A Democracy of Potty-Mouths
I wrote about this two years ago, and still feel the same: That constant swearing doesn't make you more genuine or 'intelligent,' as I keep reading lately. Rather, it's the opposite: It suggests that you have a childish inability to control yourself, that you have an adolescent spitefulness in shocking people, that you lack respect for others, and that you have an inability to express yourself. Incessant cursing also tends to drain the dynamic range out of your writing and speaking– someone who rarely swears will make a real impact when they do for emphasis. "But I'm angry and passionate about my cause!" Yes, just as every cause is justified to someone, resulting in a public sphere where everybody curses all the time.
Perhaps it makes me classist, in saying that news media should hypocritically censor Trump's obscenities, but report straight poor blacks who are quoted swearing, as Slate claims– without once considering a third option of just never printing vulgarities without asterisks or brackets. It's interesting even if saddening to see the slide in journalistic standards over the last decade, much of it through competition with the internet, where profanities are common. I remember in the late '90s where newspapers almost comically danced around conveying that Bill Clinton received oral sex. Now Trump plainly uses all of George Carlin's seven deadly swear words, and the press has largely given in and printed them. I can see where this is going from the comments: The argument is already being made that any criticism of swear words is at best elitist prudishness about sex, is at middling anti-democratic in wanting to censor others (notice such people are usually the ones trying to police our speech 24/7), and is at worst counterproductive to exposing what people, particularly women, experience. No, no, and no. I'm not somehow opposed to sex because I don't want to see its most degraded verbal synonym used in every sentence as every part of speech. Nor does bathroom defecation need to be a part of every utterance. I'm not demanding that media avoid them because-of-the-children, but expecting that they be above this, because there are vulgar ideas we don't need thrown in our faces constantly.
We don't have to spew obscenities to treat seriously sexual assault or other social problems, and to me degrading a woman's genitals by comparing them to a slang for a cat and then larding the word around everywhere further trivializes the problem. In this limited area Trump has won a point if we now take these words as normal and appropriate for public discourse. I know I'm not perfect. But I tend to swear silently, and it's always about Korean subways.
Vomit. Just Vomit.
The Beatles have made a substantial contribution. Bob Dylan, however, is the worst poet alive. He can maybe get one good line in a song, and the rest is gibberish. - Kurt Vonnegut.
His voice sounds like a drunken Fozzie bear. His lyrics, even where decipherable, are irrelevant to anyone who doesn't happen to live in 1963. Why, oh, why, do people revere this man so much? I simply cannot understand. He is known for being rude and aloof, and typically hasn't bothered to acknowledge the Nobel he's just been given. The response is the usual maddening enabling, "Oh, that's just Dylan, who doesn't kowtow to the important and famous." Why are these bad manners simply uncritically accepted from him?
Please stop the drivel about how real and authentic he is. There's some folk music I love, but much of it is pretentious twaddle stuck in the hippie era, and people need to stop being intimidated by the folkie snobs. There's no reason why folk is by definition more honest somehow than prog rock, jazz, or even some hip-hop, all because young guys who live with their parents play acoustic guitars at parties, singing cheesy truisms in order to get laid. And spare me the condescension about how I just don't get it, and I need to check out Album X to appreciate Dylan's true greatness. I've listened to him, for as many minutes as I could bear to stand. There's nothing to get. Lyrics are not more poetic or profound because they are accompanied by guitars instead of synthesizers. Because Dylan's lyrics can be political or hostile to the establishment doesn't make them superior. Years ago I wrote about how this idea that "only people with education can understand his Dylanness" is intellectual posturing, and I've had the stink-eye at grad parties for it. I have no regrets. His music to me (I do admit I liked the Traveling Wilburys) remains mostly trite and unlistenable crap.
In the case of the Nobel Literature Prize, it is an absolute disgrace, a trendy, oh-so-transgressive pandering to nostalgic boomers still convinced the world began and ended with the '60s. Bob Dylan does not deserve a literature prize regardless of anyone's taste for his music: Sung lyrics are not literature, which is, well, 'literary,' i.e. a textual performance (yes, he published a book– in 1971); and the prize is not a lifetime achievement award. The prize which in past honored Shaw, Steinbeck, Munro, and Márquez is now given to this pretentious boob, and its award is an insult to any people who actually, y'know, write things: Ishiguro, Zadie Smith, among others who might have richly deserved this acknowledgement. This is what the Nobel committee thinks of authors. "You just don't understand the wider meaning of literature." Fine. If literature now means whatever the hell we want, why not architects, or interpretive dancers, or supermodels, or Trump, whose train wreck of a campaign must be a sort of full-on performance art, at base? At least he's written some bloody books in the last decade.
Voltaire never said, "I don't agree with what you say but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." And whenever you hear someone parrot this saying, it is usually a means to feeling morally fair and even-handed, while doing nothing about the person being shamed, harassed, fined, or fired for saying the wrong thing. Somehow this "defending" never occurs, though it is always promised, as though this counts for something.
This coming U.S. election has proven itself already, as Obama is increasingly open in saying in our increasingly potty-mouthed times, a shitshow (OK, I swore). But maybe one positive outcome is that there are signs that peak PC is happening; I don't remember people being so openly contemptuous about political correctness. Even a U of T professor recently states that he's not recognizing any "right" of people to choose their own pronouns. Somehow it has become assumed that English can be changed by fiat, or that everyone has a democratic entitlement to make new words and others must accept them into the lexicon. No, we don't. Latinx isn't a helpful coinage: The word deliberately conveys less information, the opposite of what a language advance generally should do. But mostly I'm not using it because of the idea that I have to because HuffPost says so. True, some of this is right-wing blathering about freedom (which is partly justified, as much of PC's dialectic is warmed-over Marxism, as Lessing notes). But the problem with this is that opposition to PC then becomes an us-vs.-them party line, and it would be healthier if leftists also recognized that there is nothing "liberal" about a methodology which has never once been voted on by anyone, but has always been imposed by political, media, corporate, and campus elites. There is growing resentment of a set of rules and attitudes which, like Camus might say, are despicable because they are only obeyed out of fear– because one is afraid of ostracism or losing one's livelihood. I predicted in June that there would eventually be a backlash to frivolous use of the charge "racist" where the term would be embraced ironically, and it's happening.
About time. The people who do defend political correctness are also mostly despicable, and if it's true that in forty years we will see protesters of gay marriage in '15 as the same ugly troglodytes who protested interracial marriage in '65– then the cheerleaders of PC codes on campuses and workplaces also deserve to be tarred with the same piercing disgust and eye-rolling as we viewed the McCarthyites and the rabid Victorians who called for slipcovers on chair legs. In recent polls, around 35% of millennials stated that speech which offends minorities should not be protected; the numbers thankfully drop quickly for Gen-X, boomer, and war generations, as we get further back to the people who, well, fought and bled for something kinda like this. In the 90's there was a lot of smirking among fellow X'ers for those naïve, tree-hugging hippies of the '60s. Imagine how young people in a half-century will view the millennials in retrospect, a cohort of which over a third did not see free speech as a basic right, and of which 70% say it isn't essential to live in a democracy. Shame. Who will praise these ideas, or the safe-space cowards who threw tantrums for them? Will anyone write folk songs or the next Forrest Gump for these quislings?
The retort I read is that PC is just the impetus to be polite, and the rules of civility have simply shifted so that it's rude to make whatever-ist comments, just as our parents' cocktail parties had their own speech prohibitions. Somehow the people who think it's fine to shout down or physically attack an invited speaker to a campus are now Emily Post. Beware of this back-door equation of etiquette with PC, and the false binary that its detractors only want to be loud, jerky frat-boys and make fat jokes like Trump. It's perfectly consistent to want to be able to discuss ideas or have differing opinions, while being respectful to others. But again, almost none of us got a say on what these replacement rules of propriety now are. Moreover, not discussing at all an ever-expanding number of politicized no-go zones isn't really "politeness"– it was, and is, merely self-censorship. Those who advocate certain forms of speech as ways of showing inclusion for marginalized groups aren't so much the problem; that is very different from decreeing there be no choice. Politeness, by definition, is voluntary.
