The Dumbing Down Effect of Donald Trump

donald-trump

I really do not want to see this guy ever again after Nov. 8. He did so much harm to American politics. Throughout this election campaign, I didn’t criticize this guy vocally, not because I am okay with his views (no way!) but because I felt that he sets such a low bar that criticizing him does not express my political thought. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should have left him alone. I do believe that he should be called out and criticized for his racist, sexist, and hateful statements (we will be really fucked up if he isn’t), and I appreciate everyone who took his or her time to criticize him. But all the time we spend to criticize Trump is the time we could have spent to discuss ideas above the bare minimum. For example, if we are discussing how to be a good person, it is not enough to say that we should not commit crimes. Not committing crimes is a bare minimum requirement, and on top of that, we need to add such  virtues as kindness, respect, responsibilities, etc. I resent Trump for pulling down our discussion during the 2016 election cycle to the level of mud, dirt, and scum.

Watching the last presidential debate last night, I thought about another way Trump harms the American public: he really threatens the American voting population’s critical thinking abilities. It is my experience that in the classroom, it is always harder to have students criticize the status quo than explaining to them the working of the current system. In other words, when I say, “it is simply the way it works,” most students accept it. Difficulties begin when I have them criticize what’s wrong with it. Then they really have to think hard. And a lot of them are not up for it. Here is a similar example. Most students accept the idea of liberty. They say,”yeah, I should be able to do whatever I want to do without worrying about that dude down the street.” They understand it. They accept the concept of liberty in 2 minutes. But the concept of equality? Whew. The students begin to protest. “Why should I consider that dude down the street? I don’t know him. And I sacrifice what I want to do for that guy? Why?” To answer these questions, they should study first the ideas of communities and human dignity and the causes of uneven distribution of resources. Hard stuff. Stuff you won’t get until you really try to think carefully and seriously.

It is human nature to avoid hard core critical thinking. We all prefer chilling over a glass of wine. I do. And it is exactly this human penchant of wine over serious thinking that Trump exploits and tries to use to his advantage. Listen to him carefully. I hate his sentence structures. “Look, folks, what she suggests (vague reference. What, exactly? She said many different things. Which one are you exactly referring to?) will take us to a disaster (okay. Complete your sentence. Disaster because of what? And define your term. Disaster in what ways?). Believe me, it will be a disaster, DISASTER (unnecessary repetition?). But don’t worry, we will win big (any idea that technically, this grammar is wrong?)” In this sentence structures appropriate for 3rd graders, he pours simplistic thought that takes away the burden of critical thinking. Yes, it is true that a lot of jobs in America are relocated to China, Mexico, and any country with cheap labor. Now, why did this happen and what could we do? Hellish difficult questions to answer. But why bother to answer them? Trump says, “I will bring the jobs back.” Easy and simply. No more question. Case closed. Or he leads his audience into thinking so.

It is okay that he is an idiot, but I get angry when he tries to make all of us idiots. Trump, please be gone from the public view after Nov.8th. Enjoy your life in Trump Towers. But please don’t bring us down to the level of your idiocy. Thank you.

When a good intention does not make you less imperialist

polarbear_021

Years ago, when I studied in Canada, my Canadian friend got so riled up about an American TV program that surveyed Americans’ perception of Canada. One of the questions was “what do you like best about Canada?” and #1 answer was “its beautiful, vast nature symbolized by polar bears.” I had a similar experience recently, so I’d like to think with you why my Canadian friend got upset and why the Americans’ “positive” perception of Canadian nature feels like an insult to Canadians.

Here is what I experienced recently. I visited my friend Jane’s (not real name, of course) campsite the other day. Jane had a nice camping car, but next to her camping ground, someone put up a tent. The temperature was dropping to the 40s, and it began to rain. Our conversation went like this:

I: I am afraid that people in the tent get cold tonight.

Person 1: Well, I don’t sleep well in a tent anyway. The ground is rocky and bumpy, and I have a hard time.

Jane: The same here. But I think Koreans can sleep well on the ground. They sleep on the floor!

Person 2: No, the Korean floor is totally different. It is flat and heated, and it is comfortable to sleep on the floor.

Jane: Really?

Person 2: Yes. And, one is a living arrangement and the other is not. When they look similar in your eyes, it doesn’t mean that they are the same.

Later, Jane said that she saw nothing wrong with her statement. After all, she tried to make a positive statement about Koreans, she protested. She said that it is unfair that she is accused of cultural arrogance, ignorance, and insensitivity, when all she tried to do was to say something nice about Koreans.

Okay. What’s wrong, then? A quick answer is that Jane reduced Korean culture to nature.

