February 17, 2019
The Souls Of Yellow Folk

I just read this collection of essays by Wesley Yang called "The Souls Of Yellow Folk" that's incredibly thought provoking but so confusingly scattered that I don't know how to talk about it but I want to try.

What's most fascinating is his thesis: Asian-American men as a group have a particular understanding and resentment in society that no other group has. As a minority, they understand the pain and resentment of other minorities. At the same time, because they don't share in many of the historical subjugations of other minority groups, their grievances are the least likely to receive (or deserve) public recognition. So they experience the frustration of being a minority but receive the least amount of attention for it.

Simultaneously, they understand the contemporary resentments of white men also; the criticisms against white masculinity extend somewhat to Asian-American men as well. But while Asian-American men are accepted, they aren't truly included in important ways when it comes to societal power that white men largely hold. The Asian-American man is both a minority and male, and as Yang puts it, he experiences the frustration of both and is denied the entitlements of either.

I'm not sure how much I agree with that thesis, but it's an idea I'd never thought about before, and the essays that deal with it (the book is terribly named - only a fraction of the book actually deals with his thesis) made me think a ton. Maybe none more than an essay entitled "Is It OK to Be White?"

There are so many layers to that question. On a superficial level, the answer to the question is, of course, yes - it's OK to be white, it's a ridiculous question to even ask. But would it be acceptable to publicly post posters saying "It's OK To Be White" around town? Or on a school campus? The answer is no, right? Because when posted publicly like that, it's not just an assertion of something obvious, it comes across as a response to something unspoken, that it's in small part dismissing or belittling the minority experience, in the same way that "All Lives Matter" isn't just a true slogan spoken in a vacuum, it's a response that in part dismisses the significance and pain of "Black Lives Matter." The context for the essay was that some trolls on 4chan did exactly that, organized a mass posting of "It's OK To Be White" posters, to provoke a predictable response (though not as strong as they might have hoped) that they wanted to use to use as fuel for the right, that it's absurd that something that is, without qualification, true, could be considered racist. It is though, right? Racist? Not because of its content, but because of its context. And in context, answering the question "Is It OK To Be White?" is surprisingly fraught. It is OK, but you can't say that in a certain way.

Then Yang explores a level below that, one I think is the most interesting. To start, he believes that we live in an age of resentment politics, and I completely agree. Minority groups are resentful of their poor treatment throughout history. But those in power, largely white males, are now resentful in return. The interesting thing is that Yang (again coming from the viewpoint that Asian-American males can uniquely identify with all sides) seems to understand the white resentment, and it's actually kind of compelling.

What do white males have to be resentful about? Part of it is that the language of minority resentment has shifted. I'll just quote him: "In recent years, we've seen the rhetoric of social-justice activism change. Where once the targets of those concerns to fight injustice were 'racism' and 'sexism,' today the targets are 'whiteness' and 'masculinity'.... there is no whiteness independent of the domination of nonwhites, and no masculinity independent of the domination of women." Yang quotes various sources, including Ta-Nahesi Coates and some feminist writers, and he's right - they really do use this language, and it's more widespread than I had understood. So it's not just racism and sexism that's attacked. Their language says that whiteness and masculinity itself is bad.

That's problematic on many levels. It's easy to see how that language can fuel resentment, when a group is criticized not for what it does, but for who they are. Yang speculates that it may have had a counterproductive effect, specifically in helping the rise of Trump. It's old news that white resentment helped fuel Trump's election. But Yang is the first person I've read to connect the dots in this way, that otherwise moderate whites might feel resentful because they feel under attack for being white, not for being racist. And that actual white supremacists feel wrongly emboldened because see a large mass of resentful whites and see them as being actual racists to the same extremity as themselves.

Along similar lines, Yang points out, with specific examples, how the language around white supremacy has shifted. It used to mean things like slavery, genocide, colonialism and segregation. Most people still think of it in these terms, and the societal consensus against it is based on that understanding. But academia and the media have constantly expanded the notion of what's white supremacy. He publishes a list of things that reflect white supremacy distributed by one antiracism nonprofit. Some at the top of the list are clearly over the line, things like hate crimes, swastikas, racial slurs. There are some more questionable but still plausible ones further down the list like Confederate flags, mass incarceration, and housing discrimination. But then the list includes things like "assuming that intentions are good enough", "color blindness", and "virtuous victim narrative." These are not necessarily good, but calling them white supremacy?

The problem in doing that, as Yang points out, is not in the goals of the list themselves, which are worthy, but that instead of engaging in debate and persuasion to convince, it's using disciplinary power to delegitimize, stigmatize, and shame people with contrary views. And if you so broadly expand the notion of "white supremacy", it waters it down so that it actually loses its power.

Yang argues that we should be more careful in our language. Going back to criticizing racism and sexism, not whiteness and masculinity. And using more proportionality and nuance in describing different harms related to race. He thinks it would defuse some of the tension around this discussion. While I don't agree with all of what he writes, I do think he's spot on with this.

