Friday, February 22, 2008

Texans, please, just draw the curtains!

In the tort reform debate, we hear a lot of rhetoric about unmeritorious and unnecessary litigation clogging up the courts. I wish we could discuss the real problem, in my opinion: governments who feel the need to hash out the same issue repeatedly.

Back in 2003, in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Texas law against consensual gay sex as being unconstitutional. Texans, never a group to back down from a fight, then passed a law banning the sale sex toys (even for the heterosexually married). This law was also appealed. In the case of Reliable Consultants Inc. v. Earle, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals relied on the Lawrence decision in their ruling:

"Just as in Lawrence, the state here wants to use its law to enforce a public moral code by restricting private intimate conduct," the 5th Circuit majority wrote. "This case is not about public sex. It is not about controlling commerce in sex. It is about controlling what people do in the privacy of their own homes because the state is morally opposed to a certain type of consensual private intimate conduct."

My point here is that the State of Texas in both cases felt the need to appeal these decisions to the higher courts. Legislators pass these laws because they are popular, even though they must know the laws are constitutionally unsound. If the legislators who sponsor these bills were personally liable for the court costs and expenses associated with the appeals, I believe they would consider more than their re-election when creating legislation. Just as we punish attorneys who pursue frivolous lawsuits or claims, perhaps we should consider a corresponding penalty for legislators passing frivolous laws. Now, that is a litigation-reform law I could get behind.

More civilized, but still not advised.

I have already expressed my horror when Marlo introduced me to the television show, “Cheaters.” On that show, private detectives follow around suspected cheaters with hidden cameras and catch them in the act. Then, the injured spouse has the opportunity to confront the confirmed cheater – all while the cameras roll.

Now, Reuters reports a new trend in Britain for catching suspected cheaters called, “Honey Trapping.” “For those who doubt a spouse's adherence to his or her marriage vows, an attractive private detective can be hired to test the loved one's loyalty by flirting with the suspect in public settings.” (ABA Journal) The private detective also secretly records and videotapes the encounter for the injured spouse to view.

On the one hand, I find the “Honey Trapping” practice to be more civilized than “Cheaters,” only because it is not broadcast on television for the world to see. However, I still maintain the same advice as before. You do not need confirmation that your spouse is cheating to end your relationship. If you are to the point that you are hiring a private detective, your relationship has clearly already broken down independent of any alleged cheating. Perhaps spend the money on counseling instead.

If you refrain from either of these practices, at least you can walk away from the relationship with some semblance of dignity and being proud of how you handled it. If you engage in these underhanded tactics, you are not any better than your [potentially] cheating spouse. In a relationship, lying is a binary state. Either you are lying or you are not. So don’t.

Reduced, but still impactful.

Last October, I wrote about my love for the ability of tort law to stop some groups from engaging in hateful activities. This is an update to that story.

In that case, a jury awarded an $11 million verdict to the father of a soldier killed from the Westboro Baptist Church, a pseudo-church hate group. The group protests the funerals of soldiers because they believe that god is punishing American for its tolerance of homosexuals.

Post-verdict, a judge recently cut the jury award from a total of $11 million to $5 million. Although the award is smaller, it should still be enough to hinder Westboro's ability to inflict such pain in the future.

It is a profession, people!

It is a profession, people!
The legal profession consists of some of the best and brightest men and women of our society. Each year, approximately 90,000 people nationwide apply to law school. About 45,000 of those applicants enter law school.[1] Even fewer graduate and pass the bar examination. There is no doubt that attorneys belong to an elite group of individuals. However, there is a requirement for being a lawyer that is not evaluated on the LSAT, not taught in law school, and not tested on the bar exam. Despite their obvious intelligence, many lawyers fail because they lack the ethical and moral compass, and the sense of honor and self-discipline, required by someone engaged in the practice of law. Members of the public used to view attorneys with honor. Now, through some lawyers’ own conduct, some vulgar advertising, as well as portrayals of attorneys in popular culture, a significant portion of the public holds attorneys in contempt.

I have been putting a lot of thought into the type of attorney that I want to be. By this, I do not mean the area of law that I am going to practice (i.e., family law attorney, personal injury attorney, real estate attorney, etc.). I mean actually how I intend to operate with my peers, judges, clients, and my staff. Unfortunately, attorneys go to school for three years, primarily learning how to argue different sides of every issue. Law school frames almost everything in the context of creating a winning or losing argument. This ability does not necessarily translate into the ability to have compassion for differing points of view and people.

