Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “intelligence”

Veteran’s Day – An Excerpt from Unwanted Heroes

Unwanted Heroes will be released in the new year. The galley proofs are back in the hands of the publisher and I have just seen a first rendition of the cover. 

Unwanted Heroes brings together an old, battle weary Chinese American war vet and an idealistic and pretentious young Englishmen, who share a love for San Francisco, coffee and wine.  They soon discover they share even more when repressed memories bring them together in a gripping climax, finding in each other, an unlikely ally to free themselves from the tragic past that binds them both.  

In recognition of Veteran’s Day, I would like to share a scene with you. Mr. van Ness is Will’s (the protagonist) girlfriend’s father.


Mr. van Ness downs the rest of his cognac in one gulp and stands up.

“I want to show you something, Will. Come.”

We leave the country club in his black, shiny Mercedes and drive about twenty minutes to the military cemetery in the Presidio. There are stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I stare silently as we pass through the tall stone and iron gates. The cemetery, like most of the city, is built on a hill. Rows of white tombstones stand in perfect, military symmetry, each defined by straight grass borders, like a white and green chessboard. A huge flag blows in the wind as I follow Jane’s father to a section of graves.

“What do you think the average soldier dreads when he goes off to war?” He asks without looking back at me.

I think for the moment. “Death, captivity, maybe never seeing his loved ones again?”

Mr. van Ness nods. “That’s about it. What about an officer?”

“The same?”

“Yes, but there’s something else. The officers see the young, fresh faces when they join the unit. Sometimes, if we’re embarking together, we see their parents, wives, girlfriends, and children. They hug and cry, while the family steals surreptitious glances at the officer, silently pleading: bring my boy home, my lover, my father.

“And a shiver courses through you. You are not God, probably not much of a soldier either. You know you cannot protect them, but still you swear a silent oath; to try and bring them back alive, as many of them as you can. Fuck the war, the politics, the drive to serve your country. All you want is to bring your boys back. You’d rather face a thousand of the enemy than one of these parents, wives or children at the funeral, or remembrance service.”

We stop by a tombstone and he crouches down, tenderly cleaning some dirt that has gathered there. I crouch with him as he takes a deep breath.

“The last time my wife entered my den was about fifteen years ago, Will. She shouldn’t have, but her motives were no doubt innocent. She found a small black notebook, almost full. I had written a list of names, mainly women. The names reappeared regularly and there was a column with dates and another with dollar amounts. She found a checkbook from a bank she was sure we didn’t use.

“That evening she confronted me. We didn’t hold secrets from each other, financial or otherwise. Who were these women? Ex-lovers? Illegitimate kids? I roared back that it was none of her damn business, how dare she enter my den and I yelled other absurdities. We’d never raised our voices to each other like that and have never since. Totally out of control, total rage.”

He points to the tombstone.

“My first sergeant, Pete O’Reilly. He died in my arms. The last words he heard were an oath from my lips to take care of his two young kids. Their mother received monthly checks from the bank, anonymous. When his oldest daughter was eighteen, she received a letter from the bank about a trust fund for her and her brother to pay for university tuition. The youngest graduated from Stanford a few years back.”

We move on to another grave. “His family’s all devout Catholics. I swore that they’d never know how he died. He’s buried here as a hero, and so it’ll remain.”

At another grave, he seems lost in thought, buried memories resurfacing. Then at length he turns to me. “Jane doesn’t know this, neither does her mother.” I nod, understanding the unspoken and he continues. “I worked in intelligence as well. I oversaw the recruitment and training of a spy network, of sort. Nothing glamorous. We gave the alcoholics and junkies money for booze and drugs.

“They gave us information, basic stuff like troop movement, nothing too significant. Crumbs. They were the dregs of their society and they knew little. But sometimes they knew enough to prevent some of our troops dying. If we thought we could use methods and intimidation to get more out of them, we never hesitated. If it saved one more life…

“I didn’t care, I could justify it. Not for the great United States, or for freedom and democracy, but to get my boys home alive. If this piece of shit’s confession could save just one of my boys, let him scream.”

He took a moment to compose himself. “They were handled by Asians, usually Asian-Americans recruited over here. These people had it hard. They may have nothing to do with Vietnam, born thousands of miles away, in a different culture, a different language. They were doing their job as loyal Americans, no different from the rest of us.

“But they were seen as different. Yellow skin, slit eyes aroused all the wild fears and prejudices that permeated the white and black soldiers. They largely hung out together and felt betrayed.

