Thursday, February 4, 2016

Movie Review: Trumbo

WARNING: The following blog post contains a lot of spoilers. If you have not yet seen Trumbo and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

When I first saw the trailer for Trumbo a few months ago, I knew that this was a movie that I wanted to watch. But I also knoew that this was not going to be a movie that I'd be able to watch in a theater in Korea.

Now I'm not saying that the Korean government somehow prevented the movie from being shown in Korea. There is no evidence for that. Also, there are many reasons why a movie might not play in theaters in any particular country. However, considering the fact that Korea is a country where ironic tweets can get you into trouble and where a professor can get indicted for merely holding an unpopular opinion, well, it made it all that much sadder that the movie has not made it to theaters here yet. If anyone needs to watch this movie, it's Koreans.

Bryan Cranston plays the eponymous character, Dalton Trumbo, an eccentric and witty screenwriter (whom I discovered only after having watched the movie that he had penned some of my favorite classic movies such as Roman Holiday and Spartacus) who also happened to be a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America.

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Anyone who is familiar with me and my blog already knows that I am a staunch anti-communist. So before I sat down to watch this movie, I already knew that there was going to be a part of me that would feel uncomfortable knowing that the movie's protagonist was going to be a character who held beliefs that I am fundamentally hostile to.

And there were parts of the movie when I did shake my head a bit. The first moment was early on in the movie when Trumbo explains to his young daughter that if she were willing to share her Ham and Swiss Cheese sandwich with a schoolmate who didn't have any food, that made her a communist. Obviously, in this scene, a father was taking pains to explain to his very young daughter a political opinion that he held. So, the scene would not have made any sense if Cranston's character gave a speech about the virtues of Das Kapital. However, it is obvious that this is more than just a father explaining what communism is to his young daughter. Rather, it was the filmmakers attempt at explaining what communism is to the audience. And as a member of the audience, I felt insulted.

The other moments were when the anti-communists, the bad guys – a meatheaded John Wayne (played by David James Elliott), a vicious Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren), and a slimy J. Parnell Thomas (played by James DuMont) along with other extras – were treated like two-dimensional stock villains. Was John Wayne's anti-communism a result of a him trying to compensate the fact that he did not fight in the Second World War? Was Hedda Hopper really trying to preserve American democracy from what she thought of as a threat that millions of American soldiers were fighting against or was it her way of getting back at a movie industry that forsook her because she had grown old? What about J. Parnell Thomas? Was he simply looking to gain more political power for himself or might there have been other reasons?

None of that was given much attention. That being said, I don't think that the filmmakers ought to be judged too harshly for glossing over the villains. After all, the move itself lasted for about only two hours. So it was obviously impossible to explore every individual's inner psyche. This wasn't the fault of the filmmakers but rather the fault of the medium itself. And that, I think, is all the more reason why I think television shows are becoming increasingly more popular among the audience than movies.

One thing that I think is important to mention, however, is that no one who has ever watched this movie could ever say that Trumbo is pro-communist. Aside from the first scene I mentioned and the brief scenes that Louis CK was in, there was no talk whatsoever about communist ideas. In fact, the whole idea of Trumbo being a communist was made quite silly when Cranston appears in one scene holding a bottle of champagne in each hand exclaiming We're rich!” after he sells the rights to Roman Holiday to Paramount Pictures.

If anyone watched this movie hoping to see a stirring defense of communism, they would have left feeling utterly disappointed. The fact that Trumbo was a communist was treated as though it were a mere coincidence.

In fact, Trumbo himself is probably not the first candidate that even genuine communists might choose to represent as his/her ideal hero because like Louis CK says in the movie, Trumbo talks like a radical but lives like a rich guy. Had Trumbo been a contemporary figure, I have no doubt that many people today would have treated him much like the way people treat Sean Penn (who really deserves to be treated like an idiot).

Not your grandfather's communist!
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No, the movie was not a defense of communism but rather a defense of individual liberty – especially the notion that people are free to think whatever the hell they want.

