Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Powerful Men Behaving Badly

The past two weeks has seen a couple of well-publicized cases of powerful men being put into the shame spotlight for their sexual indiscretions. The then, now former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested on charges related to the assault of a maid in a New York hotel. A name much more familiar to the masses, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was shamed by the public revelation of the source of his recent separation with also-famous Maria Shriver: he had fathered a child out of wedlock with the former family housekeeper.

It's interesting to see two vivid examples of the corrupting nature of power. It's hard not to notice that you have two cases of very rich and powerful men who have - in some shape, degree and form - exercised their power over another less "powerful" human being. The sexual exploitation of another human being is one of the most vivid ways where one exercises dominion over another. From what I've read, this is part of the seedy underside of many prisons, where homosexual rape is one of the means of exerting and exhibiting power, shaping the social hierarchy.

Why did Strauss-Kahn and Schwarznegger do it? The obvious answer is to observe that they're both men whose morals and better judgment went unchecked because their internal voice was saying "I'm so powerful that I'll get away with this". At some point, it might not even be an issue of physical attraction. At the risk of sounding insensitive to the victims, but a common observation is the lack of physical attractiveness of at least Schwarznegger's paramour, and I haven't seen many hotel maids in my life who I'd deem as Miss Universe material.

One theory is that Strauss-Kahn and Schwarznegger really are Joe Sensitives and they are attracted to inner beauty in the servant hearts of women who work diligently. Another not-so-realistic theory is that looks notwithstanding, they picked up on the George Costanza fetish around cleaning ladies in that old episode from Seinfeld. My hunch is that it's not at all about physical attraction - it's about the prideful arrogance which states, "I have a need and as a powerful man, I will assert it at my will whenever and at whoever I want." It finds no value in the sexual partner - it's simply giving the proverbial middle finger to society and its norms.

But this is the danger of power, isn't it? Power has this intoxicating effect to create within one's mind an attractive world - at least from a hedonistic perspective - in which every demand and desire goes fulfilled and one can do no wrong. One can have a single-minded focus to make oneself happy without the consideration or objections of others.

Perhaps the truth of the matter is that all of us are vulnerable to this this temptation. Thankfully, the fact that most of us aren't multi-billionaires who wield social or political power prevents us from falling into the illusion that omnipotence and living beyond the law is our reality.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Cross and the Cinema

Raise your hand if you think that Christian movies are lame. Okay, too many hands to count, but not surprising given the number of people who fundamentally disagree with the underlying premise and message.

Now please raise your hand if you'd call yourself a devout Christian and think that Christian movies are lame.

Wow, still a surprising number of hands.

A little more than month ago, Salon.com columnist Andrew O'Hehir wrote an article titled, "Why are Christian movies so awful?" which basically wonder aloud why - notwithstanding the message - the actual production values of these Christian films, including acting, writing, directing, cinematography, soundtrack scoring and editing are so sub-par. He uses the recently released and deceased movie "Soul Surfer" as the foil, and goes on to lambast the performances of the cast.

But what really gets O'Hehir's goat is the formulaic plot and how these Christian movies are utterly (and unnecessarily irrelevant) to non-Christians, and dull and inspiring for even the fervent believers who really want to like the film. He writes:
If evangelical Christians want to see their life and faith and values reflected on-screen, I guess that's understandable. But movies are not mirrors, and the mass audiences that went to see "The King's Speech" or "Black Swan" or "The Social Network" didn't necessarily identify with the characters or their lifestyles...

At the risk of offending many people in many different directions, Christian cinema reminds me of gay cinema. If, that is, gay cinema were permanently stuck in 1986, with a self-ghettoizing mandate to present positive role models for youth and tell an anodyne but uplifting story that sends a message of hope.
I think he's on to something here, and I respond on a couple of fronts. He talks somewhat rhetorically "if evangelical Christians want to see their life and faith and values reflected on-screen" - and the answer from me is "Darn right I do." I get that people don't go to movies to watch mirrors of their own life. But the reality is that nobody can deny the influence of media upon behavior. While not universally the case, much of television and movie watching is subtly educational and aspirational. We watch movies like "Rocky" and "The Karate Kid" because we want to relate and replicate great courage in our life while getting entertained. We watch shows like "Growing Pains", "Family Ties" and "Parenthood" because we can see what to do (and not do) when it comes to raising our children while getting entertained.