The fear of expressing the 'wrong' view, ironically, also does little to solve issues, for the interchange of opinions and information is chilled. Much public speaking now is vanilla and bland, and we complain that politicians are vanilla and bland. In Canada, it's a statistical reality that First Nations people experience problems with alcohol abuse and unemployment; but no one can talk about these issues productively without being called names; ditto with race in the U.S. It would now be difficult for me to teach the Merchant of Venice in the west, not because of the anti-Semitic issues, but because of the male protagonists in the play who embrace and express their love for each other. Some students will read them as homosexuals (I don't agree, but fair enough); some will belly-laugh like Beavis and Butthead that they're fags ha-ha; and those who disagree will say nothing because they fear being called homophobic. Rather than risking having a failed discussion about historical concepts of male friendship, it's safer to just not teach the play, especially if I'm an adjunct. This is how we will be remembered: for a philosophy that's like a too-tight Band-aid, one which can never heal wounds because sunlight or opposing winds are not allowed.
We can do better; we can stop taking it, and recognize that political correctness is a coerced mindset which lacks any moral or popular legitimacy. We can show that speech can be civil without it being policed. And if humanities departments have to wither for a decade because enough millennials with a brain finally refuse to enrol in them, perhaps it's a necessary loss if it helps kill this nonsense.
Girl Watching (Revisited)
Here's where some of the feminists will like me even less than previously, and probably such people will respond to my rant here by thinking, "Gee, thanks for your advice for us!" But I sometimes wonder if advocacy groups as a class really think much about how their message is actually received, or if it's only about the message itself. Today on Facebook there's the umpteenth promotion by some group, where women whose body types don't conform to media ideals of beauty are presented as models. Perhaps the whole point is that how men feel about these campaigns doesn't matter, because we're the problem. Or, more charitably, it may be that the ads aren't directed at us. Fair enough. But I'd kinda think that if changing social norms is the goal, these questions might be relevant:
1. Yes, how edgy and transgressively postmodern you are, how naughty and body-positive empowering it is, to parody men's ideals of beauty with ostensibly unattractive women... just like all the other media campaigns over the last three decades which parodied beauty norms and were equally cheeky and rebellious. Geez, do you know how many hits on Google "challenging beauty standards" gets with pictures of heavyset women jumping through the beach surf, as though no one's ever made fun of Baywatch previously? At some point, really, the '80s would like their trope back. Or don't gripe when the self-congratulatory beauty parodies... are parodied. The internet can be merciless.
2. Yes, I agree that popular media portray impossible standards for young women to attain. And that's awful. But you know what... most of us know that these beauty depictions are unrealistic. I am aware, thank you, that Victoria's Secret images are Photoshopped and airbrushed; that does not prevent anyone from enjoying them, anymore than they find images of Jessica Rabbit attractive. Perhaps there really are young men out there so stupid that they think these models actually exist as shown and other women should meet their levels; perhaps they also think that half-naked women will inevitably show up at their doors to deliver pizza or complain about the noise, and will then have sex with them, because they saw it in a video. But it's a little condescending to continually tell me that these beauty images are unattainable; I, uh, know that. Many women read romances with buff, shirtless pirates named Lance Heartskip (not this pirate!), who need to be tamed by the women they seduce. Most know very well that such men don't actually exist and are exaggerated fantasies. I hope.
3. This may be (more) controversial, but people have selective and discriminatory standards for what they see as attractive, and media images reflect these majority views. Why is this ipso facto bad? There seems to be a certain undercurrent that men ought to feel guilty for not liking overweight or otherwise conventionally unattractive women, or that seeing such women in advertisements is salubrious to their health, or something. Do people not have an intrinsic right to their physical attractions, and is it wrong that marketers and designers respond to these preferences, to the exclusion of others?
4. I'm just not sure what good such campaigns do in the long run. Our emotional and physical responses to certain body shapes and types don't change much over the centuries, and are unlikely to be legislated or conditioned into someone's agenda of diversity or fairness. If anything, I imagine many men see these promotions as women trying to take away something from men because they enjoy it. That's a pretty old cliché of feminism; but I'm not totally sure there isn't some truth to the charge, and making your target audience feel you're mocking them or that you're acting out of spite is never a very effective strategy. Again, maybe the whole point is to appeal to women's thinking in the ads, and that's fine.
I wish there were a better way. I just don't know what it is.
I was back in Canada for three weeks this summer, in Edmonton. Great weather and nice to see friends and family. A few miscellaneous ramblings, as Car & Driver used to put it:
THAAD All Over
I'm just writing about Korea less on Quora and social media. Perhaps I'm burning out temporarily, tired of being Koreasplained to by angry nationalists for not saying every type of kimchi is sufficiently wonderful, or for daring to say something nice about Japan. If I'm not allowed an opinion which isn't 100% Uncle Tom, then I'm just walking away and taking my marbles home.
North Korea is another matter. For the entire time I've been here I've read pundits predicting that the regime can't possibly last, but it always does. But I do think that North Korea is going through a dangerous phase right now where collapse or opening is more likely than at anytime since the '90s. Sanctions are proliferating and biting; South Korea has stopped trying to pay NK to be friends; its information cordon is failing. And now THAAD, a U.S. defense weapons system, has apparently been approved by South Korea for installation here.
China has responded by being... well, jerks, trying to bully Seoul over the decision. While they have some grounds (who wouldn't want an unfriendly country's missiles in their neighbor's yard?), this is the country that claims others are "interfering in our internal affairs" if someone belches the word "Taiwan" in a Reykjavik tavern, or if a Canadian journalist has the temerity to question a Chinese diplomat IN CANADA– and now they are code-threatening South Korea for taking steps to defend its existence from an enemy's missiles. With friends like these, it’s hardly surprising that SK has acted in its own interests. I expect that China will attempt to frustrate the implementation of THAAD by fomenting opposition inside SK, but will ultimately minimize its effects with a counter defense system for domestic security and prestige. Or, they may also read the defense system as part of the intensifying global and geopolitical costs of sheltering and enabling a genocidal terror regime. This could go any way, but unless China acts on spite and doubles down on supporting NK, or the South Koreans elect another Daehan Minguk leftist who tries to bribe NK into loving them, the Pyongyang mafia is on increasingly thin ice, cut off from funds and allies.
I've been busier than the free onion dispenser at a Korean Costco, because we've moved. We had a two-year lease in Songdo, the new planned suburb in southern Incheon, and now we've moved to an apartment on the east tip of Incheon. It's a nice area with lots of shops and parks, and it's closer to my work.
I have mixed feelings on Songdo upon leaving. On the plus side, Korea did get it right; the streets are wide, the architecture is really interesting, there are lots of parks, and there's a good international vibe. Nicely done. On the down side, it's isolated– for all the usual self-trumpeting about how eco-super-global-world-leading-techno-global-hybrid-green Songdo is, it has poor public transportation links. Because everyone's new there, it's a cold place with very little community. And– dare I say it?– it's overpriced. Our utility bills were higher there, real estate is inflated, and everything in restaurants and shops costs more in Songdo. Central Park is great, and I know many expats really like its Singapore / Manhattan international feel, but... well, it's awfully pricey for a damp ex-bird swamp.
Orlando & Brexit: Not a Cartoon Network Show
Yowch, it's been a rough week or two. 50 dead in Orlando from a mass shooting. England decides in a 52/48 referendum vote to leave the European Union. So what are my critical thoughts on this, which you've all been waiting for?
Politics are fractious anywhere, but I often wonder if western culture was always quite this balkanized, where not only do different constituencies not agree, they're not even having the same debate. Someone commented on Facebook that if there's another mass shooting like Orlando, Trump will win. I'm skeptical of that. The GOP tribe blamed the shootings on Islamic terrorism, and Democrats blamed it on homophobia (bizarrely blaming Christians, just to be sure), and there the narrative rested without much mutual analysis of other possibilities.