It simply does not matter what an individual thinks. The only person whom that should be important to is the individual himself. Trumbo was a communist, perhaps an imperfect communist, but he was a genius screenwriter who was able to make movies seem like magic.

That led to another theme of the movie – what a rational individual can produce with his own mind. Just like how Mel Gibson may be a racist (or maybe he is only when drunk) but he is an amazing director and actor and how Ayn Rand may have been an unpleasant harpy but she was an intellectual titan to reckon with, what truly matters is what one is able to bring to the table. Trumbo brought with him a Midas Touch. Every movie he made, even the bad ones, were made terrific because he worked on them.

What does it matter what the individual thinks in his own time when the work that the individual produces is so good that it practically loved by so many?

The fact of the matter is that what people think in the privacy of their own minds do not matter to the State. It is not something that the State should ever be concerned with. So long as people are able to produce works of beauty, and even if they don't, what does it matter what they think in the privacy of their own heads?

However, to this day, the State does remain concerned with such things. When people's lives can be made miserable over a newspaper column, it is obvious that Trumbo's fight is not over.

I don't know if Trumbo will ever be played in Korean theaters. But knowing the rate of piracy that goes on in the country, along with the rate of independent caption making that goes with pirated movies, I hope that millions of Koreans do get to watch this movie – legally or illegally. Preferably legally, of course.

For God knows that one thing that Koreans need, among many things, is the freedom of thought.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

What's conservative or libertarian about Trump?

When I shared a recent op-ed column from the National Review about Sarah Palin's endorsement of Trump's candidacy, which was not particularly kind to either of those public figures, a friend of mine made the suggestion that the National Review seemed to have abandoned its tradition of supporting conservatives and libertarians in their fight against the Republican establishment.

I conceded that he may have been right about the National Review's change but I had to ask my friend what was so conservative or libertarian about Trump. After all, whenever I listened to his stump speeches or debate performances, it mostly seemed to be about how he, through the apparent sheer force of his will, would ban Muslims from entering the US or about how he would get the Mexican government to pay for a giant wall separating the two countries or how he got a lot of flak for talking about these problems and how he's going to continue talking about them.

Everyone loves to pretend/believe that "president" is another word for "emperor," especially during election seasons and no one loves to indulge in that fantasy more than the political candidates themselves. As far as I am concerned, however, Trump and Sanders take the cake. My thoughts on Sanders are well known; as are my thoughts on Trump. As for Trump, I am almost convinced that he is a clown who has somehow accidentally misplaced his makeup kit.

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My friend persisted, however, and told me that I ought to visit Trump's official website and read his campaign position papers so that I may judge him more objectively. 

I have to admit that I had never bothered to read his campaign position papers. As someone who has often had to tell Ayn Rand-bashers that they ought to actually read Rand's works as opposed to what Salon has to say about her work, I realized that it was hypocritical of me to pass such judgments on Trump without getting the goods straight from the horse's mouth.

After all, considering the grueling nature of cable news cycles and the even more unforgiving beast that is the Twitterverse, it is easy to magnify one moment of stupidity to paint a person as something entirely that he may not be. Can anyone imagine how much more Howard Dean's scream would have damaged him had Twitter existed at the time of his candidacy?

So I went on Trump's website and I saw that there were a total of five campaign position papers. I did not have the time to read all five of them. The topic that I chose to read was the one that matters to me most among the available topics -- the one titled "Reforming the US-China Trade Relationship to Make America Great Again."

And, folks, it was a doozy!

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Right from the bat, the paper claims that since China's entry into the WTO in 2001, "Americans have witnessed the closure of more than 50,000 factories and the loss of tens of millions of jobs."

Aside from the fact that there is no data to back up that claim, even if that number were true, this is yet another example of post hoc ergo propter hoc. That is because that claim conveniently neglects to mention the effects of the dotcom bubble burst or the Great Recession or the battering effects of high oil prices on the construction industry in the mid-2000s.

So almost from the moment I started reading, I couldn't help but frown and shake my head.