It is a fine line, balancing the need for zealous advocacy with the need to operate with integrity, the need to be firm without being hard-nosed and inflexible, the need to be professional with the need to be friendly and accessible. I have been fortunate enough to meet many attorneys whose behavior I can model. Unfortunately, these attorneys are not the newsmakers who will influence public opinion about the legal profession. The real newsmakers appear to be the members of the bar who diminish its valor.

Recently, there were two articles in particular which caught my eye. First, the ABA Journal posted an article about a child molester who wants to be re-admitted to the practice of law. In the process of his renewal plea, he admitted to more victims. He pleads, "I wish to return to the only profession I have known, I ask you to conclude I am fit to do so." I ask, since when is a criminal fit to be a member of a profession that depends on integrity, honesty and the rule of law?

The second article involved Drew Peterson’s attorney. A radio station ditched a proposed, “Win a Date with Drew” contest. Incredibly, the lawyer was angry over its cancellation. Now, I am not a criminal law attorney, nor will I ever be a criminal law attorney, so I cannot speak from experience. However, it seems to me that if my client is a suspect in the disappearance of his fourth wife, the last thing I would want him out doing is dating other women, especially so publicly. In this case, though, the issue that bothers me the most is this attorney’s lack of professional demeanor. Why would he even consider commenting publicly on the issue? Is this attorney now his client’s matchmaker?

I know that attorneys may have infamous clients. However, when an attorney is infamous for something other than his excellent lawyering skills and integrity, he should either reform or re-think his choice of profession.

[1] Law School Admission Counsel, retrieved February 20, 2008 from:

“The character of man is known from his conversations.”

“The character of man is known from his conversations.”

Menander (342 BC – 292 BC)

On Tuesday last, my Law, Literature & Film class met for dim sum for lunch, as a follow up to reading the book, Donald Duk. The lunch itself was not novel, as Marlo and I do dim sum on Christmas as a tradition. The best part about the lunch was the conversation. There were nearly 30 of us seated around two gigantic round tables (the kind only found in Chinese restaurants with a large lazy Susan in the middle for passing dishes). In my opinion, this structural set-up is the most conducive for good conversation – much better than the classic American rectangular table.

In a recent blog post, I included a link to an interesting essay, “The Dumbing of America,” which if you did not click on the link to read the essay before, you should now. One of the facts cited therein is that,

Reading has declined not only among the poorly educated, according to a report last year by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did. And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book -- fiction or nonfiction -- over the course of a year. The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004.

My experience with my classmates was exactly the opposite of what one would expect after reading those statistics. We had what I would consider some of the best conversation about books and film that I have experienced in a long while. As I have confessed in prior blog posts, my taste in movies and books tends to be a bit obscure. However, even though most of my classmates are younger than I am, I knew enough of the books and movies that were being discussed to participate. They are an intelligent and well-versed crowd and I had the rare experience of feeling as if I belong here. These are my people.

More falling animal stories.

A while back, I posted a story about a couple who barely escaped death when a cow fell off a cliff near Chelan and smashed into their mini-van. Now, from the world of weird news is a story about a patrolman who narrowly avoided a falling moose. Is the world's gravitational pull getting stronger?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Age of American Unreason - A Bill Moyers Interview

In a recent post, I mentioned an article in the Washington Post by Susan Jacoby called, "The Dumbing of America." She has also written a book called, "The Age of American Unreason." I have not yet read the book, but it is on my Wish List.

Bill Moyers interviewed Susan Jacoby recently and she discussed, "how a 'flight from reason' is playing out in American politics and society. 'We have really, over the past 40 years, gotten shorter and shorter and shorter attention spans,' says Jacoby."

It is worth listening to here.

One of those dumb, but sorta fun, email forwards.

In case you think you need to know more about me than you already do – please have fun reading the following.

Four things about me that you may or may not have known in no particular order.

(The directions are at the end...)

Four jobs I have had in my life:

1. Clerk in the Word Processing Dept. at Sullivan Payne, a reinsurance brokerage.

2. Nanny (at the same time as Sullivan Payne).

3. Receptionist at Park West Care Center, a nursing home.

4. Graveyard-shift waitress at Denny's (at the same time as the nursing home).

Four movies I would watch over and over:

1. The Winslow Boy

2. My Cousin Vinny

3. Hope Floats

4. The Thing Called Love

Four places I have lived:

1. Gouvieux, France (This page takes a while to load because of the photos; It is worth the patience because they are beautiful.)

2. Rexburg, Idaho

3. Broken Arrow, OK (It was interesting seeing the Wiki page for this. I lived there two years and didn't even know there was a "downtown.")

