Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tales from the Great Recession

One of my newest co-workers was recently laid off from one of America's biggest banks. He's my age, gradauted with a two-year degree in 2008, and went straight to work for this bank's foreclosure department. Needless to say, things were about to get busy.

According to my new co-worker, this is how one of his foreclosure calls went:

My New Co-Worker: Hello, sir? I'm with _____ and we're calling about your failure to make mortgage payments on your house.
Borrower: Oh, yeah, that house. I had it cut up into three pieces and shipped to Mexico.
My New Co-Worker: Really? Wow. Well, you still have to pay for it, you know.
Borrower: You'll have to find me!

I don't know whether to cheer or cry.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Possibly the Greatest Thing Ever

Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

- Jeremiah 31:13

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I Saw Inception Last Night...

...and then decided to shamelessly appropriate a long Facebook post I wrote on my friend Alvin's wall about it as a movie review here.


Hoo-kay...saw Inception last night. Concept was pretty great. I love the opening scene a lot now. Still haven't figured out how they connect into each other's brains by hooking up their wrists to some machine, but whatevs. It wasn't nearly as mind-blowing as everyone made it out to be. I expected to come out of the theater with my mind reeling, and to stay up all night trying to figure it out. But I never didn't know what was going on. (Not to brag). You had to work to follow it, but it wasn't that hard. It was like Memento in that way. I did not notice the smarmy lines you referred to. (By the way, ever wonder if what we consider "smarmy" is just how non-English majors talk in real life? They say people in everyday situations "script" what they say partly based on what they see on TV and the movies, so maybe it's a feedback cycle...) Anyway. Your mom is right that it was too loud. I thought the idea of getting trapped in a dream for decades was absolutely terrifying, and they executed it really well. Their whole mission was weird though - were they being the good guys by breaking up a world energy monopoly (snort) through, essentially, emotion-rape? Or was Leo just doing what he had to do to get home to his kids, and screw the morality of it all? Finally, I did not think any of the characters were vapid, but I didn't have very high expectations for character depth going on. And I thought the special effects were as good as were needed. It wasn't Avatar, but then, it didn't need to be.

Yes, I liked this movie, very much.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I Know It’s Cliché to Complain About Arizona…

…but their new immigration law is starting to hit close to home.

On June 8, I voted for Terry Branstad in the Iowa GOP’s governor’s primary. His leading opponent was Bob Vander Plaats, a native of my homeland, Northwest Iowa, who actually went to high school with my dad. I’m sure Mr. Vander Plaats is a decent man, and almost anyone would be better than our current governor. I voted for Branstad for two reasons: 1) he was governor for sixteen years a long time ago, and did a lot of good, and what we need now more than ever is a little competency, and 2) he’s a moderate like me. He opposes gay marriage, but unlike Vander Plaats, he’s not willing to provoke a state constitutional crisis by ordering state agencies to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses. And, significantly to me, Bob Vander Plaats supported Arizona’s new hard-line immigration law, while Branstad said he would not like to see it in Iowa.

So imagine my disappointment when Terry Branstad declared on Wednesday, “When people are stopped for a criminal violation or traffic violation, if they cannot show they are here legally, they ought to be detained and turned over to the federal government for deportation.”

Essentially, that is what the Arizona law does: when state police officers make a “lawful stop” and “reasonably suspect” that the person they have stopped is in the country illegally, they are required to demand proof of legal residence. If no proof can be produced, they are required to arrest them.

Immigrants are already required to have their green card with them at all times. But American citizens have never been required to carry proof of citizenship around with them. The very suggestion evokes thoughts of Nazi Germany and South Africa. But that’s what the Arizona law amounts to. It’s all well and good to say, “You don’t have to carry papers around if you’re a citizen – only if you’re an immigrant.” But if you can be arrested for not being able to prove that you’re a citizen, what difference does it make?*

If Arizonans were actually afraid of being arrested for forgetting their driver’s licenses or birth certificates at home, this law never would have passed. But ah! Here’s the catch. The police officer must have a “reasonable suspicion” that you’re an illegal before asking for proof.
What amounts to a reasonable suspicion?

According to a training video produced by the Arizona Police Department, police are forbidden to profile by race, but can use the following indicators as a basis for “reasonable suspicion”:

• A suspect speaking English poorly.
• A suspect dressing like they’ve just crossed the desert (layers, apparently).
• A suspect being in an area where illegals are known to congregate to look for work.
• A suspect running from police.
• A suspect traveling in an overcrowded vehicle.