A similar phenomena seems to have happened on Brexit. I suppose I'm 75% against England leaving (not that it's my business anyway as a non-citizen); the EU has been a positive economic and political force which has strengthened the European economy and made war less possible. England will have an economic cost to leaving. On the other side, I admit to some sympathy for those people who haven't benefited from globalization, who resented having their immigration levels dictated by a distant bureaucracy in Brussels, and who saw EU integration as nothing more than a raft of intrusive and costly rules they have little say in. These people are treated with patronizing scorn by media and politicians, and are still presently dismissed as xenophobes and bigots without attempting to understand their grievances and legitimate problems. As the Telegraph's Tim Stanley says, "Top tip for winning future elections: don’t call the electorate 'thick' or 'losers.' It, er, turns them off." I'm also rather disturbed by the online gripe currently circulating where millennials complain that the votes of oldies in England should be suspect because they'll live with the results for fewer years. Do we really jettison democracy that quickly and adopt Logan's Run ideas when we don't get our way, to now say that some votes should count more than others? Remember, these were the idiots calling everything offensive and discriminatory, who now think that ageism is just fine.
Again, I think leaving will be a mistake, though the sky won't fall and the pound will bounce back. Scotland might leave, but some of these copycat calls for referenda are just froth (Texit? Seriously?). And if the EU takes the humbling as a sign it should pull back on overreach and go back to being a currency and trade union, rather than further directing how bananas should be shaped, its survival may be surer. I suppose we all argue based on what we fear; I've had people scold me on Facebook for enabling these violent, brownshirt wannabe 52% oiks who hate immigrants. But to me the danger of mob rule isn't much worse than that from governments or elites who treat citizens with contempt for not voting "properly." In Canada in 1992 the Charlottetown Accord failed in a referendum, and as a result we haven't had a referendum since, as presumably the little people can't be trusted to heed their masters. The same happened with Brexit, with many resenting the referendum itself for allowing mere voters a say in difficult matters with big words, along with attacks on the idea of having them at all. It's equally cancerous to make people feel that their betters don't care what they think, or that they'll be called names just for asking questions.
Addendum: My prediction as a sometimes linguist: within a decade the word racist is going to be emptied of meaning and increasingly useless as a term. You just can't hurl it at seventeen million Brits, or immediately at anyone who doesn't agree with you, without it eventually losing its power and inviting defiance against the word.
When Push Comes to Shove
On one hand, Justin Trudeau's recent rock-'em-sock-'em isn't exactly a controversy on the level of Watergate, or the burning of the Reichstag. Although he roughly banged into the NDP MP, her reaction did seem to be like a soccer dive, and has been mocked as such in the media. Today’s press and social media have jokes and memes of the entire NDP party arriving to parliament in full-body casts and slings. On other other, Canadians pride themselves (maybe too much, but so be it) on being a lawful and polite people, and look with scorn on countries where parliaments or elected assemblies descend into fist-fights. This is all the more so with the freaking prime minister, who is expected to act with dignity and mature gravitas anywhere, let alone in parliament. Trudeau acted like a tantrum-throwing child, shouting the f-word at other MPs and then running out to shove one into his seat and knocking the female NDP member, presumably because his soy latte was cold, as Ezra Levant jokes. In the gallery, apparently "Stephen Harper can be seen observing the altercation with a cocked eyebrow and a bemused expression on his face." I'd be looking with bemusement too, a classier expression than saying "So, miss me yet!"
That being said: Trudeau did apologize profusely, and I think most people accept his apology as sincere. We're Canadians; we know our apologies. It's time to let it go. Anything past this is starting to look like personal axe-grinding and petty point-scoring, whichever party is doing it. Besides, as I expand on below, it's all pretty chiclet-chewing stuff compared to what's happening in the U.S. right now.
Go Bern Yourself
Enough. I'm not feeling the Bern, and I'm tired of the sanctimony and bullying from his supporters. I liked some of Sanders' ideas and thought he was a good challenger to Clinton, and he seemed to be a man of some integrity. But the fans are bloody obnoxious, and increasingly have an end-justifies-the-means approach to victory whereby you support the party when you win a state, and when you don't you whine, riot, and attack officials with death threats, as in Nevada. If this guerrilla assault doesn't work, you come up with abstract, Marxist-lite platitudes about how his revolutionary rightness should simply override whatever people merely vote on. What was the name of that party you were running for? And please don't hand me this incessant claim that "our people didn't do it, they were imposters." You can still speak against the actions themselves, and the fact that no one is should be telling.
Worse, Bernie Sanders has done nothing to condemn the violence and threats, offering a phoned-in statement with a non-apology justifying it as merited by the spontaneous will of the people righteously protesting rules he suddenly sees as unfair. Even worse, he discredits and assails party leaders who dare to criticize him for his stance, vowing to get them fired when in office. How is this better than what Trump does?
I'm not sure anyone wants to know (I'm not an American anyway), but in this election I support Hillary, tepidly; not because she's terribly likeable or ethical, but because none of the contestants appear to be, and at least she brings experience and competence. When she lost to Obama in '08, she took it like a, well, man.
The Center Cannot Mold
Something I appreciate about Korea which is kind of intangible is the cultural belief that things will get better, as opposed to the gloom I see in the west and especially when I lived in Vegas: the assumption that things will get worse and our civilization will inevitably decline. Perhaps there's something about western culture (Roman Empire-ish) that we love this narrative of loss, even when it isn't true: in some respects people in the west have safer, easier lives than ever before, and the vastly increased knowledge of bad news via Internet and TV falsely amplifies our impressions. Yet in my career area, there are so many jeremiads about the death of the liberal arts and the professorship generally that they form a genre. One could easily put together books of collected essays titled Now That's What I Call Reasons to Not be a Professor, Vol. 4.
For the humanities, the fearmongering is warranted. I'm not sure there has been a time when there has been such a perfect storm of forces arrayed against humanities education. Politicians openly scoff at liberal arts programs and propose bills to defund un-"practical" majors. Corporate techno-hucksters are busy peddling MOOC substitutes for teaching. STEM disciplines with sexy eco-digital robot nano-biotic buzzwords get all the funding, and the humanities get the scraps, if that. Because of the strange bedfellows of current American politics, we have a Republican party which is contemptuous of higher education and a Democrat party which corrupts the humanities from within. The self-inflicted ideological cancer of the humanities partly answers the question, why does everyone hate us? I first fell in love with English literature because I was drawn to the beauty and history of the stories and words and theories, and not to be a social justice warrior for values not my own. When I see North American universities remove Shakespeare and Chaucer from the curriculum for reading lists enforcing warmed-over Marxist agendas of victimhood, and see debate and discussion shut down by the various stormtroopers of the perpetually offended, I don't see a healthy institution, or one likely to receive much sympathy or support from science, medicine, or engineering departments, let alone from the public.
I understand why some people feel that the humanities are crap, or the ever-popular "philosophy and sociology are nice, but aren't practical for getting a job" theme, which allows people to think of themselves as both enlightened and worldly at the same time. What I don't understand is, why are such people such poor winners? So you don't think students should major in the humanities: well, you've gotten your wish: they increasingly don't. The percentage of university students in the US and Canada who major in all the combined humanities was about 15% a generation ago, and it's about 10% now and falling. Maritime Canadian universities have seen a 45% average decline in humanities majors in the last decade. So you think humanities professors are all out-of-touch crackpots who abuse tenure? Congratulations. Tenure is dying. A generation ago, about 60% of professors were tenure or tenure-track; now it's about 25% and falling. Actual tenured professors in the USA account for about 17%. Within a generation, tenure will be a historical concept.
In the longer run of decades or centuries from now I think the western university system will adapt and revivify. Universities and humanities education are just too essential to western culture and growth to totally and permanently disappear, and I'm hopeful that some new post-industrial and post-scarcity economic system will emerge which will both enable more leisurely learning and require more abstract skills. But I'll be retired or gone then, and for those now in their university years, training to be a professor is a very risky career choice, with certain exceptions. All of them in STEM.
1. This is Why They Can't Have Nice Things
To repeat what I said in August about Donald Trump, the ordinary political and rhetorical tools won't work in taking down Trump. You can call him an ignorant, xenophobic, racist, sexist bigot; you can write all the preachy, P.C. open letters you like, which he won't (can't) read. There's a whole demographic of people in the states who are so tired of being called all these names just for being alive, and who have seen their standard of living decline since Reagan was in office, who will cheer for Trump all the louder. Trump could say almost anything to outraged elites and journalists, and this demographic would love him more; he's rich, and he can say what he wants and get away with it. I don't think Trump can win an election, and I certainly don't hold with the violent white trash who support him. But trying to shut down their rallies by protests and cheap tricks will not make anything better. There is an entire subculture of people in the states who do not trust the establishment, or its values or its media, so much so that many will vote for someone the wealthy, respectable, or progressive set is shocked by, out of spite. There are going to be rough spots as the west transitions from late capitalism into an information economy, and whoever does win in November will not have an easy time holding an increasingly divided and fractious country together. Remember, this is the country that allows concealed guns in classrooms.
