Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best of 2009

Best Movie – Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

If only because it had the best fictional Nazi. Ever:

Honorable Mention: Avatar. This is the most beautiful movie I’ve ever seen. Go and see it, and you’ll understand.

Dishonorable Mention: Watchmen. Listen, Zach Snyder, if you’re going to make me watch a midget cut off a convict’s arms with a buzzsaw, you’d better make me care about the characters and the plot somewhat. Epic fail.

Best Book – Relentless by Dean Koontz

Admittedly, I didn’t find the time to read many of 2009’s books, but this novel was simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. What else could you expect from a plot about a ruthless organization of postmodern book reviewers that goes around assassinating authors who still believe in truth and beauty?

Best quote from the best book (p. 265):

As long as I can remember, novelists and filmmakers and cult leaders have been depicting and predicting the end of the world by fire or ice, by asteroid or magnetic-pole shift, and they have always found a large audience for their visions.

In the hearts of modern men and women, there is an inescapable awareness that something is wrong with this slice of history they have inherited, that in spite of the towering cities and the mighty armies and the science-fiction technology made real, the moment is fragile, the foundation undermined.

...but if disaster came, it would be the collapse of civilization, not the end of the world. This blue transparent sky, the sea, the shore, the land, the dark evergreens ever rising – all would endure, unaffected by human misery.

...the modern world [has] thrown away the respect for tradition that can be rock under our feet; the certitude of our place in the universe and of our purpose, which allows peace of mind.

Fire, ice, asteroids, and pole shifts are bogeyman with which we distract ourselves from the real threat of our time. In an age when everyone invents his own truth, there is no community, only factions. Without community, there can be no consensus to resist the greedy, the envious, the power-mad narcissists who seize control and turn the institutions of civilization into a series of doom machines.

So good.

Best Album – The Long Fall Back to Earth by Jars of Clay

Holy buckets this album is good. Jars of Clay has been my favorite band since I was ten, and they will probably always be my favorite band for that reason, but this album is unlike anything they’ve ever done before. For lack of better categories, I’ll describe it as an incredibly bold hybrid of indie rock and 80s pop. The last four tracks must be listened to as a unit – they’re like an epic journey through love, loss, war and confusion. I will treasure this album forever.

Also, don’t miss four other fantastic albums from this year: The Decemberists’ fantasy rock opera The Hazards of Love, Regina Spektor’s masterpiece Far, Relient K’s Forget and Not Slow Down (especially “Savannah”), and Switchfoot’s Hello Hurricane.

Best TV Show - South Park

As always, South Park dominated any of this year’s new shows that I might have watched instead. Gut-wrenching humor combined with incisive commentary on American culture – what college student could ask for more? See especially the episodes "Margaritaville," "Fishsticks," "Dead Celebrities" and "Dances with Smurfs."

Happy new year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Book-Reading Progress

Since I started this blog last summer, my "What's on my bookshelf" list (to the right) has remained unchanged. If you’re the observant type, you might wonder, “Is this guy actually reading any of those books, or is he just trying to make himself look good?”


It’s been a busy couple of months, but I have finished a few of the titles on my list. And this is what I thought of them.

Epicenter: Why the Current Rumblings in the Middle East Will Change Your Future by Joel Rosenberg

This book is Bush-era successor to Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. The basic premise of both books is that the Bible can be used to predict current events, particularly in the Middle East. Lindsey published his book in 1970. Not one of the events he predicted came to pass. (It’s still an entertaining read, though.) Rosenberg has done slightly better. He managed to predict Saddam Hussein’s downfall and the death of Yasser Arafat based on his extrapolations of Ezekiel 38-39. But I’m gonna knock on wood: Contra Rosenberg, Russia is not going to invade Israel (at least not in our lifetimes) and forty years from now, Epicenter will be just as dated as Lindsey’s book, and the Bible will remain just as true as before.

I have some massive theological disagreements with both Lindsey and Rosenberg. However, I like Rosenberg’s book much, much better, for one reason: unlike Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, John Hagee and the rest, Rosenberg is an American Jew who has lived in the Middle East, he genuinely cares for the people of the Middle East, and it shows in his book. Where Lindsey and Crew seem to delight in mapping out the catastrophes in store for Israel, Russia and the Arabs, Rosenberg delights in telling stories about Jews and Muslims coming to faith in Jesus. The stories that Rosenberg relates in his final chapters about obscure Iranian villagers and former Muslim terrorists finding salvation and peace are wonderfully encouraging, and for that reason alone, I’m glad I read Epicenter.

Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is one of my three favorite fiction writers (along with Dean Koontz and C. S. Lewis.) His classic war-in-space novel Ender’s Game will always hold a special place in my heart. Lost Boys is the first non-sci-fi book of his I’ve read. I expected it to be a suburban horror/fantasy, and it was (and an excellent one at that). What I did not expect was that it would be such a detailed, human portrait of suburban family life, or that it would revolve so heavily around the Mormon faith.

On the first point – this is not a short book. Card goes on and on about the father character’s office politics, and the mother character’s neighborhood and church politics, leaving the serial killer mystery almost untouched for chapters at a time. We meet and come to know everyone the family encounters over the course of the book. At the ending, most of this material is not directly related to the central plot of the “lost boys.” And yet I don’t get bored with it. And I’m not sorry I read all that tangential information about this fictional family’s life. It was gripping. I cheered on the dad at work. I hissed with the mom at the mean church ladies. To read this book really is to enter another world - another set of lives.

On the second point – if you want to understand Mormonism, read this book. Card is a devout Mormon, and this book is the Mormon equivalent of Christian thriller novels like Frank Peretti’s and Ted Dekker’s. I learned so much about Mormon culture from Lost Boys – how their churches work, what their taboos are, what bugs them, how they feel their faith has been misrepresented in the outside world. (In particular, they don’t expect to become gods after they die. This book cleared that up for me).

Good, good stuff.

“A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

I just finished this book today. If you are interested in international politics, human rights, or 20th century history, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Power takes us through each of the major genocides of the 20th century (the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds, the Rwandan genocide, and the Bosnia and Kosovo genocides) and the U.S. response to those atrocities. It is packed with information, but very relevant and readable. I did not really understand the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia or the Balkans war before I read this book. I do now.

On top of that, Power takes us inside the workings of the U.S. government to explain why the U.S. reacted the way it did. If you’re a political nerd like me, getting to read about the debates that raged inside the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House during these crises is exhilarating, and inspiring, in the sense that you see the way U.S. policy could have gone, and might go in the future, if we can convince our leaders to act. Five stars.

One more thing: this book was published in early 2002, before the genocide in Darfur began, and before anybody knew what the war on terrorism would look like. 9/11 is mentioned twice, by my count. In one sense, that makes the book dated, but in another sense, it is extremely refreshing to read a viewpoint from outside this crazy decade.

Up next: Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War by Anthony Shadid.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Senator Brownback PWNS Obama’s Sudan envoy

As found here.

Sam Brownback (R-Kansas): President Bashir, he has participated in a genocide in Sudan, is that correct?

Maj. General (ret.) Scott Gration: Sir, he was the president of the country during the time that the genocide took place and, ah, therefore he would have participated.

Brownback: So he has led the genocide in Darfur?

Gration: His government was responsible for that, and he was the leader of the government, therefore he would have done it.

Brownback: President Bashir is an indicted war criminal, by the ICC.

Gration: He is. (Silence. Looks down at table.)

Brownback: Are there in the leadership of the government of Sudan, individuals you're dealing with or negotiating with?

Gration: I'm negotiating with individuals that are in high-level positions in the government of Sudan.

Brownback: You're dealing with a government that is conducting an ongoing genocide, is that correct?

Gration: (Pause.) I'm dealing with the government.

Brownback: That is conducting an ongoing genocide in Sudan?

Gration: (Pause.) I'm dealing with the government in an effort to end the conflict, in an effort to end gross human rights abuses.

Brownback: I understand your objective. I'm asking you, are you dealing with a government that is conducting an ongoing genocide in Sudan.

Gration: I'm dealing with--as I said, I'm dealing with the government in Khartoum, of Sudan.

Brownback: Which is currently conducting a genocide in Sudan, is that correct?

Gration: That's correct.

Brownback: Should we have dealt with Charles Taylor, who is an indicted war criminal?

Gration: I have not been involved with Charles Taylor.

Brownback: Should we have negotiated with the Serbian leader Karadzic, the butcher of Bosnia?

Gration: I have not been involved in that situation.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Scott Gration, President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, he has previously summed up his attitude toward the mass murderers in Sudan's government this way: “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries – they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.”