Where do Christian adults nowadays get that? Two and a Half-Men? Modern Family? Family Guy? How I Met Your Mother? Please. The options for spiritually edifying, or at least not borderline offensive entertainment are so few and far between, there still exists a need for these "mirrors". I'm not crazy about the fact that the production values are sub-par, but it's not because an oversupply has stretched quality too thin. Christian adults want to see an entertaining role-play of what good character and faith looks like. Unfortunately, there aren't tons of good material out there.

But another thing O'Hehir implies is that people are happy to go to a film which does not mirror their life or lifestyles at all, provided that fundamentally there's a good story to tell. That's probably a good word for Christian filmmakers. I'm not sure if there's a fundamental marketing challenge here such as:

Christian Film Marketer: Bob, as we plan to send out these movie packets to churches, I'm thinking you're too light on emphasizing the character's Christian faith. I think you need a gratuitous scene where he's kneeling at his bed... and make sure he closes with "in the sweet and magnificent Name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior." Oh, and there's at least five times where you can preface his lines with: "The Lord is telling me that..."
Christian Film Director: I don't know, it seems pretty contrived. I mean, it's clear that this is a man of faith. There's a scene of him walking out of church and he tells his friend about how God is His strength...
Christian Film Marketer: Yeah, speaking of which, we want you to change the "God is my strength" to explicitly Philippians 4:13. And don't forget to have him say the book, chapter and verse. Oh yes, and in that scene that he's opening the glove compartment to look for his registration? Let's keep a copy of "My Utmost for His Highest" in there and make sure you zoom in on that...
Christian Film Director: Wait... how many people that we know actually do these things?
Christian Film Marketer: Oh, another thing. You need to get "damn" and "crap" out of the movie. Christians don't say those kind of things - or at least according to the Southern Baptist Convention who is sponsoring our social media marketing, they don't.

My point being, I wonder if Christian filmmakers are terrified of toeing the line of trying to be wholesome enough for Christian audiences but authentic enough for non-Christian ones. Maybe it's me, but is part of the problem that the compass just way off? As a Christian filmgoer, I will outright plead for Christian filmmakers to please, please push the level of authenticity in your films. In fact, I would argue the best films which contain Christian themes are not "Christian films". Aside from "The Passion of the Christ", the films which to me speak most to Christian discipleship and growth are ones such as "The Karate Kid" (discipleship), "Glory" (servant leadership) and "Chariots of Fire" (conviction and faith in action). None of those are "Christian films" per se.

One could counter that it'd doubtful that movies such as "The Karate Kid" and "Chariots of Fire" aren't explicit enough in it's Christian themes to "convert" people. Maybe, but it's not as if I've heard of mass conversions coming out of screenings of "Fireproof" and "Left Behind" either.

At the end of the day, I wish the Christian brothers and sisters who labor in the medium well. Their intentions are good, and it's clear that they're doing the best that they can. Maybe the bigger challenge and hope is finding the most talented Christian filmmakers and actors to devote their time on a project which will be both excellent, beautiful and redemptive in articulating the Christian gospel. Lest the pot call the kettle black, it's not as if all the talented Christian businesspeople are running to take a 75% paycut to work for Christian organizations or the church. But that's a story for another blog post.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The "Crazy" Uncle is Still Family

Most of the world, non-Christians and Christians alike, laughed when Christian Family Radio founder Harold Camping and a legion of his most loyal followers went out to spread the word that Judgment Day was coming on May 21st, 2011. We all snickered and guffawed when they quit their jobs and spent their life savings in warning people to repent before the last sands of the hourglass tricked down and Jesus would come to rapture the true believers.

We were not surprised when May 21st came and went.

Now most of the world, non-Christians and Christians alike are quick to cackle and deride Camping and his followers, these "morons" who are now trying to put together the pieces of their lives. For them, the shock of the sun coming up on Sunday morning was just as stupefying and system-shaking to them as waking up to Armageddon would have been the rest of the world. Much of the reaction is a mixture of laughter, condescension, self-satisfaction and pity. It's understandable.

But from the Christians, I would expect better. And I'm also preaching to myself.

