God’s Reply to Job in Chapter 38

 

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Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know?

 

Job was a pious man for whom everything was going well. Then, a series of tragedies struck him in rapid succession. This led him to ask one of the most fundamental questions of human existence, i.e. why do bad things happen to good people? Many times in life, there are circumstances that are offensive to our sense of justice. We try to assign punishment and reward in a merit-based way in our society. The criminal has to spend time in prison, the exceptionally good person who serves society is rewarded with money or some honor. But, there are circumstances that are out of our control: getting sick, getting in a car accident, or losing one’s home to fire, to name a few. These things can happen to us without any culpability on our part. Many people get sick who have been doing a great job taking care of their health. Many people get in car accidents who are extremely safe and prudent drivers.

These situations are especially poignant for the believer in God. Someone like Job, who structures his life around his belief in God, might find a series of tragedies as out of step with what he feels he has a right to expect. Some believers expect God’s protection from the vicissitudes of life in exchange for their constant devotion. There are many verses, after all, in the psalms attesting to God’s special concern for pious believers.

In chapter 38 of the Book of Job, we encounter God’s majestic response to Job’s metaphysical questions and complaints. God takes a haughty tone, like a father who has been listening to petulant queries of his son for too long. The passage is long and poetic, but it contains one basic idea: that God, being the creator of the universe, is in a much better position to make judgments about how that universe is run than Job, a mere finite creature.

God lists all the vast and grand stretches of the universe of which he is in charge and of which he is the creator: the sea, the sun, the gates of death ( some sort of entranceway into the afterlife). This passage is one of the most beautiful and amazing passages in all of Scripture.

It undercuts attempts to condemn God in the name of evil. Many believers, non-believers, theologians, and philosophers over the centuries have raised the question of whether or not it is possible to believe in God given the overwhelming presence of evil in the world. How can anyone, they ask, believe in God given all the suffering there is? At the base of this question is the belief that, if a good God were in charge, then would not be nearly as much, if any, evil. Something like the Holocaust, for instance, would never have happened.

But, as we know from chapter 38 of the book of Job, this question is arrogant. An analogous situation might help. Imagine a kid walking into a restaurant. The kid has never been in a restaurant before. The owner of the restaurant walks past. This individual not only owns the restaurant, but also was the person who founded it. The owner has to make decisions about the functioning of the restaurant on a daily basis, and has gained a lot of wisdom through his experiences over the years. The kid gets his attention and says,  “Why have you hired so many people?”

Of course, the kid’s question is arrogant. He’s trusting in his own paradigms and judging the restaurant owner, when he really should humbly acknowledge that his paradigms and mental schemas are limited. In other words, just because the kid doesn’t understand something about the restaurant does not make that aspect of the restaurant actually incoherent or wrong.

There is a similar failure to acknowledge the limitation of our mental framework when people doubt the goodness of God’s plan and interventions or lack of interventions in the world. Such people conclude that things are wrong because they seem wrong to them. But, the proper conclusion from the fact that things seem wrong to them is that there is something limited about their mental framework.

In the end, God’s majestic argument in chapter 38 of the book of Job seems like common sense. On what basis can a finite creature condemn an infinite one?

Movie Review: I’m Not Ashamed

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This is the powerful and true story of Rachel Joy Scott, a high school student at Columbine in Littleton, Colorado who ended up dead during the massacre that happened in 1999. Rachel is a spiritual girl who is going through the travails typical of a high school youth. She is interested in a boy who does not agree with her views on sexuality and gets rejected because of this. She is interested in acting and feels anxiety about landing a lead role in the school play. She is part of a Christian group called Break Thru, where she helps in particular a young man whose parents are such a mess that he is homeless. Rachel is a very considerate person in general, and practices her faith by listening to the problems of other students. For instance, she agrees to go on a date with another student who appears to have downs syndrome. She also helps a young man who had just relocated to the Columbine school district after the divorce of his parents.

In the background of the typical back and forth of cliques and unrequited crushes of the high school, two deeply disturbed young men are planning a vicious attack on the school. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebod take in interest in Hitler’s thoughts on natural selection as presented in his autiobiography Mein Kempf. According to the move, Hitler sought to apply natural selection to humanity by culling out people whom he considered unfit to survive, a group which includes disabled people, religious people, and Jews. Harris and Klebold are the victims of bullying and are cut off from the social life of the high school. No one pays much attention to them and Rachel Joy Scott shows no awareness of their steady decline. It would have made sense, given her tendency to reach out to students going through problems, for her to reach out to these youth, but it seems like they are so odd and isolated that even she doesn’t even think about them.