Maybe the most confusing part of the book is that his thesis is so intriguing but he does not much with it - his most insightful advice is around the discussion of white privilege. He doesn't say much about the Asian-American experience at all, other than express the frustration of it. Asian-Americans have not been subject to anywhere near the level of subjugation and harm that other minority groups have. And yet, we have been harmed, and we continue to be kept from those in power. I don't know how to talk about that.

10:33 PM
December 20, 2018
Thoughts on Survivor, gender bias

This season of Survivor was absolutely fascinating, primarily because the players have become so knowledgeable (and skilled) at the game. In prior seasons, you always had players making strange or not well thought out decisions, but this season, even if you disagreed with a player's actual decision, you could respect that nearly every player was thinking through the considerations properly. And they're absolutely cutthroat, willing to turn on their closest allies (correctly!) at any moment. I generally dislike all the twists and advantages the show has introduced through the years - I feel like they mistake unpredictability for drama - and that this season was great is despite the twists, not because of it. I feel like the players are so good now that the show should return to the original format, no advantages or hidden immunity idols, no switching tribes. Given a game with really set rules, I think the strategy would dominate.

Anyway, one aspect I found especially fascinating was how aware the players are about the meta aspects of the game. I found it amazing that Gabby brought up in the final tribal council the issue of gender bias in Survivor. Specifically, females are statistically less likely to find a hidden immunity idol. More incredibly, Angelica knew the exact numbers behind that stat. I can't believe they know the game that well.

That stat is really thought provoking, incidentally. Before this season, 73 idols have been found by men, but only 17 by women, and in the last 4 seasons, only one has been found by a woman. There's been a surprising amount of discussion about this online and I'm convinced that it's a sign of gender bias. Not in the idols themselves, it's not that finding idols are easier for men, but how it comes across when you actively look for it. As in the workplace, if men are aggressive (here in searching for the idol), they come across as assertive, but if women do, they come across as antisocial or domineering. They're aware of that, and how it comes across to the jury, so implicitly women are less motivated to look for them. I'm not positive if that's the cause, but the imbalance is so striking, it's weird, and a true disadvantage for women on the show.

I have always thought Jeff Probst displayed gender bias also. Years ago I saw a supercut on Youtube of when Jeff gets excited on the show, and it's always some sort of physical feat, which is obviously biased towards males, the Colby types. The show always draws its cast from different types, with the implicit message that there are different ways to play and win the game. But Probst himself has always favored the physical type of game.

I used to like Survivor because I thought it displayed something about the human condition. It's a total artificial environment, but within that, you would see real human issues come up. That was almost completely absent this game because the players were so good. There was no real loyalty nor any real hard feelings, everyone was hyper-aware about the game. But that made me appreciate the pure game aspect this season. The human element is gone though. I guess you can't have both.

10:50 PM
October 16
Is Privacy A Christian Value?

I liked this Christianity Today story on privacy a lot. It raises a question I've asked myself for a long time - are we sure that privacy is a Christian value?

When I went on a mission trip to East Asia in 1998, I remember being bothered when some of my team members would say how the people there are so brainwashed. It's not that it was untrue - it's kind of crazy to me that there's a society where all media and information is controlled by the state and there's no place to find out what's accurate. There were rumors about some events happening at the campus we were at and there was no news or any other source where we could find out if these rumors were true or not. That's nuts. So yes, they are in a sense brainwashed, but what bothered me was the unsaid assumption that in contrast, we American Christians were not brainwashed at all. That's completely untrue. The more I travel around the world the more I realize how tainted American Christianity is with non-Christian values. These values aren't necessarily anti-Christian, it's just that they're more American than truly Christian. The emphasis on personal liberty and decision-making is probably the biggest of these.

I've long thought that privacy is another one of these values. American Christians seems to place a high value on privacy. In my mind, that value stems more from particular American ideas about liberty than Christianity. Does the Bible ever extol privacy? Propriety for sure. But privacy? The best I can think of is Matthew 6, which urges us to keep our good deeds private, our giving to the needy, our prayers, our fasting. That's not the kind privacy American Christians seem to value. On the contrary, the Bible seems to consistently value opening up, confessing our sins, letting our light shine. It speaks of a day when everything that is hidden and secret will be made light (Luke 8:17). Scripture seems to value the opposite of privacy. I jive with that, and because of that in my life I have tended to value openness far more than privacy. I've probably overshared at times. But that has always felt more in line with Scripture to me.

The Christianity Today piece helped me clarify my thinking. It affirms what I think, that in general, we should value openness and revealing ourselves over maintaining privacy. But it doesn't mean we should be completely open with everyone. It observes that the feeling of having our privacy violated is a useful indicator. We only feel our privacy is violated when information about us is unexpectedly revealed to someone with whom we have the wrong relationship for that information. If we receive a bad medical diagnosis, we are not likely to be bothered if our sibling shares that information with our parent, but may be if that same information is shared with a coworker we do not know well. The relationship matters. So the article challenges us not to share with everyone, but to make sure that we are in relationships such that we feel open to share what could be private. That feels right to me.

I consistently struggle with how much to share online. I would actually like to share a lot more that's personal - I kind of hate how superficial Facebook and Instagram and whatever is. It gives no sense of how I'm really doing. But blasting personal stuff online often feels like it would lack propriety. In the end I'm resigned that even with these supposed social tools to keep in touch, only a few people around me will really know how I'm doing.

