Category: Uncategorized

American Stagnancy in “Angels in America”: What’s next for the U.S.?

When reading Angels in America, there’s no avoiding its overtness when it comes to the political. The era of Reaganism and conservatism in the 1980s is depicted as one seeking stability of power from the status quo; and, the traditional moral values that, for example, have privileged the traditional, white, heterosexual American. Angels in America therefore places emphasis on the notion of progress and of moving forward. When Prior rejects the angels’ prophecy, for instance, and chooses life and all its uncertainties, it is symbolic of how life and living is about change, not stagnancy.

But in Angels in America, the liberal left is not necessarily made to be any better than the seemingly antagonized right-wing Reaganists. Louis, for instance, despite all his “big ideas” about progressivism and American liberalism, remain just that– big ideas. Louis’ own perceptions of liberalism and American freedom, much like the conservatism he hates, also seems to be focused on a select few, and ignores those such as Belize who emphasizes the significance of race in the political sphere. Therefore, while “the left” and “the right” appear to be polar opposites, neither seem to fully take into account the voices of those who are marginalized or at the periphery.

In thinking about Angels in America, one cannot help but think about the present socio-economic and political state of the U.S. The problems of institutional racism, socio-economic inequality, flawed healthcare, and toxic American individualism and exceptionalism have all resurfaced with full force in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic. And while one can say the Trump administration has exacerbated these problems, they are problems that have always been so deeply rooted in America society, and perpetuated throughout the centuries of even Democrat presidencies. In spite of its more recent signs of progress– such as with the election of the first African-American president, or the legalization of same-sex marriages in all 50 U.S. states– America continues to fall back on a traditional national narrative, and in turn, a broken socio-political system driven by this narrative. Yet if anything, the ending of Angels in America does offer a glimmer of hope, as its final words echo the current state of activism and change-making in the country. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore”– no longer will anyone keep silent.

Power of Labels and Labels of Power

Labels have power, Very recently we saw the 45th US president, Donald trump call the SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) the Chinese virus. this caused an uproar because labeling the virus “The Chinese virus” causes the formation of an exaugurated association between the virus and China. Therefore, indirectly causing an increase in xenophobia towards East Asians in the country.

People can use these labels to build favorable or unfavorable personas, we can find examples of this often in politics. Donald Trump has been problematic in public more than just once or twice. Throughout his presidency and candidacy, he has often made sexist, racist, and Islamophobic remarks in public, and therefore has been labeled as such. Meanwhile, our other candidate this year, Joe Biden, had led his candidacy with a persona of an anti-racist, feminist, and an open person. But looking back we can see that Joe Biden has had his share of problematic issues during his time as a politician. For example, a big issue that many Muslim voters had with Joe Biden was the fact that he voted for the war in Iraq. A war that caused the loss of thousands of lives. Yet as we have seen, many Muslims have still voted for Joe Biden because of his newer, more acceptable persona. Similarly, there was the issue of Biden behaving inappropriately with women or the comments he made on his segregationist colleagues. 

This election we had been fighting to vote Trump out of the white house rather than to get Biden into the white house. Because neither the candidates are fit to be president. But we would much rather have a progressive democrat who makes some racist comments than to have an openly racist republican.

Ignoring the Root Causes (Lubnah’s Augmenter Post)

The town of Oran in Camus’ text is a breeding ground for an epidemic. The money-mindedness of the townspeople, and the culture of working, living and dying in the same manner, described as “feverish yet casual,” along with the shallow social interactions, create the ideal atmosphere for a plague to settle in just as comfortably as the people in the town. The sense one gets is that of indifference towards health, both mental and physical, as everyone’s “chief aim in life… is ‘doing business.’” It is easy for readers to imagine such a tragedy as an epidemic striking Oran without its inhabitants noticing its severity and gravity, as they don’t seem to be the type of people who notice the severity or gravity of anything. The author has, thus, used this passage to set the town of Oran up as an easy target, but not an unpredictable one.

