30 June 2010


LASIK hurts ow ow ow

24 June 2010

Drugs and Normality

A couple of weeks ago, the EPIK teachers on Jeju got this email:
Hello EPIK teachers,
  It has been brought to the attention of the Jeju POE that an EPIK teacher in Jeju has been arrested for the importation of drugs and connections to organized crime.
In case you need reminding, you are in a foreign country which has a zero tolerance policy regarding drugs of any kind. The minimum penalty you can expect is a jail sentence.
  Ria Kim
The next week, we got another:
Dear all EPIK teachers,
  I am writting to you all again regarding the issue of drugs.
You may have heard but I can confirm that a second person has been arrested in connection with bringing banned substances into Korea.
  Ria Kim
Naturally, everyone was curious about who it was. But even more people were curious about why? What was worth the risk? How could this seem like a good idea?

In part, it's kind of understandable for an American not to take buying pot as a serious crime. Speaking with Lizzie about it today, I reflected about the state of marijuana laws in the United States. In far too many places, smoking pot is largely winked at. It's "illegal," but not really illegal. If you do it, you get a slap on the wrist or a small fine.  Or maybe it's allowed for "medical purposes" that wouldn't hold up under the slightest scrutiny.  Many, many people think it should be legal, and most law enforcement organizations have no intention of spending their resources on it.  It's just something a cop can bust you for if they have a reason to suspect something more serious or if they don't like the way you look.

So we have an activity that is technically illegal but is becoming widespread nonetheless, with something just shy of the consent of law. This criminalizes a large group of people, and gives police enormous and unjust latitude - if everyone is doing something illegal, then the cop can arrest whomever they please.  Further, this practice breeds a contempt for a "technical" law that can carry over to other laws... or other places, as we see in Korea.  In many places in America they wink at possession of marijuana as a "crime," but in Korea it is taken extremely seriously.

Matthew Yglesias writes about the matter of pot laws in a post called "When Laws are 'Laws'":
But what I think what we’re seeing here is the wrong-headed notion that an appropriate way to express disapproval of a behavior is to simply make it illegal but then wink and nod on enforcement, as if this is some sort of middle ground (this is also the Obama administration position on federal marijuana law). ...

If you don’t think a law should be enforced, you should support repeal of the law. All this “compromise” accomplishes is granting police almost unfettered discretion. If smoking pot is still technically illegal, police can enforce the law when they choose, targeting certain people for arrest while turning a blind eye to others engaging in the exact same activity. If you don’t want children to smoke pot, start a public awareness campaign and encourage parents to discuss drug use with their kids. Don’t keep marijuana use illegal in a confused attempt to conflate moral objection with criminal sanction.
So it's not really so hard to understand the actions of people who buy drugs in Korea, even if it's a poor choice to make. When for years something has been "illegal," people react with shock and disbelief when it's taken seriously. It's akin to jaywalking; technically "illegal," but penalizing it regularly or harshly would seem like a miscarriage of justice.

Don't be too quick to judge, in other words.

23 June 2010

Lunchtime Conversion

Sitting in a restaurant where I usually go for lunch, eating my ₩1000 roll of 김밥 (kimbap), I looked up from my plate to see that the man sitting at the next table had swiveled in his chair to look at me. It was more than a look, actually: it was an open and intense stare. This was a middle-aged man with silvering hair and a weathered face, so he didn't have the excuse of being too young or too old to know better. He just sat there quietly, eyes wide, staring at me. Even when I looked back at him in astonishment, he just kept staring.

After a long while, he said haltingly, "What is your job?"

Accustomed to that sort of thing, I answered in Korean that I was a native-speaker English teacher at the elementary school. There was a long pause while he absorbed this information and stared.

Then, "What is your religion?"

Answering this question was beyond my very limited language skills, so I said in English, "Atheist." I thought about it, then added, "No god," and held up my arms in an "X" gesture.