At least we've still got some good men in Congress.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Politics of the ummah

My friend got a free copy of the Qur’an the other day.

He lives in Minneapolis and attends the University of Minnesota. He went to the campus bookstore, and met two bearded students sitting behind a table stacked with books. One of the students asked him, “Have you heard about the Qur’an?” My friend replied, “Kind of, my friend [meaning me] went to the Middle East and bought a copy there.”

One of the students replied, “It is also known as Palestine, well formerly known as Palestine.”

“Would you like a copy of the Qur’an?” the other asked. Yes, my friend said, he would.

Here are my observations about that exchange. Please feel free to correct me on any count:

1) The Middle East is a pretty big region. There’s no official definition of “Middle East,” but I would probably define it as the area in between Morocco in the west, Iran in the east, Turkey in the north, and Yemen in the south. In other words, all of North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Persia and Anatolia. Yet when my friend told a Muslim in Minneapolis that I had gone to the “Middle East,” the Muslim man automatically assumed he meant Israel/Palestine. I’m guessing this means that Americans use the “Middle East” as shorthand for Israel/Palestine way too often (e.g., “The Middle East conflict”). This is probably because, depending on where you stand on the issue, you think that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is a) all Israel b) all occupied Palestine, c) Israel and the occupied “Palestinian territories,” d) Israel and the disputed Palestinian territories, or any other number of ridiculous formulations. So “Middle East” is just simpler to say.

2) Because every description of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is inherently political, this Muslim man was not simply correcting my friend’s geography. He was trying to educate my friend on a political perspective: “It’s also called Palestine.” And if “the Middle East” is “Palestine,” then the existence of the State of Israel there is illegitimate.

3) While in the act of evangelizing for his faith, this Muslim man quickly and effortlessly made the jump to evangelizing for a political cause – the Palestinian cause.

At first I was tempted to say that there’s no analogy to that in Christianity – but of course there is. In the minds of many American evangelical Christians, there is little to no distinction between spreading the gospel and advocating for political causes, like restrictions on abortion and gay marriage, or even America’s continued status as a “Christian nation.” And of course, in American Judaism, sympathy for the state of Israel often comes as a natural part of religion. On my one and only visit to an American synagogue, the message was delivered by a representative of Israel’s natural resources ministry. She gave me a green button that read, “Naturally for Israel.” (Get it?)

So I guess what stands out for me is the identification of Islam with Palestinian nationalism that my friend experienced. In Judaism, where ethnic heritage and religion are so closely related, Israeli nationalism makes a certain kind of sense. But Islam is a religion for all people. So why is it that the vast majority of Muslims around the world seem to uniformly come down on the side of the Palestinian cause? I have a few guesses, but as a supporter of Israel who wants to see a better relationship between my country and the Islamic ummah (worldwide community), none of them make me feel better about it.

If you’re wondering if there’s an exception to the standard Islamic line on Palestine, the answer is – yes. I give you Stephen Schwartz, an American Sufi Muslim and leading neoconservative. “Israel, to me, is the historic, sacred land of the Jews,” he writes. “Neither more nor less. It was given to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the Almighty as their eternal home.” He even backs it up with verses from the Qur’an.

And here’s an endlessly fascinating (to me) video of Jews and Muslims clashing over the subject of Israel at an interfaith dialogue:

(If the dialogue in that video seems harsh, remember – at least they’re talking to each other.)

As soon as you’re done chewing on that one, I have another question: In the past six years, around 300,000 Muslim civilians have been murdered and 2.7 million displaced in the Darfur region of Sudan. Since the early 90s, over 50,000 Muslim civilians have been killed in Chechnya by the Russian army, 25,000 since 1999.

In all the wars fought between Israel and its neighbors in the last 61 years, around 150,000 people – Israeli civilians, Israeli soldiers, Arab civilians and Arab soldiers – have been killed. Since 2000, Israel has killed around 7,000 Palestinians and Lebanese – civilians and terrorists – in its various wars.

The rage directed at Israel by the Muslim world, compared to the rage it directs at the governments of Sudan or Russia, seems a little disproportionate, no?

فلسطين حرة

Free Palestine.

Friday, December 11, 2009


I will probably never do a “Bible-in-a-year” program, but I do want to read through the entire thing someday. I recently made a list of all the books in the Bible that I know I’ve read all the way through (sadly, it was pretty short), and I’ve started reading the rest of the books one by one, marking them off as I go. I decided to start with the prophets, since I don’t know them very well. It’s going at a snail’s pace. Last semester I finished Isaiah. Last week, I finally finished Jeremiah.

The prophets are something else. They are poetic, and beautiful, and terrifying. For me, what separates them from the rest of the Bible is the amount of talking God does in them. In the histories, the narrative mostly follows human beings, and every once in a while God interrupts to give blessing, teaching or condemnation. In the gospels, we follow God incarnate around, but we’re still reading a story. In the prophets, God just talks – for pages and pages and pages. When I read the prophets, I imagine him bellowing from the heavens about the sin of Israel and the nations, and the judgment and restoration he has planned.

Beyond that, I don’t really have any profundities to offer. So I decided to assemble a list of some of the verses in Jeremiah that stuck out to me the most – probably because they’re relevant to what I’ve been thinking about lately. (Politics, politics, politics.) Maybe they only make sense together like this in my own mind, but hopefully you, dear reader, will get some sense of the book from this post.

Without further ado, thus saith the LORD:

“Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their Glory
for worthless idols.
Be appalled at this, O heavens,
and shudder with great horror,” declares the LORD.
- Jeremiah 2:11-12

“On your clothes men find
the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.”
- Jeremiah 2:34

“The prophets prophesy lies,
the priests rule by their own authority,
and my people love it this way.
But what will you do in the end?”
- Jeremiah 5:31

We hoped for peace
but no good has come,
for a time of healing
but there was only terror.
- Jeremiah 8:15

“Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD.
- Jeremiah 23:23-24

“See, the storm of the LORD will burst out in wrath, a driving wind swirling down on the heads of the wicked. The fierce anger of the LORD will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart. In days to come you will understand this.”
- Jeremiah 30:23-24

“Later, however, Egypt will be inhabited as in times past,” declares the LORD.
- Jeremiah 46:26

“Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
for I am with you,” declares the LORD.
“Though I will completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you,
I will not completely destroy you.
I will discipline you but only with justice;
I will not let you go entirely unpunished.”
- Jeremiah 46:28

“Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the days to come,” declares the LORD. Here ends the judgment on Moab.
- Jeremiah 48:47

“Yet afterward, I will restore the fortunes of the Ammonites,” declares the LORD.
- Jeremiah 49:6

“Yet I will restore the fortunes of Elam in the days to come.”
- Jeremiah 49:39

“Her [Babylon’s] people all roar like young lions,
they growl like lion cubs.
But while they are aroused,
I will set out a feast for them
and make them drunk,
so that they shout with laughter –
then sleep forever and not awake,” declares the LORD.
Jeremiah 51:38-39

(I’m mostly including that one because it was a head-scratcher for me.)

“Babylon must fall because of Israel’s slain,
just as the slain in all the earth
have fallen because of Babylon.
You who have escaped the sword,
leave and do not linger!
Remember the LORD in a distant land,
and think on Jerusalem.”
Jeremiah 51:49-50

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It is not good for man to be alone

My roommate Neal got engaged over break.

I met him over three years ago, when we were both freshmen living in North Hall at Dordt. He liked loud music, scary movies, Mountain Dew, Guitar Hero, and Dean Koontz books. He’s changed a lot since then. So have I. He still likes Dean Koontz books. So do I. Now, he likes good music and good movies, and no longer wears Hollister or plays video games.

We were roommates for the first time our sophomore year, when we lived together with our friend Zach in West Hall. None of us had any clue what we wanted to do with our lives. We watched a lot of dumb movies, watched a lot of good movies, read the Chronicles of Narnia, watched Lost, had dance parties with the girls down the hall, made lots of coffee, fell in love with the Shins, swore for hours on end just for the heck of it, tried to get girlfriends, took a golf class together, made a few trips to the emergency room, and chased down a tornado. Those were the days.

When I came back from Egypt last year, and struggled to adjust to life without dorms or dining halls, Neal invited me over to his room for coffee-and-homework time at least once a week. I never had to call him; he called me. Sometimes he cooked supper for me without my asking. It was the worst semester of my college career, but Neal was the highlight.