I get it. You're embarrassed when Camping and his ilk wave signs around and make these sort of pronouncements. When these things get joked about at work or in conversation with your non-Christian neighbors, you adjust your collar nervously and make absolutely sure that your colleagues don't lump you in with "those nutjobs". You further bolster your world intellectual credentials by taking a gratuitous potshot or two at Camping and his followers, maybe you crack a joke or two to show that you're "not one of them." You take great stride in distancing yourself

"But hey" you argue defensively, "These guys do are doing a lot of damage to my ability to share the gospel."

I get it. I really do. I also really want to believe that this is the overriding source of your angst as opposed to your own personal discomfort and the damage to your personal "cool factor".

You want to have righteous outrage towards Camping that there are people who have lost their life savings because of his erroneous prediction? Go for it. But I hope it's accompanied by compassion for those who have been most harmed. If you didn't sell your life savings, I commend you for your spiritual discernment - but is it really necessary to kick these people when they're down?

At the end of the day, these people are very much like the "crazy" uncle everyone has in their family. The uncle isn't crazy in the clinical sense, but he's a bit eccentric in the things that he does and says. We get embarrassed when he pulls up to the driveway in his beaten up old car and we're shooting hoops with our friends, because we just know he's going to say something that will spark, at best, eyerolls and at worst, unsuppressed laughter. Part of just hoped that he'd go away and never come back.

But then we remember that our uncle is still family. We remember that at the end of the day, our allegiance and our blood ties are with our uncle, not our friends in the driveway, and not the coworkers and neighbors who are cracking jokes. We assume that our uncle, for all his foibles, means well and while we will chastise him around being more careful about his words and actions ("You just can't say those things, Uncle Bob! You're out of line and you're just plain wrong") we always welcome him to his seat at the table for Thanksgiving.

Yes, there's a lesson to be learned here and for Camping and his followers, we can hope and pray that he and they will (yes, I'm aware that Camping has since changed his new target date to October 21st). This can be redeemed, and as mentioned in a Washington Post blog, "A new generation of Christians are shedding the end times obsession for a faith that focuses more on Christ’s calling on our lives in the here and now. They still hope for a day when Jesus will fully restore this broken world, but they are working to promote human flourishing and the common good in the meantime." This is a good thing. As is the reality that many of us who perhaps don't think enough about the end times were reminded that we very much should look forward to the coming of our King, and prepare accordingly.

But in the same spirit articulated in Timothy Dalrymple's well written open letter to Camping and his followers after the "ending that never came", let's also extend grace in the midst of our loving disagreement and correction, and do what we can to restore our brothers and sisters who have made a mistake and are vulnerable to repeating it - they've hardly committed the unforgivable sin.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Filtered Criticism

I think one of the things that plagues some people is this whole notion of "filtered criticism". This is sort of the opposite phenomena of ultra-sensitivity to criticism. Those who are ultra-sensitive to criticism will be presented with an area of improvement the midst of a litany of praises and accolades and walk away wounded and defensive. Filtered criticism isn't the opposite in the sense that a person is impervious to criticism. Rather, the hearer takes the criticism and latches on to a throwaway positive comment and interprets it as a wholehearted and passionate endorsement.

I was reminded of this phenomena when my wife and I recently watched a movie which had a number of great critic taglines but was truly awful and a waste of two hours of my life. "Out of context" movie critic blurbs on posters or DVD cases is probably one of the most hilarious examples of this. I'm not an industry expert, but my understanding is that movie studios realize that professional critic reviews and word of mouth are influential drivers. So the marketing gurus at these studios mine these reviews for hearty and witty compliments and place them in their television, radio and print advertising. "Two Thumbs Up!" is seen as a big deal for these marketers, and they understandably brag about this when they can.