9:58 PM
October 11
Christianity Today on the 81% of evangelicals who voted for Trump

The latest Christianity Today has an interesting article that dives deep into the 81% of white evangelical voters who voted for Trump (that for some reason I can't find online). It's based on polling done by the Billy Graham Center Institute at Wheaton College and LifeWay research and is meant to debunk the idea that white evangelicals are all in for Trumpism. It partly does that, but honestly, it leaves me a little more disturbed also.

Some takeaways:

- The 81% doesn't reflect enthusiasm for Trump. The Pew Research Center found that 45% were mainly voting against Clinton, only 30% were voting for Trump himself.

- Only half of evangelicals said they were voting for a candidate. Many vote for an issue, platform, or party.

- The 81% was not primarily about abortion or the Supreme Court. When asked the single most important factor in their vote, the top 4 for evangelicals were the economy (17%), healthcare (11%), immigration (10%) and national security (9%). These were the same top four when evangelicals were asked to list any of the factors that influenced their vote - it's the economy (62%), healthcare (55%), national security (51%) and immigration (49%).

- It appears that a majority of evangelicals were taking the long view, looking at the long-term conservatives goals that could be achieved through a Trump presidency over the short-term harm.

- 3 out of 4 evangelicals agree that a political leader's personal life does not need to line up with Christian teaching in order for Christians to benefit.

I think the article successfully shows that many or most evangelicals aren't enthusiastic about Trump. But man, there's a lot there that disturbs me. That the Supreme Court and abortion were not the primary drivers of their vote is one of them. Because while I personally disagree with being a one-issue voter, even on something as significant as abortion, I can at least respect someone who adopts that stance. But most evangelical Trump voters say that's not what drove their vote. And their reasons strike me as crazy. On the economy, Trump shows a lack of understanding on basic concepts (e.g. whether a strong dollar is good or bad), and he deviates from some fundamental and traditional conservative values like free trade. The same is basically true on healthcare. On national security, Trump sidles up to authoritarian anti-democratic leaders and antagonizes our allies. On immigration, Trump's stance is flatly anti-Christian. And yet, on these issues, the ones that influenced their vote most, evangelicals preferred Trump. That's crazy.

That evangelicals are also willing to overlook their political leader's personal behavior is also depressing. For one, it's a huge shift from how evangelicals used to think (and what I still believe). The article points out that it is unsurprising that non-evangelicals, when asked what characteristics describe evangelical Christians, most frequently cite: hypocritical. We now live in a world where secular liberals hold their political leaders to a higher standard of personal morality than evangelicals. That's a sad witness.

11:27 AM
September 15
Watching Forrest Gump in my 40s

Last night I watched Forrest Gump in its entirely for the first time in many years. I'd forgotten how good a movie it is. Rewatching it, I'd probably put it in my current top 20 of all time. It's a great movie. Every part holds together, there's not a single sequence that doesn't work. Like, part of why I hadn't watched it in so long is because when it's been on TV it's so easy to go in and out - virtually every piece of the movie is watchable on its own. And because the Gump character has become so iconic, I think Hanks' performance has become underrated. He's really good in it, and subtler than I remembered. I'm not sure if there's another actor that could have pulled it off.

What struck me most watching it last night though was how different the experience is watching in my 40s, vs. my teens when it first came out. I still remember watching it in 1994. I believe I watched it with Bobby Ro, Dave Park and Paul Jung at the AMC Town and Country. I was 18. I distinctly remember thinking back then, man, when I fall in love, I'm going to treat my woman like Forrest treats Jenny. Completely devoted and selfless, no matter what she does and how she is. I was positive I'd be that way.

It made me feel somewhat sad last night to remember those feelings and see how short I've come. Now that I've actually fallen in love and been married for so long, man, I'm not like that at all. If I'm honest with myself, I spend most of the time in marriage thinking about what I'm getting rather than what I need to give. I'm not selfless like Forrest at all. I was so wrong about how I would be. I realize Forrest Gump is a fairy tale, that he's not a realistic character or even someone to be emulated. But in my youth I was so sure I could be like that. And I'm so not. It made me sad.

I was challenged though, to be more selfless in my marriage. I can't be Forrest Gump but surely I could (and should) be way more selfless than I currently am. I gave Jieun a foot massage last night and attempted to make her breakfast this morning. It's a start.

4:16 PM
September 8

I found this Radiolab piece on the difficulty of moderating content on Facebook fascinating. Facebook really faces an impossible task - people don't actually know what they want from Facebook in terms of standards. In fact, they frequently want the opposite things at the same time. No censorship (e.g. breastfeeding photos) and moderation (removing fake news and hate speech). One might think the domains to which people want them applied are distinct, but I think the Radiolab piece points out how fuzzy those lines are - some breastfeeding photos can be really disturbing for some (e.g. not involving children) and some feminist activists want the freedom to express hate speech towards white males. Neither of those groups are necessarily wrong - it just shows that enforcing consistent policies that satisfy everyone is literally impossible. Most criticisms of Facebook end up looking like this Ringer piece that criticizes what Facebook is doing without really presenting a clear alternative for what should be done. The same media that complain (with justification) that too few companies have too much power also complain when for example Twitter doesn't ban Alex Jones and Infowars immediately, the way other social media platforms did. In a more fractured social media world, the likelihood of an Infowars persisting would obviously be higher. So the criticisms are incoherent.