The other theme that Trump's paper continually hammers on is that America needs leadership and strength at the negotiating table with China.

The moment people hear this sort of talk, anyone with any sense whatsoever should begin to ask themselves if that truly is an original thought that no one had before. It's not (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Hell, Bill Clinton once called the Chinese government "the butchers of Beijing" before granting China "most-favored-nation" status after he became president.

Outside of the fantasyland called primaries season, neither the United States nor China can afford to be particularly difficult with one another because, whether they like it or not, the two countries share the largest trade relationship in the history of the world. A child might be able to take his toys and go home if he decides that he doesn't like his friend anymore, but that is not the way that effective international policy is made.

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Trump's other argument is that China's "Great Wall of Protectionism uses unlawful tariff and non-tariff barriers to keep American companies out of China and to tilt the playing field in their favor."

Trump says this unfair playing field puts American businesses and workers at a disadvantage -- that the game is rigged and that the outcome is for Americans to lose.

This is an old political chestnut and a dirty trick that is meant to distract people long enough to forget their own personal interests. This lie was exposed by Milton Friedman in his 1980 PBS documentary, Free to Choose. In the episode Tyranny of Control, Friedman said:

"When anyone complains about unfair competition, consumers beware. That is really a cry for special privilege always at the expense of the consumer. What we need in this country is free competition. As consumers buying in an international market, the more unfair the competition the better. That means lower prices and better quality for us. If foreign governments want to use their taxpayers' money to sell people in the United States goods below cost, why should we complain? Their own taxpayers will complain soon enough and it will not last for very long."

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Trump also thinks that declaring that China is a currency manipulator will somehow get the Chinese to think seriously about the United States. Currency manipulator! Then what the hell does that make the Federal Reserve?!

Also, the fact that people still believe in the myth of the Chinese government being "a currency manipulator" is a bad thing for the rest of the world just goes to show how desperately the vast majority of people in the world need to study basic economics. This entire myth can be punctured by just asking a few basic questions.

  • How can Beijing artificially devalue the yuan without such devaluation causing the prices of Chinese exports eventually to rise?

  • Even if Beijing could devalue the yuan for a long time, would that not raise Chinese producers’ costs of purchasing the many inputs that they buy on global markets? How could this possibly lead to economic growth?

  • Just like the case with "unfair" subsidies, how does the artificial lowering of the prices of Chinese goods harm consumers from other countries? Don't people typically like it when prices of the goods they buy fall?

In other words, isn't Trump saying that he believes that consumers should be forcefully prevented from spending their money in ways that they judge to be best for them, and instead be forced to spend their money in ways that he judges to be best for the benefit of a select few American corporations?

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Now it is true that China requires foreign corporations such as Boeing and Intel to transfer proprietary technologies to their Chinese competitors as a condition of entry into the Chinese market. However, Trump goes on to say that this is intellectual property theft.

But one has to wonder -- if Boeing or Intel felt that they were being bamboozled by Beijing, that the costs of such technology transfers were greater than the benefits of being allowed entry into the Chinese market, wouldn't those corporations voluntarily decide to cease all of their operations in China?

In other words, isn't Trump saying that if he is elected president, he will use Big Government to forcefully prevent American corporations from entering into voluntary trade agreements?

And lastly, he says that he will "strengthen the U.S. military and deploy it appropriately in the East and South China Seas."

I believe that is called the Asia Pivot.

So let's recap. Even Trump's trade policy proposals, which are supposed to be the branier arguments that take place away from the camera, are vague and can only be called economically illiterate at best or deceptive at worst. Even if they weren't unrealistic, his policies would require great expansion in the powers of the government, which is decidedly not a conservative or libertarian position.

Republicans do remember this guy, right?
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I have not read the other four papers on the website. Frankly, reading this one and explaining why it is so horrible has been enough for me. So is he a conservative or a libertarian when it comes to other topics such as immigration or gun control? I can't say. And frankly, I can't bring myself to read any more and I don't give a damn. 
But if this paper was anything to go by, I have some serious doubts about the claim.