I don't know why I defend Alberta. It's not like I owe the province something after I had to leave in 2003, not being able to build a life there (a mean part of me feels schadenfreude in seeing them wrecked by the NDP). I never gelled with the cowboy culture well. But out of loyalty, or just caring about the people I left, or just resentment myself, I still cannot believe that Canada threw away a cold but competent prime minister to elect Prime Minister Selfie, an ex-drama teacher who apparently does little beside preen for social media photos or attend forums announcing feel-good platitudes about Muslim terrorists/ the environment. If you're going to preach about objectifying women, don't crow over how hawt Justin is. Worse, it's the same god-damned Trudeau middle-finger to the west already. The Ontario car industry is in crisis in 2008? Piles o' money to help them. Bombardier in Montreal is about to go bankrupt again because of shoddy work and mismanagement? Bailouts are on the way. But Alberta, which doesn't have much savings after being raped for $10 billion a year for decades to pay for the rest of the country, gets nothing but mocking. Worse, Mr. Selfie does nothing to promote the pipelines which could help ship Alberta oil out east, kowtowing to enviro-nazis who cannot seem to understand that oil is still moved one way or the other, and is presently transported in fuel-burning trucks or imported on fuel-burning ships from Saudi Arabia. This is why I'm a secret western separatist. I guess not so secret.
Yes, I know that global warming is an extremely serious problem. We can support alternative energy (I'm all for it) and enable clean oil in the meantime. Why is it so hard to contemplate doing both?
3. Saudi Arabia
One of the most important events of the decade has gone by fairly unreported, as the mainline media has been consumed by ISIS and Trump, and social media has been obsessed by whining about how the mainline media doesn't sufficiently fawn over Bernie. Few people of my age or older could have anticipated that OPEC, the petrochemical cartel which brought world economies to their knees in the seventies, would now be more or less finished. Much of the blame should go to Saudi Arabia, which played and lost a dangerous gamble over the last year. Seeing that world oil prices were falling, SA decided to maintain production in order to drive its competitors out of business, before jacking up prices again. This isn't some crackpot theory: SA's oil minister, Ali Al-Naimi, explicitly stated this plan, telling oil executives in Houston about their intentions. Now SA is in trouble, as Russia and Venezuala continue to produce, and now Iran is ramping up production post-sanctions, and Saudi Arabia, having an economy based on 1) sand and 2) oil, as well as, by the way, fighting a war in Yemen, is rocketing toward financial insolvency.
When I worked in a foreign relations program in Keimyung in Daegu, some of my faculty colleagues were contemptuous of the concept of soft power, the idea that countries which have a moral or cultural influence of goodwill abroad can partially compensate for a lack of hard military or economic force. But Saudi Arabia, I predict, will be a good demonstration of soft power's viability; the country basically has no friends, as can be seen already by Obama's quick abandonment of the kingdom as he tries to rebuild a relationship with Iran. As with "what's-in-it-for-me" China, SA's lack of allies or international sympathy is going to be a liability if and when an economic emergency does arise.
I don't know why I'm so cranky lately. Maybe it's the Trump effect on people. I did spend a few weeks in Australia this January on research / holiday, and really liked it. The people are friendly and relaxed, and there's just more fun in the air. Melbourne is a wonderful, pretty little city with markets and shops and a gorgeous campus–like a southern San Francisco; Tasmania has wild, exotic plants and animals and Hobart has colorful wood and brick buildings; Sydney has a laid-back beach vibe. I'd easily live there. Basically, Australia is Canada with nice weather and without the stick up its bum. It's not a cheap destination, but it's one of the un-hassle-est destinations I've ever been to.
Ken's Letter of Divorce
Concordia University of Edmonton, Canada is my alma mater, where I attended high school (1982-85) and my bachelors program (1987-91). At the time it was known as Concordia College, and it was affiliated with Lutheran Church-Canada (LCC), had a vibrant Christian life on campus, and a community of faculty, alumni, and local congregations. As of November 2015, the university has removed all references to Christianity from its mission statement and online graphics (re Brave New World its cross is now a plus sign), and apparently self-identifies as a non-denominational public institution.
Consider this my final letter of divorce from the college.
As maudlin as it sounds in our cynical year of 2016 where many emotions are as narcissistic and ephemeral as the Facebook memes with horses and sunsets they are packaged in, Concordia has always had a place in my heart, and in many ways made me what I am. Although I first went there reluctantly as a boy, over the years I developed a deep affection for those halls, and the college was a sort of extended home and family. I sang in the choir, lived in the dorm, served on student councils, acted in student plays, was recording engineer for the choir and orchestra, and even worked there over summers. I am proud to say I founded the college's student newspaper in January 1988, the Blue and White, which still continues. I knew my teachers and professors, and this intimacy fostered intellectual and critical skills which have benefited me throughout my career as a professor. I had close friends there who partied and worshiped with me and who married each other, and whose parents or children attended there– a real-life Hogwarts. This is how a university can remain important to someone life-long, decades after attending it.
There were problems of course, ones I could see even at age 14. In the early 80's Concordia was becoming a dumping ground for delinquent teenagers; the gym burned down and there wasn't money to build another one; hard-core Christians and more laid-back ones didn't always agree (a big fuss over Sexual Healing on the cafeteria jukebox!). As I became an adult I saw deeper and more entrenched difficulties. The four most serious diseases Concordia has always faced since my time were 1) the habitual nepotism in hiring staff and faculty family (my classmates and I used to comment around '85 that the only member of the president's family not working at the college was the dog); 2) cheaping out on infrastructure (I know they had money problems, but Schwermann and Founders Hall were so poorly maintained that they looked like cracked-plaster cattle slaughterhouses at times– how I remember painting doors white in '89 because white paint cost less!); 3) the overweight in middle management (they built a new wing, the Tegler Center, and so far as I could tell, it was all offices, no classrooms; like the joke that GM was in the pension and not car business, Concordia seemed to be in the office staffing business in order to accommodate their latest Coordinating Liaison of Stapler Life); 4) the let's-try-everything-trendy lack of direction (if you're going to be a university, then have some damn dignity and stop offering certificates in locksmithing, bartending, and 8-track tape repair in order to appeal to everybody).
Signs of marital strife with my alma mater grew over the years. The bland Concordian newsletter thinned out, went online, and disappeared (I guess there's only so many gushing stories you can write about what Michael Slipchuck had for breakfast). In 2005, my high school class had a reunion, and the date was announced with no input from alumni (in June, a few weeks before I would have been in Canada anyway to get married), and by all reports the campus tour was so careless and phoned-in that my classmates were making sarcastic jokes about the rushed pace. In 2011 the high school, the goddamn genesis of Concordia, was thrown under the bus and exiled to south-side Edmonton, where a year later it would succumb to the clever business strategy of compensating for enrolment drops by hiking tuition. In 2013 I applied to a professorship in English literature at Concordia, and let me say that of hundreds of faculty applications I have sent over the years, Concordia was the ne plus ultra of unprofessionalism. I know it sounds elitist to say this, but there is a collegial etiquette applied to prospective faculty. It is not like dropping off a photocopied resume at Safeway; applying to a posting means piles of forms, personalized references, writing samples, and costly transcripts. Normally, European universities would extend a kindly-written letter of decline; American universities would send me a legalese-filled but polite e-mail rejection; Canadian unis would at least notify receipt of my CV. Concordia could not even be bothered to acknowledge getting my application package from Korea, the equivalent of a raised middle finger in academia. Screw you, Concordia.