4. Kirkland, WA

Four TV Shows that I watch:

(More like "watched" as I've canceled the cable so Marlo and I could focus on studying)

1. The West Wing (Yes, these are on DVD, but they are television shows - I have all 7 seasons)

2. America's Next Top Model

3. The Daily Show

4. The Colbert Report

Four places I have been:

1. England and Wales

2. France

3. The Netherlands

4. Italy

Four of my favorite foods:

1. Tea (Ok, this isn't a "food," but I'd die without it. I'm a tea snob.)

2. Dungeness Crab

3. Mediterranean

4. Chocolate (dark)

Four places I would rather be right now:

1. At my swearing in ceremony for the bar.

2. At a Bed & Breakfast in Victoria

3. My French sister, Pascale's country villa.

4. Tangled up on the couch watching movies with the love of my life.

Four friends I think will respond:

1. Anjali

2. Karol

3. Theresa

4. Melanie

Four Things I am looking forward to in 2008:

1. Graduating from law school.

2. Marlo turning 18 years old (although this does not have any practical implications as she is still in high school).

3. My summer job (I don't know what it is yet, but I do know I'm going to love doing something practical and hands-on).

4. Finding the love of my life (to tangle up on said couch with - see above.)


Now, here's what you're supposed to do... And please do not spoil the fun. Copy the above, delete my answers and type in your answers. Then send this to a whole bunch of people you know INCLUDING the person who sent it to you**.

The theory is that you will learn a lot of little known facts about those who know you. Remember to send it back to the person who sent it to you!

**If you prefer, you can past your answers into the comments section below in lieu of emailing it to me, but you still need to forward this to a bunch of people you know. (In my blog, the "reacties" button below is for comments - this has never switched back to English from Dutch after my stay in the Netherlands last summer. Go figure.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Follow up to my consumerism post - "More Americans tapping into 401(k)s"

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about the Perils of Consumerism.

The story below came out in today's paper. I'd just like to point out that the 40-year-old married man referenced in the first paragraph of the story only has $20,000 total of retirement savings.

I'd also like to point out that the Employee Benefit Research Institute determined in a 2007 study that couples need to save $300,000 for medical benefits alone if they live to a normal life expectancy (for medical expenses and medications not covered by Medicare). On top of this amount, they must save for basic living expenses for food, shelter and utilities.

Are you on-track to have saved enough by the time you retire? If not, stop spending and start saving. You may enjoy that new car now, but if you're living the last 20 years of your life on the Alpo diet, you won't much care what people thought of your snazzy ride today.


More Americans tapping into 401(k)s

Retirement nest eggs being used to make ends meet

Last updated February 19, 2008 8:25 p.m. PT


Trent Charlton knew the risks when he borrowed $10,000 from his 401(k) and cut his retirement savings in half.

But Charlton, a 40-year-old account executive at an Irvine, Calif., trucking company, said he had little choice because he and his wife could not keep up with monthly expenses after American Express reduced the limits on three credit cards.

As home prices fall and banks tighten lending standards, more people are doing the same thing: raiding their retirement savings just to get by and spending their nest eggs to gas up sport utility vehicles, pay mortgages or put food on the table.

But dipping into 401(k) accounts can carry risks because defaulted loans and hardship withdrawals are taxed as income and are subject to a 10 percent penalty if the worker is under 59 1/2 years old. That means if the trend grows, many Americans will risk coming up short on retirement savings or may have to rely on an overburdened Social Security system.

"People who take out a loan or withdrawal are adding to a looming retirement crisis over the next 30 to 40 years," said Eric Levy, a partner at global consulting firm Mercer. "And what implications will that have (for) our economy?"

Some of the nation's largest retirement plan administrators, such as Great-West Retirement Services and Fidelity Investments, are seeing double-digit spikes in hardship withdrawals and increases in loan requests, a sharp departure from levels that traditionally varied little.

Administrators say consumers are using retirement savings to pay for unmanageable mortgages, maxed-out credit cards and costly utilities and groceries.

Charlton's predicament arose as lenders are taking steps to rein in credit because more consumers are missing payments on mortgages, credit cards and loans. Borrowers are finding their credit limits suddenly reduced and low-interest cards hard to come by. Mortgage lenders also have reduced limits on home-equity lines of credit.

Meanwhile, jobs are harder to find, and consumers are getting pinched by higher food and fuel prices.

Consumers who tap their retirement accounts can take a loan from their 401(k) accounts worth up to $50,000, or 50 percent of the amount invested, whichever is less. There are no tax consequences for a loan in good standing. But if a borrower defaults, the loan is considered a withdrawal and subject to the same tax penalties.

If Charlton repays his loan and continues making contributions, his balance at 62 will be nearly the same as if he had not borrowed, according to projections by Alicia Munnell, director of The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

But if he repays the loan and suspends contributions for five years, his final account balance would fall by 18 percent.