Similarly, COVID-19 can be seen as a symptom of the larger structural issues in our world. A new report by the UNEP called “Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission” addresses how much of the human activity in recent years has laid the foundations for the current pandemic, which is very similar to what happened in Oran. The rapid urbanization, advancements in the expansion of cities and increased industrialized agriculture have been considered to be some root causes of the pandemic. While many people are quick to address symptoms of the pandemics – e.g., close contact for COVID-19 and rats for the plague – root causes remain largely ignored. Further outbreaks will continue to occur unless we address the underlying phenomenon. For some reason in both Camus’ text and the real world, we seem hesitant to, for that would require a 180 shift from our comfortable lifestyles.

A Theoretical Framework for Othering (Maitha’s Augmenters Post)

Among one of the most recurrent themes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe is othering, or categorizing certain groups of people as “Us vs. Them”. We witnessed this in the circulated story of how “AIDs travelled by foreign germs down from central and western parts of Africa” (p. 3 – 4). It is also seen in the vulgar nickname Makwerekwere , designated for black foreigners from other countries. (p. 20). It is also seen in the way white people are referred to, especially in all the stories circulated on what disorder takes place in the “kitchens” (p, 23).

Because of this very recurrent focus on othering, I couldn’t help but think back to Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Chapter 11 of Behave, “Us Versus Them” theorizes the concept of othering, taking into account both nature and nurture.  

One of the most memorable arguments in that chapter is the standardized ways in which human beings view “Thems” as well as the standardized ways in which “Those Thems” evoke responses from us (Sapolsky, p. 398). The following quote encapsulates this well:

“Thus, Thems come in different flavors – threatening and angry, disgusting and repellent, primitive and undifferentiated.” (p. 399)

Thems can evoke feelings of disgust, feelings of menace, or even feelings of threat and fear, depending on the way they are largely viewed (e.g. “I am afraid of Them because Their religion is radical”, or “I am disgusted by Them because They bring diseases”, or “I am angry at Their presence because They are stealing my jobs”) (p. 398 – 400).

This framework, introduced by Sapolsky, could give us better guidance to understand the different forms of othering that are happening in Welcome to Our Hillbrow.


Mpe, Phaswane. Welcome to our Hillbrow. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2001.

Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin, 2017.

“Hillbrow, scary? You have not seen the half of it.” (Augmenter’s Post_from Mingu)

             The video shot on March 30th, 2020, by AmaBhungane, an investigative journalism organization that focuses primarily on exposing political corruption in South Africa, contains scenes of violence from a policeman in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, against people who are “accused of” breaking lock-down rules. 

             In plainclothes, the police seen in the video is running after people with his whip and beating them, as his acquiescence to the orders from the “higher up.” Amid such police brutality, a crowd from what appears to be a vertical slum or a shabby apartment complex cheers from above, as the person being chased runs away from the officer.

             The sound of the cheers is analogous to that of a football/soccer match, an extremely disturbing resemblance that made me question if the noise could have ever been, at least for some, a reflection of the scene of tension and violence being considered entertainment of some sorts.

             Perhaps this assumption came from the experience of reading the following lines from Welcome to Our Hillbrow, which made me wonder if the person being chased could be by any chance a Makwerekwere:

             Makwerekwere knew they had no recourse to legal defence if they were caught. The police could detain or deport them without allowing them any trial at all. Even the Department of Home Affairs was not sympathetic to their cause. No one seemed to care that the treatment of Makwerekwere by the police, and the lack of sympathy from the influential Department of Home Affairs, ran contrary to the human rights clauses detailed in the new constitution of the country (23).

             The name of the organization that shot this short clip, AmaBhungane, means “dung beetles” in isiZulu, the primary indigenous language of South Africa. The center claims, according to its Twitter profile, that they are “digging dung, fertilizing democracy.” And it is thanks to the efforts of investigative (and citizen) journalism like AmaBhugane that accounts of police brutality and the want of public sympathy as shown in the YouTube video can be publicized to people and possibly contribute to holding the authorities accountable if any abuse of their power occurs.