To understand what nature and culture have to do with Jane, we need to imagine 600 years ago when Europeans first arrived in Americas. I think it is accepted almost unanimously now to call these European settlers imperialists. They dominated and subjugated Native Americans, took away their lands, and destroyed their culture. What enabled and undergirded their imperialist actions was their perception of native Americans and native American culture. When they arrived, they saw terra nullius, meaning empty land. They saw no culture, no society, no civilization. They saw instead idle lands and people who lived in natural conditions, blindly obeying the laws of nature. Did Native Indians have no culture, no society, no civilization? Of course they did. But in the eyes of the European settlers, the native Indians didn’t seem to have culture, because it was so different from its European counterpart. It is this failure to recognize native Indian culture as such that enabled and undergirded the setters’ imperialist domination and brutal massacres of Native Indians. By seeing terra nullius, Europeans reduced a culture, which deserves respect on its own terms, to nature.

korean-floor

This is culture

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This is nature

Now, it is more understandable why my Canadian friend got upset by Americans’ perception of Canada as a country of vast nature. Associating Canada with snow and polar bears may seem benign, but we need to think carefully where this association is coming from and what it is oblivious to. Similarly, yes, it is an act of cultural imperialism to say that the Korean floor and the ground look the same and that if Koreans can sleep well on the floor, they can sleep well on the ground. Why? Because you’re reducing Korean culture to nature. As Person 1 said in the dialogue above, one is a living arrangement, and the other is not. By conflating the two, you’re committing the same crime as early European settlers, who saw empty land and pre-culture in Native Americans.

Jane kept protesting that she meant well. Unlike European settlers, she didn’t mean to rob and subjugate Koreans, she would add. I hear her. In her defense, I add that everyone makes mistakes. But let me say that there is one good way to avoid making mistakes about different cultures you don’t understand. When you don’t understand Asian or African cultures, it is not necessarily your fault. Rather it is a social effect of living in a world where western cultures are dominant and influential and non-Western cultures are pushed to the background. So, when you don’t know a thing about a non-western culture, that’s okay (although I would argue you owe it to yourself to push your limits and try to enlarge your cultural knowledge). But at least, know that you don’t know. When your cultural knowledge is of a level where you can’t tell apart Korean, Japanese, Chinese cultures, for example (I can’t tell apart Malaysian and Philippines cultures, Sudanese and Zimbabwean cultures, and so many other cultures!), that’s okay, but don’t make a judgment about what you think is acceptable to Koreans and what is not. Even when you think that you mean well, there is a 99% chance that such statement reveals nothing but your ignorance and insensitivity to a culture that you don’t know. Furthermore, you may deeply hurt people who adopt Korean, Japanese, Chinese cultures for their way of life. Reducing culture to nature and saying that the rocky, bumpy surface of the ground bothers your soft body but probably not Koreans’ because they sleep on the floor, yes, that’s bad. Pretty bad.

How to find the best home contractors

Construction

This spring, I and my husband are pursuing some home improvement projects. After we very roughly set our budget, we set out to find the right contractors for us. Alas, as you can imagine, this process is tedious and very time consuming. We make a lot of phone calls and shoot multiple emails to briefly introduce our projects, patiently wait for their responses (some never respond, however), meet with the potential contractors individually, show our premise, and get their professional feedback and an estimate.

At this point, my husband and I are quite confused. Three contractors who look at the same thing give three different opinions and three vastly different estimates. For example, one person says, “you have to rip off what you have and start afresh.” Another says, “the foundation is good, so let’s save it and do some retouching.” Understandably, the second person’s quote is about half of the first person’s. So far, it makes sense. Now, the third person comes along and agrees with the second person. But the third person’s quote is even more than the first person’s. Why? How can I understand these differences? What do I make out of them? How do I process information about a field I am totally ignorant of? I don’t have an answer to these questions, and they will probably haunt us until the day when we pick our builder. So, in today’s post, I want to write about something else. While negotiating with different contractors is confusing and tedious, it is also fun in some regards. Fun because it helps me to understand who I am and where my values lie. Here are some of my random thoughts.

  1. As there are designer bags and non-designer bags and you pay extra for the name value of the former, there are designer contractors as well. People suggest that in order to find best home builders, we seek referrals. We did. Who is the best roofing company in the area? We asked, and people usually picked one company. And yeah, this company’s quote vastly exceeds other lesser known companies’ quotes by a huge margin. I guess that it costs money to have people say that XX is a good roofing company (advertising, marketing, etc.), and when you hire them, yes, you do pay extra for their name value. Personally, I don’t own a designer bag, because I don’t want to pay for the “Prada” part of a Prada bag. I just want to pay for the “bag” part. Similarly, I and my husband find that when people unanimously say “XX is THE company for roofing,” we almost see an imaginary red flag. I almost mutter, “it doesn’t mean anything.” I find that I have a tendency to lean towards lesser-known but smart and enthusastic start-ups.
  2. I think that construction companies with elaborate labor division charge more. For example, you can speak to a woman to schedule an appointment, talk to a salesman to show your premise and get an estimate, and have a carpenter to come and work on your steps. By contrast, there are independent contractors. They pick up the phone, schedule meetings, give an estimate, promote their service, and grab a saw and a hammer to repair your steps. I am definitely in favor of the second kind. Who matters in construction? The carpenter, the roofer, and the laborer. Yes, the phone lady and the salesperson should be paid, but I want the people who get dirty and sweat under the fierce sun with a hammer in one hand and the saw in the other to get the lion share of my money. According to my quick research, however, these people are paid the least. They make around $20 per hour only (sources: http://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/construction-worker/salary, http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Industry=Construction/Hourly_Rate)
  3. Different contractors have different styles in giving estimates, and I like those who are willing to give itemized quotes. Some contractors suggest only a grand total. “We will do the jobs ABC, and you will owe us this much.” My immediate questions are, how much is material, and how much is labor? How much does the job A cost, and how much for B and C?” Some contractors are willing to give breakdowns upon request, but others aren’t. I am sorry to say, but I think this is a muddy part where a number of home owners are ripped off. Sometimes, material costs are set unrealistically. When I am given information on which material will be used for my project, I check its market price myself. Less than 20% of mark-up is understandable, I think, but 50% is ridiculous, I think. And if they are honest constructors, why can’t they give me breakdowns? Also, by knowing how much labor costs, I can be faithful to my earlier philosophy: that is, people who do the real work should be paid fairly.