We argue a lot. I’m a coldhearted capitalist/neoconservative. He’s a...well, I’m not sure what to call him. I once made up the label “neo-ag,” short for “neo-agrarian,” to describe him. Sometimes I accuse him of being a hippie, an anarchist, or a Luddite, depending on if I’m winning the argument. He wants the government to stop spending so much money and stop subsidies to big farms and encourage regular Americans to return to the land. He loves the simple and the beautiful, and hates the overly practical and efficient. He scorns technology – TV, videogames, cell phones, the internet. He has no Facebook account. I have pledged multiple times to rescue his kids from technological backwardness. He composts and recycles and rides his bicycle and shops at secondhand shops and frets about what the corporations are putting in all our food. He makes me feel guilty, though I’ll never admit that.

Neal will say, “Joel, have you read the gospels lately?”

I will say, “Neal, you are so wrong, I don’t even know where to start.”

We enjoy it.

Neal once read through the whole Bible, start to finish, vowing not to take a stand on anything until he had finished it. A while after he finished, he discovered that his Bible was made in China, and immediately wrote an angry letter about it to Zondervan.

When I applied for the Peace Corps this fall, I needed a reference from two former employers and a close friend. Without my asking, Neal volunteered. He got it done right away. I was still hounding my employers weeks later for the references they had volunteered to write.

This summer, he went to the Ivory Coast to help a native Dordt alumnus get some agricultural development projects started. He came back with funny stories about policemen, rebels, chickens, churches, Muslims, and bribery, and no firm desire to return to Africa.

I will not tell you how he asked Laura to marry him – that’s her job – but it was awfully sweet.

Soon he will be married, starting a wonderful life with a wonderful girl. Nevertheless, this is not an obituary blog post. But sometimes, when someone embarks on a new stage in life, with all the doubts and uncertainties attendant, you think to yourself, “Someone really ought to tell that person how cool they are.”

So this is my clumsy attempt at doing so.

Congratulations, brother. I love you more than you know.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The things one learns in the freshman-level economics course one decided to take as an elective one’s senior year...

According to today's assigned reading in my economics textbook:

• The poverty rate in the United States in 2005 was 12.6%.
• If “in-kind transfers” – food stamps, healthcare, housing vouchers, etc. – were counted as income, the poverty rate in the United States would only be about 3%.
• The average income of the richest fifth of Americans is fifteen times higher than the average income of the poorest fifth of Americans. ($149,963 per year vs. $9,974).
• The average consumption of the richest fifth of Americans is only two times higher than the average consumption of the poorest fifth of Americans.
• In a typical 10-year period, one-quarter of American families will sink below the poverty line at least once.
• Fewer than 3 percent of families are below the poverty line for stretches longer than eight years.
• Only 20% of millionaires in the United States inherited their wealth.

My textbook is Principles of Economics, by N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, who was a member of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers a few years back.

Think my textbook is biased?

Scratch that. Of course it’s biased. Think my textbook is so biased that by reading it, I am getting a picture of reality so inaccurate as to be damaging?

Monday, November 30, 2009

If it walks like a Republican, talks like a Republican, and votes for mass deportations like a Republican...

With most of Bush’s national security policy and foreign policy co-opted by Obama, and a blizzard of domestic crises that seem to cry out for big government solutions, Republicans have been struggling to define themselves lately. They have attracted the “Party of No” label of late by opposing nearly all of Obama’s proposals without offering much in the way of alternatives. And with the growing tension between the party’s fading neoconservative wing and its rejuvenated Glenn Beck populist wing, many people – or at least, me and my friend Scott – have been asking, “What do the Republicans actually stand for?”

We may soon officially find out. At the upcoming Republican National Committee meeting this winter, Congressman James Bopp of Indiana will present a resolution containing ten principles he believes Republicans should be united on. If his resolution passes, Republican national candidates will need to publicly state their support for at least eight of the principles to get support or funding from the RNC.

I’m pretty psyched about this for two reasons: 1) I think our political system benefits when a party is more closely attached to specific policy ideas, 2), I’ve been debating lately about whether or not to call myself a Republican anymore. Now Rep. Bopp has given me a way to decide.

Here is Bopp’s list

(1) We support smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill;
(2) We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;
(3) We support market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;
(4) We support workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing card check;
(5) We support legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;
(6) We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;
(7) We support containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat;
(8) We support retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;
(9) We support protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and
(10) We support the right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership.

Ok, let’s take this one thing at a time.

I’m pretty sure I'm down with 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 (even though 7 is pretty vague, and regarding #6, the troop surge in Iraq is well-past over.)

Number one poses some problems. Do I support smaller government? Not necessarily. Smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes? Definitely. Do I oppose bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill? What the heck does that even mean? What kind of bills are “like” the stimulus? Does any bill that tries to jumpstart the economy through government spending when we’re teetering on the edge of a new depression count?

Number two: I do support market-based healthcare reform. I also support most of Obama’s health plan (which I deny introduces “government-run” healthcare). This “support/oppose” thing is starting to get tricky.

Number five: This is madness, but typical Republican madness. Sorry, RNC – I cannot support the deportation of twelve million people from the United States, so I guess I’m an “amnesty” supporter. (Also – did Rep. Bopp write this himself? What atrocious sentence structure. “We support legal immigration and assimilation into American society.” Legal immigration and assimilation of whom into American society? This sentence is practically screaming for a prepositional phrase there. Perhaps it’s Freudian.)

Number ten: Again with the false “support/oppose” linkages! This is killing me. “We support the right to keep and bear arms...” So far, so good. “ opposing government restrictions on gun ownership.” Arrgh! The only way to support the right to keep and bear arms to oppose government restrictions on gun ownership? All restrictions? Children, ex-cons, and mental cases should be able to own guns? Any kind of guns? No Republican supports that. This list needs to be rewritten. What does this Bopp guy have against prepositional phrases and qualifiers?

Six out of ten. It’s official. If the RNC passes this resolution, I can no longer call myself a Republican.

The mismatched dogmatism and ambiguity of Bopp’s Top Ten list reminds me of the “9 principles” of Glenn Beck’s 9/12 movement (“If you believe in at least seven of them, then we have something in common.” Yes, Glenn. Seven things in common, to be precise):

1. America Is Good. [Ugh. Better definition of terms, please!]
2. I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life. [Yep.]
3. I must always try to be a more honest person than I was yesterday. [Okay.]
4. The family is sacred. My spouse and I are the ultimate authority, not the government. [Ultimate authority on what? Education? The proper care of children? Child sacrifice rituals?]
5. If you break the law you pay the penalty. Justice is blind and no one is above it. [All right.]
6. I have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results. [All right.]
7. I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable. [No tax-funded welfare, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education or disaster relief then?]
8. It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or to share my personal opinion. [What if my personal opinion is that America sucks? Not actually my opinion, for the record.]
9. The government works for me. I do not answer to them, they answer to me. [Except on financial, legal, judicial and educational matters.]

Four out of nine. Glenn, we have nothing in common.

I might have to come up with a top ten list of my own. Then I’ll just have to start my own movement. I’ll look into that.

In the meantime, peace be upon you all.

Friday, November 13, 2009

New Dordt Diamond Column: Don't Gloss Over Ft. Hood Reality

Last Thursday, an Army psychiatrist went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood army base in Texas, killing thirteen people and wounding thirty others.

The shooter’s name is Nidal Malik Hasan. He gave his neighbor a copy of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, the night before the shooting. Multiple witnesses report hearing him shout “Allahu akbar” – Arabic for “God is the greatest” – as he gunned down his fellow soldiers.

At the time of this writing, President Obama is asking the nation not to “jump to conclusions,” and the lead Associated Press story on the case says that the shooter’s motive “remains unclear.”

The story does not mention Hasan’s Muslim-sounding name until the ninth paragraph, his shouting “Allahu akbar” until the twelfth paragraph, or his gift of a Qur’an until the forty-sixth paragraph. His religion is never directly identified. In the sixteenth paragraph, the story speculates about whether Hasan was working for an “unidentified radical group.”

I don’t think either President Obama or the Associated Press writers are stupid. I assume they’re tip-toeing around the blindingly obvious to avoid stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment.

The problem is, the average American isn’t that stupid either. And he is going to draw the obvious conclusion, whether the press and the president draw it for him or not.

No one should be prejudiced against Muslims. There are no violent religions, only violent people. But in light of current events, to claim that Hasan’s Muslim beliefs played no role in his actions is beyond dense – especially since this isn’t the first time Muslim American soldiers have turned on their comrades in recent years.

American Muslims are a tiny minority in a country that is at war in two Muslim nations overseas. At the movies and on TV, Muslims are the villains. We shouldn’t be surprised if some American Muslims feel alienated. Violent acts like Hasan’s are evidence that this alienation is nearing a dangerous point.