There was another long pause while he nodded and composed his next words.

"I want you to be Catholic."

Well, what the hell do you say to that? I shrugged my shoulders with a mild smile and returned to my food. I tried to ignore the continued unblinking stare.

Under what possible circumstances could this attempt have worked? Are there many people out there who are desperately wishing they could be Catholic, but are just politely waiting for someone to invite them in? Or was the force of his desire supposed to persuade me?

I suppose it must have actually been more informational than anything else. He wasn't really trying to convert me, but rather just letting me know his wish - probably out of a friendly desire to save my soul. I wish I could return the favor, but people often get offended if you mirror a conversion sentiment back at them.

21 June 2010

"Ah, yes, she is virgin."

The first day I came to school, my co-teacher showed me around. He took me to the cafeteria, the gym, and pointed out all of the classrooms and teachers' rooms. He was without fail helpful and courteous, trying to anticipate where I would need to go. And last of all, he introduced me to the rest of the faculty.

Co-teacher: "This is history teacher. This is health teacher. This is science teacher. And this is music teacher. She is virgin."

Me: "Yes, hello, nice to meet you, nice to meet you, he-... what?!"
I made him repeat himself, sure it was a mistake. But it wasn't. And not only was it not a mistake, he also proceeded to point at three other female teachers, declaring with a smile, "Virgin, virgin, virgin!"

What a strange goddamn country, I thought. They hide the condoms out of sight in the mini-marts, but will discuss their coworker's virginity!

It wasn't until much later that I thought about what happened, of course. My usually fluent and polite co-teacher had been thinking ahead to this moment, and maybe he was nervous about making an English mistake with his first foreign teacher buddy. He planned what he would say to me about where we were going and who we were meeting, and looked up the words he didn't know.

When it came to the faculty, my co-teacher wanted to describe how some of the female teachers were "single" or "unmarried," so he could point them out with a roguish wink and smile. "Hey hey, they're available," was how he wanted to kid me.  But he hadn't known that particular word, and so he must have looked it up earlier in an online translator or on his phone. Sure enough:

처녀 處女
a virgin; a maiden; a maid; a girl;【처녀성】virginity
Since then, I've seen this pop up in a dozen places - usually on someone else's first day or week. It's not the only common problem with automated translators, but it's one that might be hard to figure out: it's a very sensitive area and a new foreigner might be especially hesitant to ask questions and solve the confusion. The problem is complicated by the fact that there's little on the Internet about it. But hopefully this post will solve that!

Just for reference so you know I'm right, an article called Korean Women— Poetry, Identity, Place: A Conversation with Kim Hye-sun mentions:

DMC: For those of us who are not familiar with Korean culture, could you explain what 처녀 (ch’y˘ony˘o) [is]?

KHS: 처녀 (Ch’y˘ony˘o) can be used in two ways. It refers to a young unmarried woman, but it can also mean a woman who is a virgin.

19 June 2010

Observe and Report

Warning: this is long, rambling, and poorly-written.

Observe and Report was a movie released last year, written and directed by Jody Hill and starring Seth Rogan. It was an under-appreciated - and possibly accidental - masterpiece. I'll tell you about it in a minute; I will actually spoil it if you haven't seen it, so stop reading if that's the case. But first:

For a long time, I have felt that what I call the "narrative fallacy" is a major problem of today's media-soaked world. The way we act towards events and the way we position ourselves, right down to our most fundamental moral beliefs, derive in large part from the role in which we put ourselves. Are we the goofy guy lifting spirits, or the hero who does the right thing, or the misunderstood loner, or the "bitch" who is fearless and loyal... and so on.