 

 

 

 

Indecent Proposal: Renting Indian Women’s Wombs

indecent proposal

A couple of days ago, I watched an interesting movie. Indecent Proposal, a 1993 movie starring Demi Moore and Robert Redford, is a bad (sorry!), but enjoyable and quite thought-provoking movie. Here is a brief synopsis. Young, beautiful Diana Murphy (Demi Moore) marries her high school sweetheart. They are happy together, but they have no money. One day, billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) approaches the young couple on the verge of bankruptcy and offers one million dollars on the condition that he spends one night with the beautiful Diana. Understandably, the couple hesitates, but they agree out of dire financial needs. The movie focuses on post one night stand repercussions. The couple’s marital trust is called into question and gets fissured. Diana begins to date with John Gage and ultimately asks for a divorce from her husband, although she revokes it at the last minute and reconciles with her husband.

I cannot rate the movie highly as a work of art, but I really enjoyed thinking about the question that the movie raised: can money buy love? The young couple David and Diana think no, and that’s why they accept Gage’s offer. He can buy the right to “fuck” Diana one time, the couple reasons, but he cannot buy her heart. Her heart will firmly stay with her husband, so it is okay. One million dollars are a lot of money. Once they are out of poverty, they can be happy again. So, let’s take the bitter pill and forget about it. On the contrary, the billionaire Gage thinks that yes, money can buy love, and that’s why he makes the offer in the first place. In one scene, Diana asks Gage why he wants her. “You have money, and you can buy any beautiful woman you want,” she says. He responds, “I want you, because you said you are not for sale. I think everything is for sale.”

The movie is entitled “Indecent Proposal.” Many will find Gage’s proposal indecent, distasteful or immoral. And the movie appeals to that common sentiment. We audiences find ourselves thinking “Oh, I will never sell my husband or wife for money. One million dollars, two million dollars. No way. Forget it.” I agree. I feel that way, too. When the young husband David throws his fists like crazy at the helicopter that takes Diana and Gage away to a remote location for their night together, we vicariously throws our fists, too.

But let’s pause here and think. Why do we respond to Gage’s proposal with revolt and disgust? There can be many different reasons why people disapprove of his proposal, but one reason that the movie presents is that, as David and Diana initially thought, money cannot buy love. Put differently, there are limits to money’s purchasing power. We put a price tag on almost all goods, and they are for sale. Nevertheless, there are limits. The young couple was right initially, in thinking that there are things in life that cannot be bought. At the same time, however, there is something that they totally missed. It is that they underestimated the power of money. Or, to put the matter more precisely, they assumed -wrongly- that there is an invincible wall that separates what money can buy from what it can’t. This is a misconception. Money and money logic threaten to seep into every part of human life. There isn’t part of human life that remain impenetrable to the attack of money logics. David and Diana, in accepting Gage’s offer, think that he can buy Diana’s body for one night but not her heart, but the truth of the matter is that the body and the heart are not two separate things. There is no wall between them. Once Gage’s money buys her body, it will insist that it buy her heart as well. Consequently, the one night stand with Gage becomes a powerful attack on her heart, as the body goes in one direction and the mind soon follows it. The movie shows that Diana, after the fateful one night with the billionaire, gets drawn and emotionally attached to him, to the extent to almost end her marriage. This is the truth regarding the power of money that the savvy John Gage knows all along. That’s why he was almost shamelessly confident about his proposal. He knows that once she sleeps with him, she will become his, both in the body and the heart.

surrogate mothers

Now, this view of the movie reminds me of one interesting article I read a few days ago. The New York Times posted the article “India Wants to Ban Birth Surrogacy for Foreigners.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/world/asia/india-wants-to-ban-birth-surrogacy-for-foreigners.html?_r=0) According to the article, the Indian government recently decided to prohibit renting Indian women’s wombs to foreigners. The article does not explain why the government made that decision. I hope that the reason has something to do with what the movie Indecent Proposal suggests: that is, there are limits to what money can buy, and Indian women’s bodies are not for sale. What surprised me was people’s reaction. So many people seem to think that the Indian government’s decision is too radical. They seem to think that instead of totally banning Indian women’s surrogacy, it should just regulate it. In their view, birth surrogacy is a win-win situation for both parties: the affluent infertile western couple gets a baby, and the poor Indian surrogate mother gets money. So why not? By allowing birth surrogacy, we actually help the poor Indian women.