Friday, January 1, 2016

On Sanctions and Moral Sanction

Earlier today, I officially became a columnist at NK News and had my first column published. You can view it here.

I am quite proud of it and I hope that you all give it a read. The following is an excerpt from the original column at NK News.

Therefore, the only way to make sure that the North Koreans stop abducting people is to make sure that whatever gains they make are more troublesome than they are worth.
But what more can the international community do? After all, North Korea is already one of the most heavily sanctioned, if not the most heavily sanctioned, nations in the world.
It is quite obvious that sanctions alone will not do. Sanctions must also be complemented with the idea that it is immoral for anyone in the free world to engage in any type of undertaking with North Korea; even cultural exchanges. And that is precisely because such engagements necessarily imply that North Korea is a peaceful and civilized country – the two things that North Korea is absolutely not.

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Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Not So Final and Irreversible Resolution

This is a topic that I have hesitated to write about. Although the Japanese occupation of Korea ended seventy years ago, there are still survivors living to this day who have experienced horrors that many of us could not even begin to imagine. For them, the pain is still real and nothing -- no formal apologies or legal responsibility or monetary compensation -- could ever undo what happened to them.

Like many people, I thought that as long as President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo were heads of their respective states, because of their respective family histories, Korea-Japan relations were doomed to be stalled. So when I heard the news that both the Korean and Japanese governments have "finally and irreversibly" resolved a dispute over comfort women, I was shocked.

It has been such a constant presence that I never thought it would ever end. I was quite elated actually. It meant that a painful chapter in both countries' past has finally been closed and both countries would be able to move on to tackle present-day and future issues that are of mutual concern.

However, that old adage about things being too good to be true reared its ugly head.

For one thing, it turned out that the South Korean government had not bothered to include the former comfort women in the negotiations regarding the deal. Quite unsurprisingly, they did not take very kindly to that.

Another point of contention regarding the deal that both governments agreed to is that although the Japanese government has agreed to pay one billion yen (US$8.3 million) to the 46 surviving former comfort women, the Japanese government has refused to call that money "official compensation" because doing so would mean that the Japanese government would accept formal legal responsibility.

I suppose Abe does have to keep his supporters satisfied.

For the comfort women, this was a spit in the eye. They are right to be angry. I don't think anything can give them actual closure, but I think they've earned the right to stay angry.

But for everyone else... for the anti-Japanese crowd, it was an assurance that their reason for existing would not be taken out from underneath them. For the newly named (again) Together Democratic Party, it was yet another thing they could politicize in their desperate attempt to stay relevant. Never mind that Korea-Japan relations will remain at a gridlock. As long as their victims-r-us industrial complex has something to say and allows them to remain in the spotlight, who cares that economic and political cooperation between the two countries never get to see the light of day and both countries' relations get uglier and meaner?

However, the Park administration's tone deafness and the victims-r-us industrial complex are not the only reasons this deal is so bad.

For one thing, just as the news was being broadcast all over the world, Prime Minister Abe, being the paragon of class that he is, said:

“I mentioned it during my phone conversations (with Park on Monday). It was all over yesterday. No more apologies. This time Korea's foreign minister stated the deal is irreversible before TV cameras, which was then valued by the U.S. Now that things have come to this pass, if Korea breaks its promise, it is over as a member of the international community.”

 I don't know if I am being sensitive but that sounded like he was saying:

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On top of that, the Japanese government announced that the one-billion-yen fund to help the former comfort women would only be set up and distributed after the Comfort Women statue that faces the Japanese embassy in Seoul is removed.

And that makes it clear what the money is intended for. It is not intended to actually help the surviving comfort women; that's merely incidental. Rather it is really intended to erase history.

I have long regretted the sour turn in Korea-Japan relations and especially considering North Korea's bellicosity, China's expanding military, and the immense economic benefits that both countries can share with one another, I desperately wanted this deal to be the "final and irreversible" deal that was initially announced.