             Through platforms such as YouTube and social media, the repeated patterns (and histories) of police brutality from the United States and Hong Kong to Nigeria and South Africa have been exposed to the world. Perhaps one of the ‘us versus them’ narratives that could be of focus in close-reading Welcome to Our Hillbrow is the relationship between the civilians and the police. While the efforts of AmaBhugane in sharing this video with the world helps to understand how police brutality is NEVER an issue that is confined to the United States, which is a misconception particularly common among the non-U.S. nationals, the following reply to a comment of the video further adds to an unfortunate and disturbing fact regarding the reality in Hillbrow:

“Hillbrow, scary? You have not seen the half of it.”

Link to AmaBhungane’s Twitter.

The (Two) Old Men and The Sea

Great wave off the coast of Kanagawa (Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1830)

Title of this post is retrieved from Earnest Hemingway, “The Old Man and The Sea”

Having established their friendship, what do two men do in their seek for a moment of solace amid the plague-stricken city? Well, they go for a swim together in the sea.

For a long time, many literary works have included the image of the sea and its symbolism. This paper should help you dig deeper into the meaning behind the recurrence of the sea in Camus’ works, as well as another symbolic image that he used – the sun.

Before the vast, immese ocean, human beings suddenly internalize our smallness, and at that moment we can’t help ourselves but contemplate about life. What do we learn about life from The Plague? Life is absurd, there is no such thing as value or meaning, but we have to continue fighting our battle anyway.

What I write below can be unrelated to Camus and The Plague, so please consider this a prior warning. From here, let me take you away from the shore of “recognized” literary works, and dive into the sea of the more “unofficial” form of literary: fanfiction. More specifically, slash fanfiction. This very swimming scene of Dr.Rieux and Tarrou in “The Plague” reminds me of a similar scence in my most favorite Vietnamese fanfiction of all time, “Head like a Big Row of Trees” by Mike Kobayashi. (title loosely translated into English by me.)

I have no doubt that Mike must have got inspiration for his swimming scene from Albert Camus. Two people, two men: while Dr.Rieux and Tarrou was looking for a moment of pleasure and solace, for oneness and isolation from the city; Mike’s characters were looking for a moment of purification, a spiritual transcendence, and maybe oneness as well.

This paragraph is the narrator’s monologue in “Head like a Big Row of Trees” after the swimming scece. If you are interested in this kind of writing, you can also read the summary of the story and the full swimming scene here. (This is also loosely translated by me.)

“I used to think, on that night, there was something dying inside us. But not until much later did I realize that death has always lied inside of us. When we were standing in front of the sea, the hauntingly black body of water, death suddenly stepped out and faced us, rendering us unable to utter a word. I realized, there are things that you cannot carry with you for a lifetime, you pick up the extra luggage and you throw it away, childhood toys, laughter from the good old days, leave them behind and move forward. It’s just that we have to accept the loss. Accept the fact that we are born to die, and day by day, we are coming closer to the immense organism that is the eternal sea of death.”

Lavish Excess in the Face of Death? (Siya’s augmenter’s post)

Ding Village hadn’t celebrated like this in years. The villagers couldn’t remember the last time they had seen a ceremony so exciting and lavish. There were tiny firecrackers that exploded with a pop, and great strings of them that popped and crackled for minutes on end. There were fireworks that exploded with a bang or a boom, and rockets that whizzed up into the air, sending down showers of sparks. It was a display to light up the sky and dazzle the senses. The noise of fireworks mingled with the babble of voices; smoke and charred bits of red paper floated through the air. 

At two key moments in the plot of Dream of Ding Village, we find that the community resorts to the strange phenomenon of celebration and gatherings as a means to alleviate the suffering of the AIDS epidemic: first, at the outset of the outbreak at Ma Xianglin’s concert, where nearly 300 people gathered despite the fever taking over the village; and second, during the narrator’s “wedding” (refer to quote above). In the first instance, the concert seems to serve as a happy distraction from a potentially threatening disease, whereas in the second, it is a display of lavish excess and a momentary respite from the widespread death that has ravaged the village. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, this raised several questions: what coping mechanisms do people gravitate towards when mortality is in question? Why are gatherings and celebrations continued in the face of crisis?