To people who show this kind of responses, I want to make John Gage’s offer. “I will give you one million dollars. Let me sleep with your husband for one night.” If your answer to my proposal is, “you b*tch, go to hell,” I gladly accept and totally understand it. You don’t have to write me a philosophical tract on what money cannot buy and the danger of translating all human values into monetary terms. You intuitively know that money cannot and should not buy everything, and I am glad you do know it. Then, pray tell me how and why your intuitive knowledge suddenly stops short in the face of poor Indian women. We’re talking about a proposal to rent a woman’s body, not just for one night but for 9 1/2 months. About 300 nights. When your spouse’s body is not up for sale, what makes you think that Indian women’s bodies are for sale? If you think that you love your wife or daughter or sister so much, your love transcends money, and thus she cannot be bought or sold, what makes you think that an Indian woman, who must be somebody’s wife, daughter, and sister, can be bought or sold? With Diana, we see that where the body goes, the heart goes as well. Imagine a woman who conceives and nurtures a life for 300 nights. Could you imagine the love and the sense of attachment thus developed in this process? What makes you think that this love and this attachment can be explained away in monetary terms, when your love and your attachment cannot be translated into money? In apologies for birth surrogacy, all I hear is “no, they are not really humans. Their love does not weigh as much as mine.”

The Right to Silence

hair-salon

I go to a hair salon twice a year. Today was a day for the semi-annual events, and I spent about 2 hours with my hairdresser. I like my hairdresser a lot, not only because she is good at what she’s doing, but more importantly, she allows us not to talk. Yes, you read it correctly. We are noticeably quieter than other hairdresser-client pairs. My hairdresser Lisa may be an excellent talker, but I am socially awkward, and after explaining to her what I wanted to be done to my hair, I had nothing else to say. But people around us consistently talked, talked, and talked.

Visiting a hair salon always awakens a little scholar in me, and I feel a strong urge to conduct research on women’s hair salon talk. What do women talk about in hair salons, and what does it mean? Today, I was listening carefully to the conversation from the next chair.

Client: So hot day. I like your dress.

Hairdresser: Oh, thank you. I got it from T.J.Maxx. You know T.J.Maxx moved, and it is right across the street now.

Client: Yeah? Do you like T.J.Maxx?

Hairdresser: Well, it is okay. But one day, my coloring client made a last minute cancellation, and I went there to shop. You know, it is convenient, and it is T.J.Maxx, meaning you can stop shopping at any time.

Client: I never shop at T. J.Maxx.

Hairdresser: Oh, okay. So did you say that your son got married this summer?

Their conversation hopped around from one topic to the other this way. Maybe I am wrong, but when I hear this kind of hair salon talk, I usually observe a pattern and feel bad for the hairdresser. The pattern that I observe is two fold: first, it is usually the hairdresser who initiates conversations and picks a new topic when the conversation that the old topic starts comes to an end. In the example above, when the client shows no interest in T.J.Maxx, the hairdresser quickly switches to a topic that interests her, her son’s wedding. Second, when the client asks a direct question about the hairdresser’s preference or value, the latter usually equivocates. “Well, it is okay” is the most common response. The hairdresser is poised on the fence to go either way, according to what the client thinks.

We all know that service workers, such as hairdressers, gain a significant portion of their wages from tips, and to earn good tips, they do their best to keep their clients entertained. And this is precisely what I want to think about with you today: the expectation to be entertained. We’re all humans, and it is natural that we seek attention from others and feel good when they show interest in us. But, when someone pays attention to us in the expectation of monetary reward, the quality or value of the attention is very much questionable. My argument is that attention that implicates money is offense both to the person who pays attention and to the person who receives it. To the client in the example above, it is pretty obvious that the hairdresser does not really care about her son’s wedding. She just mentions it to fill in the vacuum or to assure to the client that she is taken care of. Okay, this may be empty but there is nothing wrong with it. But an entirely different picture emerges when we look at this harmless or innocuous chit chat from the perspective of the hairdresser.  Her job today was to add a new color on the client’s hair. If you observe this process closely, you know that this is hard work. You imaginarily partition the head into hundreds of sections, apply the hair cream on each strand, and fold it in aluminum foil. The smell, repetitiveness, tediousness of the job will drive me crazy, if I do it.

coloring

On top of this already exhausting work, the hairdresser tries to entertain the client by talking about topics that honestly, she wouldn’t give a flying fuck. Isn’t it sufficient that the hairdresser colors the hair? Wouldn’t she deserve a fair wage for successfully changing the hair color? Why does she have to go an extra mile to entertain the client? Additionally, we can ask these questions: what if the hairdresser has a bad day? For example, what if her son injured his leg and her heart is all with her son while her body is at work? What if she got a call from her mother’s doctor that her mother is officially diagnosed with a cancer? All kinds of things happen to service workers, and as we are, they are entitled to different emotions. They can’t be always skylark happy. As we sometimes don’t feel like talking, they don’t feel like talking sometimes, either. Given that, I think it is a harsh expectation to ask them to be always happy and ready to talk to us, pay attention to us, and entertain us.