What's more, we often help other people create these roles and follow their scripts. As described in dramaturgical theory:
Before an interaction with another, an individual typically prepares a role, or impression, that he or she wants to make on the other. These roles are subject to what is in theater termed "breaking character." Inopportune intrusions may occur, in which a backstage performance is interrupted by someone not meant to see it. In addition, there are examples of how the audience for any personal performance plays a part in determining the course it takes: how typically we ignore many performance flaws out of tact, such as if someone trips or spits as they speak.
This is frequently a good thing. When someone sees their ex-girlfriend and decides it's time to leave the party because they "have to work in the morning," then we will typically and compassionately overlook the flaw in their presentation. Like most social structures, this is a nicety developed to make daily interactions smoother.

But it's gotten out of control in the modern world, where storytelling has penetrated us so wholly and so effectively. And it's causing problems, from small ones in daily life to big ones.

People have recognized a variety of the growing disease in the past. Mark Twain despised Sir Walter Scott's medieval epic Ivanhoe, blaming the Civil War in no small part on the way Scott's prose had "enchanted" the Southern mind with a narrative of nobility:
Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. ...
 But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner-- or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it-- would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.
Twain further satirized Scott's writings with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; this novel has a practical modern man discovering all of the grim stupidity of the past age. Twain takes a particular pleasure in exploding the myth of a narrative which made his contemporary Southerners eager to take the role of knight-protector or dashing rogue. They loved this role and the trappings it lent their self-image, handed to them by the inspiring and well-written tales of Scott. Not only did it lead to innumerable petty confrontations between self-styled noblemen, but it also arguably was indeed a major factor in the Civil War.

In our day, the effects are less bellicose but more pervasive. Now we do not have a race of men laboring under a false idea of their own nobility - and of the absurd idea that "nobility" is worth anything when it comes from blood and not sweat - but instead we have a race that enacts every little thing like it is a passion play. They want to be a character from television or a movie, and so they cloak themselves in a fake posture to act out their pretense.

Have you ever been to a party where there's someone tragically drunk? They are swarmed with helpful people very obviously caring for them and being "good guys." And then walk twenty feet and you'll find someone suffering out of the spotlight, ignored. Absent a show, few care. It's the show that makes them the "good guy." The virtue of the act is lost.  And it's in the hum-drum minor goodness that we can really find virtue.

The same thing goes for keeping the peace. Speak to any police officer, and you shortly find out that being a cop is not a glamorous position. You put your life on the line, but more often it's risk from a dirty needle in someone's pocket and not a crazed killer. Simply put, there's precious little glory. And that's a good thing: glory means nothing if it's common, and is only found in danger that is better avoided. But that's not dramatic or interesting, and so you will always find young men quick to leap in to save a girl's honor - or indeed to scrabble up some excuse so they can appear to do so. It isn't until later in the night that they make a sneering joke about the same girl and her loose legs.

And so we come to Observe and Report, a movie that takes the narrative fallacy and turns it on its head. You should see it before you read this, since I'm going to spoil it now by summarizing it.

Ronnie is a security guard at the mall. He's in love with a haughty cosmetics girl, while a kind young food court worker pines for him. His dream is to stop some crime and maybe even be a cop someday. His mother is an alcoholic, falling apart. Ronnie himself is not too bright, but he is fearless and loyal.

It is the perfect set-up for your average movie. We know how it will happen: Ronnie will struggle and probably be fired, only to suddenly save the day. Maybe he will be become a cop, or maybe he'll instead realize that he actually likes being a guard. He'll realize he actually likes the humble nice girl instead of the haughty one. His mother will be redeemed.

An actual crime (a flasher) allows Ronnie a chance to save the day with an investigation, and we can see what will drive this story of redemption. It's only a question of how it will play out. Who will the criminal be? Will they have a dramatic confrontation, or will the confrontation be with the real police officer who gets in Ronnie's face?

As a side note: you can actually see that sort of movie, too. Paul Blart, Mall Cop was made almost at the same time. If you want the standard story, see it.

The actual movie tilts the whole thing just askew. It's been done before, of course - that sort of "almost a hero" thing is not infrequent in dark comedies. But in Observe and Report, and contrary to what one might expect of the writer/director (whose previous efforts are not up to par), the tone is pitch-perfect.