Based on current savings rates, the center estimates that 43 percent of households risk not being able to fund the same standard of living during retirement as they have in their working years. That percentage increases to 49 percent for Americans between 36 and 43 whose main retirement plans are 401(k) accounts, not employer-funded pension plans like older generations.

Great-West Retirement Services, the unit of a Colorado-based insurance company that manages 3.5 million accounts for employers, said hardship withdrawals jumped 14 percent last year, and the number of loans rose almost 13 percent, with a dramatic increase occurring in the fourth quarter.

Fidelity Investments, which jockeys with Vanguard Group as the nation's largest mutual fund provider, said it saw withdrawals surge 17 percent in 2007, with record withdrawals in December, but a smaller increase in loans. Vanguard saw no change.

Perils of Consumerism

A few weeks ago, I was talking with my friend David, an ardent Republican, about the State of the Union address. I mentioned to him that I thought the President had a difficult line to walk. On the one hand, he has to deny that there is anything wrong with the economy (because either he needs to avoid responsibility for the mess that the country is in or because the markets can tank based on his speech). At the same time, he has the entire country listening for his solutions, to a problem that he cannot acknowledge exists. This entire line of conversation caused David and me to discuss the economy at length. One of the conclusions we jointly came to is that American consumerism is at fault for much of the state of our country.

Whether or not one wants to acknowledge that there is a problem with our current economy, it appears that either the state of the economy itself or with people’s perceptions of the state of the economy are the direct result of the excess of American consumerism and our consumer-driven economy. Take the housing crisis, as an example. The breakdown of the subprime mortgage industry was a result of consumers wanting to find ways to buy bigger and better houses than they could realistically afford, and of a banking industry looking for new market for their products (i.e., loans). Another example is the public’s feelings of concern about gasoline prices and the rise of food prices, and those of other products. America runs on a debt-based economy. Stores entice people to buy products they cannot currently afford by offering zero-interest financing if the loan is paid within a fixed amount of time. Even if consumers can afford the payments on these loans, in my opinion, there are psychological effects from carrying a debt load. Ramifications include worry about the future and what will happen if one encounters a negative event, such as being laid off from one’s job. Therefore, no matter if the economy is really on solid ground, people are left concerned about the future.

One of the pitfalls of raising children today is that there is a distorted view of what a “normal” household owns, consumes or acquires. When I was growing up, it was normal for a middle-class family of five (families were larger back then) to live in a 1,600 square foot rambler. Now, that home would be considered much too small for a family of that size. A home that size could not hold a wide screen television, a Viking stove, or any of the other accoutrements that are deemed necessary or desirable for a home. Many people buy new cars before the loans are paid off on their last purchase. Many households have at least two, if not more, televisions. Party line telephones are unheard of. I saw a reference that stated that average teenage girls spend $1,100 a year on clothing. However, this is not the whole story.

The reality is that our economy would come to a screeching halt if Americans stopped their endless consumption. Corporations target, and stockholders expect and demand, growth year after year after year. Planned obsolescence is a fundamental part of their business plans. Worse than that, Americans complacently buy products that break, fall apart, stop working or are no longer functional after a short amount of time, without protest. After 56 years in the business, a television repair shop in Fremont is closing its doors. Why? Because it is almost cheaper to replace a television than to repair it, and Americans are not offended with the idea of throwing a broken television into a landfill so that they can buy a newer model. The best essay I have seen on this subject is a Seattle Times article titled, “Articles of Faith: Consumerism is a greedy society’s religion.”

Aside from the effects of unbridled consumerism on the housing market or the psyche of individual consumers, there is a real impact on the health of our society. Americans are working longer hours and taking less vacation than ever before. Only fourteen percent of Americans will take a vacation of two weeks or longer. Americans have astronomical rates of heart disease, partly due to our diet. However, there is also a connection between vacations and heart health. The reality is that many people take their vacations in shorter bursts, or in the form of cash, partly because they want to avoid being overloaded at work when they return, or the cash would enable them to purchase yet again another product. Americans work habits are also taking a toll on families who are stressed and are unable to find time to be together. Daycare providers are parenting children so that parents can work more to pay for their families perceived “needs.”

Even though American consumers reigning in their debt would cause the economy to slow, I believe that we are a resilient society that can devise other, less destructive, ways for our markets to work. For the sake of American society, families, health, prosperity and, not the least, our environment, endless consumption must cease. I wholeheartedly welcome planned obsolescence for the “product” of consumer debt.

The Commonality between Law Professors and Students

I have previously written about the unique nature of law school, which particularly lends itself to tormenting the students. Up until now, I have always viewed law students as being the sole beneficiaries of this misery. I figured that law professors continued the tradition solely because they had been through it and felt the need to pass it on.