During COVID-19, underground parties have become increasingly commonplace. As this article highlights, millennials in metropolitan cities have been using secret WhatsApp groups to organise parties during this time, completely flouting social distancing norms. While the celebrations in Dream of Ding Village were strange enough already, the phenomenon becomes even more bizarre in the COVID context, as this is a virus that spreads through droplets, making each gathering potentially life threatening. This begs the question: why is it worth it? Why do people continue to seek opportunities to “celebrate” during crises even when the costs far outweigh the benefits? 

Psychologists recommend that despite COVID, children’s birthday parties (even virtually) are essential, as celebrations make children and adults feel like they are part of a community, and break the monotony of life during the pandemic. The psychological benefits of celebration during a crisis seem to make sense, however, I am still left with the question of why there is such an emphasis on excess and lavish grandeur in these celebrations. We observe a similar phenomenon in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, illustrating the historical use of sensory pleasures as a way to numb the pain of loss during crisis. 

Death: The High Cost of Living

When coffins are first introduced to the novel in volume one, they serve a utilitarian purpose: Grandpa makes the narrator a narrow wooden coffin to bury him outside the schoolyard. It is a humble coffin, but the narrator is still appreciative and the reader is given a sense that he was buried with respect. But the sudden influx of death in the village makes the once ominous and morbid coffin a well-sought after prize. Coffins become a scarce and therefore valuable resource. 

Yan is not exactly subtle with the message he wants to convey in his novel. When villagers begin cutting down old trees and repurposing school furniture for their coveted coffins, they are quite literally sacrificing their past and future. Yet it is hard to blame the villagers for wanting to honor their dead in such desperate times. The reason this sparks such outrage however is because all of it was ultimately unnecessary. If Ding Hui had not stolen the coffins in the first place, the villagers would have been fine. This is taken to the extreme when Ding Hui treats this as a personal challenge to show the villagers once and for all how capable he is. He pays for the coffin of his brother, the supposed family disgrace, with not only the blood of his village but their coffins too. It is a callous display of wealth that drives a nail into how a beautiful coffin is really just a symbol of mindless vanity and excess. It is a rats race. There is no benefit to a beautiful coffin to the dead. It is only a status symbol for the living.

Funerals are still often status symbols today. They can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which can include everything from body preparation, service fees, to actual casket costs. It is interesting to note that Mao himself was very much against burials as he thought they were a waste of wood and money and burials encouraged superstition (while his body ironically now lies embalmed in a glass sarcophagus in Beijing). As of today, there is a strong effort on the part of the CCP to eradicate burials in favor of cremation, although modern campaigns are more concerned with arable land scarcity than the actual needs of the people. It seems to echo the continuing theme of capitalist objectives pervading our treatment of the dead.

Plague Arbitrage

The leaves on the trees withered and curled. The scholar trees, whose shallow roots couldn’t absorb enough moisture from the soil, began shedding yellow leaves, as if autumn had come early. The deep-rooted elms remained green, but they attracted legions of insects. The whole insect kingdom converged on their branches and leaves. Small green worms, spotted ladybirds and yellow beetles turned the elms into private fiefdoms, marching up and down the branches, munching on the stems and leaves.

Volume 7, Chapter 1, Part 1

One of the easier themes to identify in times of plague is of the economy. The link is not difficult to grasp: plagues kill people and leave many stuck in their homes, reducing economic activity and thus business.

The blood selling of The Dream of Ding Village begins with the premise of a “strong and prosperous China (Vol 2, Ch 2)” but results in suffering for thousands and in the end, Ding Village is left empty. In terms of the real benefits, Ding Hui was able to exploit the system and made himself enough money to finally leave the village, with even more to spare, despite the villages and people that were crumbling around him.

COVID was not as debilitating, but the damage done to the economy was very clear – people being forced to leave the workforce, areas destabilized and overall loss of confidence. Yet still, there were many that seemingly were able to profit from this situation.

The S&P 500 Index since November 2019 (

When the virus was very much active, numbers growing and with economies far from recovery, the S&P netted over 60% returns (with NASDAQ over 80%) between March and August of this year. The amount of greed presented in the market parallels that of many officials as well as characters in the novel.