And now it is no longer even a Christian university, having decided that it can better appeal to students and chase funding dollars by secularizing. I get it; easy for me to complain from the bleachers, big important business realities etc., and Canada is less a Christian nation. Maybe many people don't care about that. But for those who do, this isn't so much a sudden injury as a long metastasizing cancer. Concordia was becoming less religious by the late 80's, and in 1992 those students there because they couldn't get into the U of A protested the campus shutting down during daily chapel, and the college capitulated like a French division facing the wehrmacht. As time went on, chapel and Spiritual Emphasis Week shrank in prestige and participation, Christian identity in administrative and student council offices became compromised and contested, relations with local congregations and district offices became strained, the requirement of board members to be LCC-elected was deleted, and the beautiful little glass chapel at the front of the main hall which symbolized the college disappeared. The Concordian rather dishonestly still portrayed an idyllic Christian ethos no longer operant in order to glom donations. And in November, without any consultation with the kinship of alumni and organizations which have built, served, and supported it for a century, CC/CUC/(the)CUE or whatever the hell it called itself that week officially walked away from everything it meant for these people. Admin claims the changes "would not alter the deeper identity of Concordia," but this is just more PR fluff; what is this nebulous "deeper identity" if you disavow the synod which can't afford to subsidize you anymore after a century of help, behaving more like a Voldemort than a friend? This. is. how. Concordia. treats. people. Note the irony in the word concordia, suggesting hearts in union and harmony.
And that's the last straw. I'll always cherish the many friends I've made at Concordia and the role it played in my life. I'll still maintain the Grad '85 and choir pages on my site for those people. I still support the seminary and the district offices of the church, and will encourage what remaining faith-based activities continue at the university. I understand that not everyone who attends there is religious and that they have a place as well. But I will no longer support Concordia in any way or form as an alumnus, and if they're going to be a for-profit second-rate Grand MacEwan I won't give one bent farthing to their misty-eyed fundraising initiatives appealing to the university's noble "mission." They don't have one.
The annual Korean Teachers of English as a Second/Other Language conference was held at the COEX convention hall in Seoul this October. I will make none of my customary grouching about KOTESOL this time, because it was actually pretty well-organized, and some of the sessions were downright interesting. For once, there were decent coffee facilities. I'm not saying this just because of my star-studded presentation on teaching literature, which you can watch here, in case you're having trouble falling asleep.
2. The Canadian Election
I really can't say much about the upcoming Canadian election this Monday without vomiting a little at the thought that the son of the man who nearly destroyed the country from 1968-84 by antagonizing our allies, worsening regional rivalries, and spending our way into a near Argentinian-style credit collapse (1983) might be elected. It is not that I particularly like Prime Minister Harper, but I am worried about the alternatives far more. Chief among my irritation is the
Liberal Party media headquarters, oops, CBC pretending to be an objective public broadcaster. From the Calgary Sun: "The Canadian Media Guild (CMG), a union representing 6,000 workers in the Canadian media including the CBC, recently registered as a 'third party' with Elections Canada, so it can advocate and advertise for more funding for the CBC during the election." Because ONE BILLION DOLLARS yearly of taxpayer funds is insufficient for tweeting fawning videos of Justin Trudeau canoeing down the Bow River.
3. Tipping Over
Never been a fan of tipping. And as a recent article in the New Yorker notes, it's odd that Americans, with their obsession with equality, insist on it, whereas the French and many Europeans don't tip at all. It's something I appreciate about Asia that I don't have to combine accounting with my dinner here either. The NY article reports that a chain of local restaurants (Danny Meyer) will discontinue tipping and raise prices instead, and it predicts that the practice may be on the way out generally in the big apple. I'm all for it, and lest you think I'm cheap, I don't mind if prices rise a little so that people can live on restaraunt wages. Nor is tipping fair anyway. My personal experience of working in a pub is that tip size reflects boob size; I could break my back for customers, but the attractive girls still got everything. The bar tried pooling tips, but there goes the argument about tipping "ensuring prompt service" with individuals. I suppose there might still be the problem of how to prevent unmotivated, impolite customer service. Other non-tipping industries seem to have developed an effective mechanism for curbing this, though, a practice called "firing people."
4. No, It Isn't Amazing
Alright, it's petty, but I wish someone would write a browser plug-in to delete the word "amazing" from web pages. Perhaps it's this American love for superlatives to make every post oh-so-special, or the idea that we must even democratize every experience so that it can be amazing too. But great Caesar's ghost, your hamburger is not amazing. The cat video is not amazing. The Black Friday prices at Woolco are not amazing. If everything is amazing, then nothing is. Using this word is lazy language, trying to stick in a dramatic intensifier rather than communicating that something is wonderful or surprising through your description.
How's That "It Doesn't Affect You" Working Out?
Outraged, outraged, oh, so outraged we are on the internet today, because unlike British scientist Tim Hunt, whose university could be cowed into throwing him under the bus for making sexist codger jokes, Kentucky Rowan county clerk Kim Davis was elected and can't be fired for refusing to register gay marriages, only impeached. What's a disappointed social media lynch mob to do except to slut-shame her over her failed marriages and make fun of her appearance... after previously sermonizing to us that we're not allowed to slut-shame women or make fun of their appearance? Look, I want to support fellow Christians on this, and I'm well aware of the growing public hostility felt towards us. I sympathize with Ms. Davis for having deeply felt conservative religious beliefs, and find the hateful comments attacking her values disconcerting and hypocritical. Everyone will go to the bastille to fight to the death for your right to say it– until you're not saying the currently right things.
Please spare me the pompous remarks about how we must do our duty and lie back and think of England when we take an elected position, because we all have to negotiate and make moral judgments in the workplace sometimes; and American progressive liberals certainly have no compunctions about breaking the law for a higher social cause when it's the correct one. As well, she didn't take the job "knowing what she would have to do," like Forgive me for thinking that ruining her career over this doesn't seem quite fair. Third, spare me the anachronistic argument, "what if she refused to marry white and black people?" If she refused to register a mixed marriage in 1968, I'd disagree, but try to salvage a way to get it done without throwing away someone's 27 years of service.
But, I can support her beliefs while also believing she has handled this like a homophobic idiot. Perhaps I've been in Korea too long. Justice here is more a desire to restore social order through a practical solution, and less standing on principles and demanding zero-sum victories.
Rather than doing this any of this, Davis made it all about herself, forbidding any of her six deputy clerks to process gay marriages despite official requests (so much for that acting on conscience), ignoring multiple orders from courts and superiors, and marching proudly into jail as a martyr in order to stoke up conflict. Rather than looking like a hero, to many people she has made Christians look like bullying jerks who are above the law. Saint Paul she is not, and I just can't get behind what she's done.
After living here a while, I haven't "gone native," but I do have some more sympathy for Koreans at times. Yet I often ask myself a recurring question when faced with some bureaucratic or administrative lunacy here: is this ridiculousless evidence of incompetence, or of diabolical hidden cleverness? (I asked myself this a lot in my last job.) The question seems a perfect fit to international tourism promotions in Korea. Are they horrible because the government ministries which promulgate them just don't get it, or is there a deeper, subtle agenda at play?
Generally, Korean promotions for international tourism have four typical qualities: 1) they may or may not be even in English; 2) they have some cutesy cartoon logo or a trite, meaningless slogan vetted by a marketing tribunal (Hi Seoul / Sparking Korea); 3) sweeping pans of skyscrapers and ludicrously overblown buzzword-stuffed hyperbole (The New Miryang Award-Winning Geo-Global I.T. Next Generation Digital Hyper-Posi-Glocal Innovation Strategy Bio-Information Advanced Green Techno-Garbacenter is taking its place as a leading world powerhouse among the garbage dumps of Paris and New York!); and 4) sanitized, approved eat-your-peas scenarios of what foreigners should experience (mixed rice, hangul calligraphy, and hanboks in front of placid temples), with no regard to what they might want. As the Financial Times noted, official promotions depict "Korean culture as a serene bubble from the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910). Wild days out are to be had at ginseng festivals and celadon exhibitions." As much as I don't like Psy, his "Gangnam Style" video shows a quirky, messy, urban (i.e. fun!) Seoul that a 70-year old tourism mandarin would completely fail to understand or appreciate. The resulting image association is: Thailand: beaches, partying, and sex. Korea: Korean traditions. If you were 25 and choosing a vacation destinition, which would it be? I know there are bitter expats here who would say there is nothing fun to do in Korea, but it's not true. The country has interesting markets, cool foods, beaches, shopping, and nightlife. Why are such things never in the advertisements?