However, I ran across an article in the ABA Journal explaining why law professors are miserable. The theory is that law school’s structure creates this phenomenon because “the job is competitive, uncooperative and lacking objective standards to measure success.”

Apparently, the theory “is supported by a new book called The Three Signs of a Miserable Job,” which are:

· Anonymity, when managers have little interest in employees’ personal lives.

· Irrelevance, when employees can not see how their job is affecting others’ lives.

· Immeasurement, when employees have to rely on their managers’ subjective opinions about how well they are doing, rather than on objective criteria.

I have to say that when I read this article, I thought to myself, “What goes around comes around” because each of the qualities that contributes to law professors’ unhappiness with their jobs are the exact ones that create such turmoil in the student body. Law school is competitive and uncooperative because of the forced grading curve and competition for getting on law review and the small percentage of big firm jobs available. In addition, there is a definite lack of objective standards to measure success. I know that some may believe that law school grades are that objective measure, but it is very difficult to be assessed only at the end of the quarter, when your one and only performance on a final exam is the sole basis for your grade.

The final two factors mentioned in the book referenced above, anonymity and irrelevance also play a part of law students’ experience. First, law professors, with rare and beautiful exceptions, do not concern themselves with their students’ personal lives or professional development. Before I came to law school, I was an individual with feelings and individual thoughts. Now, I am an exam number. Secondly, irrelevance is a big issue affecting law students. Oddly, it is not necessarily the amount of work that causes angst. Law students are on par with medical students and residents, who do not suffer the same level of psychological distress. The differentiating factor, according to studies, is that medical students feel like they are making a difference on a regular basis and law students feel that they are relegated to obscure theory for three years before they can do something real. This is in addition to the adversarial nature of the law, which also plays a part in generating unhappiness.

Law students and law professors are in the same boat. Both are affected by the same factors that cause unhappiness in an education or career path with the potential to make such a positive difference in the world. Therefore, that leaves me wondering – why don’t we join forces to empower change? However, those law professors and others who have tried to enact change have been met with real resistance. As they say regarding the oppressed, sometimes those who are suffering are the most ardent voices for continuation of the norms that are oppressive.

Being Scared of Shadows

Recently, in my Law, Literature & Film class, we read a play called, “Inherit the Wind.” You might have seen it in film as it has been adapted multiple times. By way of background, the play is based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, an actual Tennessee case where a teacher was prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution[1]. The Scopes trial occurred in 1925, and the play was written in 1955. What relevance, you might ask, has this to current legal issues? I wish I could answer, “None.” However, the issues presented the play seem to be reoccurring with greater frequency in recent years.

You see, these problems all started with the event called, The Enlightenment, which refers to “an intellectual movement…which advocated reason as the primary basis of authority.” Prior to this movement, individuals did not have rights[2] and lived in authoritarian states governed heavily by religious orders (think of fundamentalist Muslim countries of today). The Enlightenment spawned philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbs and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings set the stage for the American and French revolutions. These philosophical ideas also set the stage for what has become a centuries old battle between rational thought and religious faith.

In my opinion, The Enlightenment was a high point for human intellectual thought, leading into the early 19th century fascination with natural law and sciences, and then into the industrial revolution of the early 20th century. The human race then succumbed to a disgraceful display of non-rational thought with World War I and World War II (including all associated genocides) that lead to destruction on a scale never before seen. Following World War II, the human race then again rallied to a high point of intellectual thought with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, the human race seems to be unable to sustain this level of brilliance, and a half-century of political maneuvering has mired down the potential benefits of this Universal Declaration of the rights of all people.

Of course, the last century of American history has been accompanied with an associated decline in education, intellectual thought and reasoning. (Please read, “The Dumbing of America,” a recent essay on this decline whose only fault is that I did not manage to write it myself.)

The lack of education referenced in this essay, in my opinion, lead to the Kansas Evolution Hearings, where a Kansas school board opted to change the definition of science and the science curriculum to include “intelligent design.” Another case involving the conflict between teaching evolution and creation/intelligent design occurred in 2005 in the Pennsylvania case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. In that case, the judge “ruled that intelligent design is not science, that it ‘cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.’ Therefore, the court concluded that the school district's promotion of intelligent design violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”[3] These school boards might have wanted to focus on the history curriculum so that they would not waste time and money re-hashing issues that have already been decided.