Firstly: a lot of the expected things happen, but they happen wrong.

Ronnie loses his job, but at the end of the movie sees his chance to get the flasher. He has his climactic voiceover:
In these dark times, people need something to believe in. I believe that good will win through in the end. It's only a matter of time until the clouds part and the sun shines... I'm gonna start that again. It's only a matter of time until the clouds part and the sun shines down. They'll be here soon and my mission will be complete. I will leave a mark so big that it will be felt for years to come... ...and history will remember my name. There's no turning back. I must stand fast in my resolve. The world has no use for another scared man. Right now, the world needs a fucking hero.
Then as the flasher attacks, he steps in front of the criminal just as he is attacking the cosmetologist... and shoots the flasher, intending to murder him! Everything has gone terribly wrong and the manager is yelling, "Oh my God, what did you do!?" and now you know Ronnie is going to jail and his life is over, blood pooling on the floor and horror on everyone's face and-

Ah, but the bad guy isn't dead, only wounded. It's all okay. Ronnie can have his job back.

The farce, of course, is that the heroic underdog did something insane and unpardonable, except that it's all okay because the bad guy is only shot, not killed. It's exactly like so many other movies. In fact, it's exactly like the terrible Paul Blart, Mall Cop except that Observe and Report is distinguished by that moment of terrible hesitation. Paul Blart uses all kinds of insane dangerous things while fighting bad guys in the mall, but they're all only injured, so it's okay. Observe and Report drives into our guts the realization that all of these insane heroics hinge on the risk of permanent damage, and it's a very thin and almost arbitrary line that swings between "hero" and "killer."

Or take the romance. Ronnie does become disillusioned with the cosmetologist, but only after he date-rapes her. And in their final confrontation at his moment of victory - the time when his words should be ringingly triumphant and righteous, he says:
If anyone needs a girl to have sex with you, and then fuck your enemy, then go to Brandi! Because she's the girl that does that!
It's awkward and lame and perfectly written.  Instead of the golden moment of vengeance, it is instead exactly what such a moment really is: extremely petty.

This sort of brilliant reversal happens all throughout the movie.  But an interesting thing is that I kind of doubt it was entirely intentional.  I looked at some of the other offerings of Jody Hill, and they seem generally unimaginative and puerile.  So this film is almost a kind of miracle.

All in all, a great illustration of one of the biggest problems in our world today.  See it if you haven't, and see it again if you have.

16 June 2010

Justice For All

Remember this guy?
In the fall of 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen on his way home from Tunisia, was pulled out of line by US officials while changing planes at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. He was locked up for twelve days, much of that time incommunicado, and harshly interrogated. When he was finally allowed to make a phone call, after a week in captivity, he called his mother in Canada, who found him a lawyer.

The lawyer saw Arar on Saturday. The very next night—a Sunday evening—immigration officials held an extraordinary six-hour hearing starting at 9 PM, orchestrated from Washington, D.C. When Arar asked to have his lawyer present, they told him that she had chosen not to participate in the hearing. In fact, the only “notice” they had provided was to leave a message on the lawyer’s office voice mail that Sunday night. She got the message Monday morning, and immediately called the immigration service. They told her, falsely, that Arar was being transferred to New Jersey, and she could contact him the next day. In fact, that night federal agents took him on a federally chartered jet to Jordan, and from there to Syria.