By driving that reality underground, our cultural gatekeepers leave the alienation of some American Muslims unresolved, and the perception that all Muslims are violent uncorrected. That is a recipe for more conflict.

As we struggle to understand this horrific attack, let’s not brush over uncomfortable realities. If President Obama and the press will treat us like adults and address this problem head-on, all Americans will be better for it. And we in the church should go out of our way to make sure our Muslim brothers and sisters feel welcome in this country.

Further reading:
A Muslim Soldier's View from Fort Hood

Jacob Weisburg: "The president needs to dip into his reservoir of good will to remind mainstream Muslims of their special responsibility."

Revolution Muslim

Friday, October 30, 2009

New Dordt Diamond Column: Fox News' Bias

President Obama’s decision to challenge the Fox News Channel head-on has reignited the debate over Fox’s alleged conservative bias. Obama’s advisors have labeled Fox “not really a news station.” Most liberals agree. Most conservatives adore Fox as the lone “fair and balanced” voice in the wilderness of the liberal media. Whither reality?

In my opinion as a conservative, Fox News is very, very biased. I would also submit that most Fox News devotees are aware of Fox’s bias – and watch it for that reason. It’s more comfortable to watch a network that shares your views, so conservatives naturally choose Fox over the left-leaning CNN and MSNBC.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Fox is trying to conquer the world in the name of Ronald Reagan. Like every other TV network, Fox News’ chief goal is to make money. In the television world, money equals ratings. Fox has a powerful economic incentive to provide a right-wing perspective. Fox has found its niche market: conservative TV viewers who are sick of the liberal slant they see on other networks.

Not only that, but now that Obama is in office, Fox has an economic incentive to take its opposition to his presidency to an extreme. There’s a reason Fox wooed Glenn Beck away from CNN with a multi-million dollar contract last year. According to TV analyst Andrew Tyndall, “The Fox style of aggressive commentary works best in opposition.” Fox is hoping to cash in on the Obama presidency by turning itself into the nation’s chief opposition voice. Since the Obama White House has now called out Fox News directly, I’d say Fox’s strategy is working pretty well.

Of course, Fox is not alone in this. MSNBC got its ratings to soar during the Bush years by giving liberal angry-man Keith Olbermann a show and turning itself into the opposition network. But when the economic interests of news corporations influence American politics – and worse yet, fragment Americans into liberal and conservative news viewership blocs – we have a very real problem.

As Christian citizens, what can we do about this? I’m not going to call for a boycott of Fox News, but we do need to understand what we’re getting when we watch it. Fox News is not fair and balanced (and neither are CNN or MSNBC). Nor is it honest conservative commentary. It is a product, targeted at us, the consumer. We should not let this product tell us what to think, or even what subjects to think about. We need to judge it critically as we watch.

We should also strive to diversify ours news sources. If we rely solely on Fox News (or any other media source), we are bound to be influenced by its bias. Conservatives should watch MSNBC and read the New York Times. Liberals should watch Fox News on occasion.

Remember: knowledge is power. Don’t let anyone steal yours.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Dordt Diamond Column: What Pacifism Means


(Not that the Diamond editors did a bad job of cutting it. The Diamond editors rawk. But when I post these columns here, I just copy and paste from the saved version I have on my computer.)

(More than you cared to know, eh?)

Pacifism might seem like a heavy topic for a Diamond column, but lately I feel like it’s been popping up everywhere. One of my best friends recently gave me a copy of Jesus for President, a pacifist manifesto by Christian activist Shane Claiborne. I read Claiborne’s earlier book, The Irresistible Revolution, as my optional book for CORE 300 last spring. Two springs ago, Tony Campolo argued for pacifism in a lecture at the B. J. Haan. And an increasing number of my peers at Dordt are pacifists.

This column is addressed to them. I hope that it will be a starting place for a vital conversation.

Coherent pacifism is a rejection of any kind of violence, by anyone, anywhere. Claiborne refers in his books to the “myth of redemptive violence.” He denies that violence can ever be a good or necessary thing. What are the implications of this belief?

The defining characteristic of government is a monopoly on violence. Whatever else it does, the state must be able to protect its people and maintain order, with force if necessary. If a state cannot stop armed groups within its borders from attacking the innocent, we call that state “failed.”

Therefore, the logical extension of Christian pacifism is a refusal to participate in the state – a kind of nonviolent Christian anarchism, if you will.

This is exactly what Claiborne is out to convince Christians to do – leave the government, the voting booth, the police force, and the military. “God isn’t working through places of power,” he writes in Jesus for President. “I don’t believe that God needs a commander-in-chief or a millionaire in Washington,” he wrote earlier in The Irresistible Revolution.

To which I would say: Of course he doesn’t. God doesn’t need anyone, anywhere. That’s not the issue. The issue is, what is God calling us to do as his followers in the world?

Does the Bible support Claiborne’s attitude toward government? I do not believe so. The Bible says that government – founded as it is on violence – is a good institution, an institution specifically set up by God. I Peter 2 says that the governors “are sent by [God] to punish those who do wrong.” Romans 13 says, “The authorities that exist have been established by God. The one in God’s servant to do you good. ...he does not bear the sword for nothing.”

So if the government and the government’s sword are good things, why should we separate ourselves from them? Doesn’t Jesus’ command to be the “salt of the earth” apply to politics?

When John the Baptist first began his ministry, a group of Roman soldiers came to him and asked, “What should we do?” John did not answer, “Lay down your weapons and desert the army!” He told them, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14). In other words, “Be good soldiers.”

I’ve reached my word limit. What say you?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Absolutely True Stories

1) Conversation overheard in my 200-level political studies class yesterday:

Student 1: "Do you know what's on your shirt?"
Student 2: "I'm not sure - either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence."
Student 1: "Well, it says WE THE PEOPLE at the top, so it must be the Declaration."

(It was the Constitution.)

2) On Sunday, the White House Communications Director instructed the nation, "let’s not pretend that [Fox News is] a news network the way CNN is."

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Leaves It There
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

Open poll: is this blog becoming too cynical?

If it is, here's another absolutely true conversation I had during dinner with my roommates tonight:

Joel: "Do you think there were civilians on the Death Star?"
Unnamed Roommate: "The Death Star? You mean, like on Battlestar Galactica? [A show we have become addicted to lately.]"
Joel: "What?"
UR: "Battlestar Galactica."
Joel: "No, [name redacted.] The Death Star.
UR: "What's that?"
Joel: "Don't tell me you don't know what the Death Star is."
UR: "I was in Africa all summer, Joel. I didn't follow the news!"

If that conversation doesn't give you hope for humanity, I don't know what will.

The peace of Allah be upon you all.

Friday, October 9, 2009

OK, then.

It’s 9:00 AM. I’ve gotten one hour of sleep in the last twenty-five. Living the college dream, I guess.

Being super sleep-deprived is kind of fun sometimes. But there are drawbacks. Sometimes I have audio hallucinations. This morning in class, as I struggled to keep my head off the desk, I hallucinated that Professor Veenstra was saying that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Talk about hearing things, eh? I mean, that’s just bonkers.

Apparently, the entire world press corps was also working on 15-page papers last night, and also didn’t get any sleep, because they apparently are all sharing my hallucination. Fun times.

I know it’s not true. That would make no sense. But on the off chance that it’s actually true – that Barack Hussein Obama is the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner – I will post some comments here.

The last Saturday Night Live episode opened with a mock address from the Oval Office:

“There are those on the Right who are angry. They think I’m turning this great country into something that resembles the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. But, that’s just not the case. Because when you look at my record, it’s very clear what I’ve done so far. And that is: nothing.”

It’s a sad day when a Saturday Night Live satire is a more accurate barometer of reality than a decision by the Nobel committee.

During the 2008 election season, Andrew Ferguson had a brilliant piece about the Obama campaign over at the Weekly Standard. In part, he wrote:

What is unmistakable is the creepy kind of solipsism and the air of self-congratulation that clings to [Obama’s] campaign. “There is something happening,” he says in stump speeches. And what’s happening? “Change is happening.” How so? “The reason our campaign has been different is about what you, the people who love this country, can do to change it.” And the way to change it is to join the campaign, which, once you join it, will change America. Because this is our moment. The time is now. Now is the time. Yes, we can. We bring change to the campaign because the campaign is about change. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Obama and his followers are perfecting postmodern reflexivity. It’s a campaign that’s about itself. The point of the campaign is the campaign.
Is it possible that, in the minds of the Nobel committee, the point of the Obama presidency is his presidency?