Uber-helpful, huh?

These guidelines notwithstanding, what cop would ever suspect a white person in an overcrowded van of being in the country illegally? That’s simply not, well, reasonable.

Thus, the only American citizens who need to worry about forgetting their papers are Latino-Americans.

Please don’t take this as an attack on the integrity of Arizona’s law enforcement personnel. Arizona police groups vigorously opposed this law, and for good reason: it gives them a mandate that’s nearly impossible to enforce. Question and detain people you suspect of being in the country illegally. Do not use race as a factor. By the way, there’s about 460,000 of them, and they’re almost all of the same race. Good luck!

Ah, the complexities that arise when a government ostensibly committed to human rights decides to try to deport 7% of its population:

The law's various requirements have baffled many lawyers, and the training materials show that even the state government is not certain what some provisions require.

For example, the law requires that all people arrested be held until the federal government verifies their immigration status. But the video says it's unclear whether this applies to arrests for any offense or just those involving possible illegal immigrants.

Additionally, the law allows any legal resident of Arizona to sue if a local agency has a "policy" against enforcing federal immigration laws, but the video warns that no one knows what that means.

(Remember that whole competency thing I was talking about at the beginning?)

So, in sum, the Arizona law:
• Is hopelessly vague,
• Effectively, if not on paper, imposes a paper-carrying requirement for a particular ethnic group in Arizona,
• And deprives 460,000 Arizona residents of a secure relationship with the state police force.

Keep in mind that the ethnic group on the business end of this law will make up 29% of the population by 2050. Are we trying to commit societal suicide?

I know that illegal immigrants broke the law of this land. I understand why some want to hold them accountable for that. But we must remember that for decades, our immigration laws were barely enforced, while our corporations, businesses and farms practically begged low-wage Latin American workers to come over. They are here because of our demand for their labor, not to take advantage of our social programs, kill our children or raid our wine cellars. Now they number twelve million – workers, families, communities. We can’t simply ship twelve million people away. That would be one of the biggest forced population movements in history. How would we justify it? By saying, “That’s the law”?

Sooner or later, we need to figure out how to integrate them into our society as fully equal participants. Our national leadership has been ignoring this need for decades. Hopefully, they will get their act together in the next few years. Hopefully, the passage of the Arizona law will convince them to.

But in the meantime, we need to figure out how to live in peace with our illegal neighbors. And we need to call on our state governments to treat them like the invaluable part of our society that they are.

So, back to Iowa.

Terry Branstad has clearly decided, along with most of the Republican Party leadership, that the image of the derelict, pious, haughty Obama administration suing poor, embattled Arizona over this law is too good not to take advantage of. I must say, I’m disappointed.

Should I vote for him again? His opponent’s reply wasn’t exactly inspiring:

"I think the point here is that Terry Branstad is out of touch. He's going to suggest that the local Iowa property taxpayers pick up the tab, which we're not going to do, which would only result in a property-tax increase."

Appeal to the pocketbook. Classic.

The case for democracy is getting weaker every day.

*Does a driver’s license count? There are five states where illegal aliens are allowed to have driver’s licenses: Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, Utah and Washington. Elsewhere, a driver’s license would presumably qualify as proof of legal residence. And of course, you should never drive without a license. But people still do walk places, you know.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Abortion Conundrum

The abortion issue jumped back into Iowa politics last week when the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds, tried, and failed, to articulate a consistent prolife position on the issue.

Asked by the Carroll Daily Times-Herald what penalties she, as a self-identified pro-lifer, would impose for abortionists and women who have abortions, she replied, “Well, I think it would be equivalent to murder. I would want to research that before I would lay specifically out what the penalties would be.”

Reynolds went on to say,

• Abortion (a procedure that usually involves stabbing, cutting up or burning a fetus to death) is NOT equivalent to stabbing an adult to death.

• The punishment for abortion should fit the crime.

• “I would want to take a look at that and make sure that I completely walked through that before I would say anything right now.”

Anyone else confused yet?

Don’t blame Reynolds. Neither side in the American abortion debate has been able to articulate a consistent position on the matter.

The pro-life position rests on the status of a human fetus as a person, which, by extension, does make the act of abortion equivalent to murder. If abortion is not murder, it is merely distasteful and perhaps damaging to a country’s demographics, but in a liberal* society, neither of those problems is grounds for criminalization.

