implosions of their world.
In the spring 1997 edition of the literary magazine "Bomb," an American "Granta," Patrick McGrath interviewed Shawn. McGrath said, "In 'The Designated Mourner,' there is a sense that the liberal intelligentsia may be impotent, irresponsible, hypothetical, but at the same time, when they go, everything of value goes with them." Shawn replied, "My dear fellow, you've summarized my work so beautifully that I don't need to say any more or write any more."
As I may be classed by some as "liberal intelligentsia," am I also impotent, irresponsible and hypothetical?
Many years ago, Graham Greene wrote about Americans as arrogant, indifferent and separated from the actualities of Third World life. His context then was Vietnam.
Last night, we watched a PBS Home Video from the American Experience series, "Daughter from Danang." Perhaps, given the passage of years, I need to remind readers that Danang is in Vietnam. It was one of the largest American bases and entry ports during that extended war.
Mai Thi Hiep was born of a Vietnamese mother and an American father. In 1975, at age seven, she was shipped off to the USA in "Operation Babylift." President Ford made a gesture to ameliorate the damages done and children left behind when Americans abandoned Vietnam in the early 1970s culminating in the takeover by the North in 1975. 2,000 AmerAsian children, said to be orphans (although many like Hiep were not), were sent to the USA for adoption. Hiep was adopted by a woman from Tennessee and became Heidi. Pulaski, TN is proud to be the home of the Ku Klux Klan. There is an annual parade celebrating this fact.
Heidi's Vietnamese origin was taboo. She easily passed. She was sternly told never to mention her birthplace. Heidi became Miss All-America of Tennessee. Growing up, going to college, being shut out by her adoptive mother, marrying a naval officer and having two daughters; Heidi lives an American Dream.
She yearned to know her birth mother in spite of all she has experienced growing up in Tennessee. Through intervention of a Vietnamese woman journalist living in San Francisco, the birth mother is located in Danang. Accompanied by the journalist and a film crew, Heidi goes to Vietnam full of warm and fuzzy feelings.
The actualities she confronts stun her. Her mother lives in marginal circumstances. She has sibling and a host of relatives in a massive extended family. Her mother and family shower her with affection far beyond anything she has ever known. They also have expectations founded in Vietnamese culture; expectations about family and roles and mutual support. The rich daughter from America, long lost and now found, can help. She can take her mother home. She can send money. She can join the emotional and cultural fabric of "her" family.
Heidi smashes into her fantasies and dissolves. She wanted to find her mother as a warm and fuzzy actuality with no obligations assumed thereby. Her mother wants to hold onto her and to have her close.
Heidi flees "home." She finds she has no sense of family in terms of those strangers in Danang. They don't speak English much, either. They want money. They want her to share their lives, their feelings, their thoughts as much as they share with each other. Heidi sees poverty, no running water, no hot water, no privacy, no alone time, no luxuries taken for granted. It is crowded, hot and sticky in Danang.
Back home in Navy housing, she closes her mind and herself to her mother and Vietnamese family. Letters go unanswered. Money isn't sent. The actualities encountered are simply too much to deal with. They are put aside. She will not look for her father.
Back home in America, Heidi forgets about mother and family and goes on as Miss All-America of Pulaski, TN, home of the Ku Klux Klan. Her adoptive mother hasn't spoken to her in years and Heidi will not again speak to her birth mother in Vietnam.
Graham Greene meets Ugly American in a Vietnamese-born AmerAsian who passes. Tragedy finds new parameters.
Heidi's being American is so totally American. We bemoan the suffering of others and go about our business at home. "Fever" comes to Pulaski, TN.
Recently, out here in Hawaii, we are finding fire where there is smoke. Irregularities in voter registration when called to authorities' attention get papered over. Pragmatic concerns about introduction of Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines are shunted aside as irrelevant. Massive purgings of voter rolls are dismissed with superficial numbers.
One thing about a small state like Hawaii is that it is possible to get to the officials involved. Our barriers are water between islands and air fares involved in going to the capitol in Honolulu. After some persistence, we get a meeting on some registration issues and an opportunity to get close to the DREs which are coming on line here. As far as registration is concerned, we get more of the "can't do" attitude than hoped. More work needed.
However, we did get a chance to talk with some brass and major staff of the DRE company. We learned a great deal about the machines and the framework within which they are designed and produced.
The hot topic is "paper trail." We learned that the machines can produce replicas of ballots cast on them as well as statistical analysis and results reporting minutiae. We learned that the State did not require vendors to produce paper trails all the way back to ballots. We now see that Catch-22 deals with much more than WWII military bureaucracy. The vendors can do it but their contract does not include it. No free lunch on paper trails, either.
Ultimately, we come back to the underlying state and national systems as well as the operating systems of elections. Essentially, the State election Office and County Election Office exist in a kind of bureaucratic fantasy world. There is little or no oversight in any meaningful sense of the word. For many too many years, little attention has been paid to what actually goes on. Nobody gave much of a damn. Nobody looked.
The Constitution reserves elections to the states. There are 50 versions of election systems operating now. Beginning in the late 1980s, more formally in 1990s through Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and 2002 with Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA) the feds stuck their noses under the state tents.
The people who bring us DREs find themselves whipsawed between concerns for usability and security. ADA provides specs related to disabled and challenged voters, i.e., usability. HAVA provides specs related to security, i.e., keep out hackers and such. Matters such as challenges and recounts slip through cracks.
Layer specs about usability and security on top of 50-plus election systems and you get design nightmares. Top it all off with the very politicized DRE manufacturers such as Diebold and prime investors in DRE companies such as Thomas Hicks of Hart InterCivic. Mix in the horror stories from Florida, Georgia, Riverside County in California, et al., and try to make sense of any of it.
Thanks to our state and county election officials, we now know enough to be thoroughly confounded not to mention clearly confused. Changing from paper to pixels is much more than an evolutionary step. It is radically revolutionary.
I can understand the operating logics of the DREs coming to Hawaii. I can figure out the major systems parameters involved. After operating the machines through the entire cycle from ballot to results, I see what they can do and find that they are not asked to be all that they can.
How to penetrate all this information and propose action steps to deal with it is mind-boggling. After many years of neglect and state laws which bind in the fallacies inherent, untangling the webs involves phenomenal sets of tasks.
We have tapped into Pandora's box with no way of closing it back up again.
Wally Shawn's screams of horror in "Fever," his ripping of complacencies in "The Designated Mourner," the shattering actualities of encountering family elsewhere and the numbing search for denial, smash home, too close, too close.
Collectively and individually, we are shown as impotent, irresponsible and hypothetical.
I am not alone.
Welcome home, America!
· · · · · ·
US Elections & Democracy on Swans
America the 'beautiful' on Swans
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