In Syria, Arar was handed over to intelligence officials who imprisoned him in a cell the size of a grave, three feet by six feet by seven feet. Syrian security agents tortured him, including beating him with an electric cable, while asking the same questions that FBI interrogators had been asking at JFK—was he a terrorist, was he linked to al-Qaeda, did he know various other persons thought to be associated with al-Qaeda? (The Syrian security forces are widely known for their use of torture, as the US State Department reports every year in its annual Human Rights Country Reports.) After a year, the Syrians released Arar, concluding that he had done nothing wrong.
Well, his case went before SCOTUS recently. Note that Canada already responded to their own part in Arar's case:
Canada responded to Arar’s case as a nation who has wronged a human being should. It established a blue-ribbon commission to investigate his case, which wrote a 1,100-page report fully exonerating Arar, and faulting Canadian officials for erroneously telling US officials that Arar was the target of an investigation into possible al-Qaeda links. ... Canada’s Parliament issued a unanimous apology, and the government paid Arar $10 million (Canadian) for its role in the wrong done to him.
But SCOTUS? They won't hear the case.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to consider the claims of Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian who was sent to Syria to be tortured in 2002, was a bitterly disappointing abdication of its duty to hold officials accountable for illegal acts. The Bush administration sent Mr. Arar to outsourced torment, but it was the Obama administration that urged this course of inaction.
Appalling behavior from the Bush administration, and behavior only slightly less appalling from the Obama administration.

15 June 2010

The Bodhisattva Vows of Zen

I've been intrigued with Zen since high school. This particularly intricate tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhism started in China, but has always been Japanese to me - probably because almost all of the modern and famous Zen masters who have spread the word have been Japanese.

At first it was the delight of something new and foreign, with the added attractiveness of also being goddamn confusing. But what started out as an enjoyment of strange koan later became an interest in its theology and philosophy, keeping pace with my journey towards atheism.

It is with a new and appreciative heart that I can read the teachings of Zen once more.

The four vows of a bodhisattva (a person of compassion who seeks enlightenment for all) are a great example. They express four impossible obstacles and four vows to overcome them.

Chinese: 眾生無邊誓願度
Japanese: しゅじょうむへんせいがんど
Sentient beings are numberless: I vow to liberate them all.

Afflictions are inexhaustible: I vow to end them all.

The Dharma gates are infinite: I vow to study them all.

The Buddha way is unsurpassed: I vow to attain it.

This is much the same as an enlightened approach to ethical reciprocity; these goals are not sought because they are possible - or even because they are good goals - but because the seeking makes your life better and the lives of others better. Compassion and consideration turns us to these paths, in pursuit of a wiser understanding of our own self-interest

14 June 2010

Glee and Cheerleaders and Youth

So I've been watching a few episodes of the wildly popular television show, Glee. It's pretty good - terrible acting but great music.

But I noticed the cheerleaders, and it got me thinking.

Now, it's a commonly-accepted precept of television that "teenagers" are almost always in their twenties. I think this was most famously done with Beverly Hills 90210 - I never saw that, but the cast looked liked they were at least forty.

So it's not a big deal that the kids in Glee are obviously too old. For example, this is the character "Quinn," played by Dianna Agron - she's 24, but playing a high school girl who'd be at least six years younger.

But let's consider the message here. Obviously, we're supposed to find these characters sexy. You'd be hard-pressed to make any musical show where sexuality wasn't a vital part of many of the songs, and it's not exactly the height of subtlety to have twelve bra-clad cheerleaders grind-dancing on each other. These girls (women!) are supposed to be desired. But they're also supposed to be depicting high-schoolers.

It's a very mixed message.

On an unrelated note, the male lead of "Mr. Schuster" is pretty scummy for a supposed "good guy." He knows a woman other than his pregnant wife is in love with him, but he encourages her constantly with laden pauses, long looks, and ballroom dancing. It doesn't matter that his wife is secretly a villain or that he hasn't actually done anything - he's being untrue to his vows and he's badly hurting a nice woman who could have moved on and looked for someone who was available.

Hm, I'm starting to convince myself that I don't actually like the show.

09 June 2010

Adult Poll

The Economist calls for a better kind of poll than this one.
We don't need polls asking what the public thinks is a "top threat". We need polls that lay out some realistic choices, and ask the public what it wants to do about them. We have to start structuring our political conversation to lead towards solutions, not to throw back an ever-amplifying reflection of the country's inchoate frustration.