Robert Kelly argues that along with the "hot" conflict, South and North Korea also engage in a "soft" contest of legitimacy: a struggle over who the "real" Korea is. Thus South Korea stokes up conflict with Japan, for example, partly to solidify national identity as Koreans. Might this also be true of the country's tourism efforts? They might just be very bad; but what if their goal isn't really attracting foreign tourists at all, but instead depicting to Koreans an idealized Korea so wonderful that it attracts foreigners as well? In short, the aim of the advertisements is to impress and unify Koreans. Any tourists who do come are gravy.
In all of these tourism and branding efforts, so far as I know not one won has been spent on doing things which would actually make tourism here more inviting for foreigners: English-friendly signs and directions; a vibrant international cuisine; and affordable accommodation which can be easily booked online from abroad.
Be skeptical of claims by journalists or commenters that Trump is lowering the, harumph, tone and dignity of the American election with unseemly behavior, or that Trump in turn dislikes reporters. They lurrve each other. Each shot fired at Trump just feeds the beast; for him, any coverage is free publicity! In turn, whatever Trump spouts, and the more outrageous the better, the more papers sold and clicks made. A marriage made in... well, made. Really, I'm not that worried about him being president, as demonizing women, P.O.W.s, Latinos, Asians, and who else next (blacks? redheads? cosplay fans? people who wear glasses?) doesn't seem a solid electoral strategy. I'm more concerned with the effect his xenophobic statements make internationally, as well as the prospect of the GOP continuing to be a joke. This is actually not good long-term for the Democratic Party, and certainly not for American democracy.
But I do understand why he has attained such a following. Human beings, whatever we might like to think, are not ruled by reason. There's a healthy amount of juvenile spite involved in Trump's popularity. If you're white trash in a trailer park; a southern fundamentalist; a city blue-collar laborer: no one cares what you think. For Republicans, you're no use: you're poor; for Democrats, you're no use: you're not one of the trendy oppressed. If you do ever speak your opinion publicly or online, people will demand that you be fired or silenced–the people who seem to have comfortable jobs and degrees, who talk down to you with their white guilt as they condemn your beliefs and ancestors. Then along comes someone who says whatever he wants and does whatever he wants, and throws shit at anyone he wants. The message isn't important; he can do it and he can't be fired or silenced. It shouldn't be suprising that such people would love him for it.
Again, once Trump realizes that running for office involves some non-fun responsibilities, he'll lose interest. I am thankful that it is not 1930s Germany, and that Trump does not have a small mustache.
Joy to the World, the School Burned Down
Lots of stories this week about impending teacher shortages in Kansas, Indiana, and California and countrywide in the United States (soon coming to a Canadian province near you!). Lots of gleeful crowing and I-told-you-so from educators and promoters of public education, that after years of bad pay, the killing of job security protections, and a general hostility to teachers from politicians such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker, it's not suprising that intakes in teacher education programs have fallen, new teachers are leaving, and veteran teachers are retiring en masse.
Only a few journalists and advocates seem to have realized that this isn't an occasion for schadenfreude: that for GOP-controlled states, this is a good thing. They wanted teacher shortages, so that they can justify "temporary" measures appointing substitutes and people without licenses or teaching degrees in classrooms. These people will of course be hired on the cheap and with fewer job benefits, and if Gresham's Law works here, bad teachers will drive out good: why would students continue to take education degrees if they can work for the same salaries without doing so? I see expat Korean teachers on Facebook now saying, "Now we can go home because we're needed!" The smarter ones are staying put for now. Needed, not wanted, and certainly not valued.
The Second Contagion of Trudeaumania
I try to stay out of electoral politics because I'm not in Canada anymore, and because I don't want to antagonize friends. And let me make a quick concession that I'm no huge Stephen Harper fan. But for Pete's sake, Canadians, I cannot believe that Pierre Trudeau's son may be elected this October without people asking more questions about how he might differ from his autocratic, socialist father who nearly destroyed the country. (Now, don't beat around the bush, Ken, tell us what you really think.) Here is the essay.
Interestingly, or not, in my ten-odd years in Korea the online arguments between expats have changed very little in terms of subject. Some of the topics have grown up a little, so that there are fewer lengthy exchanges on "do Asian girls from country x or y have bigger boobs" and more on "pension contribution schemes." Yet "what do foreign teachers do" still fights pretty much the same wars as when I arrived in 2003. Basically, there are the let's-face-it realists, who caustically intone that degrees are a useless scam which only serve to inflate the egos of those with them, and that foreign teachers are not much more than prostitutes who perform a facade of babysitting sullen, listless students for ungrateful Koreans. At the other end are the teaching-as-journey fetishists, who believe they are the world's most important professionals, here to enable and empower students through their self-actualizing self-reflection gleaned at KOTESOL (fiat lux!). Another breakdown of this is here. Another dimension of this binary is the perennial (though lower-temperature) foreign professor versus foreign teacher hostility. Profs will snip at those backpacking hogwan flunkies with their psych B.A.s; the teachers see the profs as arrogant, and at worst deluded pretenders who call themselves "professor" because the university gives them a computer for their shared cubicle. Both extremes are about 25% true.
Everyone hates the middleman, but once again I sit somewhat in the center (maybe a little more with the latter group). As I get older I have less patience for seeing teaching as some sort of holy sacred rite, or with the idea that one's career must be pursued with passion. That feels narcissistic to me; how about just liking your job and showing up every day, and then going home? But I have even less patience for the cynics who cast their jaded emo scorn on degrees they don't have, and a practice they're not good at. I don't think we're here to save the Koreans, but I do think we can do good and there are professional ethics we should hold ourselves accountable to.
Insofar as professors and teachers, well, cut us former group some sympathy. Whenever someone mistakes me for a teacher, I'm not sure whether I should be the big jerk and say, no, I'm a professor. If you think there are misgivings in North America about teachers, it pales next to the well, la-ti-ta! profs get for supposedly being insufferable. People are instantly annoyed when I begin to say, I'm not a teacher. So what's the difference? A teacher's main focus is the students. A professor's main focus is the subject. Yes, let me immediately concede: 75% of what we do is exactly the same! But as a professor, I research and publish, and discuss and exchange issues at conferences about my subject (and not its pedagogy). Much of my work is not immediately related to classroom teaching. Teachers, correspondingly, have other responsibilites professors don't have. If people feel that these activities of profs are horse-twaddle, so be it; I've never said one profession is better than the other, only that they're overlapping but different.
If I may get sociologicalish, how people view coffee and tea indicates a great deal about their culture. When I was growing up in Edmonton in the late 70s and 80s, these were considered rather oldster drinks: coffee was blue-collar, slopped at truck stops or donut shops with cigarettes, and tea was sipped by your aunt off Royal Doulton (pinkie finger out!). Neither drink was considered an adult's forbidden fruit in the way alcohol was. When I lived in Newfoundland, the Anglo-Irish culture flipped things around: tea was the working man's drink, and coffee was an elitist, hoity-toity concoction. Coming back to Edmonton, the 90s-00s Starbuck's café culture had taken hold, where coffee was now more gentrified. It cost more and you had to endure annoying yuppies / proto-hipsters droning on about roasts, brewing styles, and low-fat soy lattes, but it did taste better than the old coffee-urn stuff.
When I first came to Korea in 2003 there weren't many coffee shops. The hot drink of choice was green tea or instant coffee from little packets (which was terrible), and other than the odd western-style donut shop, coffee shops (tabangs) were very dicey and smokey places where "coffee girls" were known to offer other services in addition to brewed ones. Fast forward to 2015, where it's not much different from the Simpsons episode where every shop in a mall is a Starbucks. I went to a movie complex in Daegu once where there were six coffee shops in a row in the theater atrium. There can easily be a dozen cafés next to a university's gates, especially a woman's one, and inside my campus at Hanyang alone there are four cafés–which are all full after lunch. By current estimates the average Korean has twelve cups a week.