But the bigger takeaway for me from the Radiolab story is just how improbable Facebook is. People sometimes ask me what I think about the Facebook privacy violations and election meddling and other issues. Facebook clearly did some things wrong, much of which they've acknowledged. But it's difficult for people to understand how inconceivable these issues were when Facebook was starting up. Like, Facebook definitely had privacy issues in regards to its Platform that some apps took advantage of. But Platform came out in 2007. At that time, Facebook was still an underdog, much less popular than MySpace. There were no such thing as Pages, people weren't really reading much news on the site, it was a totally different thing. If someone had said back then, "be careful that your settings aren't used to influence a U.S. election in 9 years" it would have sounded absurd. It would have sounded like telling a small business owner, hey, make sure your policies don't influence a trade war with China. It was beyond the realm of imagination. So yes, Facebook is blameworthy, but I don't know how anyone could have predicted what it would be and be able to address the corresponding issues ahead of time. Almost all startups have similar problems, it's just that almost none of them reach a level of popularity where it becomes an issue.

Radiolab gets it right - in the old days, content moderation was just a dozen new grads in a room. It may have been their job to come up with perfect standards, but it's unreasonable to think they would have. Facebook's obviously a different company now, but people forget that many of the issues people complain about had their roots in the old days, when the site was just a few kids running the site.

To this day I am still amazed at Facebook's reach. I still remember the first time I saw a promotion for a Facebook Page in the real world (at Santana Row). I couldn't believe it. I remember when (and the company used to track this) mentions of "Facebook and MySpace" (with Facebook first) in media became more frequent than mentions of "MySpace and Facebook". Facebook has incredible reach but to people who were there in the early days, I think it feels somewhat surreal. That an outlet like Radiolab would even have a story on Facebook still blows my mind on some level. It was just so different when I joined the company.

In my opinion, and I have no inside information on this, I think this is partly why Facebook was so slow to respond to or even recognize the extent of Russian meddling on the site during the Presidential election. I think such a notion was inconceivable to Zuck. I would guess that they were slow to investigate it because such a thing happening seemed prima facie impossible.

10:12 AM
September 4
Ethnicity, Race, The Definition of "White"

Adrian's book The Minority Experience is really good and thought-provoking. It brings up some interesting points about race. For one, that there is a difference between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity involves things like appearance, language, customs, and religious practices that distinguish groups like Italians and Irish. In contrast, race is a categorization that's historically been used for the purpose of social power. The concept of race was created to define a "white" race that could be used to control other non-white ethnicities.

That might sound controversial on first glance but it's undoubtedly true. I remember the first time I visited the museums on Ellis Island that revealed this in stark terms. There has never been a historically consistent definition of "white". The museums display many old posters and propaganda discussing about the need to protect the white race in the U.S.... from Irish and Italians. Eventually, these ethnic groups come to be included as "white", and later posters talk again about protecting the white race, but this time from Eastern Europeans - Poles and Slavs. Who nowadays are seen as white. The definition of "white", at least in America, keeps expanding, and one gets the sense that this expansion is not out of any sort of magnanimity, but to unify ethnic groups against a newer group that's seen as more immediately threatening, usually a new wave of immigrants. The concept of "white" is incoherent. Whether or not one come up with a consistent definition of white now, one can't trace a consistent definition through history. And whatever the definition of "white" that's been used in history, it's always been used to oppose some minority group. So the concept of race has always ultimately been about power.

I do find the fact that the category of "white" keeps expanding interesting though. I've always wondered the eventual limits of this expansion. I can imagine a world where Latinos are considered white. A lot of Mexicans look white already so it's not a huge stretch to include their browner brethren. But in my mind, I always assumed that Asians could never be included as white. The facial differences are just too stark and it seemed like a bridge too far.

I read something recently though that challenged my thinking on this, and I now believe Asians will eventually come to be seen as white, just not in the way I was thinking. Basically, it will happen through intermarriage. That article by Yglesias is pretty interesting, and it points out that whether America will be a majority-minority country really depends on how one defines white. If it's defined by someone who's exclusively white (by our current standards of white), whites will no longer be the majority around 2044. But if it includes people who are partly white, whites will still comprise 68.5% of the U.S. population in 2060. If one takes an inclusive definition of white, the U.S. will be majority white indefinitely.

Given history, I think the inclusive definition is far more likely to be used, and I think that's the method by which Asians will come to be seen as white, not directly, but via intermarriage. I already have cousins that are only 1/4 Asian. I can't speak for them but I'm guessing they see themselves primarily as white. As Yglesias writes, "These days, lots of white people would say their background is Italian and English or Irish and German rather than one or the other, but they also wouldn’t see themselves as belonging to an exotic 'mixed ethnicity' category. It’s simply the case that in American society, it’s common for people to be able to trace their ancestry in more than one direction.... In the future, the same basic reality is likely to apply to people who have one grandparent from Cuba (like me!) or China just as much as it does to people with one grandparent from the Czech Republic."