They're quite right. This kind of polling encourages the "citizens as children" attitude - the whole notion of, "Well, they're angry about some things but are just throwing a tantrum without any solutions."

This is not a hard thing to figure out. The answers (and perceived attitude) of an electorate depends on what questions you ask. If you ask what they're worried about, they're going to give you a list of various problems coming from an attitude of, "What general threat seems most serious?" But if you ask them what they want to do to change things, then they approach it from a different mindset.

If we had more polls that treated citizens as adults and asked for solutions, and fewer ones that just tried to prime a headline based on uncontemplated emotion ("AMERICANS MORE WORRIED ABOUT ECONOMY THAN CLIMATE"), we'd see a lot more productive discussion. This is a key problem.


Lizzie and I have booked a trip to China for the summer; over the course of twelve days we will make our way from Shanghai to Beijing. We have some good friends in Shanghai and the World Expo is there - plus we're going to hit all the high points we can. Tickets there and back were only $500 a person... but visas for Americans are $130. Alas.

I'm getting LASIK this month, either this Saturday or the next. I'm pretty excited. I remember clearly the feeling of freedom that came when I got contacts ("What is this strange experience... peripheral vision, you say?") and I can't wait to experience that on a grander scale.

Lizzie is a yellow belt in taekwondo after two months of classes. She's extremely proud of her new tone and growing fitness, and is always eagerly offering to display her new kicks or her favorite one-handed-neck-chop move.

We've been gamboling around the island in our car, hitting up beaches and parties and the like. I want to soak it up before grad school next year.

Also, here is a picture of me being awesome:

07 June 2010

From Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott

"But I have turned the matter as I could; you are safe if you renounce Rebecca. You are pitied—the victim of magical delusion. She is a sorceress, and must suffer as such."

"She shall not, by Heaven!" said Bois-Guilbert.

"By Heaven, she must and will!" said Malvoisin. "Neither you nor any one else can save her. Lucas Beaumanoir hath settled that the death of a Jewess will be a sin-offering sufficient to atone for all the amorous indulgences of the Knights Templars; and thou knowest he hath both the power and will to execute so reasonable and pious a purpose."

"Will future ages believe that such stupid bigotry ever existed!" said Bois-Guilbert, striding up and down the apartment.

"What they may believe, I know not," said Malvoisin, calmly; "but I know well, that in this our day, clergy and laymen, take ninety-nine to the hundred, will cry 'amen' to the Grand Master's sentence."

Job and theodicy

Worship the LORD your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. (Exodus 23:25-26)
This is part of the great covenant sealed with Moses and the Israelites by God, according to Exodus. Break these rules, Yahweh says in the story, and you will suffer. Follow my rules, and you will prosper. It seems fairly simple, right?

The problem thereafter for the Abrahamic religions is one of theodicy - justifying the ways of God to man. Everyone knows well enough that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. There are perhaps some children who are fooled by the "there is a plan" shtick, but no one who has lived a span can fairly say that the good are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished.

Many try to justify the problem by pointing to the afterlife. "The wicked shall be punished in the fires of Hell," goes the line. But that's not the same thing as what God promised, is it? He pretty clearly says that there will be reward in this life for righteousness. In a specific sense, he demonstrates and states this, when he delivers Israel from Egypt for their goodness and - then curses them to wander in the desert for forty years for their wickedness. And Yahweh explicitly says that it applies to every Israelite who can keep the rules and covenant.

So we come to Job. It's a less rollicking story than Genesis or Exodus, but it's also considerably more beautiful in parts and much deeper. Luckily for me, it also reiterates a lot, so it's summarized without too much trouble.