In addition, this surge of irrationality has lead to contradictions such as protestant religious conservatives who:

  • Criticize the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo for his theory that the earth revolves around the sun, but cannot see the hypocriticalness of denying the similar scientific advances in genetics, which naturally involve evolution.
  • Have religious beliefs based on “faith,” but then fear that their faith will be damaged by hearing other (and not necessarily opposing) points of view.
  • Support the President’s theory that we are battling religious fundamentalist terrorists who “hate our way of life and our freedom,” while they themselves systematically attack the very freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, such as the separation of church and state, and privacy.

Emmanuel Kant’s ideas of freedom begin with rational, thinking, modern man. In Kant’s point of view, freedom is respecting the ability of man to make moral choices. In this case, doing what one wants to do because one feels like it is immoral and therefore not freedom. Kant’s view of freedom requires respect for the ability of man to make moral choices. This leads to his conclusion that one should, “never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become universal law.” However, the people who are the driving force behind such movements to limit the teaching of evolution forget this maxim. Would they be so inclined to inject religion into education if it were a religion other than their own? I doubt it.

[1] I find it an interesting contradiction that religious conservatives discount the theory of evolution when it comes to teaching the evolution of the human species, yet invoke the notion of “natural selection” as a reason not to assist poor people, who apparently need to be weeded out because they are too weak to care for themselves.

[2] These rights include ones that most Americans today consider fundamental, such as the right to live, liberty and the pursuit of happiness along with constitutional rights such as the right to property, to bear arms, to religious freedom, and to due process of law.

A Mix of Low Context and High Context Communication

This past week in my Law, Literature & Film class we read a novel titled, “Donald Duk,” a story of an American-Chinese boy growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The boy’s father owns and operates a restaurant, but as I have already written about my Unified Food Theory in a prior blog post, I will not expand on that facet of the story in this essay. I found the story in this book somewhat difficult to follow. It is not that the writing is bad, because it is not. I am chalking up my difficulties to the communication differences between high context and low context cultures.

Anthropologist Edward Hall theorized that low context cultures (found in North America and Western Europe) are “logical, linear, individualistic and action-oriented.” On the other hand, high context cultures (found in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America) are “relational, collectivist, intuitive and contemplative.”

Apparently, the United States falls somewhat in the middle of a low-context and high context culture, possibly due to the mix of cultures in our society. On one end of the scale, you have the Germans or the Dutch who are blunt to the point of rudeness. I had a difficult time with this when I spent a month in Amsterdam last summer. I often had to remind myself that people were not being rude, just direct.

I had a similarly difficult time understanding the novel. It was written in this odd style where, if I were to use an analogy, would be a lot like a movie that fades in and out of dream sequences and alternately breaks into song or dance in the middle of action scenes. I got the overall gist of the story, which was this young boy’s journey from hating his Chinese heritage to being willing to learn about it and stand up against the prejudice he encounters. Interestingly enough, the story itself was an illustration of these two communication styles.

As an example of high-context communication, after Donald steals a model airplane that his father has built and destroyed it, he confesses. His father does not reprimand him directly, but rather launches into a long story that does not seem to have any relationship to his son’s confession. At the very end, he ties it together to his disappointment in his son with one devastating sentence, which leaves Donald “whapped dizzy.” Another example is the novel’s use of Donald’s dreams to reveal Chinese immigrant’s history.

On the other hand, exemplifying low-context communication, the father, when curbing his children’s behavior commands directly in English, “Be cool!” This is a very direct and to-the-point statement that would probably be considered very rude in high-context cultures. A second example of low-context communication is how Donald and his friend, Arthur, head to the library to verify the history revealed in his dreams. So, the book illustrates both norms as it explores Donald’s life as a Chinese-American growing up in a predominately Chinese neighborhood.

Overall, the novel has merit in its overall theme, but I am not sure I would recommend it for pleasure reading; simply because I think my low-context brain needs the message delivered more plainly.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Verbalizing my internal dialogue

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Seattle Post Intelligencer invited me to participate on a panel discussion following President Bush’s final State of the Union address (See, “An offer I can’t refuse”). My friend, Karol and I attended together. We knew from the start that one of our biggest challenges would be controlling any outbursts during the President’s speech. Being competitive people, we made a bet that the first person with an uncontrolled, audible and coherent outburst would have to buy dinner (groaning and rolling eyes did not count – an actual coherent word or phrase had to escape – we are not saints, after all).

Interestingly, we both made it through without losing the bet. (This might be because the President’s speech was significant more for what it did not say, than what it did. It was easier not to scream out, “You’ve got to be kidding!”) At this time, I am going to reward myself here by indulging in voicing my internal dialogue (in italics and in the first-person voice of the President) regarding some portions of the President’s address that I found significant.