After the breakup with the guy she was heavily interested in who did not agree with her views on sexuality, Rachel becomes more and more overtly Christian. This is the basis for the title of the film. Her openness about her faith led to her death, as the shooters approached her first, held a gun to her head and asked her if she believed in God. When she defiantly said yes, they shot her ruthlessly.

Rachel always had odd premonitions about not having much time to live on this earth. Often, her character in the movie says that she cannot see herself getting married or having a family. Another theme in Rachel’s conversation is a desire to change the world. She really does, even though her life was tragically short, since her story has inspired millions to practice the Christian virtues of forgiveness and charity. There is actually a website that sprung up in relation to the movie for people who are inspired to make a difference in the world in light of Rachel’s story: https://wavesinaction.com/ina-adults/.

The Columbine massacre is such a sickening tale. I believe the two young men who committed these heinous deeds are in hell. As a society, we have had a discussion about the proper way to prevent problems like these from happening. Some people blame guns, some people say we need to have more awareness of mental illness, some say it’s violent video games. This is complex debate and probably all of these positions have some merit. What I am focusing on is the clash of ideas that is evident in this movie. Rachel and the two shooters represent two different worldviews. On the one hand, there is compassion, inclusion, and love, and on the other is a ruthless competitiveness that seeks to achieve this illusory perfection through murderous violence. We need to be watchful of the spread of ideologies like this, which are out there, though not always as overtly as we saw in the Columbine massacre.

Here is a picture of the real Rachel Joy Scott:

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As you can see, she was becoming a beautiful young woman before her life was brutally taken.

Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

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The work of C.S. Lewis is so rich and is the proper subject for lifelong study. The Screwtape Letters are a series of letters written by a devil who is in charge of another devil who is trying to corrupt the soul of an anonymous individual the devils refers to as the “patient.” We thus have a picture of human life as contested over by two warring spiritual factions. On the one hand, there is God, which the devils refer to as the “Enemy.” On the other hand, there are the devils, who are determined to trip up the patient as he tries to live a Christian life in the hopes of having a tasty soul to snack on when the patient enters Hell after his death.

There are many brilliant psychological and philosophical insights in this book. It can surely illuminate one’s encounter with various people in one’s life. Religion, we learn, can itself become the source of corruption. People who are very religious become full of hate and cliquish, as they look with scorn on people who are not members of their religion. Lewis has a critique of democracy which is particularly appropriate, I think, for the millennial generation. Democracy, Lewis thinks, breeds a mindset in which everyone is fearful of standing out from the crowd. So, people feel reluctant to seek learning because this make them distinct from others, and ignorant people are immune from criticism–after all, everyone is equal. This reminds me of participation trophies which are handed out to teams regardless of their effectiveness on the field, and also the oft-heard criticism of millennials to the effect that they are entitled and think of themselves as special. Lewis also critiques political philosophers who had a collectivist vision. Rousseau, for instance, comes under fire for claiming that the individual has unknowingly willed what the government has told him to do. Rousseau of course invented the convoluted notion of the general will, by which there is a will that represents the collective interests of society, and when an individual obeys the general will, he/she is really obeying himself. Rousseau, and later thinkers like Hegel who had similar views on the absorption of the individual into the state, are propagandists for the devil.

There is a contrast between different types of sinners. The worst sinners are slightly dangerous for the devils, since these people are people of tremendous willpower and talent. If properly oriented, they could become great heroes of virtue. Less dangerous are people who are weak and who therefore commit more petty crimes. They will never amount to great saints because of their limited willpower and abilities. They become adulterers, for instance, not because they have a great appetite for pleasure and have developed a philosophical orientation under which adultery is permissible. Instead, the mediocre sinner falls into sins like adultery because there is nothing better to do.

It is fun getting to know these devils, since their whole approach is the normatively topsy-turvy. They like and welcome what we should fear and loathe. Another interesting angle has to do with what we should be most afraid of in life. Screwtape at one point mentions how the ravages of World War II are in a way good, but also dangerous, because it reminds people that their lives on earth are limited. This realization might lead to an increased reliance on God. Death in the war, then, might actually be the pathway to salvation. If the soul is in the proper state at death, the devils have lost, even though the premature ending of life in war is tragic.