Job is a good man.
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
God uses Job as an example, and brags about him to Satan. Satan points out that Job is only good because God has blessed him.
And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?
Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, ...[P]ut forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.
So God says, "I'll prove it. Wreck his stuff."
And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.
Satan wrecks Job's life. Everyone is killed, everything is destroyed.
The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants, and consumed them; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
And, behold, there came a great wind ... and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
But Job didn't curse God. He was still a good man.
In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.
Satan says that Job would sin if his health went.
But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.
But still Job didn't sin.
But [Job] said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.
Now already we have some serious problems. Yahweh is being a bigger jackass than anyone, first of all. He made a deal with people, but here he is breaking it. This sinless and great guy has had his life destroyed. And all of his children are murdered by Satan with God's permission. And why? To prove a point. I don't remember that in the covenant? Did Yahweh say, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and thy children shall be as the stars in the sky unless I need to kill a dozen of them to really mess with Satan."

So then there follows a majority of the book. In a series of marvelous speeches, Job's three friends join him in a discussion of his sorrows. With little variation, they tell him that Yahweh punishes the wicked and rewards the good. Ergo, he must have sinned.

Eventually, in one of the most passionate and moving passages of the whole Bible, Job thunders out to them a defense of his own righteousness. He roars that he wishes he could seek God and demand an accounting. Job tells of Yahweh's immense power with ever-more-poetic turns of phrase. In his final reply, he accounts of his virtue and refuses to falsely impeach his own character.
God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.
You're damn right, Job. You did nothing wrong. You were still punished for it by a capricious and cruel deity. You got shafted, dude. Not even Job's three friends can find any more words to condemn him.

Now Elihu appears, a mysterious young man who is clearly God's advocate. Aha, we must think. Now we will find out the meaning behind this.  But no, it's the same stuff. "God is really powerful, and he punishes evil and rewards good." Essentially just another, "It's your fault" to Job.
[Yahweh] preserveth not the life of the wicked: but giveth right to the poor.
He withdraweth not his eyes from the righteous: but with kings are they on the throne; yea, he doth establish them for ever, and they are exalted.
Who are these assholes? Who seriously has the gall to tell a man mourning the death of his children and the destruction of his house - that it was his fault?!

Well, apparently God is that kind of asshole. For now he speaks to Job - personally - in order to scold him.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
In other words, "I'm bigger, so you don't get to question me."

God now proceeds to discuss exactly how powerful and wise he is for a few chapters. God built everything and knows everything, so shut the hell up Job. Why are you whining? So I crushed all of your children - big deal! Wuss.

Job quails before a lecturing by the almighty deity. He stammers a moment, and apparently has lost the will to get up in God's face. I guess he's being a little cowardly, but it's pretty hard to condemn someone for lacking the courage to talk back to omnipotence - especially when that omnipotence appears to be a petty jerk.

We wait for God to actually tell the secret of his actions. Yes, God, we know you're really powerful. No one's questioning whether or not you created lions or can move the ocean. Job just wants to know why you killed his kids. But no. It all comes down to, "I'm bigger. Shut up."
Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?
Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?
And. That's. It.

Job repents, of course, because who's really going to sass the guy who's just spent an hour discussing what it was like to create the universe? God says it's okay, and rewards Job's repentance. Job gets even more stuff than he had in the beginning.
So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she asses.
That's the end of the story, pretty much. Job gets more children and some more farm animals. Job's murdered kids get a big wet nothing. And no one gets any answers. The sum of theodicy here? There is none. God is way more powerful than us, so he doesn't have to justify himself. He can do what he wants And we should shut up, if we know what's good for us.

Needless to say, this isn't just. It may explain things, but it's a grossly disgusting and monstrous explanation. I suppose if you believe that "the good" is "whatever God wants," then God is "good" here. But by the standards we would use for anyone else, God is a monster and a bully. Why is anyone worshiping him, again? It is just his thuggery: his threats of Hell? This poor planet. My poor people.

04 June 2010


So let's talk about Citizens United and the DISCLOSE Act.