“Then we returned home. To some we were heroes, but many felt uneasy, as they’d heard of the horrors we’d inflicted. For the Asian-American soldiers, it was twice as bad. In civilian clothes, they were just another immigrant, just another who looked like the enemy. They received no honor, no respect from their peers. Sometimes they were even rejected by their own.”

He pauses again. I watch his warm breath escape as he exhales into the chilly air.

“There are two of these men still alive, physically at least. They’re both loners, pariahs. They’ve never held down jobs, never married. They wander the streets, allowing themselves to remember only enough to ensure they return to a hostel of sorts that feeds them and gives them beds. They are luckier than the homeless you talk about, Will. Their officer turned out to be a rich bastard who cares. Their tabs at the hostel are taken care of.”

There is silence and we stand up stiffly, both staring around. I search for something to say and put my hand on his shoulder. “You’re a good man, James, a generous man.”

He turns sharply and looks at me incredulously. His voice becomes sharp and loud. “I don’t do it for them! I do it for me! I do it so that I can live, so that I can continue. I do it to keep away the nightmares, to prevent the faces of widows and orphans staring at me at every turn.”

He begins to walk towards the car.

“You’re still a good man, James.” I shout after him, my voice shaking with emotion. He turns to face me. My arm sweeps in the cemetery and, with considerable effort, I steady my voice. “They all know who you are and what you did. They still think you’re a fucking hero. So do I, sir, even if I can’t understand it all.”

He stares at me for what feels like hours and I walk slowly towards him. He is breathing heavily; I see this even though the winter coat he wears. When he speaks, his voice is quiet, but steely.

“Find your boss, son. Find him and help him if you can: his brother too, if the poor bastard’s still alive.”


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. His next novel, Unwanted Heroes, is due out in early 2013. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Real Men Don’t Cry

This is how we are brought up. Men used to wander around with a club, bringing down mammoths and dragging a female back to the cave. We have progressed a bit since then, what with vegetarianism and on-line dating, but there are certain mores that we don’t expect to cross. 

I’ve done the ‘man’ things – play and watch sports, hit the gym, enjoy beer, fish, served in a combat unit, wooed a beautiful woman, and fathered two wonderful boys. I have a good job and plenty of friends.

Last month, my eldest son had his bar mitzvah and put on a flawless display of teaching, chanting, and schmoozing. He stood before our community and talked about the need to educate and not punish, to pursue social justice, and his desire to make the world a better place.

He was great and I am very proud of him. He worked very hard for two years to reach the level in which he could achieve this. Then it was time for his parents to bless him.

My wife won the toss (soccer reference) and chose to go first, knowing that I am confidant and used to standing before an audience and speaking into a microphone. Her blessing was modest, genuine and heartfelt, a reflection of her as a mother, wife and friend.

Over the hump, right? Wrong. I had written my blessing for him a while ago. I told him meaningful the project we had pursued together (we wrote the first Wycaan Master novel together) and then imparted how I saw him as our coming-of-age protagonist. And then I choked up…and cried. When I stopped and stole a sip of his water bottle, he leaned over and gave me a hug.

The first thing that went through my mind was shock. I hadn’t expected this, even though I have been known to cry at a Simpson’s episode (another story). I actually wasn’t embarrassed for myself: I was embarrassed for him. I struggled through and he still talks to me. Moreover, many people came up to me and gave me loving reinforcement.

But it was the comments from the men that I remember. There were some who admitted to shedding a tear themselves, others who said that I had done something they would like to be able to do. Some admitted they could never allow their mask to come down like that in public, or maybe any time. 

In the struggle for equal rights between the sexes, we have seen a necessary push for women – equal opportunities, equal pay, and legal protections. All this stems from societal mores that favored men and allowed us to exercise a ‘power over’ that is unacceptable in a modern society.

But we, as men pay a price. Most of us still shoulder most of the burden of material provision, or at least feel we should even when our partners are better qualified and can pursue better jobs. We are mostly the warriors from defending our country to our family,

We all respected George Bush for shedding tears at 9/11 but we still expected him to go blow someone up as a consequence for us being attacked. President Obama’s status rose when we took out bin Laden. He did not gather the intelligence or undertake the mission, but in making the decision, he became a warrior chief.

I have worked closely with my son over the past few years, preparing him for this rite-of-passage, and I will continue to work with him, preparing him to enter society as a man.