The essence of life, then, in Lewis’s worldview is a struggle for spiritual righteousness. Many people direct their energy to extending our material comfort on earth. This is good, but it can be harmful if we forget our ultimate purpose. If a doctor who makes a great medical advance is a serial adulterer or emotionally abusive to his children, his great achievement ultimately does not matter and his life is a failure.

Opera Review: Orlando, by George Frederic Handel

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I saw performance of Orlando in New York City put together by a nonprofit known as the Cantanti Project. The plot involves four characters involved in a love quadrangle, and one wizard who oversees the action with his wise recommendations and helpful interventions.

Orlando is a great warrior who is also madly in love with a woman named Angelica. Orlando has to make a choice between pursuing glory in battle and pursuing love with Angelica. He naively thinks he combine the two competing drives, and ends up in near-catastrophe. Angelica does not reciprocate his love, and is herself infatuated with Medora. Dorinda is a shepherdess who observes the action and is also in love with Medoro. Zoroastro is the wizard who tries to protect these mortals from their own intra and interpersonal conflict.

At one point Orlando sees an inscription on a tree made by both Angelica and Medora that signifies their love. He becomes unhinged by jealousy. Now illicitly combining his roles as warrior and lover, Orlando becomes dangerous, desperate to seek revenge on Angelica for spurning him for another man. Orlando is unjust, since he has no claim on Angelica’s affection–they are not married and so Angelica is free to give her heart as she pleases. Zoroastro tries to bring Orlando back to sanity, but for much of the opera he is in a state of intense mental torment, at one point imagining himself descending into Hades and at another mistaking Dorinda for Angelica.

Orlando goes so far as to burn the cottage of Medoro, killing him in the process. He is in a state of murderous rage until Zoroastra heals his mind. Orlando looks upon his work with horror, but finds that he was lucky enough not to have murdered Angelica.

This opera is, at least in part, a critique of love. What really is love? Does Orlando love Angelica? He often claims he does, but, judging by his actions, he does not. Or, is Orlando’s great passion evidence of love? Also, does love really provide us with happiness? Or, does it make up dependent on other people, and so, if they are not cooperative or have to leave us for some reason, we end up falling apart? Is it better to remain cool and detached like the wizard Zoraster?

I really enjoyed this opera and I would like to know more about the art form. It requires a lot of study, including mastering a foregin language, as this opera is in Italian. The singing is also very advanced, more so than Broadway singing or that of popular music.

Movie Review: Arrival

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Amy Adams plays a character, Louise Banks, who is leading an ordinary life as a linguist when she is suddenly contacted by the U.S military to take on an enormously challenging task: dealing with an alien species that has landed at different locations around the globe. Along with a physicist, Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the aliens. The aliens communicate by spraying a black mist into the air that slowly forms into some sort of shape, usually a circle with various embellishments. The aliens are called heptapods, and they resemble gigantic walking octopi or squid. Banks develops a uniquely sympathetic relationship with the aliens as the rest of the world grapples with how to deal with them. Finally, things reach a crisis when Banks asks the aliens what their purpose is. The reply is to “offer weapon.” The world is sent into a panic, and various countries prepare for war.

But, Banks is convinced that the aliens are friendly, and wonders whether the weapon is actually some sort of tool. Eventually, Banks comes to the conclusion that the so-called weapon the aliens are offering is actually their language, which is somehow outside of time. Grasping the language gives one the ability to see one’s entire life in panorama, rather than in the linear fashion which is typical of the human perspective. Banks has a vision of herself in the future talking with a Chinese general about how she uses his private number to talk him out of initiating a war. With the knowledge she derives from the vision, Banks actually makes the call and the war is stopped. The countries of the world unite in an effort to work on the alien problem and what their presence means for humanity.

I thought this movie was beautiful and full of philosophical depth. Especially interesting was its mention of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is the idea, roughly speaking, that our language determines how we think. Of course, a major theme in the movie is how the brain acquires new capacities through the assimilation of the alien language, as Louise Banks shows. I really loved Prisoners, another film directed by Dennis Villanueve, and I love this move as well.