I may be a particularly difficult client at a hair salon, because I don’t talk back much and I don’t seem to be interested in any topic. But I go to a hair salon to get a hair cut. When my hairdresser Lisa cut my hair to the length that I desired, she did her job, and she should be paid for her labor. I paid the amount that I was charged plus 20%, not because she kept me entertained but because, really, she did her job.

When Sympathy Matters

sandrabland2

Sandra Bland is on the national news these days. She was a 28 year old woman, who recently moved from Chicago to Houston, TX for a new job. On July 10th, she was driving and pulled over by a local policeman for a failure to signal a lane change. What started as a usual traffic stop turned into intense altercation, and Ms. Bland was thrown into jail for assaulting a public servant. Three days later, she was found dead in her cell. This morning, I saw a video that records the initial altercation between Ms. Bland and the local policeman.

I was terrified. Well, there were so many reasons why I was terrified, but what I want to focus today is people’s response to Ms. Bland’s alleged suicide. I say “alleged” because the possibility of murder is currently under investigation. She was found hanging herself with a plastic bag in her cell, and the initial investigation concluded that she killed herself. Yet, her family and friends believe that she had no reason to kill herself and requested an independent autopsy. I know that some people suggest that during the altercation, Ms. Bland sustained a brain injury (in the video, she is heard saying “you slammed my head into the ground”), she died of it, but the prison staged suicide to cover up the cop. Possible scenario, but as of now, there is no solid evidence to support it. Without it, let’s just go with the initial conclusion and assume that Ms. Bland killed herself.

So, what we have is a young woman who violated a minor traffic rule, was thrown into jail for three days, and committed suicide. How would you respond to this woman’s decision to take her own life? Many horrible responses out there, but one response that absolutely terrified me goes, “well, if she didn’t do anything wrong, she should have stayed strong, and she would have been released sooner or later.” This response immediately brought to my mind what one of my friends wrote on her Facebook page recently:

So, I got to thinking about friendships and that aspect of friendships which turns us into exhorters of ‘courage!’, ‘keep your head high’! ‘be strong!’, ‘walk away, don’t look back!’ etc when friends go through emotional lows or traumatic episodes. And it strikes me, as it has before, that it’s such an easy and lazy thing to do even if it might be necessary (which I wonder about). Why haven’t we learned the art of saying to friends ‘You know, what happened is utterly awful/annihilating/terrible’ and you go ahead and cry/scream/bawl your eyes out as much as you want for as long as you want, and I’ll just be around to make sure you eat a little, watch that you don’t actually harm yourself and see that you get some relaxation? And I’ll keep you company when you want company in misery’. The poet Ghalib does have a beautiful line where he asks precisely this question: what sort of friendship is it where friends become advisors and counsellors rather than simple companions-in-grief?

My friend wrote this without having Ms. Bland in her mind, but her thought gives us a good point of reference in thinking about Ms. Bland’s suicide, I think. Can you imagine her horror, her desperation, and her absolute sense of humiliation during the three days in the lone, cold prison? She was excited about her new job and new possibilities, and the first thing that happened when she moved to the new town was to be yelled at, to be “yanked out” from her car forcefully, and to have her head slammed into the ground by a policeman. All of these for failing to signal a lane change. She called her family and asked them to collect $5000 to get her out of the jail, but I guess collecting money took some time. Meanwhile, the young woman must have gone through…I don’t know. I cannot think of the right word. But can’t you imagine? How can you have no sympathy or sensitivity for the young woman’s suffering? How can you choose to be a stern judge and say “she should have stayed strong”? Who are you? If you were her, do you think you would be perfectly okay and stand strong, in the firm belief that you would get out eventually?

In political conversation, I usually try to stay away from using the concept of sympathy. Such issues as slavery, colonialism, or the low minimum wages are first and foremost the question of justice, fairness, and historical responsibility. Sympathy is often used to obscure these questions, I think. For example, colonialism is bad because it is a brutal system of oppression. To say “we have to be nice and sympathetic to the natives or the new immigrants” does not say anything about colonial violence or the long history that produces uprooted immigrants to begin with. But today, I feel that sympathy matters. Perhaps sympathy activates and sets to work political discussions that make the suffering of the oppressed people visible. Yes, I appreciate cool-headed analyses of justice, but it can be and perhaps needs to be paired with a warm-hearted engagement with people in need. As my friend says, we need to step down from the seat of a stern judge and lend a friend’s shoulders to cry on first.

Partial is Impartial

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For the last few days, I was so absorbed by a personal matter that I didn’t afford to pay sufficient attention to this guy. I am just catching up, and one thought I want to share with you is that in thinking about Dylann Roof, being partial is impartial.