So yeah, race is an incoherent concept, especially the concept of "white", but I already have blood relatives who are probably considered white, and I bet that will continue in the future.

10:03 PM
August 23
Crazy Rich Asians

Spoilers, obvi.

Wow, Crazy Rich Asians affected me way more than I anticipated - I had a flood of complicated feelings and thoughts while watching the movie. I liked it a lot, which was somewhat unexpected. It seems to have gotten a mixed reaction among my friends, but I thought it was fantastic. Entertaining and moving. I'm not even sure I can articulate why I was moved, but I was.

One thing that really affected me more than expected was the experience of seeing so many Asians onscreen. I didn't expect that. A lot of Asians talk about wanting more representation in media and I respect that but it's never felt important to me. Jieun in particular really resonates with seeing Asian faces - I think for that reason she primarily watches Korean media now. Of the Western shows we watch together, one is Fresh Off The Boat and another is Kim's Convenience. So yeah, it matters to her, but I did not think it mattered to me. Nor did I think I was missing anything even if it did matter. I watch a decent amount of Asian media - Korean / Japanese / Chinese TV and movies - so I see Asian faces in media all the time. But for some reason that has never struck me the way this movie did. Jieun thinks it's different because they were speaking English - that's probably it. My Korean is so bad I can't feel any real affinity for a Korean show. But when it's a bunch of Asians speaking English, I feel a deep sense of being represented in a way I didn't even realize I was missing. It was a surprising feeling.

That feeling of being represented is somewhat ironic because to me, it didn't feel like an Asian-American movie at all. The location being in Singapore was really appropriate - it felt like an English-speaking Asians movie. And I loved that. I've read some criticisms about how the movie glossed over the differences between Asians from different areas and there's some merit to that, but to me, that it even acknowledged that there are different types of Asians, or the fact that there are many types of English-speaking Asians who have no connection to America whatsoever was refreshing.

But since virtually none of the characters are Asian-American, I'm still not sure what it is that I resonated with. I think part of it is, and again, I didn't realize I was missing it until I saw it, but it was satisfying to see Asians in positions you don't typically see in media. I've never been one of those people who were super bothered by the portrayal of Asians in Western media as either awkward nerds or martial artists. The nerd thing because honestly, I am an awkward nerd - I totally match that stereotype, so I've never felt underrepresented in media; all those nerd types felt fairly representative of me. The martial artist thing because I've been watching a bunch of old movies lately and I've realized that in the grand scheme of things, that stereotype actually represents progress.

But man, I realized I do need to see more varied representation, not because I'm a different type myself, but because it makes my own experience of being Asian fuller.

I've written about this before, but the first time I went to Korea, I was shocked that the gas station attendants were Korean. That seems stupid, I know. But in my day, the Koreans who emigrated to America were mostly of a certain type, and largely professionals. Dominated by engineers in the Bay Area, doctors in Houston. There were some others, of course, and I'm sure in places like L.A. where there are many more Koreans there's more variety, but because of the dominant type around me, I subconsciously pigeonholed Koreans as only being a certain type of professional. It took actually going to Korea for me to grasp that every role that exists in America, from the President to street beggars, exist in Korea and are filled by Korean people. It was honestly mind-blowing. But it's a reflection that if you only see a certain type in your group, you subconsciously come to think that that type is all your group is.

Breaking through typical stereotypes is refreshing not because I personally am different, but it makes my own sense of being Asian feel different. In particular, I found myself being surprisingly affected by the portrayal of Asians in power. You never see that in Western media. Asian males in particular tend to be subtly impotent and emasculated. Showing this world where Asians are in power, and in fact look down somewhat on white Westerners, surprisingly affected me. More the power thing, less the racism thing. This may sound crazy, but it made me feel different being an Asian.

I think this was a big reason why Linsanity resonated so much with Asian-America, why it was so meaningful to see what felt like one of our own succeed in sports. His success didn't directly affect me at all, it didn't change my own chances of making the NBA. But it did expand the notion of what an Asian-American could do, and that itself was enough to change my own feeling of being Asian-American. Seeing powerful Asians in the movie evoked those same types of feelings in me.

But this is also complicated because even while showing powerful Asians, the movie still emasculated Asian men in little ways. All the strong characters are female, and you know, good for them. But, and Scott wrote about this, the movie directly contrasts Rachel Chu with Michael Teo. Both are involved with the rich family, and Rachel is revealed to be a warrior, but Michael is a coward. Both Rachel and Nick's fathers are non-existent in the movie. There's a family matriarch, no patriarch. All the actual power moves are carried out by women. And you know, I'm all for female power. But the male characters almost all ended up being absent, jerks, weirdos, or eye-candy. Oliver was by far the most positive fleshed-out male character, and while I totally loved him (because his is an Asian type that totally exists but you never see in media), overall it was kind of an unsettling feeling. I suppose seeing Asian men sexualized could be considered progress, but it would have nice to have seen more.

I'm quibbling though. Like I said, I really liked the movie. I cried involuntarily at 3 parts - when Rachel's mom shows up, during the mahjong game, and the proposal. Not sure why except, man, family brings out complicated emotions.