Citizens United was a Supreme Court case of this past year. The surprising decision "ruled that corporations and unions may now directly and expressly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates for federal office," as summarized by OMBWatch. Obviously, this was a pretty big change. Previously, there were all kinds of hurdles and safeguards that stopped direct advocacy - although frequently it just necessitated channeling money into shadow groups. But now... well, as one example, BP could just plain run advertisements on behalf of a candidate who promised them he'd kill any attempt to raise the liability limit for oil spills. BP could buy a candidate almost outright.

This will have some secondary effects. Politics points to increasingly aggressive and pricey ad buys as the private market rolls up its sleeves and starts picking up candidates.
An increase in premium television buys could have a twofold impact. First, the price of television ads could go up; candidates will have to opt for higher ad rates in order to keep their spots from getting bumped by third party group ads. Candidates would also be at a disadvantage because wealthy third party groups could lock in their ad buys early, before a candidate has raised the money to cover his or her media plan. The main beneficiaries should be the stations, which will be able to fetch higher ad rates.

Naturally, a lot of people were pissed off at the decision. It was consistent, since in many other ways corporations were treated as people, but it still seemed outrageous to conclude that they must then have unrestricted First Amendment rights to free speech. And in its wake, legislation has sprung up to curtail the power of private companies. They already have a leather-lunged voice, after all, so might not be good to allow them to just run things outright.

The result is the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act, or the DISCLOSE Act. Yes, it is absolutely vital that a contentious bill in these times have an Orwellian name that is also a summary. But the bill is actually decent. It prohibits undisclosed electioneering (donations, push-polling, etc.) by big contractors of the government, TARP recipients, and foreign companies; it requires a report from anyone who spends more than $10,000 on electioneering; and a few other things along those lines. Russ Feingold, America's Most Awesome Senator, is sponsoring it. The President is advocating it.

Of course, some people oppose it. Unsurprisingly, the Chamber of Commerce feels that unions should be especially penalized with lower reporting thresholds, rather than treated the same as corporations. Yeah, fuck those unions. We all saw how the SEIU rammed through that health-care reform in a record-breaking 25 years. Damn liberal unions and their breakneck quarter-century legislation rate.

The Chamber also points out that the bill "certain provisions, such as the limits on foreign-owned corporations, effectively would not apply to organized labor."

Yes. We must stop all those foreign unions assaulting our virgin shores.

Remember that when you oppose something, you fight labeling war with its advocates. The bill isn't just a bad bill, it's an "anti-speech" bill that's being "rammed" through and will stop groups from "effectively communicating, like National Right to Life says.

Give me a break. Let's pass this bill, so we can find out who is being bought and by whom.

03 June 2010

Election results in Korea

After long weeks of advertising - which in Korea includes packs of dancing girls on the corner and roaming trucks with speechifying candidates aboard - the elections here were held yesterday. Most businesses closed down in deference to the event, a tradition that the U.S. should consider implementing.

The results were pretty bad for the GNP (Grand National Party) that's currently in control. They had been anticipating a sweeping tide in their favor based on previous polling, but the handling of the Cheonnan crisis has left them high and dry. From the NYT:
[T]he president’s party won only 6 of 16 crucial races to elect mayors and governors in big cities and provinces in the voting on Wednesday. Its main rival, the opposition Democratic Party, won seven races. The remaining three races were won by independents and a candidate from a small opposition party.

The mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, who is a member of Mr. Lee’s party, won re-election by a razor-thin margin. But in a hotly contested mayoral race in Incheon, a large port city west of Seoul, the opposition candidate, Song Young-gil, a vocal critic of Mr. Lee, won an unexpected victory. The ship’s sinking was an especially significant election issue there, because the ship went down in waters in Incheon’s jurisdiction.
Both in Jeju-do and Jeollanam-do, the GNP is pretty reviled. This seems to have made a lot of people pretty happy.