Movie Review: Snowden

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Snowden, as one might expect, is about the controversial historical figure, Edward Snowden, an employee who worked in various capacities in the intelligence community who eventually exposed massive and possibly unconstitutional surveillance of ordinary American citizens. The movie depicts Snowden as an awkward but highly intelligent young man who fails high school but is nevertheless able to gain employment with the CIA. He has deep knowledge of computers and rises up in the agency, receiving special tutelage from agency leaders. Snowden becomes aware of the extent of the surveillance that is going on and becomes increasingly preoccupied about it. His obsession leads to alienation from his girlfriend. At one point, Snowden is having a conversation with his coworkers about which country receives the heaviest surveillance from the intelligence community. It turns out, shockingly, to be America. Snowden at times comes across as a paranoid schizophrenic: he keeps thinking that people are watching him, and he ends up putting duct tape over the webcam on his girlfriend’s computer. Snowden also has epileptic seizures.

Snowden eventually determines to reveal what he knows to the press. He is galled by the obvious lie of James Clapper, who told Congress that the intelligence community never wittingly gathered intelligence on ordinary American citizens. At various points in the movie, we see Snowden holed up in a hotel room with the journalist, Glen Greenwald, and a woman who is making a documentary about him. Here, Snowden tells the world what he knows about the American intelligence community. And the great moral controversy begins here: did Snowden do the right thing in revealing to the world what he knew? Critics think he is a traitor, someone who disclosed highly sensitive information that, once in the hands of enemies, will damage national security. Intelligence officials claims that awareness of what ordinary people are doing is needed because, for instance, two travel agents who are simply trying to make a living might be connected unwittingly to terrorist activity. Others defend Snowden, calling him a hero who gave up his girlfriend and his personal safety in order to let Americans know about the overreach of their intelligence community.

I will not make a judgment about Snowden’s monumental decision here. Oliver Stone, who directed this film, portrays Snowden in a cautiously positive light. Stone doesn’t go overboard, though, leaving viewers some moral ambiguity to work through. This is a quality film.

Book Review: Trump, The Art of the Deal

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It is fascinating to read this book, not only for its business acumen but also from the perspective of thirty years or so after the events recounted, when Donald Trump has left the business world and become President Trump. The book opens with a typical day in the life of dealmaker Donald Trump. One incident that struck me is Trump’s efforts to raise money for Annabel Hill. Trump became aware of this situation through Don Imus, a well-known radio personality. Mrs. Hill was trying to save her home from being foreclosed. Her husband had tragically killed himself in order to procure money from his life insurance policy. The proceeds from the insurance were not enough. Trump called the bank who held Mrs. Hill’s mortgage, and when the vice-president of the bank told Trump there was nothing he could do, Trump threatened to bring a lawsuit for murder against the bank. His point was that the bank was indirectly responsible for the death of Mrs. Hill’s husband. Here, you can see the compassion of Trump, who has a soft spot for the little guy. He repeatedly told people on the campaign trail that they had been forgotten by Washington, and that his goal was to make sure that they are not forgotten any longer.

Trump was constantly involved with government because he needed city planning commissions and other governmental entities to approve his development projects. At one point, he mentions someone who worked as a housing commissioner under Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City. Trump would fight with this commissioner a lot, but later hired him. Trump says that he doesn’t mind if people oppose him; his main concern is hiring the best possible talent. He applied this approach when hiring Kellyanne Conway, who opposed him initially when working for Ted Cruz.

Trump is an all-business, serious sort of guy. He doesn’t like vacations or small talk. He likes to work and get things done. For Trump, the fact that being a businessman means going to a lot of parties is a bad thing, and he always tries to leave early.

Trump seems to be a combination of both of his parents. His father was a very serious, tough man who ran properties in Brooklyn. Trump’s mother was more interested in glamour and celebrity. Trump recalls how fascinated his mother was when viewing a coronation ceremony on television, and how his father ridiculed his mom for this interest. Trump is interested in competence and efficiency like his dad, but also loves the spotlight and glamour. He is drawn to casinos, entertainment, and sports.

Trump has always been feuding with the press. At times, the press, in particular the New York Times, has helped his work; at other times, the press has criticized him as a businessman. At one point, Trump expresses with awe how powerful the New York Times is. It had at one point tremendous influence over politicians in the city. Trump must feel very gratified that a paper he relied on to further his business interests is now flailing because of its biased coverage of his campaign. He continually tweets about how this paper is failing. He must feel as though he has slain Goliath.

Trump discusses his purchase of Mar-a-Lago, a gorgeous estate in Florida which he now calls the “winter whitehouse.” Interestingly, the previous owner, Mrs. Marjorie Post, gave it to the government as a presidential retreat. The government eventually gave back the estate to Post, and then Trump bought it for eight million dollars. But, now it is a presidential retreat again.