“We have faced hard decisions about peace and war, rising competition in the world economy and the health and welfare of our citizens. These issues call for vigorous debate, and I think it's fair to say we've answered that call.” (Yeah, the debate sure has been much more vigorous since my party lost the congressional majority that rubber-stamped all of my policies about these issues for the first four years of my presidency.)

“[L]et us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time.” (And let us forget the first four years of my presidency when I had a Republican congress and the liberty of telling the Democrats to go blow. (See above.))

“We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens. So in all we do, we must trust in the ability of free people to make wise decisions, and empower them to improve their lives and their futures.” (Except in the event that my opponent wins the popular vote; then, I believe the Supreme Court should decide that I will be president.)

“[T]ogether, we showed the world the power and resilience of American self-government.” (Particularly where we decide that we are not going to follow international treaties and obligations that were willingly entered into by previous administrations. That just perks up middle-Americans and shows the world how ‘powerful’ we are. Of course, you have to understand that my definition of power is akin to that of a two year old where I get to do what I want to do when I want to do it and how I want to do it. Ahhh, no wonder I go to bed early and take naps.)

“Wages are up, but so are prices for food and gas.” (I do not really mean “wages” so much as I mean “income” for my capitalist friends. In fact, if this were a press conference where anyone would challenge what I was going to say, I would not be able to say that wages were up. This is because, after adjusting for inflation, the average worker’s wages have been flat.)

“We have other work to do on taxes. Unless the Congress acts, most of the tax relief we have delivered over the past 7 years will be taken away. Some in Washington argue that letting tax relief expire is not a tax increase. Try explaining that to 116 million American taxpayers who would see their taxes rise by an average of $1,800.” (Never mind how the vast majority of my tax relief went to the richest income earners – see how I phrase this so that the remaining taxpayers think that their taxes will go up $1,800 personally?)

“Others have said they would personally be happy to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm, and I am pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders.” (See how, even though I am also President to the 49% who did not vote for me, I can get away with being showing my disdain for them by hiding my remarks under humor? Clever me.)

“There is only one way to eliminate this uncertainty: make the tax relief permanent. And members of Congress should know: If any bill raising taxes reaches my desk, I will veto it.” (Remember, I did not veto anything in my first five years until the stem cell research bill. I prefer signing statements, like I issued on McCain’s ridiculous anti-torture bill. I figured out that the American people support me vetoing good legislation or modifying it at-will. See, the first four years of bad legislation = no vetoes and I got re-elected. Second four years with good legislation = vetoes. Must be the same thing, right?)

“To build a future of quality health care, we must trust patients and doctors to make medical decisions and empower them with better information and better options…We will help ensure that decisions about your medical care are made in the privacy of your doctor's office - not in the halls of Congress.” (Except when those choices involve a woman’s right to choose regarding reproduction; discussion of birth control in third world countries where we send aid; stem cell research, or – let’s see, Terry Schiavo. In those cases, I believe the federal government knows better than you or a doctor that actually has been to medical school.)

“We share a common goal: making health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans. The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control.” (Never mind that 20% of all non-Medicare healthcare dollars supplement the inefficiencies created by a multi-payer system. Therefore, Medicare, a governmentally controlled program, is actually 20% more efficient than the open market. See, that would not get my insurance buddies any money, see. Notice how I frame this debate in terms of “consumers?” This is so that no one will be confused with healthcare being a right or any of that other such nonsense. If people cannot pay for it, they do not deserve to have it. Let them die.)

“Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results.” (Did you catch that clever slight-of-hand? Notice, I did not specify positive nor negative results. I just said, “results” so no one can say my speech wasn’t honest. Failure is a “result” too. The title is catchy too – “No Child Left Behind.” Schools are not faulted for dropouts as heavily as for low performers. So, if the kiddies aren’t performing to par, we just force them out.)

“[Free trade agreements] will support good jobs for the finest workers in the world: those whose products say "Made in the USA." (Like clothing manufactured in the Mariana Islands at slave wages in subhuman conditions. Desperate people really do make the finest workers, don’t you find?)

“To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology. Our security, our prosperity and our environment all require reducing our dependence on oil.” (Wow, it sure was politically expedient of me finally to acknowledge that global warming was a problem after calling it a “myth” for so long. Of course, I was kinda backed into a corner by that fellow, Al, who won a Nobel Peace Prize. Plus, now my corporate buddies have figured out a way to commodify being green, I’ve got to get on the bandwagon.)

“Together we should take the next steps: Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions.” (Of course, with the damage done to the environment by mining companies, any environmental savings will be negated if Americans use more coal because they think it is “green” – if carbon-neutral coal burning can even be achieved in the first place.)