Let's take for example "Little Fockers", otherwise known as "Meet the Parents, Part III". In full disclosure, I thought the first one was hilarious, the second was disappointing, and didn't even bother watching the third given overall bad reviews. I went to movie review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes for its review of Little Fockers and found that the reviews were pretty awful - around a 9% our of a possible 100% score. Now if I'm a shrewd (and perhaps less than scrupulous) marketer, here's where I do some magic:

"It may be time to try another household for laughs." - Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly becomes:

"Another household for laughs!" - Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

"I thought it would take years for Owen Wilson to appear in a movie worse than "How Do You Know," but he has outdone himself." - Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune becomes:

"Owen Wilson .... has outdone himself!" - Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"'Little Fockers' may not be the worst, most vulgar, most pathetic and least funny picture of the year. But it's a strong contender for second place behind the picture Brett Favre allegedly sent over his cellphone." - Kyle Smith, New York Post becomes:

"Picture of the year... it's a strong contender!" - Kyle Smith, New York Post

"The sheer pleasure of the first film in 2000, already dimming by the time we got to "Meet the Fockers" four years later, has officially gone kaput." - Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times becomes:

"The sheer pleasure of the first!" - Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times

"I'm afraid the DeNiro of The Godfather, Part II and Goodfellas has mostly faded from my mind, replaced by the DeNiro of the Fockers -- a grim-faced comedian who tends to make me sad... Alba is charming until her character gets sent to the stupidity factory. " - Mary F. Pols, TIME Magazine becomes:

"The DeNiro of The Godfather, Part II and Goodfellas! Alba is charming!" - - Mary F. Pols, TIME Magazine

So you look at the out of context reviews and you can't help but think that this is going to be Oscar-worthy gold. Heck, after my little bit of wordsmithing, I come to two conclusions: (1) I need a marketing job in Hollywood, and (2) I really want to see Little Fockers.

So while this is a phenomena that afflicts those who have severe self-awareness issues, there's probably a little of this in all of us. At times, we just don't want to hear fair and warranted criticism and we tend to hear what we want to hear. Naturally, selective listening takes a number of different forms, but when it starts to affect relationships and our ability to sharpen ourselves as people, it's no longer a laughing matter.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Slaying the Tiger Mom

In what might be a case of beating a dead horse... or tiger, another article around the topic of growing up Asian has gone viral. The latest article, "Paper Tigers" from New York Magazine, is essentially a collection of personal stories from a number of Asian men around how they view their Asian identity and how they feel that, in many cases, the typical Asian upbringing has shaped who they are. While the stories are all a little different, almost all capture the musing articulated by Korean-American writer Wesley Yang: "If we are a collective juggernaut that inspires such awe and fear, why does it seem that so many Asians are so readily perceived to be, as I myself have felt most of my life, the products of a timid culture, easily pushed around by more assertive people, and thus basically invisible?"

This isn't a new question - Asian-Americans have been speaking about the lingering stench of stereotypes which are both imposed and self-inflicted. Asian-Americans should rightfully take responsibility of conforming to the model of quiet and submissive lackey, giving more fuel to the "Bamboo Ceiling" phenomena. Asian-Americans should rightfully take responsibility for not rocking the boat when a discrimination, violence or injustice against Asians is either dismissed or minimized, perpetuating the belief that Asians are politically irrelevant. Asian-Americans should rightfully take responsibility

A general premise in the article is that the Asian way of parenting is partly to blame for the lack of assertiveness (allegedly leading to lack of executive leadership and social marginalization) of Asians. It does acknowledge that despite failing to reach the very pinnacle of their professions, a large volume of Asians are doing fine, thank you very much. It may be possible that the previous Asian generation, while not conspiring consciously to do so, essentially raised their kids to hit solid doubles as opposed to swing for the fences and risk striking out. The result? A generation of skilled professionals who are lauded for being great executors and implementers but may lack the passion, creativity and charisma to lead. And if this was the case, can we really blame the first generation?

Think of it this way, my parents and other people of that generation knew that they had absolutely no hope of beating "the man" at their own game of charisma and politics. The lack of language command made the impossible. So they trained their kids to ensure that they did at least as well as they did as far as technical aptitude and excellence. In the meantime, they would prod, learn to speak the language fluently and get a little more comfortable in your American identity. And as a generation I think we largely have - but what we never had were (1) Asian role models in the home who taught us how to be creative and lead and (2) the inclination or the capability to play the network game with friends. In the next generation, they'll have those.