Trump offers an interesting critique of contemporary art. At one point, one of Trump’s friends, who is an artist, picks up a bucket of paint and splashes it on a canvas. He did it four times, each time with a different color. After a few minutes of this, the artists says that he has just earned $25,000. Trump thinks that modern art is a con, and that the artists who do it are better at self-promotion than they are at art.

This book is full of trenchant observations. I have always thought that President Trump is one of the most thoughtful and substantive tweeters out there, and he brings the same inquiring and incisive mind to this book.

Why I am Against the Philly Sweetened Beverage Tax, a.k.a. Soda Tax

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On January 1, 2017, the administration of Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney instituted a city-wide beverage tax. This tax imposes a 1.5 cent/per ounce tax on any sweetened beverage (soda, juice, tea, etc.). Basically, this translates to a tax of about a dollar on a two liter bottle of soda. The hope of the city is that the money collected from this tax will fund universal pre-k, libraries, parks, rec centers, etc. This law was spearheaded by do-gooders in the city’s medical elite and public education system. The doctors were behind it because they hope that the tax will reduce obesity. Educators support it because it, the hope is, will expand access to pre-K for Philadelphia residents. Pre-k, they allege, has very beneficial effects on students, to the point of helping some who would otherwise end up in prison.

I think that arguments for this tax are a house of cards. I will use an argument by process of elimination to go through arguments in favor of the tax one by one, all the while showing that each argument is flawed. Simply, there are too many “ifs” in this law for it to do much good. The only certainty in the law is that it will take money out of the economy and hurt business in the city.

1) The tax will raise money to support pre-k. This is good. Let’s do it. After all, the education of children is more important than the profits of people in the soda industry. People in the soda industry are basically bad people, who make money off of people by getting them hooked on soda that is grossly unhealthy.

Let’s take apart this argument. First, will the money go to support pre-k? Some of it will. There are a couple of issues here, though. In the initial rollout of the tax, the claim was that all the money from the soda tax would go to establishing universal pre-k. The additional ends for the revenue stream from the tax were added on by Mayor Kenney after his discussions with the City Council. We now know that 20% of the money will not go to pre-k. Instead, it will go to nursing homes, programs that help the homeless, the Community College of Philadelphia, and, oh yeah, benefits for government employees. This last item should give one pause. Okay, so what, though? The other causes that the soda tax is benefiting are also good, and government employees deserve benefits, too. I’m cool with it. The second problem, though, is the strong possibility of corruption in the city government. This is especially risky in a government that is so heavily dominated by Democrats, as Philadelphia is. There are few Republicans to serve as a watchdog for ethics violations.  The government of the city of Philadelphia is a hotbed for ethics violation and waste. How else can one explain the uniquely high tax rate on Philadelphia residents, with taxes on cigarettes, gas, liquor, property, etc., and the chronically failing schools that can barely put together a workable budget each year, not to mention a $5.9 billion pension shortfall? (see the link below on ethics violations for more detail) So, when you talk about money going to pre-k, you need to take into account the likelihood of waste and abuse.

Onto the next component of the argument. You have some money (minus other projects, minus waste, fraud, abuse) which you hope to use on developing universal pre-k. And pre-k is good. In fact, there have been studies by leading academics that show that pre-k can keep people out of prison. Keeping people in prison costs money, so we can save money by keeping people out of it. So, again, so what that the mean soda people lose out?

Here is another “if”, though. The first “if” is how much of the money collected through the tax really goes to pre-k. The second “if” is that pre-k really keeps people out of prison. I admit, I am not an expert on this topic. But, I have some common sense. How much of an impact does pre-k really have? There are a lot of other factors that go into formation of a child’s character: job opportunities when they get older, elementary, middle, and high schools, the availability of playgrounds, positive adult role models, the presence of police, family income, etc. There are really a million such factors. Someone could have great pre-k and end up a criminal. Someone could not have pre-k and end up a great person. Do people go around asking other people if they’ve been to pre-k, and then acting like it’s a degree from an Ivy League School? “Wow, you had pre-k? Nice!” Academic studies don’t prove the connection between pre-k and future good citizenship. There may be correlation, not causation.

Another “if” here is whether the pre-k the city offers will be good. Does mediocre pre-k really drive people way from crime? Or, does pre-k have to be excellent to drive people away from crime? So, if the pre-k the city offers is really good, then maybe we can reduce the prison population in the city.