Don’t get me wrong. I like Barack Obama as a person. I disagree with him on some things; on other things, he’s doing a great job considering the hand he was dealt.

That said...Barack Hussein Obama has not yet accomplished a thing as President of the United States.

It’s not his fault he’s done nothing. He’s been president for nine months. He was president for TEN DAYS before the Nobel nomination deadline. The poor guy had no idea the committee was going to give him the prize. After all – why would they?

Let’s give the man a chance! Let him give his best shot at making peace in Palestine, at ending the war in Iraq, at stabilizing Afghanistan, at ending the nuclear programs in Iran or North Korea, at stopping the genocide in Darfur. THEN give him the prize. What will they give him now if he manages to accomplish any of those things? The papacy? (Just to be clear, Vatican – since you can’t tell these days, THAT’S A JOKE).

In 2007, when the Nobel committee gave Al Gore the Peace Prize for making a documentary about global warming, the Wall Street Journal printed a list of men and women around the world who were doing real work for peace and human rights, often putting their lives on the line in the process. I hope the Journal does that again this year.

Good grief. I’m going to bed. My earnest prayer this morning is this: Dear God, PLEASE let our president one day live up to the hype.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

When Memes Collide...

(This will probably be the first in a series.)

meme, n.: A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.

Meme #1: Everyone is on his/her own path to God, so we shouldn’t criticize others’ religious practices or beliefs.

Meme #2: Civil disobedience is an effective and moral response to government violence.


For antiwar protesters, the cause isn’t lost
Washington Post
October 7, 2009

As the meeting progressed, there were signs of discord. ...Some planned to misidentify themselves to police; others said they would simply refuse to answer questions.

"Lying is dumb," one protester shouted.

"Just because my resistance is different than yours doesn't mean I'm dumb," another yelled back, standing now, clenching his fist. "We are all traveling down our own paths to peace."

Hope that brought a little mirth to your day.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My New Dordt Diamond Column: The War in Afghanistan

Dear friends,

Here is the text of my column in today's Dordt Diamond. Any thoughts you fine people have would be more than welcome. It'll take me a while to respond to them, though, because this afternoon begins Dordt's Tristate break. Until Monday, I will be in Kansas City. One of my dear flatmates from Egypt is getting MARRIED there on Saturday (OMG! OMG! OMG!) and eight of us who were in Cairo together last fall are coming to celebrate with him. It is guaranteed to be a hafla. (That means "party" in Arabic.)

So a very merry Tristate break to you all. I'll be back soon.

Reality Check: The War in Afghanistan

“With regret, I have to say you’re really going to get the hell kicked out of you,” said the Russian government official in the week after 9/11, recalling his own nation’s war in Afghanistan.

“We’re going to kill them,” replied Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. “We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.”

Eight years later, we haven’t exactly gotten the hell kicked out of us, but the swift victory most of us hoped for has not come either. Osama bin Laden remains at large, and Taliban insurgents have waged a back-and-forth struggle against the U.S. and its allies for the past eight years. Over 1,400 soldiers from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and elsewhere have died. The fight we wanted has degenerated into something far less exciting and far more painful: a dirty, drawn-out, guerrilla war. Now, the top general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, is asking for 45,000 more troops for the fight.

In the face of all this, many are questioning the need to continue the war, from Democratic legislators to conservative columnists to allied heads of state. Support for the war among Americans has fallen to 39%.

But abandoning or downsizing the war in Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake. Ignoring Afghanistan during the 90s resulted in the murder of 3,000 people, and the murderers have promised to kill millions more if we give them the chance.

If the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, they would be in a position to destabilize already-unstable Pakistan next door – and Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons. Last spring, Taliban forces extended their rule to within 60 miles of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. They did that without a safe haven in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a country the size of Texas with a population of 18 million in the heart of the Islamic world. Leaving it to the wolves is not an option, strategically speaking.

Neither would it be moral. Many things separate us from the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but an affinity for Islamic terrorism is not one of them. Polls show that only ten percent of Pakistanis support the Taliban, and only four percent of Afghans would trade the current chaos in their country for a Taliban government. The Afghans and Pakistanis know the horrors of Taliban rule all too well. If the West leaves them now, it will be their disaster and our disgrace.

This war is not hopeless. The key is setting up an Afghan government strong enough to take care of itself. Gen. McChrystal’s strategy accomplishes this by accelerating training for Afghanistan’s army, sending troops to protect Afghan civilians, and using incentives to ply Taliban leaders away from the fight. President Obama should give General McChrystal the troops and resources he needs, and we should give President Obama the political support he needs. The struggle will be long and difficult, but a just peace is still possible. The Afghans wish to be free, and that is our biggest advantage.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sharing Holy Places (Or, My Astounding Cultural Arrogance)

On Sunday, violence erupted once again at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. This place is home to the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine that covers the place where Mohammad ascended to heaven to meet with God and the prophets, and the al Aqsa ("Farthest") Mosque, which Mohammad flew to from Mecca on his Night Journey. It is the third holiest place in Islam. It is also (no matter what the Palestinian leadership says) the site of both former Jewish temples, the holy of holies, where God dwelled with his people for centuries, and according to tradition, the place where God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism.

As you can imagine, it's often a little contentious there.

It is the dream of some religious Jews to rebuild the Temple on the Temple Mount. The Muslims say: ain't gonna happen. Some Jews go there to worship occasionally anyway. And that's where the trouble started on Sunday.

It began when a group of 15 Jews tried to enter the al Asqa Mosque to pray. According to Reuters, "The Jews never managed to get into the complex, because several hundred Palestinians, who were on alert for such a possibility, began a loud protest." (You can usually pick out Jews because of the kippahs Orthodox men wear on their heads.)

You know the drill. Israeli police broke out tear gas and stun grenades. Palestinians threw rocks and chairs. 17 police officers and 13 Palestinians were hurt, though none seriously, il-hamdulillah.

Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, accused the Israeli government of "deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem" by "providing a police escort for settlers [How does one, at a glance, tell the settlers from ordinary Jews, I wonder?] who are against peace at all costs, and whose presence is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction." He also darkly warned, "We've seen this before, and we know what the consequences are." Yes, we certainly do. In 2000, then-Knesset member Ariel Sharon made a visit to the Temple Mount, and Palestinians responded with the second intifada, a wave of protest and rioting that quickly evolved into a campaign of suicide terrorism and all-out war between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

As I read this story, I can't help but think of my first Friday in the Middle East. All of us students on the MESP program visited an open-air mosque in Cairo a few blocks away from our flats. The girls in our group donned hijabs (head coverings) and headed to the women's section of the mosque, and all the guys headed to the men's section. We took off our shoes and sat at the very back of the mosque area, trying to stay out of the way of the men coming in for worship. We were only there to get the experience, to respectfully observe. But when the cleric finished his sermon (which I didn't get much out of, since it was in Arabic), and all the men lined up for prayer, a young man standing in front of us turned around and motioned for us to join in. And we did. We had no idea what we were doing of course - Muslim prayer involves a sequence of bowing that looks complicated at first - but we followed along as best we could. It was a great experience.

I later found out that Muslims are supposed to wash their hands and feet before every prayer. We definitely didn't do that. The Muslim men who invited us to join in their prayer must have been able to tell. In fact, it was probably blindingly obvious to them that we were white, Christian American infidels, who "blasphemed God" by worshipping a man as God. Nevertheless, they welcomed us, not only to watch, but to participate, in their worship.

I later went to the same mosque to participate in the breaking of the Ramadan fast. I had fasted for that day, but certainly not for the rest of the month. Yet they welcomed me and my friends again, and even had us participate in the Qur'an recitation contests. (We handed out the prizes.)

Incidentally, I also visited the Noble Sanctuary last fall, and had no problems. I was not allowed inside the Dome of the Rock or the al Aqsa Mosque, however. In Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, non-Muslims are not even allowed to enter. It seems the holier a place is, the less willing Muslims are to share it.

I have read that when the Muslims first conquered Jerusalem, the second Muslim caliph, Omar, refused to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, telling the Christians, "If I had prayed in the church it would have been lost to you, for the Believers would have taken it saying: Omar prayed here."

Why does Mecca, or the Noble Sanctuary, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where there are still yearly fights between the six denominations who control it) have to be lost to anybody? Somebody must control it, to be sure. (Otherwise who will handle the upkeep?) And the Jews probably never will get their Temple back. The global vote on this one is a thousand million to fourteen million. But why can't they worship at their Temple Mount?