For my children's generation, I'd predict (in a large generalization, akin the how our Asian generation has been pegged as the "great technician" generation) that we'll start seeing more Asian-Americans reaching the pinnacle of their professions and their fields. No only will the ladder climbing up with be even shorter, but they'll have had the networks that our generation never had. In the same way that past ethnic groups leverage their networks (those of Italian and Jewish heritage have both been highly effective historically in this discipline), my kids will be able reach out to my good friends who manage funds or who sit as senior partners in consulting firms, in the same way I'll be well position to assist my friends' children in my particular industry.

At the end of the day, I'd say that Asian-Americans are doing just fine. We are a generation who has our idols and our faults, sure, but I wonder how much is it worth obsessing over the giant chip on our collective shoulder that we're "timid and unassertive"? The perception is what it is - I'm not going to do my part to change it just for the sake of changing it. But I will stand and speak up against the things which are wrong and unjust and promote the things I believe - that's not an Asian thing, but a human dignity thing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Taking the Training Wheels Off

The weekend before last, I had an extremely proud moment with my son. Daniel, who has been riding a bicycle with training wheels for almost two years now, finally summoned the courage to take off the training wheels and give it the old college try.

I had urged Daniel to begin the process of weening himself off the training wheels when my wife told me of a recent episode when he was out on a walk and bike with a neighbor and her daughter of about the same age as Daniel. The little girl, named Daniella, was biking without training wheels. Daniel, perhaps feeling a bit self-conscious, said, "I think I'm going to walk" and decided to walk his bike. My wife and the other mother tried to assure Daniel that it was perfectly okay to bike with training wheels, but I suspect that made him feel even worse.

So, I resolved to get Daniel on a path to training wheel independence. He was reluctant at first, worried that he was going to fall, but I was able to coax him into give it a try by letting him wear knee pads. I also tried to manage his own expectations. "Don't worry, Daniel," I assured him, "It might take a month or so, but in a week or so you'll be falling less and less. And then eventually, you won't be falling at all."

So I removed the training wheels and we made our way to the empty middle school parking lot a mere 50 yards away from our house. I walked along side with Daniel, clutching the handlebar of his bicycle to help give him balance as he wobbled while peddling. En route to the middle school parking lot, he fell - and assured me he was okay. We made it to the parking lot, and after doing about ten minutes worth of running-alongside-while-clutching-the-handlebars (a side note here: I was absolutely gassed trying to run as fast as he was biking while holding on to the wobbling bike with one arm) he told me that he didn't need me to hold on anymore.

So he did it by himself, and while he would occasionally bike into a wobbly spiral and crash, he was pretty much good to go. My wife and I were really impressed, and since then he's continued to visit the parking lot with us and practice his cycling sans training wheels. He has his wobbly moments, but he's a bona fide two-wheel bicyclist. And I'm a proud dad.

Something that dawned upon me was the life analogy of everything that Daniel went through. In our lives, we all have our own training wheels. These are things that we assume certain crutches are required in our life - these things might be luxuries that make our lives easier, or even addictions. It might be a refusal to move forward and upward in terms of our own spiritual maturity, occupational ability or life skills. We may be overly comfortable in a level of mediocrity that feels safe.

But when we leave that safety to aspire for something greater, it can be scary. We strive for something knowing that times of failure aren't only likely, they're pretty much inevitable. Most things worth aspiring for will encounter some degree of pain or failure, and that's something we need to accept. But when we decide to go for it, we (like Daniel on his two-wheeler) will encounter a deal of joy having reached the summit. For righteous, good and honorable things worth aspiring to, the removal of training wheels can bring a success well worth the occasional knee scrapes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Real Life Fairy Tales

The world had the opportunity to experience another Royal Wedding extravaganza a few weeks ago when the future heir to the English throne, Prince William married Kate Middleton. The production was predictably lavish and over the top, and I have to admit that watching the broadcast of the festivities made me feel as if I was watching a live version of a Disney film about princesses.

In addition to the the obsession of some people in the United States, there were many people analyzing and offering their opinions in columns and newscasts on why a nation which overturned British tyranny more than two hundred years ago currently believes that figurehead royals with lots of wealth and little real power are actually neat-o. Similarly, there was a strangely passionate debate on the lavishness of such a celebration in the midst of a local economy which presumably might have better things spend their money on.