Another “if” with the pre-k is whether people will sign up or not. How do Philadelphia progressives know that people will sign up for these programs? Maybe some people will just be indifferent. So, if the pre-k the city offers is really good, then maybe we can reduce the prison population in the city, if enough people actually sign for pre-k.

2) Hold on a minute. You’re forgetting the health benefits. The soda tax will reduce obesity. That’s really good. Again, the soda industry is a bad industry.

Will it, though? Maybe people will just pay the extra fee because they still want to enjoy the beverage. Or, people will just get their sugar fix some other way–candy, cakes, popsicles, ice cream, cookies, etc. History disproves the idea that the government can nudge people with a tax to eat healthier.

“Soda and candy taxes do not necessarily decrease caloric intake,” reports the Tax Foundation, which has studied the issue. “One recent study finds that when adolescents switch away from soda due to price increases, the drop in calories is offset by an increase in calories consumed in other food and drink.”

This is yet another “if”! So, if the pre-k the city offers is really good, then maybe we can reduce the prison population in the city, if enough people actually sign for pre-k. And, we might be able to reduce obesity.

And there’s yet another problem! If the soda tax drives down consumption of sweetened beverages, then there will be less money for pre-k. Soda consumption is going down anyway, as more people become aware of its effects on the body. The soda tax will reduce soda consumption (not obesity, though), and the funds for pre-k will start to go down.

So, liberals in favor of the soda tax can’t have it both ways. THE TAX WILL FALL APART BY VIRTUE OF ITS OWN CONTRADICTIONS! Funds for pre-k will dry up, and the city will be looking again for other ways to finance their programs.

3) There is one thing that is not an “if” in this policy of “ifs”. This is, that the soda tax will hurt business in the city. There is no doubt this will happen. People who make money off the sale of sweetened beverages are going to lose profits. This is the inevitable logic of the policy. Grocery stores, bars, delis, pizza places, fast food restaurants–all will see a dip in profits. Some of them, particularly the small local businesses and corner stores, will be forced to close. This is what happened in Mexico when a soda tax was imposed there, and that will happen here.

So, the only certainty in this policy is that a sector of the economy of the city will take a hit. There will be reduction in jobs. Entrepeneurs and developers will be wary of starting up business under the Kenney administration.

A bunch of hypotheticals and maybes is not enough to justify this certain harm. Does the following argument sound convincing? The soda tax will harm a significant segment of the city’s economy. But, if the pre-k the city offers is really good, then maybe we can reduce the prison population in the city, if enough people actually sign for pre-k. And, we might be able to reduce obesity.

http://www.nationalreview.com/article/444491/philadelphia-soda-tax-consumers-businesses-poor-hit-hardest

http://www.newsweek.com/does-soda-tax-reduce-obesity-ask-mexico-429214

https://strongnation.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/149/0b3247f5-0f13-45c5-8ffe-dd30cf2d8b9c.pdf?1470666950&inline;%20filename=%22I’m%20the%20Guy_%20FC_PA.pdf%22

Ethics violations in city: http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/state-local-politics/293718-all-corruption-is-local-in-philadelphia

http://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickgleason/2016/06/18/philly-soda-tax/#74ecd6341894

https://beta.phila.gov/services/payments-assistance-taxes/business-taxes/philadelphia-beverage-tax/

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/20160614_Drink_tax_proposal_had_some_sweetners.html

 

The Mysterious Experience I Had with A Newspaper

 

8026351I had a strange experience with trying to get an article published in a newspaper. There has been a lot of talk these days about bias in the media, and it is completely fair. That is why I was wary about trying to write for a paper. I have a conservative bent. I tried to come up with pitches that would allow me to express myself but which also wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers. I want to document the experiences I had with the editor. There was no explicit discrimination, but I think the clues are there. I’m not writing this out of self-pity, only to get on the record what happened.

I first made contact with the editor online. I will call her, for the sake of privacy, X. X is not the lead editor of this paper ( which was, btw, a school newspaper), but only runs a certain part of it. X welcomed me to the team. She agreed to include me in weekly emails and invited me to weekly meetings. When I first emailed X, I attached an article I had written, which is actually part of this blog, on the critical thinking classes I teach. The editor’s response to this article was to say that the paper doesn’t publish articles like that. It was kind of blunt, but I accepted it. The paper, I came to learn, has a narrow mission: it is to discuss concerns of students of this school. My essay was more exploratory and philosophical than rooted in the concerns of the school. Now, I think the editor could have done a better job of helping me rework this first article into one that fit the vision of the paper.