Really, I'm just being selfish. In addition to North Korea and Iran, I want to go the Mecca someday.

ALSO: As I was writing this, my friend Zach called me.  He goes to the University of Minnesota.  He showed up for class today, and there was a note on the door: "Class is canceled for Yom Kippur."

Happy Jewish Day of Atonement, everybody!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More healthcare?* You know it!

Here is my first column for the Dordt Diamond this year:

In some alternate universe, Americans recently elected a hardcore leftist as president. That president is now bent on destroying the world’s best healthcare system and making government America’s only healthcare provider. If he succeeds, alternate-America’s limited healthcare resources will soon be rationed out by panels of bureaucrats who determine each citizen’s worth.

In yet another quantum reality, healthcare in the United States is controlled by a cabal of evil corporations intent on making as much money as possible by killing as many sick Americans as possible. These corporations have now rallied to protect their power by organizing a national campaign of propaganda and intimidation against healthcare reform, drawing ignorant rednecks to their cause through fear.

I feel very bad for the inhabitants of those alternate universes. But I don’t think we should be fighting their battles for them.

Apparently though, a lot of Americans disagree with me, because this summer has seen a fierce debate about “government-run healthcare,” “death panels,” and “corporate-funded-DC-Beltway-PR campaigns” (that last gem was coined by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow). The debate has taken place on the internet, on TV, and at countless town hall meetings across the nation. People have brandished automatic weapons, handed out pictures of our first mixed-race president drawn as a Nazi, and literally bitten off fingers, all in an attempt to stop the evil leftist president/the greedy evil corporations.

Meanwhile, in this universe, one of my best friends just found out that he will most likely not be able to buy health insurance for himself and his new wife, because he has a preexisting medical condition that no insurance company is willing to cover. In this universe, the U.S. federal government spends more on healthcare, per person, than the Canadian government – and in Canada, everyone is covered. Tens of millions of Americans cannot afford insurance, and millions more can afford it, but are denied coverage because of preexisting illnesses. Medicare and Medicaid, the current free government healthcare plans, grossly underpay the doctors who serve their patients. Despite that, both programs are still on the verge of bankruptcy. Something must be done.

President Obama’s proposal – which is far to the right of any other healthcare program in the Western world – contains many common sense and much-needed reforms. Insurance companies should not be able to turn away or drop customers. Tax credits to help people buy their own insurance will keep us all responsible for our own healthcare while giving a boost to those who can’t afford insurance on their own. And a requirement for all citizens to have insurance, while a little unsettling to our individualist mindsets, is a good way to make sure no one gets a free ride from our healthcare system.

Obama’s proposal also has some troubling aspects. The so-called “public option” – a government-run insurance plan meant to be an alternative to private plans – might pose a threat to the private insurance industry. The public option cannot become the only option, or we will start seeing healthcare rationing. And Obama’s claim that his trillion-dollar plan will not add “one dime” to our massive budget deficit is dubious at best.

These issues need to be discussed. Our representatives need to hear from us on them. Our healthcare system desperately needs a fix, and we all have a chance to be involved in that fix in a way that honors our calling as servants of a God who calls himself “a refuge for the poor” (Isaiah 25:4).

Or, we can keep drawing Hitler mustaches. Those Nazi comparisons really never do get old.

* From SNL's 2008 Presidential Debate Series:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: "If you’re just joining us, the first segment of tonight’s debate, all three hours and forty minutes of it, was entirely given over to a discussion of healthcare. And sweet Georgia Brown, it was more boring than you could possibly imagine. A vitally important issue to be sure, but when this one here gets to talking about it, it’s all a person can do to keep the mind alive."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Equal Time for Canadians

Regarding my last post on healthcare, and the conversation I had with a Canadian Dordt alum:

One of my best friends from my time in Egypt is a rare specimen: a strident Canadian libertarian. After reading that blog post, he wrote to me:

"i was just looking at your blog, and it was great. [Why, thank you.] i did not give that nice canadian alumn permission to speak for me on healthcare. WE WANT OUR FREEDOM!!! and its NOWHERE NEAR FREE for anyone who pays income tax. lies and more lies."

Don't be fooled. While passionate, my friend is a very gentle soul, who will one day become a fine doctor in the profit-driven US system, insha allah. We used to argue all the time, though. Still do, in fact. Anyway, as I learned in Egypt, there are few things more frustrating than having one of your countrymen misrepresent your country to a foreigner. So I thought I'd give him his say.

حرية! للأبد!٠

٠Freedom! Forever!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Is Osama bin Laden F***ing serious?

From the good sheikh's latest video update:

And we, by the grace of Allah, continue to carry our weapons slung over our shoulders, fighting the evil powers in the east and west for thirty years, and in all that time, we have not recorded a single incident of suicide despite the global pursuit targeting us, praise be to Allah.

No suicide among the terrorists? No - please - stop - I can't take it! My sides! Oh, man!

Good falafel, that son-of-a-b**** has a twisted sense of humor.

On a more serious note, for the last few years, our old friend seems to have been cribbing his propaganda directly from the leftist blogosphere, with a few "God willings" and "Praise be to Gods" thrown in for effect. Check it:

"Both of our nations are victims of the policies laid down by the White House, which in reality is nothing but a puppet in the hands of powerful interest groups, specifically big corporations and the Israel lobby.”

"And the matter becomes even clearer if you read what your former president Jimmy Carter has written about the Israeli discrimination against our people in Palestine, or had you listened to his statement some weeks ago, while visiting besieged and ravaged Gaza, when he said, ‘the people of Gaza are treated more like animals than human beings’…”

“The details regarding this have been clarified by two of your citizens, they are John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt in the book ‘The Israel Lobby in the United States.’"

"Those who issue statements from inside the White House and claim that your wars against us are necessary for your security are the same ones who worked under the regime of Cheney and Bush, and marketed their former policies of fear to safeguard the interests of large corporations at the expense of your blood and economy."

“The conclusion of my speech: it is time to liberate yourselves from the fear and mental terrorism that the neo-conservatives and the Israeli Lobby have used to manipulate you."

It's the corporations, man! We gotta rise up and set ourselves free, man!

I would really like to be a fly on the inside of Osama's brain. Does he think anybody in the States is listening to him? (God forbid, are they? We'll assume they're not.) If he knows that about the only thing all Americans can agree on is that he should die, is he trying to discredit Mearsheimer and Walt and Carter by quoting them? To what end? What is he trying to accomplish with these videos? Or is this just something he does because he can't pull off a terrorist attack anymore?

One could go crazy trying to figure this guy out. I'd much rather have a corpse of him. God willing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Misc. Thoughts on Healthcare

On Friday night, Alvin the Student Symposium slave driver forced me to show up to Dordt’s prestigious Distinguished Alumni Dinner to hobnob with the rich and powerful. (Just kidding buddy – I had a good time.)

At the dinner, I had the good fortune of sitting at a table with an alumnus from Canada. When I told him I was a political studies major, we started talking about healthcare. I asked him what he thought of Canada’s healthcare system. He got really excited and started talking about how great it works. He told me that his youngest daughter was born extremely premature and had to spend five weeks in the hospital, but that thanks to the Canadian system, all he paid for the treatment was $50. “We don’t understand the American fear of government getting involved,” he said. "We should take care of each other. Isn't that the Christian thing to do?"

I was not surprised by any of this. In my experience, Canadians transform into healthcare missionaries whenever they talk to Americans. It’s a national pride thing. (Not that us Yanks would know anything about excessive patriotism.) I once saw a poster of a group of Mounties that read: “Canada: Leading the World in Being Just North of the United States.” For many Canadians, I think, Canada’s great achievement is “Leading the World in Having Better Healthcare than the United States.”

But then the alumnus surprised me. “The system isn’t perfect of course,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for a shoulder replacement for two and a half years now.”

Come again? Two and a half years? So the terrible rumors are true!

“But I’m OK with that,” he continued. “I’m young and healthy. [He is.] I’m not gonna die. I’m willing to wait if that means everyone is taken care of.”

My Canadian alumnus friend reveals a collective mentality that is anathema to most Americans. I’d like to think that we’re a generous people, willing to help our neighbor in need. But when it comes down to it, we want to take care of ourselves. We want to ensure our own well-being by working for our own healthcare, and being able to buy whatever we need, when we need it. We don’t want charity, and we don’t want to share; we want to earn what we need.

That is both a curse and a blessing for the American system. A curse, because it means the poor will have much worse healthcare than the wealthy, and a blessing, because the profits that guide our system ensure that supply never falls behind of demand, as it does in Canada, where 800,000 people are on waiting lists for treatments.