I still can't figure out why I resonated with it though. Dave has argued in the past that Asians-Americans are so disparate that there's no real concept of Asian-American. And this movie is not even that, it portrays Asian-Asians, and crazy rich ones at that, with whom I have even less affinity. The characters' experience could not be any further from my own. And yet. Could it be that simply seeing an English-speaking Asian face is enough to trigger connection and identity? Is it that psychologically shallow? I think it might be.

The theater was packed for a 1:30 show on a Thursday. I was surprised.

Thanks, MoviePass! Still hanging on!

10:26 PM
August 22
Godliness, why we love Jesus

I had a deeply thought-provoking and moving conversation with my mom a couple weeks ago that I'm still thinking about. She gave me permission to share it.

It started off talking about the meaning of "godliness". I'd never thought about it too deeply, but I suppose in my mind godliness was defined by devotion to God. That's probably the dictionary definition. My mom had a different take. To her, being godly means reflecting the characteristics of God. There are pastors out there, devoted and devout ones, who are nonetheless known for being legalistic and judgmental. To my mom, they're not godly, because they don't reflect the character of the God she knows. It's bold, and an interesting twist on godliness, and I think it's useful.

This is important to my mom. She has taught a Bible reading class at church, and at the beginning of the class, she says that her goal for everyone in the class is for them to know why they love Jesus. We frequently sing songs at church about how we love Jesus. But when asked, many people can't articulate exactly why they do. To her, that's a goal of reading the Bible.

She talked about the story of the woman at the well as an example of this. Jesus' interaction with her is incredible. He reaches out to her. She doesn't even realize that she's in need, much less know what she needs. But he knows. And he brings it to her. And talks to her about things like worshiping in spirit and truth. How could someone like her even know what these concepts mean? But Jesus knows what she needs. And it's not just with her. In all his interactions with every woman he encounters, Jesus is infinitely patient and infinitely kind. That's the kind of God my mom would follow.

True godliness is important to my mom because she wants people to know the real Jesus. She knows why she loves Jesus. I hope we all do too.

8:49 PM
August 12
I Am Not Korean

I don't know what it is, but there's something about my demeanor that makes people think I'm not Korean. It's happened too many times to be a coincidence. Most recently, we were in a Korean restaurant in Houston - me, Jieun, my sister and Peter, all of our kids, and my great-aunt. We were all speaking to each other in English. The waitress comes to take our order, speaking to each adult in Korean. But when she gets to me, she addresses me - and only me - in English. It was really weird. But again, not unprecedented. There's something about me that makes Koreans instinctively not interact with me as a Korean, even when I'm surrounded by other Koreans.

I wish I knew what it was. It can't be just the language thing, because the adults were all speaking to each other in English. Jieun thinks there's a postural aspect to Korean culture, a subtle way you hold your body and conduct your mannerisms, that I don't have and it's this posture (or lack of it) that makes me look non-Korean. I think there's something to that. Whatever it is, it happens all the time.

12:17 PM
July 27
St. Augustine on Evil

Book VII of St. Augustine's Confessions is incredible. It's astounding to me how much he thinks like a modern man - in particularly, how his thought process in his search for truth follows exactly how I would have proceeded were I a nonbeliever, but with greater intelligence and honesty.

His thought progression when discussing his search for the origin of evil was particularly interesting to me. No one reads this anyway, so I'll outline it just for my benefit.

  • Where did evil come from?
  • Or does it not exist at all? But if it doesn't exist, why do we fear it? If our fear itself is meaningless, then that fear itself is evil, because it tortures us for no reason. Either the evil we fear exists, or our fear itself is the evil. So where does evil come from?
  • Was something bad in the material God used in creation, so that it was not turned good? But why?
  • Did he lack power to convert it so that no evil remained? But how, if he's omnipotent?
  • Why we he choose to use it instead of destroying it completely?
  • Or did it exist against his will?
  • Things prone to destruction are good:
    • If they were supremely good they would be indestructible.
    • If they were not good at all there would be nothing in them that could be destroyed.
    • Destruction is obviously harmful, but can only do harm by diminishing the good.
    • So either destruction harms nothing, which is impossible, or all things that suffer harm are being deprived of some of their good.
    • They can't lose all their good - if they did they wouldn't exist. If they did exist without any good, they could no longer be subject to destruction, and that would make them indestructible, which makes no sense, that they would be better for having lost everything good in them.
    • So anything that exists is good.
  • Evil then is not a substance, otherwise it would be good. Since if it were a substance, it must either be indestructible, and thus supremely good, or destructible, and nothing can be destructible unless it is good.
  • Nothing is evil in what God has created. Parts may seem evil because they don't fit other parts, but in the parts they fit, they are good there. Far be it for us to say it should not be this way, when we can't see how it all fits together.

He seems to be talking about nature here, and it makes sense to me. Even nonbelievers see this in nature - I recently saw a video of a pod of orca whales working (successfully) to separate a gray whale calf from its mother as it crossed an area near Monterey Bay. The video is disturbing, and one's gut reaction is to see it as wrong, but the producers note that this is nature at work and all fits into a larger system. When we can't see the larger picture, it's hard to see how incidents like this are good. It takes being able to see everything to see how it fits together.