To ignore our role as the hunter/gatherer would be foolish. To ignore our rights as men to be sensitive and nurturing would be sad.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Dumb Republicans! – Tom Rossi

It’s been a fun week for those who enjoy making fun of right-wing ideologues. News of a study by Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Brusseri was released that appears to have shown that right-wingers are dumb. I can’t wait to see Jon Stewart’s bit on this, but because this has been pounced upon by so many already, I’ll leave the fun and the defensiveness to others and explain why I think the truth in this matter is a little more complicated.

Judging by the abstract (that’s all that’s currently available, as the article is “in press”), the authors did not actually attempt to link the lack of cognitive ability (called “dumbness” in articles that have appeared all over the internet) with conservatism but rather concluded that low cognitive ability along with low “intergroup contact” were strongly linked to racial and homosexual prejudice, with the presence of “right wing ideology” mediating the relationship.

This little abstract, much as the avalanche of related internet materials, is loaded with potentially fine and not-so-fine hairs to split in terminology – cognitive ability vs. intelligence, conservative vs. right-wing ideologue, etc. It’s too big a mess to sort out here, so let’s just explore some experiences I’ve had in the relation between politics and intelligence.

At one point in my life, I found that I had three very close friends who identified themselves as conservatives. In order to talk about them freely, without fear of the potential the retaliation of a really long list of my own “interesting” characteristics being posted on the internet, I’ll just call them, “Snap,” “Crackle,” and “Pop.” I knew each well and each was highly intelligent and at least somewhat well educated.

Snap was instrumental in my getting through one of the most difficult times of my life. He was heavily involved in the “fine arts” – music, specifically, in which he got a Master’s degree. When he graduated, he returned to his home in the “Deep South.” He became re-immersed in his family’s politics and soon, Snap snapped and stopped talking to me, mostly because I refused to accept George W. Bush as the savior of America. Admittedly, I made lots of jokes at W.’s expense, even when I knew it antagonized my friend, so some of the blame is certainly mine. But his (I say illegitimate) admiration for W. was eclipsed by his legitimate admiration for his own father – a brilliant surgeon who miraculously puts people back together after horrifying accidents. I greatly miss his Snap’s friendship.

Crackle is somewhat high up in the criminal justice field. He “only” has a Bachelor’s degree (that he received alongside me), but he just might have the most organized mind of the three. He is a staunch conservative and he gives generously to good charities, both of his time and his money. He has invested his work and his money very wisely and is a middle-class success story if there ever was one. His debating skills are incredible and he keeps up on current events amazingly well, especially with all the work he does while raising two kids. He challenges me on the issues of politics so well that I have to work way too hard to compete with him. Sometimes I give up, not because he’s beaten me, but because I can’t keep up with his energy.

Pop has been one of my best friends for many years. He’s very smart, and honest even when there are clear incentives not to be. He has an MBA from a top university and what is commonly called a “type A” personality in that he is incredibly energetic and is adamant in expressing his opinions. Faced with obstacles, he only sees ways to overcome them. He always encourages me even when it must feel like bashing his head against a brick wall. Recently, Pop has decided that he is, after all, a liberal, except when it comes to certain issues like guns. I actually credit Bill Maher with this transformation.

Each of these three also seems to admire me, even though I think of myself as not much more than a screw-up. These are all good, smart, caring people. Why is this long-winded, personal story important? Because it shows that people don’t have to be dumb to have conservative values.

I know what you’re going to say: “Whoa there Tom! You love nothing more than to make fun of Republicans!” And you would be right. I make fun of just about everything. But it would be a mistake to think that conservatism is simply based on a lack of intelligence. Lots of conservatives are dumb, as are lots of liberals. But plenty are not dumb. Instead they have followed false algorithms from their values to their political affiliations.

This means that progressives can’t just fall back on their mental superiority and assume that they will (along with all humanity) easily win the battle for the earth. It means we have to sharpen our pencils… and our rhetoric. I love to make jokes, but explaining just why it is that I and others believe that we must change the trajectory of this country is going to be a lot more difficult. It involves the illumination of more than one inconvenient truth.

The reality of broad variation in intelligence among conservatives splits the work of creating a more progressive society in two. The fact is that, in order to advance to a better society, conservatives have to be convinced that many of their ideas are wrong – especially about economics. I always feel that I have a legitimate shot at changing the minds of intelligent conservatives. The dumb ones? I’m not sure how to deal with them.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

-Tom Rossi

(with thanks to Roger Ingalls)


Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.


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