Another exchange occurred before I actually met X in person. I offered to write an article on panhandling. I have a view that one should not give money to panhandlers. I look back at this pitch as the signal that gave away to her that I have a conservative bent. I felt wary about putting an article in the paper on how we should avoid giving to panhandlers because, having read other articles, I knew my view would clash with the paper’s tendencies. In particular, there was an article on how building a stadium in the neighborhood around the university, an area which is notorious for crime and poverty, would constitute “plunder” of this community. People at this school romanticize the people in the surrounding neighborhood, to the extent that they blame Halloween flash mobs on white privilege. My wariness about writing this article caused me to tell the editor that I would just wait for our first face-to-face meeting to decide what to write.

But, there was yet another exchange. I gathered, from her e-mails, that she was having a hard time getting articles for the first issue of the paper. I gave her four ideas. She rejected each one, saying that I better wait until our first face-to-face meeting. I reasoned that I needed some time to figure out exactly what kind of article the school newspaper publishes.

So, I go to the first meeting. During the meeting, I broach another story idea: I want to respond to an article in the UC Davis newspaper in which protests about the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulis were defended. My position is that the students got out of control at this school, and their behavior is part of a larger trend of politicization on college campuses that unfairly smears conservative views as bigoted. The editor again said that the paper does not deal with issues with other schools. But, she said I could write an article on safe spaces and trigger warnings. I would have to apply it to the school.

I was happy I finally had a project. I got to work quickly. The editor told me that I had to conduct interviews. She said that I needed two face-to-face interviews. She suggested reaching out to a psychology professor. I countered by saying I know someone who teaches a certification class on higher education. The editor said this was good. I got busy arranging the interviews. The editor gave me a deadline of one week after I accepted the pitch.

I was referred by the first woman I contacted to two people who run a safe zone training program at the school. I mentioned these people to the editor and she said they were good choices. The editor also said she wanted to see the questions I would use for the interview. I thought this was somewhat humiliating, as I am a graduate student. I estimate that this editor is about 23. I am 32. But, I submitted the questions, and she got back to me with a revised version. My version had three questions, and hers had five.

So, I set up the interviews, met the people, and submitted a first draft of the article. Keep in mind that setting up the interviews is difficult. People have a hard time finding space in their schedules for an interview with a school paper. But, I got them done within a week and I had a first draft well before the due date.

Editor X took a look at my first draft. I got the first round of feedback. Her main criticisms were 1) I need to start the piece of with an anecdote that captures people’s interest and 2) I need more content in the form of quotes.

My reaction was, Okay, I can do this. I understand the need for an anecdote that grabs people’s attention, but I don’t think you have to have an anecdote to grab people’s attention. There are other ways.  I also took offense at the ‘content’ comment. So, anything that is not quotes is not content? Again, though, I remained determined to meet her requirements. She is the editor and has a right to require revisions.

Another issue I had was that two of the three student interviews I conducted were rejected by her. Why? Well, one was with someone I already knew. You can’t do this, according to the rules of this paper. X never explained why. The other interview was disqualified because the student wanted to remain anonymous. Interviewees for this paper have to be willing to reveal their names. X never explained this seemingly arbitrary rule.

I worked through the issues. I added an anecdote, and also added some quotes. Editor X said I should have a 2 to 1 ratio of paragraphs to quotes. I conformed to this and resubmitted the article.

Then, odd stuff started happening. X did not respond to my resubmission at first. I waited a few days, then texted her to see if she got it. She said she did not, and so I resubmitted. Finally, after a week of waiting, I was able to meet with her for more feedback.

The second round of feedback was more discouraging. She made a number of points. Here is a list:

  1. The anecdote you used is not related to the topic of safe spaces. Yes, it was.
  2. Liberal studies, which is the major of the student I interviewed, is not a major. It actually is.
  3. You can’t use the word ‘probe’ when describing how you interviewed someone. Why not?
  4. You can’t set people up in opposition to one another in the article. So, in the article, I compared the views on safe spaces of the different people I interviewed. Why the hell not?

 

The ultimate recommendation of editor X was that I needed another round of student interviews. Again, she asked to see the questions I would use. This was strange, as she had already approved a list of five questions. She didn’t specify how many interviews I would need. I sent her again the interview she had already approved. Soon, she sent me back another interview question list–this one had eleven questions.