What's curious to me is how overpriced coffee is here, ranging from about $1.50 a cup to well over $6. That's a garden-variety Americano, with specialty cappucino/latte/affogado/whatever-ino drinks going into the $4-$8 range. As expensive as Canada is, when I was home coffee was typically $2-$3. In supposedly costly Europe, I paid about $1-3 for café espressos in St. Germaine in central Paris, and this was fantastic coffee compared to the tub-of-coffeewater available in the states. Korean coffee is good, but why is it so pricey? I suppose because here it is still seen as a luxury good which ought to be costly, just as diamonds are expected to be expensive because, well, because they're diamonds. It can make expats frustrated, but cafés are not open in the early morning here for a wake-up cup. Coffee in Korea is supposedly meant to be savored in the afternoon or evening with your scarf draped over your chair as you listen to non-threatening jazz played by white people, and look thoughtfully at tinted art pictures of cats, and perhaps because it is meant to be a frou-frou Bohemian experience it is expected to cost accordingly. (As my friend Rob reminds me, the café may also be filled with students grimly absorbed in their phones and housewives gossiping at 90 dB while their children run screaming, and the music sometimes is bad K-pop; but it's the fantasy that's sold, not reality.) It is not really a place for alpha male types, who tend to have their own machines at home, or who stay with the little instant packets (still terrible).
Yes, all Korean coffee shops have patio views which look like this.
I hope the price mentality will change. I stay away from Starbucks, and Angel-in-Us, and the ridiculous Cafe Bene, because they are a rip-off. I go to the hole-in-the-wall independents (Massa/Hands/Myunga), or in a pinch the ice cream or donut places that also have coffee, where it will still be $2-$3. I guess this makes me a cheap curmudgeon. But I think I have better taste in jazz anyway. One can only hear soft versions of "The girl from Ipanema" so many times.
Summer. I think I've realized why I always feel guilty for not being outside and doing fun, sporty, beachy things which cool people do in beer commercials. Perhaps it is part of my DNA growing up in Canada that when the sun shines you'd damn well better get out there and enjoy it, for rest assured the snow tolls for thee, and maybe it'll be here tomorrow. My brain is at the same time telling me, it's 31 degrees and humid in Incheon, and it's not going to be fun, and anywhere you go will involve a long, sweaty subway trip to discover that fact.
Beauty Parodies. A few weeks ago there was a parody commercial of the clichéd cheesy Victoria's Secret ads of bikini girls frolicking in the waves. Because nowadays you cannot look at a sunset without someone trying to politicize your choice, the campaign has the necessary PC sermonizing about empowering women with "normal" bodies to be confident, and questioning idealized body types. Fine. But to me the campaign is a) boring: Hey, the 80s called and wants their trope back! Add this to the other 164 advocacy efforts with the same edgy, ironic, postmodern message!; b) condescending and killjoyish: You know what? I'm fully aware that most of the Victoria's Secret girls are photoshopped impossibilities in fantasy scenarios. I don't expect everyday women to live up to this standard, just as I expect most women know that ads and movies/books with shirtless buff cowboys and hunky motorcycle rebels are fantasies. Hard to avoid agreeing with the frat boy's conclusion that the basic motivation behind the ad is that men are enjoying something and it must be stopped.
Canada Trip. I spent most of July in Canada. I really, really like Vancouver, and could easily live there. I know that global change is overall very bad, but it's treated Vancouver well: nice, sunny summer days, parks, and lakes. It's expensive, but so is all of Canada. Going out to eat in Edmonton is now getting to be a pricey outing, at $20-30 a meal; taxes and housing bite very hard. The assumption that everything is so expensive in Japan / Europe! doesn't really hold when the daily cost of living in B.C. / Alberta is realized. Things may get worse with Alberta's new NDP government. Usually New Democrat parties in Canada are synonymous with economies in freefall as the worker's socialist paradise drives up taxes and drives out business, but this is Alberta, a province which voted Conservative every time since 1971, and I'm willing to give these people a chance; it's been difficult for Conservative fans to drum up sympathy for oil companies complaining about threats of higher corporate levies. And true to form, we're Canadians: the Albertans Against the NDP Facebook page is so polite it may as well be called "Sorry, may we tastefully critique our elected government, please?".
Guns, Guns, Guns
A few days ago, a 21-year-old youth shot nine people, including the pastor, in an African-American church in Charleston, SC. There is the predictable media frenzy, except that today there's also shootings in West Philadelphia and Detroit. One statistic states there were 8,342 of this sort of shooting murders in the USA just in 2012. I think I may be wasting space by stating that gun murders take far more life than terrorism does in the USA, and yet public and government policy since 9/11 has focused nearly exclusively on the latter issue. Many people know this.
But what I've noticed is that there are roughly four or five different types of responses to gun massacres, based on the recent shootings in Charleston. On the far right, some Fox anchors and GOP candidate Rick Santorum called the crime "an assault on our religious liberty," arguing it came from anti-Christian hostility. HuffPost and other liberal online media ran to their fainting couches with outrage over the right using this tragedy to promote an agenda... and then used the tragedy to promote an agenda by sermonizing on white privilege. The most sickening response is the NRA's claim that the Charleston pastor was at fault for not allowing his congregation to be armed. President Obama, true to form, made an eloquent speech which will lead to no action whatsoever.
I liked comedian Jon Stewart's comment: "I heard someone on the news say "Tragedy has visited this church.' This wasn’t a tornado. This was a racist." He at least noted that this didn't just happen, but had an actual cause. This is what I find saddest about these shootings, that none of these responses recognize something rather obvious: maybe part of the problem is everyone having guns? Call me crazy, but in countries where guns aren't commonly available, there tend to be few gun deaths. The UK averages about 15-60 deaths a year (I imagine some deaths are by U.S. tourists; I know English food made me feel unhinged at times). Yes, I know it's difficult to change the USA when guns are such a strong part of the culture, and there's the little problem of upwards of 270 million guns in private possession. I just wish there could be more honesty that it's not only social issues that are the problem, but that there are lethal weapons so easily available, and people seem to feel this is not only perfectly normal but a natural right—imagine a technologically counterfactual U.S. where its constitution guaranteed the right to personal atomic weapons. And remember, this is the country that sees the importation of Kinder chocolate eggs as perilous.
With Friends Like These
It feels like I write about both Obama and Christianity too much, and so I'll stop after this for a while. I promise, 50% more bikini girls. I also realize it's easy to join the bandwagon and cheer Obama in 2008 and jeer him in 2015. I do broadly support him as president and argue that his initiatives on health care, student loans, Cuba, and Iran have been good ones. But maybe this allows me the luxury of some critique.
I don't think Obama is a Muslim, and always thought this charge was a cheap shot, a cowardly way to delegitimize him without explaining why exactly it's wrong to be Muslim. At the same time, his consistent faint praise of Christianity, always mixed with a little PC slap at it, is galling. At an Easter 2015 prayer breakfast the most Obama could say is that "sometimes when I listen to less-than-loving expressions by Christians, I get concerned." No mention of the 148 people who died days earlier in Kenya for this faith. This follows his comment from February at another prayer breakfast that "lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ." (A reminder that the Crusades were a defensive war, dammit.) Compare British PM David Cameron's graceful Easter greeting. Who keeps inviting this guy to these functions?
There are people who believe the president should be staying out of religious matters altogether, and at the other pole there are apoplectic Fox fans calling this an "attack" on Christianity. I don't side with the former or the latter, but I think I'd rather Obama avoided religious topics than to be constantly belittling Christianity out of some idea of fairness. There is this principle running through Obama's presidency that criticizing America etc. shows that you love it and want to make it better. While I think that's often true, there's a limit. [Bob is my best friend, even though, as I've been saying all evening, Bob is a filthy, stupid, crazy loudmouthed racist cheapskate who should be driven away with punches and kicks. But I love him like a brother.] At some point, if you never have anything good to say about something, you don't love it, Barack, and if you can't freaking say something positive about the Christian faith on bloody Easter, stop attending prayer breakfasts and stop pretending you're something you're not.
Once in the deep winter of 1995 in my hometown of Edmonton, Canada, I was visiting a friend and his neighbor was happily shoveling snow off her walk and singing. I joked that she was crazy to be so cheerful. She replied that I was crazy to live in a place where I hate the weather. That's not the sole reason I left, but weather was a factor. Edmonton has gentle, warm summers, but it's horrible from late October to late April. Why would sane people live in a place where they despise the climate one-half of the year?