One of the first questions that were raised as soon as the shooting took place was “who the hell is the gunman?” Yeah, I want to know, too. To respond to this question, the media are feeding us a lot of reports on the gunman’s long and deep-rooted hatred of black people as well as his various sociopathic symptoms. It is with the latter that I have deep trouble.

When we’re given the two kinds of information about this guy, I invite you to carefully observe how we  process them. I think a lot of us will respond, “okay, he’s clearly racist. He wants racial segregation? He wears an apartheid flag? Crazy! But he’s also a psychopath, so…. ” Right? I think media reports go in a way to tease out this kind of response from us, but I want to stop and think about racism embedded in this interpretation of ours. That’s right, not the guy’s racism but OUR racism. Our usual response, by subjecting his racism to his mental illness, exonerates us from the racism of our society. In other words, the media reports on the guy’s sociopathic history and our response to it are totally compatible with and perpetuate our desire to say, “We’re not racist. Or we’re not this bad. But this guy is so bad! Not us but him!”

We want to know all about the gunman, of course, but to explore a hate crime committed in a racist society, I think that not to mention the culprit’s mental illness may be the right thing to do. The goal is not to deny the existence of the mental illness but to focus our attention in the right place or at a cause that allows our intervention. What can we do about psychopaths themselves? Psychopathic people harm others for whichever reason they like. Despite brilliant psychologists’ research for decades, It is impossible to anticipate a sociopath’s future behavior accurately and act proactively to stop it. On the contrary, nobody will be surprised that some sociopaths recognize the already marginalized and victimized social groups as their easy victims and try to harm them. When and where and how exactly, who knows? But we know that sometime, somewhere, and somehow, this will happen. This is why I think that we all should feel responsible for a hate crime, even when it is committed by a sociopath. We could have prevented sociopaths from picking a certain group as an easy or justifiable victim of their skewed perspective, by means of not having such a group in the first place. To explain away a hate crime in terms of the gunman’s mental illness encourages resignation (“there was nothing I could do about it”), on the one hand, and on the other, encourages us to forget that we set up an easy target for the guy to shoot at.

If there isn’t much we can do about someone developing sociopathic symptoms, why don’t we talk about something we can do something about? Sometimes, choosing to be partial is impartial within a larger picture.

Who Shall I Vote For?

Who Shall I Vote For?

hilary clinton

Last November, I wrote about Elizabeth Warren. ( https://kimchiforthought.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/no-to-hilary-clinton-but-yes-to-elizabeth-warren/ ) I wrote it, because a lot of my liberal friends preferred her to Hilary Clinton, expressing disappointment in the latter and investing in the former hope for a more democratic future. In that piece, I argued that the differences between Elizabeth Warren and Hilary Clinton were not as large as they thought and that we should think more in terms of political structures rather than in terms of individual politicians.

And, tomorrow, our beloved Hilary Clinton is expected to announce her candidacy for the 2016 presidential campaign. A lot of comments are made about her, but to me, most of the analyses seem to mince over negligible differences between her and other politicians. So this morning, I wrote the following on my Facebook:

“Let’s say that you’re getting married. You’re the bride and I your bridesmaid. We go on shoe shopping to get your bridal shoes. You’re wearing a white dress, but at the shoe store we’re visiting, we find only two pairs of ivory shoes. One pair is deep ivory, the other light ivory. You agonize over these two shades of ivory, when neither matches your white dress. I say to you, “modern brides no longer think that they have to wear white shoes. It is acceptable to wear pink, blue, purple, or red shoes. Let’s look at other colors in the other aisle.” Tomorrow, Hilary Clinton is going to announce her candidacy for the 2016 presidential campaign. All I want to say in response is, let’s widen the scope of discussion. Instead of agonizing over minuscule difference between deep ivory and light ivory, let’s consider other bold colors, such as blue, red, and orange. Hilary is all up for exacerbating inequalities that are already in deep shit. But compared to others who are more reckless under the same banner, she passes for a progressive, just as light ivory looks a lot more white than deep ivory. BUT, whether light ivory or deep ivory, they are the same color. And that they are the same color won’t be made clear until we bring blues and reds and oranges to the table.”

Since I wrote the piece on Elizabeth Warren, and whenever I express my view during political discussions with my friends, I am often told the following: “Okay, I got your point that Elizabeth Warren is not perfect. Nobody is perfect. But don’t you think she is a lot better than Republicans, who have no respect for women, sexual minorities, racial minorities, immigrants, etc., mangle American history, and let loose mad gunmen? Even Hilary Clinton can be better than, let’s say, Ted Cruz. Somebody has to sit in the oval office, and I very much prefer a Democratic candidate to a Republican asshole. And, voting for a third party can be dangerous, because it can divide liberals’ votes, to lead to the victory of Republicans.”

So, today’s question is, “who should we vote for?” All right. Love the question.