But if fetuses are persons, if abortion is murder, then over one-fourth of human beings worldwide are victims of murder before they are born. Abortion would rank as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world, abortion-on-demand would surpass slavery as America’s greatest societal crime, and stopping abortion immediately should be the highest priority of pro-life politicians. Because the practice is so widespread, we would at a minimum need a new Department of Preborn Rights to enforce an abortion ban. Huge funds should be dedicated to saving human beings from death by miscarriage. And if conception is marked as the beginning of personhood, then discarding frozen embryos should also be considered murder, and efforts should be made to rescue embryos that fail to attach to the uterine wall.

When was the last time you saw someone running on that platform?

Even if someone did run on that platform, they could never succeed in implementing it permanently. The pro-life movement, ultimately, has no political constituency, because unlike other oppressed groups, the potential victims of abortion can never be integrated into our political system. They are permanently voiceless. They can never be liberated or empowered. By the time they are old enough to speak (or even think, or be aware) for themselves, they have exited the oppressed group. If the oppression were ever ended, there would be no positive consequences for anyone else, only increased misery, as millions mothers who didn’t want to be mothers were forced to carry their babies to term. The only benefit would be the abstract sense of satisfaction that babies were no longer being killed. And society can fulfill its need for moral self-respect far more easily by convincing itself that respect for abortion rights demonstrates tolerance, rather than genocidal neglect. The utilitarian ethic provides absolutely no reason to ban abortion. The only possible rationales for protecting unconscious human beings that do not truly experience pain or happiness would have to come from a transcendent moral law that places human life above all other needs and values. Good luck getting everyone to agree on that.

The pro-choice position (and current U.S. law) on the other hand, holds that human beings assume all the rights of personhood at the moment of complete birth – a moment that, while emotionally significant for families and society, marks nothing more than the movement of a young human being from inside its mother to the outside world. Mentally and physically, nothing significant distinguishes a newborn baby from a fetus. Moreover, current U.S. law regards a human born at seven months a person, while a human still inside the womb at eight months is regarded as a part of the woman’s body. A consistent pro-choicer would regard human beings as full persons only at a later date of development (speech?) (adulthood?) and would have to argue for the right to infanticide. A few pro-choicers, such as the ethicist Peter Singer, have actually gone this far. The vast majority of pro-choicers, being properly socialized, somewhat decent human beings (like their pro-life opponents), would recoil at that proposal.

So I think it’s fairly clear that the standard parameters of American liberal* thought leave us in a quandary on this issue. There is no (tenable) way to be consistently just. To resolve this quandary, we will need to leave those parameters, and start again with the first questions: 1) what does God require of us as individuals, and 2) what does God require of the state?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. We’re supposed to love and care for all human beings, for the sake of our Lord, who loves them as well, and whose image they bear. If I believe anything about politics these days, it’s that the government should as well. But does that necessarily entail the liberal* quasi-legalism of rights, that demands that all persons be treated exactly the same, and that their deaths be avenged with equal ferocity?

That might sound like a rhetorical question, but it’s not. I have no answer right now.

Curse these ambiguities.


*Classical liberalism, not contemporary. Individualism, capitalism, and limited popular government. Think John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's Worse than We Thought

So it's been pretty obvious for a while that Hugo Chavez is a power-hungry megalomaniac who's working steadily to install himself as Venezuela's Dear-Leader-For-Life. Unfortunately, it now appears that, in addition to all of those things, he is also shatbit crazy.

Today, without warning, Chavez unearthed the remains of Simon Bolivar, "the Liberator," who helped to liberate almost all of South America from Spanish rule in the 18th century. Why? So Chavez can prove that Bolivar did not die of tuberculosis, as the historical consensus holds, but that he was murdered.

Now, I'm no coroner, but after TWO CENTURIES in the grave, what possible proof of murder could be left (other than, say, a split skull)?

I'll let His Excellency's tweets (yes, tweets) from the exhuming ceremony do the rest of the explaining:

"Viva Bolivar. It's not a skeleton. It's the Great Bolivar, who has returned."

"Our father who is in the earth, the water and the air ... You awake every hundred years when the people awaken. I confess that we have cried, we have sworn allegiance."

"That glorious skeleton has to be Bolivar, because his flame can be felt. My God, Bolivar lives... We are his flame!"