In the end, I don't think Augustine's explanation for the existence of evil, that it's simply a corruption of good, is a slam dunk - I find the process behind it more interesting than his conclusions. Many people today act as if ancient peoples were simply unthinking and never considered questions like these. But if you read them you realize they thought more carefully and deeply about these issues than virtually anyone does today.

5:31 PM
July 25
Derek Webb's Fingers Crossed

Derek Webb's Fingers Crossed came out a year ago. I feel like writing about it because I think it's the most disturbed I've ever felt after listening to an album and I'm still processing why.

If you didn't already know, in 2014 Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken announced that they were divorcing. He explained a couple years ago that the proximate cause of the divorce was an affair he had. Fingers Crossed is the first album he released since the divorce.

It's an utterly painful listen. He describes the album as being about two divorces. One: the breakup of his marriage, and the album chronicles his emotions in raw, excruciating detail. Two: his apparent divorce from God, or the church, or both, about which he's also painfully honest. I respect honesty in music. I love it, really. But the honesty in Fingers Crossed hit me differently. Something about it made me feel dark and disturbed. I read as many reviews as I could find online because I needed to see what other people thought about it. I also searched for interviews with Webb just to figure out what he might be thinking.

There's a subculture that really praised the album. It's a subculture I didn't really know about before, and I don't know how to characterize it except as fallen Christians. For example, Derek Webb had a long interview with the Inglorious Pasterds. They appear to be a few guys who left the church, "deconstructed faith," and are reassembling it, but without organized religion (and with profanity). BadChristian is another - they describe themselves as "the largest post-Christian community in the universe." Exvangelical is another. All of these guys (and more) have podcasts. It's weird to me. Not the leaving of Evangelical Christianity, which I understand, and happens all the time. But it's strange to me to define yourself in terms of what you left, what you once were and not what you currently are. I'd think you'd want to just move on to whatever's next. I would imagine that most people find something else to identify with, be it another belief system, a cause, a hobby or passion. Continuing to define your identify as post-Christian is strange to me, but apparently there are a lot of people out there like that.

Anyway, I listened to these interviews and they were effusive of Fingers Crossed for being so honest. And that disturbed me, for the same reason the album did. The album is undeniably honest. The songs talk at length about he betrayed his wife and how it ruined his life. How he currently finds solace in alcohol. How he wishes he could turn back his relationship but he can't. How he's saying goodbye to faith. All real stuff. And it takes a certain amount of courage to share that.

But to me, it's the wrong kind of honesty. Or rather, it's incomplete honesty. I think to me, true honesty is being real about both who you are and who you want to be. If you only have the latter, it comes across as inauthentic, because none of us live up to what we aspire to. Being real about your weaknesses is a big part of honesty. But if you only have that, the being true about who you are but no sense of who you want to be, it's just wallowing, and to me, there's nothing noble or admirable about that.

That to me is Fingers Crossed - wallowing. It's not self-pity, exactly. He blames himself completely for being in the place he's at. But it's so self-absorbed with no sense of wanting anything more. I find it sad. What's even worse to me is that it even mocks a sense of Christian hope. One of his songs is called "The Spirit Bears The Curse" and it's intentionally structured and sung like a worship song, until it gets to the end refrain where he reveals that "spirit" is a play on words and the song is really an ode to alcohol. That's intentionally spiteful, even structurally dishonest, and there's nothing noble about that.

Alcoholics Anonymous is an example to me of real honesty. It forces people to own up to their shortcomings (from the very beginning: "I'm X and I'm an alcoholic") but for a purpose, to move towards who they want to be, while recognizing that they are likely to fail many times on the way. That's honesty. Or David in the Bible. When he went through his own affair that could have (and partly did) ruin his life, in Psalm 51 he's honest about his shortcomings but he doesn't just wallow in it, he expresses a desire for more, for forgiveness and restoration. That's real honesty, the kind I admire.

What's sad to me is that's the kind of honesty Derek Webb used to have. He's always had a kind of abrasive edge to him, a kind of harsh honesty. But it was always coupled with pushing both himself and the church to something more. I liked that. That he's gone from that to the wallowing type of confession he does now makes me sad. Yes, it's kind of courageous to be that open about his emotional state right now. But listening to the album depressed me. And what I found disturbing is that there was a large group that extolled it for being truly honest. It's not truly honest. It's just sad.

10:14 PM
July 24
"A system which was so economically profitable must be morally justifiable"

Last quotation from Strength To Love that struck me. He's talking about slavery and segregation, and how people let it go on for so long, and he writes: "Men convinced themselves that a system which was so economically profitable must be morally justifiable."

Man. There's so much truth in that statement. I can't speak to the past, though I have a strong suspicion that he's right, but I feel like I see this everywhere today. By total providence / luck, I ended up in life at a workplace filled with wealthy people and living in a neighborhood also filled with wealthy people. It would be ungrateful to complain about it, and I'm not, but I still feel uncomfortable around it, and spend a lot of time observing, not feeling like everyone else. And one thing I have noticed is that there's an undercurrent among rich people of moral superiority. It's not (usually) overt. But there's just this vibe that their wealth validates their life decisions, that it demonstrates that they made better choices than other people, that they must have been "right".