As far as the first point, clearly Queen Elizabeth and the rest of the royal family are quite a departure from King George III. The Americans' affinity for Prince William and his bride to be is enhanced by the fact that he hasn't (nor will her) levy unfair taxes against us on our groceries or cereal or insist that we give quarter to British soldiers who happen to be in suburban New Jersey. The royals nowadays are cute and cuddly - they have moved away from the practice of executing people on their whim, including (much to Kate Middleton's relief) executing wives who fail to produce male heirs. They devote themselves to no-brainer non-controversial "we all agree that these are good things, let's hug each other!" causes, such as feeding children, stamping out famine and the elimination of land mines.

Americans seem to find the royals intriguing partially because we've romanticized the concept of a benevolent king and royal family who rules but does so in a way which doesn't alienate their subjects. There's probably a philosophical and theological point here, around how humans have a innate desire to be guarded, guided and yes, even ruled by a persons or persons who will note abuse that same power. Some look to the government, others look to family or other social structures. The Bible teaches us that God is the living and real Answer to that innate human longing. Unfortunately, we often substitute that longing with other things, and in some cases, we seek to grab that absolute power for ourselves.

In terms of the debate of whether such an exhibition of wealth and opulence is appropriate, I had a chance to hear a couple of commentators opine about this. Now granted, this was during the procession where William and Kate were being pulled by a horse and carriage and the camera panned to a bunch of cheering families with young girls. The commentator said something along the lines of, "This is why it's good and right to celebrate this event. Kids need to know that some fairy tales are real."

Part of me sort of scratched my head and thought, "What in the world does that mean?" Kate Middleton didn't become a Princess because she got a random visit from a fairy godmother. Yes, there is a royal family which has no political power and they live lives of celebrity. Is that's what exciting? To be famous and wealthy based on nothing except your lineage or your ability to charm someone within that lineage?

As I mentioned before, the wedding seemed like a live-action version of a Disney DVD. Like Disney, it's visual stunning and enjoyable to the senses. There's this aura of everything being right in the world and this innocence of goodness. On the other hand, like Disney, scratch beneath the surface and you see that you're in a world of make-believe - an artificial and synthetic approximation of greatness and majesty. At the end of the day, William and Kate are mere mortals like the rest of us, the ornaments mean very little.

I don't mean to rain on millions of girls' parades, including my own daughter. I appreciate that she really like to wear pink and wear a little tiara and play dress up and make believe. It's just that being a "real princess" often doesn't seem much more than that.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Killing Bin Laden

Unless you've been hiding in a cave in the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan (well, bad example), you're well aware that earlier this week, United States special operations forces found and killed Osama bin Laden after a manhunt which began almost ten years ago, soon after bin Laden orchestrated the 9/11 attacks which stands today as the worst attack on American soil.

I welcomed the news but didn't feel a great sense of joy, relief or celebration. While bin Laden clearly deserved justice and due punishment for the grand atrocity, the thousands of civilians that lost their lives on that September morning are not coming back. Those children who lost parents will not have them return for their weddings, nor will lost spouses return to celebrate missed anniversaries. The notion of a cell structure of a terrorist organization means that unlike the celebration of V-E and V-J days after World War II, there is no armistice or surrender that accompanies the death of bin Laden. He lives behind a terrorist movement that has resolved to avenge his death, and while they have lost a mastermind and leader, the movement will live on. The crushing of the head of the snake does not kill the snake, but rather splinters it into small serpents who may be capable of less grand attacks, but can clearly still inflict pain and loss of life. While the death of bin Laden is good news - this is not over.

I'm reminded of the end of the movie Munich, in which the head of the commando team, Avner, voices his doubts of the effectiveness of their assassinations with their Mossad handler, Ephraim:

Avner: If these people committed crimes we should have arrested them. Like Eichmann.
Ephraim: If these guys live, Israelis die. Whatever doubts you have Avner, you know this is true.
Ephraim: You did well but you're unhappy.
Avner: I killed seven men.
Ephraim: Not Salameh. We'll get him of course. You think you were the only team? It's a big operation, you were only a part. Does that assuage your guilt?
Avner: Did we accomplish anything at all? Every man we killed has been replaced by worse.
Ephraim: Why cut my finger nails? They'll grow back.
Avner: Did we kill to replace the terrorist leadership or the Palestinian leadership? You tell me what we've done!
Ephraim: You killed them for the sake of a country you now choose to abandon. The country your mother and father built, that you were born into. You killed them for Munich, for the future, for peace.
Avner: There's no peace at the end of this no matter what you believe. You know this is true.
This is not to say that it was wrong or futile to take out bin Laden, and there will be others who we will target. Ephraim is correct in noting that fingernails still ought to get cut despite the fact they will grow again. Avner is reasonable in his contention that an eye for an eye is unlikely to broker a enduring and lasting peace. A few more musings:
  • Given that the bin Laden was found hiding in a compound within a town filled with Pakistani military officers and a stone's throw away from the Pakistani military academy, you can understand while many are at best, perplexed and at worst, livid at the Pakistani government and intelligence community. Now that Pakistani leadership is in the awkward position of trying to convince that they're incompetent, as opposed to disingenuous around their partnership in combating terrorist. That makes all the sense in the world. Being incompetent earns you derision from the international community. But realizing that you've been taking counter-terrorism aid from the United States while knowingly harboring those responsible for the greatest mass murder on US soil can lead to (to recall the verbatim threat of a US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage post-9/11) getting bombed "back to the Stone Age".
  • There's been some debate around whether the real order was to "take no prisoners" - in other words, shoot bin Laden on sight and ask questions later. The official word (though this seems to be evolving) is that the order was given to give him safe harbor and take him alive if bin Laden surrendered and offered no resistance. The reports somewhat evolved from "bin Laden resisted" to "bin Laden was unarmed, but didn't have his arms up" which may soon become "bin Laden didn't scream 'I surrender and I'm really sorry!' in proper English". It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist do believe that at some point, Obama and the NSA realized that capturing him alive would create a multitude of problems (e.g. a trial that would look O.J.'s look like a traffic court visit in comparison, mass rioting, terroristic actions and threats to blackmail his release, etc.), that it might be better if he simply wasn't, uh, alive.
  • Kudos to Navy SEAL Team Six for their amazing and courageous work. We, as Americans, can be grateful that we have among the best, if not the Special Ops military capabilities in the world. In a world in which conflict is becoming largely specialized and surgical as opposed to being fought with heavy artillery and large scale infantry, these individuals will be increasingly important to our national security and national interests. Thanks to each of them for their dedicated service. Given their clandestine nature, I can't imagine the discipline to never be able to disclose that you were part of the team that effectively wiped bin Laden off the map. They certainly don't do what they do for the glory.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

William Hung, Meet Chad and Ranjit

Maybe you've seen those MetroPCS commercials featuring Chad and Ranjit, which present two caricatured South Asian men sharing their technological knowledge on a mock television show called "Tech Talk". The two men are shown as nerdy and geeky buffoons, and they spend the 30 seconds of airtime plugging the supposedly insane value of MetroPCS mobile phone service while laying down the clueless immigrant schtick that Eddie Murphy popularized in Coming to America. Our two South Asian friends have bad haircuts, wear unfashionable clothes and talk in exaggerated accents that would make Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons cringe. Chad and Ranjit, please understand that people are laughing at you, not with you.

The reality is that we've seen this before. Around seven years ago, a University of California - Berkeley student named William Hung appeared on an episode of American Idol. It was absolutely clear that he wasn't a good singer, and he wouldn't make the cut for most high school choirs, let alone a contest to win a contract from a major record label. I'm guessing that William wasn't the only contestant who was Asian who didn't make the cut. But hey, why waste a great opportunity to make fun of the guy who personifies just about every stereotype non-Asians want to have around Asian men. Geeky, check. Heavy accent, check. Vaguely funny looking, check. Somewhat effeminate, check. Sings terribly, check. Wimpy, check. Can't dance for his life, check. Will serve as great foil so Americans - especially those who aren't Asian - can laugh at him, big-time check.

One perspective is to take it all in stride, to lighten up, get a sense of humor and yuk it up. Caricatures and stereotypes don't matter, some would argue. There's nothing really harmful about stereotypes which make us laugh, tease or otherwise condescend those individuals. I mean, it's not like people are at all conditioned into thinking that Jews are cheap, Hispanics are largely uneducated laborers and blacks have criminal tendencies, right? Oh, never mind.