The first thing I want to do is to alert you about the kind and breadth of politics that we’re talking about. Let me use the shoe analogy once again. Do you agree that we have broader options and more diverse ideas when we consider not only white/ivory shoes but also red, blue, and purple shoes? Similarly, I am talking about two kinds of politics. When we hear the word “politics,” we usually think about elections and votes. This kind of politics (I will call it “vote-centered, institutionalized politics”) is in fact only a small part of larger politics. In other words, there are politics that exist in tandem with the institutionalized politics but are not completely encompassed by them. The politics determined by votes are important, so yes, the question of who to vote is a valid, legitimate question whose importance cannot be underestimated. At the same time, however, politics outside votes are also tremendously important. In fact, I would argue that they are more important than their counterpart, because it is in these larger politics that are not yet captured by vote-seeking politicians that new ideas are generated and ultimately transported to the institutional politics to change our living reality.

So, when I suggest that we broaden up the scope of our political discussion, I am suggesting that we understand politics in broader contexts that go beyond votes. I am suggesting that we don’t limit our political vision to the votes but open it up to the vast, unexplored areas where unprecedented ideas are established and further developed. Out of those ideas, only a limited number make their way into the institutionalized politics to seek your vote. Once they are there, I need you to examine those ideas carefully before you cast your precious vote. But remember that you’re not done with discharging your political duty when you cast your vote for the right politician -whoever that may be – on the election day. There are tons of things that you should do on non-election days. You are responsible for determining which ideas outside votes deserve our attention and should make their way to the politics inside votes. Only when you perform this political duty well, we can move beyond narrow political debates determined by the differences between Democrats and Republics.

So, how would you feel about colorful shoes?

Colorful-bridesmaids-shoeschristian-louboutin-daffodile-point-toe-platform-pumps-pink-girls-shoes-sale

Guilty Before Proven Guilty: the Patriarchy of the Feticide Laws

Patel

Yesterday and today, one of the big news that feature newspapers and social media concerns Ms. Purvi Patel, a 33 year old woman in Indiana who is sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide. (Those of you who are not familiar with this news can check the following two articles, among many others: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/magazine/purvi-patel-could-be-just-the-beginning.html?smid=fb-share

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/02/it-isnt-justice-for-purvi-patel-to-serve-20-years-in-prison-for-an-abortion)

This is a controversial issue and also a very complicated issue. From this incident, I draw a lot more radical interpretation than the one that I will present below, but in order to communicate with a wider range of readers and to prevent unnecessary disputes, I will limit the scope of my discussion into one single point and draw from it the most conservative interpretation that I can offer insofar as it makes rational sense.

Here is one single point that I want to make about the Ms. Patel case: have you heard the principle of “presumed innocent until proven guilty?” This is one of the most basic, fundamental, and uncompromising principles of a legal system that ensures fair treatment. My argument today is that this basic principle is severely violated in Ms. Patel’s case.

There are many points of ambiguity in establishing Ms. Patel’s crimes. One major ambiguity is about whether or not the baby was alive when it was dropped in the dumpster. I won’t go into details to introduce who says what about this question. I won’t even pick a side to assert that the baby was alive or dead. What I want to argue is that this question is not settled and probably won’t be settled. Medical experts who examined the baby present different views about when the baby died exactly. This is not surprising because there isn’t anything in human life whose meaning is just given. Everything – our experiences, animate or inanimate objects, or social phenomena – should be interpreted before it releases meaning. Hence two scientists looking at the same object can draw two radically different conclusions, according to their different value systems, frames of reference, and political/religious/intellectual orientations. (at this point, it’s legitimate and necessary to discuss scientists’ biases, patriarchal or racial, in interpreting scientific findings, but let’s skip this complicated issue right now). When medical opinions are divided about the baby’s condition, the least that any conscientious person can say is to admit that we don’t know for sure. To quote a phrase from the New York Time article above, the question on the baby’s survival cannot be settled “any more than looking at a body that fell from a high building can determine whether the fall was a suicide, an accident or a homicide.” It means that all three possibilities exist and you should be open to all the possibilites. You can’t remove one possibility at random unless there is compelling evidence to suggest its untenability.

The second major ambiguity in Ms. Patel’s case is about her abortion-inducing medication. It seems clear that she ordered from a Hong Kong pharmacy an abortion-inducing substance that is available in the United States through prescription only. But did she take it? This seems to be another unsettled question. The prosecutors who charged Ms. Patel of feticide are convinced that she did take the medication. But the test administered after Ms. Patel is admitted into the hospital does not show any evidence of the drug in her body. Again, I am not picking a side to say that she did not take the drug. Perhaps she took the drug, but by the time she got tested, the drug was either absorbed in her body or found its way out of the body? I don’t know. Yet what I know is that this question is not settled and may not be settled ever.

These two important questions that should be settled before Ms. Patel is announced guilty or innocenct appear murky at best. In other words, there is contesting evidence surrounding her case. One can pick one series of evidence to conclude that she committed feticide. Or one can pick another series of evidence to conclude that the baby was a stillborn and Ms. Patel is innocent. My point is that a legal decision cannot be made in this situation where there are two competing narratives. It can be made only when one narrative is supported by solid evidence and appears irreversibly and irrefutably clear. This is the principle of “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” I am guilty only when you present irreversible evidence of my crime. If your evidence is murky and open to interpretation, I should be presumed innocent. In Ms. Patel’s case, however, we see that this principle is shamelessly violated. Ms. Patel keeps arguing that she had a miscarriage and the baby was a stillborn, and there is convincing evidence that support her argument. Why should her argument and her evidence be ignored, when it is highly contesting the prosecutors’ evidence? When they are ignored, I see nothing but the American legal system’s refusal to listen to Ms. Patel’s story. This is willful ignorance. This is an expression of a will to define Patel as a mother only and to deny her of all other elements that constitute her individuality. This is patriarchal violence. I don’t know what else I could call this shameless verdict on Ms. Patel.