I recently read the new Tiger Woods' biography and it's fairly disturbing (he barely seems human). One story involves his personal lawyer for some time (whom Tiger, as he frequently does, completely cut out of his life suddenly and without comment). This lawyer engaged in some questionable dealings while Tiger was still an amateur. As a reader, it seems pretty clear that what he did was wrong. But he insists even now that he did nothing wrong. If anything, the problem was with the rules, not with him.

I see this with certain rich people. They feel morally justified by their wealth and power such that if they are challenged as being wrong, they'd sooner question the rules than reconsider their own behavior. You'd think it would be different for engineers, because the outcomes for our peers who are just as intelligent and hard-working vary wildly. It should be obvious that it's almost all luck and has nothing to do with us. But it's not the case.

8:47 PM
July 23
The church must be the conscience of the state

Here's another quotation from MLK Jr's Strength To Love that I found relevant for the evangelical church today:

The Greek Church in Russia allied itself with the status quo and became so inextricably bound to the despotic czarist regime that it became impossible to be rid of the corrupt political and social system without being rid of the church. Such is the fate of every ecclesiastical organization that allies itself with things-as-they-are.

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

In my opinion, the evangelical church in America's move towards political activism and being so closely linked to the Republican Party has been a huge mistake. I believe it has reduced the church's esteem in the minds of the non-churched, making evangelism more difficult and contributing to the decline of church attendance in the younger generation.

More significantly, it's caused the church to have to water-down its prophetic message. When I see church leaders defend Trump and excuse (though not support) his personal immorality, the church has lost its prophetic power. I can think of no greater example of political entanglement leading to loss of power as with Focus On The Family's silence on the separation of families at the border. The organization's name is literally about families. In years past, they led initiatives for protecting the unity of immigrant families. But they can't speak on the issue because it will alienate their white Republican donors with whom they've become inextricably linked. When Focus On The Family can't focus on the family, something has gone wrong.

5:40 PM
July 20
A Tough Mind And A Tender Heart

I just read Martin Luther King Jr.'s Strength To Love, a collection of his sermons, and I found it enormously thought-provoking. One thing that amazes me is how relevant they still seem today. His preoccupation is understandably with segregation, and on that issue it's no longer the same, but the mindset behind segregation that he criticizes remains. It feels like the same mindset behind the anti-immigrant sentiment today, an us against them mentality that denies the humanity of others.

His first sermon is entitled "A tough mind and a tender heart" and is based on Matthew 10:16 - "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." He contrasts the character reflected in this verse with their opposites - soft minds and hard hearts. And as I read, it felt impossible to not draw a parallel with today. Trump is the hard heart. He supposedly has no real friends, clearly has no compassion, and only cares about himself. He reflects his self-centered hard-heartedness in his demagoguery and scapegoating of minorities and immigrants. His followers are the softminded, who non-critically eat up his message. Sadly, this includes many Christians. And this apparently is nothing new. Much of MLK Jr.'s writings criticize Christians who support obviously non-Christian values - in his day segregation. His message resonates today. You cannot be a Christian and deny the humanity of all others, recognizing in everyone the image of God.

I'm going to quote a bunch of passages from the sermon, just because I found it so good.

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

This prevalent tendency toward softmindedness is found in man's unbelievable gullibility.... Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the true from the false, the fact from the fiction. Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts. One of the great needs of mankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda....

This has also led to a widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion. But this is not true. There may be a conflict between softminded religionists and toughminded scientists, but not between science and religion. Their respective worlds are different and their methods are dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from shrinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obstructionism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.

We do not need to look far to detect the dangers of softmindedness. Dictators, capitalizing on softmindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society. Adolf Hitler realized that softmindedness was so prevalent among his followers that he said, "I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few." In Mein Kampf he asserted: "By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell-- and hell, heaven.... The greater the lie, the more readily will it be believed."...

The toughminded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he postjudges. The tenderminded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced....

The hardhearted person never truly loves. He engages in a crass utilitarianism which values other people mainly according to their usefulness to him. He never experiences the beauty of friendship, because he is too cold to feel affection for another and is too self-centered to share another's joy and sorrow. He is an isolated island. No outpouring of love links him with the mainland of humanity....

The greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both toughminded and tenderhearted. He has qualities both of austerity and of gentleness. The Bible, always clear in stressing both attributes of God, expresses his toughmindedness in his justice and wrath and his tenderheartedness in his love and grace. God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace. On the one hand, God is a God of justice who punished Israel for her wayward deeds, and on the other hand, he is a forgiving father who heart was filled with unutterably joy when the prodigal returned home.

I am thankful that we worship a God who is both toughminded and tenderhearted. If God were only toughminded, he would be a cold, passionless despot sitting in some far-off heaven.... But if God were only tenderhearted, he would be too soft and sentimental to function when things wrong and incapable of controlling what he has made.... God is neither hardhearted nor softminded. He is toughminded enough to transcend the world; he is tenderhearted enough to live in it. He does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles. He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us in our tragic prodigality.

1:45 PM

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