It's not always blizzarding, though. An Alberta winter is a random string of weeklong cold snaps (0 to -20 Celsius), occasional warm snaps (10 to 0), and really cold snaps (-20 to -40). The coldest I remember was about two weeks in January 1996 of -45 Celsius. This is why Albertans don't have much of a homeless problem. Not because we're so caring and sharing, but because if you try to live outside, you're dead. Alberta winters are sunny, which is a mercy, but don't try to tell me about how it's a dry cold. It's minus bleeding 40; stick your face in a pail of dry ice and tell me it's not so bad. People would even add "wind chill" to this to make it sound more impressive, and claim "but with wind chill it's minus 68." I always thought wind chill was a slightly made-up concept and didn't really respect it—isn't minus 40 enough?
The weird thing that I have trouble explaining to people is that Edmontonians of course liked the warm days, but disliked the cold snaps worse than the really cold days, particularly when they dragged on into March. For me growing up in the seventies and eighties, when a winter vacation to the beach was as likely as one to Mars (it just wasn't so common or cheap then), -20 was merely dismally cold and gloomy, time to read an Archie comic and dream about surfing (no wonder Edmontonians are the highest per capita consumers of Archie). But when it's -40, your life has purpose, and it becomes a game of survival. Can you actually start your car? Can you make it to work or school? If you can, and if you get proficient at driving in snow, you've beaten the elements and you're a man, unlike pansy Americans who skid off the road if they hit a snowflake. In some ways it's like a weird carnival, where social rules are relaxed. People understand if you're late. You can chat with strangers about how bizarre it is to see gas-cylinder doors slam, and your spit freeze in midair, and an icy steam rising off the ground, and the way sound itself seems to move more slowly.
You should put an Edmonton blizzard on your bucket list, and see it once. But a day or two is enough, and I'll respect you if you flee after then for Punta Cana.
Christians ne ont pas besoin d'être Charlie Hebdo
(Christians owe no obligation to 'be' Charlie Hebdo, and will get no thanks from terrorists or the blogosphere either way)
Don't condemn or criticize first nations people. Or those of different sexual orientations. Or the obese. Or the twenty-six other ethnic, gender, or lifestyle identifications which we say need protection. Just don't be racist, sexist, ableist, cisist, or anything else-ist. If you do, we're offended. You should be shamed, and fired, and arrested, and your media or educational outlet boycotted, derecognized, and shut down to reflect our outrage. You don't have the right to offend. Unless the target is religious people, which is fine. If you mock their beliefs and revile their followers with racist or hateful cartoons, we will stand up and march to protect your absolute freedom of expression. We are Charlie Hebdo.
No matter that French Catholics respected the freedom of the magazine to insult them and showed solidarity after the shootings, which they rejected. We must stand up for freedom by incriminating all religious people. That will teach them the meaning of tolerance. Oh, and the Pope? Wonderful fellow, who says nice things about loving everyone and sharing and saving the dogs and the trees. What? He didn't say we are perfect just the way we are? He suggested that the right to safely say and print what you like does not mean that it is always moral or civil to do so? Well, &*$@ the Pope! We stand for absolute freedom of speech (barring those 29 categories above)! How dare Francis, uh, publicly express an opinion in speech that we don't like.
And shame on Richard Dawkins and his "Foundation for Reason and Science" for endorsing just such an ignorant, profanity-laden personal attack.
C.S. Lewis (I know I refer to him a lot) once wrote that the proper way to regard sex is not to condemn it as filthy nor to worship it as sacred, but to see it as humorous. Maybe teaching should be like this too. I've never liked the self-hating cynics on Dave's ESL Cafe who dismiss ESL teaching in Korea as clown-nose babysitting, but neither am I comfortable with the wider trend in the west of spiritualizing teaching into some form of transcendental soul-fulfilling experience, if not a new-age religion of sorts. If you're not a teacher you may not know what I'm writing about. If you are, you probably know at least a few people who lard their speech, desks, and Facebook posts with pictures of people meditating and slogans about "reflective" teaching and the "journey" of teaching. This isn't just a private wont, as teaching instruction has also taken a very emotional direction since the post-hippie 70's, with Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers advocating brain-storming, freewriting, and other activities in a very personal and almost confessional style. We are all now supposed to imbibe uncritically the clichés about being a "guide on the side" rather than a "sage on the stage," the idea that good teachers put away their pretenses to superiority and act as fellow learners and "facilitators" alongside their students.
I have mixed feelings on this. I have friends who are into this mindset, and I'm glad they are proud of their profession or try to improve their teaching. I suppose what troubles me is that this approach is a response to the supposed "old school" teachers who were cold, dictatorial, and hit you with their splintered rulers. But these Miss Grundies retired in the fifties. There really aren't many teaching models in my experience anymore who aren't supportive and empowering, etc., and I think this touchy-feeliness can scare away prospective male teachers (it was a factor when I quit my BEd program in Edmonton in '95; I hated that correct answers were based on 'feelings'). Worse, the idea that acting as a co-learning facilitator rather than a directive authority is student-centered, well, isn't. In a way the focus on personal self-abnegation in the classroom is narcissistic, as it ironically fetishizes one's abandonment of authority rather than answering what students might actually want. My students tend to like a benevolent leader, but they do want a leader who can confidently instruct some facts from time to time.
I feel the same way about some of the trendy memes floating around in Korean ESL in the last ten years. One of the more recent ones protests that teaching British/American English in Korea is cultural imperialism, and that minority forms of English are equally legitimate and should be taught—such as Singapore English or Indonesia English. Again, it feels to me that this value is just as ethnocentric, as it applies a western concept of "fairness" to teaching, one which students again may have no interest in; Koreans who go to Singapore and speak "Singlish" are going to get strange looks, and the dialect will be useless elsewhere. Overall, I don't think it's wrong to think about what teachers and professors ethically do here—people such as Pablo Friere have interesting things to say. But I have limited patience for those who want to bring an agenda of social justice into their teaching. As Stanley Fish would say, save the world on your own time.
The Interview (2014): Not Really So Bad, Actually
Well, if you're expecting high art, or you're the sort of person who is offended by water because fish have sex in it, you won't like The Interview. It's full of poop and boob jokes and I don't remember seeing a movie with so much swearing in it since Scarface. If you can take it as Dumb and Dumber in North Korea you may enjoy it. The plot centers on a dim-witted trash-talk show host and his producer who travel to Pyongyang to interview Kim Jong-Un when they discover that he's a fan. The two become tangled in a CIA assassination plot with a sympathetic female insider. There's some stock asian stereotypes, but despite the PC tut-tutting in some media I found the movie less racist than I expected; most characters really are human beings (it's the Americans who generally are jackasses). When the host offensively greets the North Koreans with "konnichiwa!" ("hello" in Japanese) is it a writing mistake, or a learned joke? A drunken party scene with Kim's curvy harem also doesn't hurt. I'm only human.
Is it ethical to laugh at North Korea considering the horrible daily reality of the regime? Not at the atrocities themselves, no. But if mocking Kim Jong-Un in the way that Chaplin barbed Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) helps people to be less intimidated by Dear Leader, that's a positive step. One way the regime will be brought down is by information reaching its citizens, but also by the foreign community (and especially South Korea) treating it with derision instead of deference. I'm glad to see a little of that happening here, where the local journalism is starting to grow a pair and call the state a "crackpot country" ruled by "spoiled brats" instead of pandering to our misunderstood ethnic brothers. China has done little to defend North Korea in this except a few perfunctory mutters in the Global Times that mocking Kim is "senseless cultural arrogance." One Free Korea (good blog) has perhaps imbibed some of The Interview's constant profanities in telling the Global Times to "f—k themselves," for China would be the first to complain about other nations meddling in its internal affairs.
Ken's grade: Don't expect Apocalypse Now. But still better than the second Star Wars!
Happy New Year!
I call this a blogette because of its size, although it seems to be growing. Here you can read about my vitally important news and opinions on everything. I am a Canadian. I am an English professor at Hanyang University in Korea. I am a Christian. I am a Lessetarian. My band is Kill the Wabbit. My website is here; sometimes it has mistakes.
Things I've Written
|Great Scott! The Future|
|But That Nice Paul Pot is Nothing Like His Dad|
|Burn, Witch, Burn|
|That's What They Want|
|We Can Work It Out|
|Psy's 'Gentleman' Disaster|
|Am I That Useless?|
|North Korea's Kooky Showmen|
|Satire is Alive and Well (Maybe Too Well)|
|Address to the Class of '69|
|Gypsies, Thieves, and Filesharers|
|The End of Countries|
|What is a Gen X'er?|
|No More Friends|