Two things to add before I conclude this post. First, I think that part of the reason why people are so convinced of Ms. Patel’s crime despite evidence of her innocence is that she threw the baby into the dumpster. A baby – even when it is a stillborn – wrapped in a plastic bag and tossed into a dumpster does not feel good to most people. This image is upsetting enough to make people react emotionally and condemn the mother as a heartless bitch. I kind of understand this emotional response. But we can’t let an emotional response govern a legal judgement. We just can’t. If you kill my baby, I am sure I want to tear you to pieces. But my emotional desire for revenge should not influence your judgement in front of laws. You are innocent until irrefutable evidence of your murder is presented.

Second, it is terribly important to note that Ms. Patel is a woman of color. When there is room for interpretation, the identify of the accused does matter to determine the verdict that s/he receives.This explains why African Americans in particular and people of color in general are overrepresented in American prisons. When we are talking about the feticide laws and when the accused is a woman of color, her identity automatically activates all the racial prejudices circulating in our society: for example, Asian American women have a low awareness of reproductive health. And this activation of radicalized codes makes it very difficult for the woman of color to receive fair treatment. I am sure 100% that when the feticide laws are in practice more widely, a vast majority of the accused will be disprivileged women – women of color, working class women, immigrant women, etc. But now it is dangerously coming closer to the interpretation that I really believe about Ms. Patel, so I will stop here.

Are you worried about your body? Please don’t.

skinny fat

My thought on this topic is yet very rough, so I am not sure if I can put into words the ideas that are just germinating on my mind. But let me try it. After all, what do I lose?

Today, I read an article from Time Magazine on the danger of skinny fat. (http://time.com/14407/the-hidden-dangers-of-skinny-fat/?xid=fbshare) The idea of the article is that while we single-mindedly focus on our weight as an index of our obesity, people who are in the normal ranges of weight are not necessarily in a worry-free zone. According to the article, skinny people can store fat in their bodies, and this kind of fat can be more dangerous than the fat of fat people. (Please note the word “can” here. Not that skinny fat is more dangerous but that it “can” be more dangerous than fat fat.)

I responded to this article with anger. I asked, “okay, we all know that fat fat is dangerous. Now, skinny fat is dangerous. What’s next?” I brushed off this thought immediately, though, thinking that I was probably overreacting. But in the next moments, I found myself wondering “Am I really overreacting?” I am tempted to say, no.

What I see in the Times article is a set of worrying machines, or a number of scientific studies that make us anxious about our bodies. Hence my question today is, are our worries worth it?

The bottom line is that everybody carries some sort of health dangers, regardless of his or her body type, and that we all die. To give credit to scientists, I say that there are definitely patterns that correlate a certain type of body to potential health problems. For example, people with a big belly and overflowing muffin tops run a higher risk of heart failures and live shorter than people in normal weight. But the thing is that it is just a pattern. A tendency. Not a guarantee. People with a big belly run a higher risk of heart failures, but this pattern does not mean that they all will die of heart attacks. We see on the street plenty of overweight men and women who are in their 80s and 90s. By contrast, anyone who is in normal weight ranges, maintains a healthy diet and does a moderate amount of exercise can develop a heart attack and perish tomorrow. And, when you fall into this unusual category that lies outside the general patterns, the patterns established by scientific studies mean nothing. For example, I weigh an “ideal” weight, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables everyday, run 10 miles a week (I am not describing real me. Let’s just imagine it to move our discussion forward, though). But I am diagnosed a colon cancer. About the science studies that approve my healthy habits, I will probably say, “f@?k them.”

I guess my argument today is that the end point of our life is determined by the combination of so many different factors that nothing alone guarantees how long we will live. Given the uncertainty of when and how we die, I think our priority should be given to the effort to improve the quality of our life. I understand that physical health is important for a good life and that we are all responsible for maintaining a healthy body. But, again, the definition of a healthy body is not clear-cut, and high blood pressure or high cholesterol, insofar as they don’t interfere with your having fun with your loved ones today, are not deal breakers, I think. On my death bed, I don’t think I will list my hour glass shape or low cholesterol level as valuable accomplishments of my life. What I appreciate is such things as quality time I spend with people I love, good books and music, etc. These things definitely improve the quality of my life and deserve my time and energy while I am alive. Also, I want to make small contributions to see that the world, when I leave it, is a better place than when I came in. My weight? My fat? Not really.

Now, another question emerges. Am I thinking within an American frame of reference, in which we do everything in our power to justify our ever growing body sizes? Maybe.