"Chavez said he has at times doubted that the entombed remains are those of Bolivar, but that as he gazed at the eye sockets in the skull, he asked: 'Father, is it you?' And, Chavez said, 'My heart told me, "It's me."'"

To recap: Chavez asked Bolivar's skeleton if it was really Bolivar's skeleton, and CHAVEZ' HEART replied, "It's me." [!]

Caracas, we have a problem.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Plan

Yesterday, my visa came in the mail. My plans are now as official as they get.  God willing, on August 31, I will fly to Cairo, Egypt, the Mother of the World.

I'll spend six days there hanging out with my friend Brian, meeting old friends, and exploring parts of the city I didn't see during my semester there two years ago.

After that, I will fly from Cairo to Damascus, Syria, where I will spend nine months at the Kinesat al-Zeitoon (Olive Church) in the Old City, living with Syrian teenagers, taking Arabic classes during the day and tutoring the students in English in the afternoon.  My goals are pretty simple: 1) See most of what there is to see of Syria - Palmyra (ancient Roman city), Lattakia (on the Mediterranean), and Malulu (where they still speak Aramaic), for starters, 2) become conversational (at the very least) in Syrian Colloquial Arabic (a dialect spoken in most of Syria, Jordan and Palestine), 3) make some lasting friendships with Syrians, 4) keep writing on this blog throughout.

After May 2011, the plan gets murkier.  But for now, that's okay.  I feel blessed beyond belief to have this opportunity, and I plan to make the most of it.  To what end, I have no idea.

Before I leave, I need to finish going through my copy of Syrian Colloquial Arabic (Level 1).  Encouragement, please! (iza betriidon!)

Now, some photos of Damascus, interspersed with some  fast facts about Syria:

  • Since the U.S. dominates the aerospace industry, U.S. sanctions on Syria have forced the Syrian government to ground most of the country's civilian air fleet, along with the president's personal jet.

  • Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, inherited the presidency from his father, Hafiz al-Assad, in 2000.  Assad the elder took over Syria in a military coup in 1970.  Bashar was an ophtamologist in London until his older brother, the heir apparent, was killed in a car crash in 1994. 

  • Damascus, the capital, is claimed by its residents to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city on earth.

  • Over one million Iraqi refugees live in Syria.

  • Syria, along with Iran, is a key sponsor of the Shiite Islamic Lebanese politicaly party/militant group Hezbollah (The Party of God).  Hezbollah was formed to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.  Since Israel's occupation of Lebanon ended in 2000, Hezbollah justifies its continued attacks on Israel by claiming that the Shebaa Farms, an area of the Golan/Syrian Heights, Syrian land still occupied by Israel, is really a part of Lebanon, not Syria or Israel. (Got all that?) Paradoxically, Syria supports this claim.  The Shebaa farms are 5.5 miles wide and 1.5 miles long.  In other words, one could run all the way around them in a half-marathon.  Over 1,000 people died in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.

  • According to the U.S. government's Overseas Security Advisory Council, "Unlike many other capital cities around the world, Damascus enjoys a low crime rate. This is probably due to the pervasive police presence around the city, as well as traditional Syrian culture." Nice! (The traditional culture and low crime rate part, I mean.)

  • However, the State Department's travel website warns, "While most Syrians appear genuinely friendly towards foreigners, underlying tensions can lead to a quick escalation in the potential for violence. In a few recent examples: an American reported being verbally harassed and told 'you Americans are not welcome here' after he avoided stepping on an Israeli flag that had been placed on the ground in a shopping area." 

  • The State Department's website also advises Red Sox fans not to wear fan apparel on visits to the Bronx.

  • The last time I went to Damascus was only a few days after U.S. forces attacked a Syrian village on the border with Iraq, killing eight people.  Anonymous U.S. officials claimed the strike was aimed at an Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq terrorist cell.  Things were a little awkward on my visit, to say the least.  However, as the State Department helpfully notes, everyone I met there appeared genuinely friendly. (My guess is, it's because they are genuinely friendly.  But as everyone knows, Arabs are oh-so-crafty.)

That's all for now.  Tomorrow I return to my job calling businesses to verify employment for loan applicants.  I've read eight books so far this summer, and I hope to post some book reviews here soon.  I'm currently reading Living in the End Times by Slavoj Zizek.  So far, it's wildly entertaining but not very accessible (to me).  For the uninitiated, Zizek is a populizer of neo-Marxism.  If that upsets you, blame the initiated (you know who you are.)

Enjoy the summer, everyone!