Perhaps on a positive note, the gains weren’t all allocated to those in power as presented in the novel, but there is a concern about the disconnect between a weakened economy (with uncertainty of the future) and a soaring market trying to point out an inefficiency.

The name’s Bond. Liberty Bond

Pale Horse Pale Rider is a story set in World War 1, and we see a lot of elements from the era become everyday realities for Miranda, our protagonist. One of those are the Liberty Bonds, which salesmen keep hounding her for, and she wonders what use her 50 dollars could be for the country. 

War is a military effort. It is an economic effort. It is a political effort. The Liberty Bonds were a way of making it a public effort too. It is quite interesting to delve a bit deeper into Liberty Bonds, to understand what they were and how useful they ended up being.

An explainer on how bonds work

Bonds provide a regular cash flow (in the form of interest payments), and can be very safe investments depending on the issuer. US Treasury bonds today are considered the safest asset in the world (i.e. the government will never default). The government’s reputation was very important in establishing credibility for people to buy Liberty Bonds.

A war is, beyond the display of military firepower, a stress test for the economy as well. Great war efforts need an economy that will support them. The “war economy” is the result of changes a country makes to alter its production capabilities. This means reorganising factories and mobilising extra labour (on account of increases in required production, and drafting of able-bodied soldiers).

However, a vital cog in this machine is how all of this is funded. When automobile companies produced vehicles for the US military, they called it their patriotic duty, but they still had to get paid for it. Who would pay, and how?

During World War 1, the US Government had 3 options: printing money, taxation, and borrowing. While printing money sounds like an easy fix, it actually means facing the risk of inflation in the economy, which wasn’t an exciting prospect in the middle of a war. 

Both taxation and borrowing were on the table, but having only one of them wasn’t the right option. Taxation meant that the US Government could conveniently pick the tax rate and collect a certain amount of revenue for the war. However, in an uncertain situation, it was not known how much the war would cost, and regularly increasing taxes was not something any government would be keen on.

Hence, Liberty Bonds were introduced as a way to raise an extra amount of money to fund the effort. They were supposed to be effective because of their high interest rates and the sense of patriotism one was supposed to get from buying one. It was targeted at households and individual investors, to introduce them to financial securities.

The Committee for Public Information, a propaganda office that was established to mobilise public opinion, took care of building a campaign around the bonds. 

Uncle Sam asking for the $$$

The effort was unprecedented

Here is a quote from an article by the Federal Reserve:

The loan drives were the subject of the greatest advertising effort ever conducted. The first drive in May 1917 used 11,000 billboards and streetcar ads in 3,200 cities, all donated. During the second drive, 60,000 women were recruited to sell bonds. This volunteer army stationed women at factory gates to distribute seven million fliers on Liberty Day. The mail-order houses of Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck mailed two million information sheets to farm women. “Enthusiastic” librarians inserted four-and-one-half million Liberty Loan reminder cards in public library books in 1,500 libraries. Celebrities were recruited. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, certainly among the most famous personalities in America, toured the country holding bond rallies attended by thousands.”

It did not go unrewarded. Approximately 20 million individuals purchased bonds, and they funded two-thirds of the expenses of the war (the rest funded through taxation).

Fueled by this success, the US Government also continued issuing War bonds during World War 2 (along with other governments involved in the War). Fortunately we have not seen any more world wars. However, the US government remains the most important player in the Bond market. Most financial investors looking to hold a balanced portfolio (i.e. distributing their eggs across baskets) hold about 40% of their investments in bonds (both government and corporate). US Government bonds are currently the safest investments on earth. 

Coming closer to the present, in the “war against COVID”, it’s the public that needs money, not the government. So the Federal Reserve actually bought bonds in the market, as a way to ease the economic pressure in the market.

Bonds are a reliable, frequently used tool in the arsenal of central banks around the world. Liberty or not, bonds have affected the day-to-day life of billions of people around the world, directly and indirectly.

P.S. – who can say no to Captain America?