One concern with this was that I would get so much ‘content,’ meaning quotes from students, that I really wouldn’t be writing the article. Moreover, since she had written almost all the interview questions, it seemed like my role was just to do the interviews on her behalf. This was humiliating. I was going to go through with the interviews, but I became demoralized. I felt silly asking someone questions that I didn’t really believe in, since I hadn’t written them.

The following Monday, editor X texted me. She told me that I should have the interviews done within the next few days. This was odd, since she couldn’t have known that I had not already done them. It was like she was anticipating I wouldn’t go through with the interviews. After the first text, she added that I should interview some pre-law and mosaic professors as well (mosaic is a liberal arts program all students at this university are required to take). Again, she didn’t specify the number. Do I need one of both? Or three of both?

At this point I got frustrated and told her that I was dropping the project. The article was only 650 words. The paper comes out weekly, so it’s not like the articles are exquisite pieces of research. If there is pay, it is minimal ($10?).

Editor X did not object to my dropping the project. She did not try to coax me to work through the difficulties. She simply said, That’s fine. Then, she told me that it is only fair to say that she had been up front about the requirements for the article from the beginning and that the next time I picked up a piece I would need to make sure that  I could devote the necessary time and effort.

If you have read this piece, you know that this editor had not been clear from the beginning about the requirements. The editor said that she had been “saying this all along”–meaning the number of interviews I would have to do. This is just not true. Also, she made sure to mention future pieces I might write. I feel as though she was barring me from writing for the paper altogether. The implication of what she was saying was that, for any another pitch I picked up, I would have to go through the same grueling process of endless reevaluation and resubmission.

I could be wrong about this. It’s possible this editor was just an annoying and incompetent leader. But, her final text to me, in which she blamed me for not knowing what I could handle in terms of work, shows that this is not a harmless person. So, I think the best theory for this behavior is viewpoint-discrimination.

 

Book Review: Obama’s America

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Well-known conservative Christian commentator Dinesh D’Souza wrote this book during the 2012 presidential election when Barack Obama ran for a second term against Mitt Romney. This book shows D’Souza’s ability to communicate complex ideas in a crystal clear way. He has a very fluid and transparent writing style, and I breezed through this book. D’Souza builds intrigue as tries to account for Barack Obama’s actions as president during the years 2008-2012, his first term. Why does he try to stop oil drilling in America, which would produce thousands of jobs and help us to shake our dependence on foreign oil, and yet support efforts to drill oil in foreign countries like Brazil and Colombia? And why is he selective about supporting different political movements in the Middle East? For instance, he was invested in supported the revolution in Egypt against Mubarak, but reserved when it came to the protests in Iran. The revolution in Egypt led to the rise of the Muslim brotherhood, an organization many think ought to be classified as a terrorist organization.

D’Souza advances a theory that he compellingly tests against the evidence. Obama is not a bumbling leader, nor is he a traditional liberal. Obama got his ideology from key figures in his past, most notably his father. His father once wrote an article in which he floated the idea of a one hundred percent income tax. In America, Obama found mentors in academia such as anti-Israeli writer Edward Said, former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, and other key figures like pastor Jeremiah Wright and Saul Alinsky. These people all contributed to an anti-colonial ideology. This ideology sees Western expansion as an exploitative effort to plunder third world countries of their wealth. Since colonial governments such as America and the U.K. made their wealth on the backs of the third world, it is incumbent on the colonial government to pay the third world back. Why did Obama remove the bust of Winston Churchhill from the Whitehouse? Because, in addition to Churchhill’s courageous stand against the Nazis, he also was a big proponent of British colonialism in Africa, where Obama has ancestral roots. So, for Obama, what is good for America is a diminishment of its greatness. To achieve a more level global playing field, Obama massively increased the regulatory powers of the federal government, taking over health insurance and the financial sector in the form of the ACA and the Dodd-Frank act respectively. He also has unprecedented spending habits that drive up the national debt so that we are beholden to Chinese banks and other foreign lenders. Obama has also been a champion of the global zero movement, which seeks nuclear disarmament and weakens our international standing.

This book provides an important corrective to a worshipful media that many times has uncritically portrayed Obama as a political hero. I think that few people understand who this man really is and what his legacy amounts to. He was a skilled orator who was able to inspire the confidence of millions of Americans. But, if Americans really knew him, would they have voted for him?