“Let us create a new international clean technology fund, which will help developing nations like India and China make greater use of clean energy sources. And let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.” (Yes, this is just like the Kyoto Protocol that I withdrew the United States signature from. You see, back then I wanted to show my fellow conservatives my disdain for international agreements. However, that I am going to be out of office in a year, I want to be able to take credit for an idea that the democrats are sure to implement after I am gone.)

“In communities across our land, we must trust in the good heart of the American people and empower them to serve their neighbors in need.” (Because on my watch, the government will not. We restrict our aid to foreigners. The only government housing for the homeless that I approve of is the White House and it is mine.)

“Tonight the armies of compassion continue the march to a new day in the Gulf Coast. America honors the strength and resilience of the people of this region. We reaffirm our pledge to help them build stronger and better than before.” (I say this knowing that most of America has forgotten all about Katrina, and will not even realize that we have had people living in formaldehyde leaching trailers for over two years.)

“And on a clear September day, we saw thousands of our fellow citizens taken from us in an instant. These horrific images serve as a grim reminder: The advance of liberty is opposed by terrorists and extremists - evil men who despise freedom, despise America and aim to subject millions to their violent rule.” (35 minutes into my speech and I am just now mentioning September 11; I must be slipping. Also, I’m counting on the fact that no one knows about the study from the University of Chicago (the same university that spawned the Neo Conservative movement) that shows that suicide terrorists don’t actually “despise freedom;” they just want foreign troops off soil that they consider to be their holy land. Like Osama Bin Laden demanding that we get our troops out of Saudi Arabia. I mean, it is not as if he did not give us any warnings before September 11. He asked us to leave; there was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the bombing of the USS Cole. However, the American people are too dull for nuance so I can get away with saying whatever I want that will scare American’s into trusting me.)

“Since September 11, we have taken the fight to these terrorists and extremists. We will stay on the offense, we will keep up the pressure, and we will deliver justice to the enemies of America.” (So long as you all are clear that I have redefined the meaning of “justice” to mean holding people without trial on some god-forsaken island; and when given a trial, have removed all procedure that would render the proceedings fair. Oh well, it was the Declaration of Independence that said, “All men are created equal.” The Constitution does not say anything like that so I am sure it was only meant to apply to Americans. It never was a statement about our fundamental values as Americans – vengeance and revenge.)

“The terrorists oppose every principle of humanity and decency that we hold dear.” (Like extraordinary rendition, disappearances and water boarding. They like to kill their victims outright. We like to hold then and torture them until they are crazy.)

“When we met last year, al-Qaida had sanctuaries in many areas of Iraq…Today, it is al-Qaida that is searching for safe passage. They have been driven from many of the strongholds they once held, and over the past year, we have captured or killed thousands of extremists in Iraq, including hundreds of key al-Qaida leaders and operatives. Last month, Osama bin Laden released a tape in which he railed against Iraqi tribal leaders who have turned on al-Qaida and admitted that coalition forces are growing stronger in Iraq…Al-Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated.” (I just have to keep conflating the two groups, Al-Qaida and Al-Qaida-In-Iraq, and Americans will never know the difference. They’ll never understand that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and that Al-Qaida didn’t exist in Iraq until I invaded it. As I said before, the American people aren’t big on nuance. That’s why I won against that intelligent fellow, Kerry. Too much nuance.)

“One of the most important tools we can give them is the ability to monitor terrorist communications. To protect America, we need to know who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning. Last year, the Congress passed legislation to help us do that. Unfortunately, the Congress set the legislation to expire on February 1. This means that if you do not act by Friday, our ability to track terrorist threats would be weakened and our citizens will be in greater danger.” (Apparently, it is important that Congress pass a law granting phone companies retroactive immunity for already-broken laws, but its ok if surveillance is disrupted because the FBI didn’t pay the phone bills.)

America is opposing genocide in Sudan and supporting freedom in countries from Cuba and Zimbabwe to Belarus and Burma.” (Never mind that America has an affirmative duty to act in the event of genocide pursuant to the Genocide Convention. I don’t like international agreements so I can say what I want and no one will call me on it. The United States can always withhold its dues so that the UN won’t be able to even hold a hearing. Hey, that’s not a bad idea. Maybe we should stop paying the light bills in all domestic courthouses where I don’t like the judge’s opinions…)

“And tonight, I ask the Congress to support an innovative proposal to provide food assistance by purchasing crops directly from farmers in the developing world, so we can build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine.” (I have to say at least one intelligent and logical thing in this speech – just in case some historian tries to use my mental health as an explanation for my tenure as President and the sorry state I am leaving this country in.)

Ahhhh (sigh of relief), I feel much better.