Ideal healthcare reform would keep the profit incentive in American medicine, while making coverage accessible to everyone. I believe the best way to do this is through tax credits based on need, paid out to American employers and citizens, along with an individual mandate to buy insurance, which will ensure that everyone will pay into the new system and keep it viable. This is part of Obama’s proposal; the other part of his proposal – creating a not-for-profit public plan that will compete with private plans – is what worries me. There’s nothing like profit to keep supply up with demand, and screaming “Healthcare should be about people, not profits!” a billion times won’t change that.

Over at the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes has an excellent piece on what the American healthcare system gets right. I’ll quote a few statistics from it here:

• “The United States has 27 MRI machines per million Americans. Canada and Britain have 6 per million. The United States has 34 CT scanners per million. Canada has 12 per million, Britain 8.”
• Because American health care plans typically cover more than government plans in other countries, out-of-pocket healthcare spending by Americans amounted to less than 12.6% of national health spending in 2007 – less Canada, Japan, and most European countries.
• 66.3 % of American men and 63.9% of American women with cancer survive five years after diagnosis. 47.3% of European men and 55.8% of European women survive the same amount of time.
• 99% of prostrate cancer patients in the U.S. survive five years. Only 77.5% of European patients do. 90% of American breast cancer patients survive five years, while only 79% of European patients do. Prostate cancer mortality is 604% higher in the UK, and breast cancer mortality is 88% higher.
• 56% of Americans who could benefit from cholesterol-reducing drugs are taking them. Only 36% of the Dutch, 29% of the Swiss, 26% of Germans, 23% of Britons and 17% of Italians who could benefit are taking them.

Finally, when Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during his address last Wednesday, I was a little giddy, because part of the reason I sat down to watch it, rather than read it later, was my hope that something like that would happen. Obama and Pelosi whipping their heads to the right side of the chamber – priceless.

What set Wilson off was Obama’s claim that, “There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false – the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.”

Sure, Wilson is a jerk for disrespecting the president like that. And if the part of healthcare reform that bothers you the most is the prospect that illegal immigrants might benefit from it, you should probably check yourself for prejudice. But Wilson wasn’t wrong. The healthcare bill does not provide benefits to illegal aliens – but neither does it provide any meaningful way of keeping them from benefiting from it. Obama was, in fact, pretty darn well lying.

Obama went on to say, “And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up – under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.” OK – but will federal dollars be used to help buy insurance plans that will fund abortions? Of course they will.

The immigration and abortion controversies need to be solved separately from this debate. But let’s not pretend healthcare reform won’t affect them.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
God makes salvation
its walls and ramparts.

...your dead will live;
their bodies will rise.
You who dwell in the dust,
wake up and shout for joy.
Your dew is like the dew of the morning;
the earth will give birth to her dead.

Go, my people, enter your rooms
and shut the doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
until his wrath has passed by.

See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling
to punish the people of the earth for their sins.
The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her;
she will conceal her slain no longer.

- Isaiah 26:1, 19-21

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

- Revelation 22:20

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I Heart

Without Slate, I never would have found out how much my country is loved by the Albanians.

Bush's reception in this small, Muslim-majority nation may have been the most enthusiastic he ever received. At a time when his domestic approval ratings were near their nadir, crowds waited for hours outside the cafe to grasp, hug, and kiss the president. Ecstatic throngs chanted, "Bush-y! Bush-y!" as his limousine passed by. Three postage stamps displayed Bush's smiling visage, and a street in Tirana, the capital, was named after him. Parliament unanimously approved a bill authorizing "American forces to engage in any kind of operation, including the use of force, in order to provide security for the president," and Albanian newspaper Korrieri published the sarcastic headline "Please Occupy Us!"

Albania's prime minister since 2005, Sali Berisha, called Bush "the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times." Berisha's rival, Socialist Party leader and Tirana Mayor Edi Rama, said, "Albania is for sure the most pro-American country in Europe, maybe even in the world."


Genc Pollo, Albania's eloquent, Austrian-educated deputy prime minister (he holds a doctorate in Roman history), casually recites the historical reasons for the "rock star treatment" Bush received: "Woodrow Wilson preventing Albania from being carved up"; "Ronald Reagan's inspiring statements of 'evil empire' and 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,' "; "Bush Sr.'s encouragement in our fight against communism"; "Clinton's bombing of Serbia" to protect the ethnic Albanians who make up roughly 88 percent of Kosovo's population; and "Bush Jr.'s promotion of Kosovo's independence and of Albania joining NATO." But, Pollo says, "there is also an emotional dimension to this affection that cannot always be explained in rational terms."

Though U.S. support of Albania has gone almost totally unnoticed by the American people, it has engendered feelings of great appreciation here, a gratitude Albanians have been eager to express. After Clinton's intervention in Kosovo, thousands of Albanians named their babies Bill and Hillary, and many rooted for the latter during the Democratic primaries in 2008.

Who says America can't get along with Muslims? I love you too, Albania!

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Semester Begins

I’ve been back at Dordt for two weeks now. It’s a little early to tell, but this might be my favorite semester yet. I got stuck in Dordt’s ghetto East Campus apartments again, but I’m living with five awesome guys who happen to be “bomb” (my roommate Evan’s word) decorators, so it’s working out well. We’ve been watching hardly any TV (Battlestar Galactica on DVD doesn’t count) and been making community meals. It’s anyone’s guess as to how long those good habits will last, but it’s been really nice so far.

I’m taking a full load of six classes, but I like them all so far: international relations, political ideologies, economics, advanced expository writing, mass communications, and senior communications seminar. It’s also great just to be back at Dordt. This place is home to me in many ways. The brick house, the Hendersons’ bonfires, Bridge of Hope church, Covenant church (where I was baptized and which I recently rediscovered), the treehouse off-campus, Sandy Hollow – it’s good to be here.

Some things I’m looking forward to this year: challenging myself to keep studying Arabic, my new tutoring job, serving on student government with my great friends Neal, Skip and Alvin, running in a marathon as part of a five-man relay.

I will also be writing a biweekly column for Dordt’s biweekly student newspaper, The Diamond. If I think what I come up with is worthwhile, I’ll post it here too.

The new year is upon us. Yallah yallah! (Let’s go!)

EDIT: I forgot, this semester totally SUCKS because Hani Yang isn't here; she's in LA on film semester. Sad face.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bellyaching session

James Skillen, director of the Center for Public Justice, the dean of neo-Calvinist politics, weighs in with a delightfully wishy-washy essay on the war in Afghanistan that still manages to bug me.

Skillen begins by saying:

“The United States did not go into Afghanistan to build a nation-state. The aim was to defend us from terrorists. Which was also President Bush's stated reason for invading Iraq. Yet the long slog in both countries has continued for so long that other aims have been added along the way to justify the military losses and expenditures. Chief among the added aims is to promote freedom and democracy in the world, and that now involves us in trying to build a state in Afghanistan.”

That’s quite a claim. What is his basis for it? As these quotes show, state- and democracy-building in Afghanistan and Iraq have been the stated goals of American foreign policy for almost eight years now:

“America and Afghanistan are now allies against terror. We’ll be partners in rebuilding that country.”

- President Bush, January 29, 2002

“If military action is necessary, the United States and our allies will help the Iraqi people rebuild their economy and create the institutions of liberty in a unified Iraq, at peace with its neighbors.”

- President Bush, October 7, 2002

And Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War records Bush’s NSC drawing up nation-building plans for Afghanistan the week after 9/11 (P. 193).

Skillen goes on to say,

“The American venture in Afghanistan (and in Iraq) continues to be called ‘war’--to defend America--because Americans would not be willing to spend tens of billions of dollars each year for state-building exercises abroad.”

So state-building was arbitrarily added on to the wars after the fact to justify the wars, but the state-building projects themselves are justified by the label “war.” What is Skillen trying to say?

I bring this up only because he seems to be casting unjustified (and contradictory) aspersions on President Bush, President Obama and our military leaders. To me, it seems clear that nation-building has been the U.S.' goal since the start, as an integral part of the effort to address the "root causes" of terrorism, and is simply proving far more difficult than we anticipated (not that our initial mistakes helped any).

As for the rest, Skillen’s thesis about the limits of American idealism is very cogent and timely, but he does a better job of articulating the question than suggesting an answer. The closest he comes is his vague final paragraph:

“Meaningful answers to these questions will have to be rooted in a better, stronger, shared vision of what a just republic should be in this shrinking world. Confidence at home will require trust in government, for which we need a new system of electoral representation that will tie government more closely to citizens than to dominating interest groups. And sustainable prosperity will require hard work, durable savings, and stewardly investments in place of debt-induced consumption, unending warfare, and limitless grasping for the fulfillment of life's meaning in this age.”

Great. And Afghanistan? In this “shrinking world,” it’s not getting any farther away.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Over the past year or so, I’ve come to realize that racism is a lot more insidious than I used to think. Hardly anyone nowadays would openly admit to being a racist, of course. But there are fashionable ways of expressing racist sentiments. And these covert outlets allow it to thrive. The absolutely insane reaction of some segments in our country to the immigration reform proposals of 2006 and 2007 is one sign of racism’s endurance. The utterly inexplicable charges of racism brought against the first Latina Supreme Court nominee are another. Most of all, the fact that the “Obama is a Muslim” and “Obama wasn’t born a citizen” memes could spread so quickly and remain so ingrained, despite all the countervailing evidence, is clear evidence of residual racism in America. No white president would have this problem. And as anyone who reads the comments section after any news article, blog post or YouTube video dealing with Jews in any way will tell you, anti-Semitism is alive and on the rise around the world. The average culprit in any of these cases would probably deny being racist. But make no mistake: whenever we view someone negatively even partially because of their heritage, racism is present. I am definitely guilty of it. You are probably guilty of it. That’s human nature. If we acknowledge it, we can fight it. If we deny it, it will only grow.

I bring this up because today in my international relations class, in the course of a discussion about terrorism, my professor suggested that terrorism will be a permanent feature of the world system from here on out, and that any war to eliminate it will necessarily last forever. One of my classmates – who is in his fourth year of Christian higher education – agreed, and suggested that the reason for this is that the terrorists are “of a-RAB descent,” and are thus descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael, who God cursed to fight with Isaac forever.

Srsly? Srsly.

Naturally, I took exception to this. I’d like to elaborate on the exception I took here. This idea, which is probably more common among American Christians than I’d like to think, is wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to start. So I’ll just start.

1) Not all terrorists are Arab.

2) Not even all Muslim terrorists are Arab – Muslim terrorists operate in sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, and Southeast Asia. (On that note, Muslim and Arab are not synonymous, anymore than “Christian” and “European” are.)

3) The idea that God favors some races above others is totally incompatible with Christianity. God will redeem “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

4) And finally, in case you were wondering, God did not curse Ishmael. God blessed Ishmael and his descendants.

And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.”

(Genesis 17:18-20)

God kept his promise. The Arab nation is a great nation. They have huge problems, of course, but I will put Arab art, architecture, music, language, literature, philosophy and food up against any other culture’s. The Arab world preserved Greek and Roman wisdom for us during the Dark Ages. The Arab traditions of family and hospitality put the West to shame. The Arab church is strong in every Arab nation where they haven’t been driven out: Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and more.

(On that note, some people also think that God cursed Ham and his descendants in Genesis 9, and that this is the reason for Africa’s woes. God did not curse Ham and his descendants. Noah, a sinful man, cursed Ham’s son Canaan. Look it up.)

What my classmate said might sound shocking because of its bluntness, but I believe it reflects a strong racist undercurrent in Christian culture. Think about it. When you’re talking with friends and neighbors, and some recent atrocity in the Middle East comes up, what’s our default reaction? Something I hear all the time is, “They’re just never gonna stop fighting,” or “Violence is the only thing they understand,” or “They’ve been at it for thousands of years, it’s never gonna change.” First of all, the current Middle East conflict is only a hundred years old, by the broadest measurement. (Things didn’t really get rolling until 1936). Second of all, what makes us think that Middle Easterners are incapable of living in peace? Does any other people group in the world have this problem? Have you ever met a person who prefers - honestly prefers - fighting and killing and being killed to peace? Such people surely exist, but they are not limited to the Middle East. (See: Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Tojo, Alexander “the Great,” etc.)

Europe was in an almost constant state of warfare from the fall of the Roman Empire till the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – and after that treaty came the Napoleanic wars, World War I and World War II, to name only the biggest ones. If we’re justified in condemning Middle Easterners to endless warfare after a mere one hundred years of fighting, surely a Middle Easterner living in 1945 would be justified in condemning the white race as hopelessly violent. But he would have been wrong, wouldn’t he? And so are we.

Middle Easterners are created in the image of God. They were created to live at peace with each other and with their God, just as we were. And when we write them off as incapable of that, we are being not only racist but blasphemous.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Visit to North Korea

The best free online political/social/pop culture magazine in existence is It’s part of my daily routine. I would suggest that you make it part of yours too, but you’re probably not an internet addict like me. Keep it that way.

One of Slate’s best features is a column called the Explainer, which answers questions about the news that we’re all asking, but no one in the mainstream media takes the time to answer. Questions like, “How many retired generals are there?” (which the column answered in 2006 after about twenty of them starting attacking Rumsfeld all at once), “Why don’t English speakers name their kids Jesus?” and “Who owns the Arctic?” (It depends on the shape of the ocean floor.)

When Bill Clinton made his jaunt to North Korea a month ago to secure the release of two kidnapped American journalists, he went as a “private citizen,” not in any official capacity. This led the Explainer to ask, “If Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea as a ‘private citizen,’ can I?”

The answer is so interesting that I will quote it at length:

Yes. If you're feeling adventurous and wish to visit beautiful Pyongyang, the U.S. State Department recommends getting a visa through North Korea's U.N. representative. ...You can be barred for any reason, but the only explicit deal-breaker is listing "journalist" as your profession. Even if approved, you can stay only five days during the period coinciding with the country's annual Arirang Festival, or "mass games," which this year is being held in August and September...

Travelers to North Korea can expect constant oversight. Upon arriving at the airport, you're met by an official government tour guide, who stays with you for the duration of the trip. Customs officials can confiscate anything they consider pornographic as well as religious materials that could be used for proselytizing locals. You have to leave your cell phone at the airport, and the guide holds onto your passport. From there, you're taken directly to your hotel—usually either the Koryo or the Potanggang, known for being the only hotel in North Korea that gets CNN. Tours are highly regimented and tend to cover the same circuit of tourist attractions, from Juche Tower, which commemorates the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, to the Korean Central History Museum, which presents a rather unconventional history of the country, to museums that house all the gifts given to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il by foreign dignitaries over the years. Trips during Arirang include viewings of elaborate Beijing Olympics-style presentations that include music, dancing, and the games' famous "card stunts." (See photos here.)

Wandering off on your own is strictly forbidden. Same goes for talking to North Koreans. If you do try to speak to locals, they're supposed to report you to the authorities. If they don't, someone else may report them. Travelers are discouraged from being openly critical of the government. And if you take photos, especially of military buildings or personnel, your camera or film may be confiscated. There's no American Embassy to turn to in case of emergency, but the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang provides basic consular services for U.S. citizens.

Two days later, Slate ran another piece, this one by a journalist named Sarah Wang, about her visit to North Korea this July with a group of investors. I strongly, strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. It’s gripping:

...our tour guides intervened whenever we tried to take pictures. "Our people don't like to be photographed," they explained.


Our guides repeatedly reassured us that the people had enough food and that each Pyongyang resident receives a ration of vegetables and rice every day. They didn't mention meat or fruit. When a member of the tour group spat out the tasteless meat that was a rare treat at one of our meals, the waitress standing behind him visibly stiffened. On one occasion, I drew a banana on a piece of paper and showed it to a waitress; she had never seen one. She knew about apples, but she had never eaten one.

I brought 150 Kit-Kat bars into the country, and I always took several out of my bag when I was alone with a North Korean. They would hesitate for a few seconds, look around to make sure that no one else was watching, and then stuff the Kit-Kats into their pockets.

Half of a nation, 30 million people, under the thumb of one family of nutcases. No internet, no TV, no travel, no freedom, no hope for change. 3 million North Koreans starved after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Kim Jong Il refused to let in food aid. 300,000 North Koreans today are living in concentration camps that cover hundreds of miles. It is estimated that a quarter of them die every year, from starvation or murder, but of course, no one knows for sure. And the international community is only too willing to ignore all of this, as long as Kim keeps the crazy inside his own borders, and keeps showing up to the nuclear disarmament “talks.”

This satellite photo of the Korean peninsula has become one of the most enduring symbols of Kim Jong Il’s manufactured land of darkness:

Anyway, does anybody want to go to North Korea with me someday? In days of freedom, insha allah, but I think it'd be fascinating to be there regardless. The only problem is that I also want to visit Iran soon, and my family's police state-visiting tolerance (I've already been to two) is probably getting thinner.