As bitter as it makes me feel to see this grotesque show continue to play into what appears to be forever, I say that Abe should keep his money and, at least until both Park Geun-hye and Abe Shinzo have left their respective posts, the statue stays.

Let the statue stay and remind everyone, not just the Japanese but also the Korean government and the perennially anguished crowd that neither integrity nor honor can be bought so easily.

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Well, in about twenty minutes, it will be 2016. Happy New Year, everyone. May 2016 be better than 2015 was.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Leave the Beer Alone!

In December 2014, the Seoul High Court ruled that forcing large retail stores to close two Sundays every month was illegal because (1) the law limited consumers' right to choose where to shop and that (2) there was no evidence to suggest that the law actually helped small retailers or traditional markets.

For a while, I was hopeful that there might have been some sense in Korean courts. However, the Supreme Court made sure that common sense and critical thinking stayed dead and buried when they overruled the Seoul High Court and sided with local municipalities.

According to the Korea Times, one of the justices said,

"A regulation for the public good is not only important but also necessary. However, it can hardly be seen as depriving consumers of their right to choose as large retailers do not need protection."

Don't ask me how that makes any sense.

Of course, this is not the only instance of the government meddling in the economy that has screwed over consumers.

The Mobile Device Distribution Improvement Act has shackled all telecom companies to offer the same discounts to their customers, thus forcing people to pay more for their smartphones.

The Book Discount Law prevents retail bookstores from selling books at a discount any higher than 15%.

And a year ago, the Korean government was mulling the International Direct Purchase Law; a proposed law, which would have regulated how much, how, and what individual consumers would have been able to purchase from international websites such as Amazon or eBay.

But now someone has really messed up. Now there are rumors that the government plans to regulate discounts of imported beer.

Let's be frank. Shutting down large retail stores two Sundays out of a month is no big deal. People can plan ahead or just shop online. Making smartphones more expensive pissed off some people, but thankfully smartphones are becoming cheaper anyway. As for books, who reads books? And regulating online foreign purchases sound like it would be easy to skirt around.

But mess with beer? Do they not know what country they're governing? There has been debate about the accuracy of the claim that Koreans drink more than anyone else in the world. but it's without doubt that Koreans are heavy drinkers.

So dear Korean government, you done goofed. If you think the protests have been violent so far, wait until every single pissed off salaryman joins the fray. There will be hell to pay!

So if you know what's good for you, for God's sake, leave the beer alone!

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Unbearable Easiness of it All

Punditry, especially social media punditry, is easy. It is easy to say:

1. I told you so. They are reaping what they have sowed.
2. They are all evil and should never have been given refuge.
3. Pray for the victims.
4. I am outraged.
5. We should fight against all religions.
6. They were escaping that same shit that followed them here.
7. I stand with France. And look at my new profile picture.
8. You care about it now because white people are dead? Where have you been while non-whites were dying?
9. Radical Islam is the enemy and we should treat it as such.
10. Of course you would think that, you racist!

And the list goes on and on and on and on and on. They are all easy to say, easy to share, and easy to hashtag.

The only ones who are facing any difficulty, and this is real difficulty, are the people who lost family members, friends, and lovers. The whole world can stamp our feet in unison or sing "We will Overcome" in perfect harmony and it will not take one iota of pain away from them.

To those who are suffering -- really suffering, the rest of us are nothing more than infuriating sources of noise pollution.

But what can we do but talk and make noise? The world is for the living, after all. And yeterday's tragedy is always forgotten and/or exploited if that is what needs to be done to win tomorrow's election.

I did not lose any friends or family members in the Paris attacks. So I am not grieving a loss or thirsting for blood. I am quite dispassionate about it all. Thank God.

What I am upset over is that the whole thing is just so fucking easy.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Random Thoughts: The Martian and Forced Filial Piety

Thoughts about The Martian

Yesterday, I went to the movies to watch Ridley Scott's The Martian. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I had wanted to write a review of the movie but Kevin Kim, from Big Hominid, already wrote a great review for the movie, which you ought to read for yourself here.

As Kevin already covered more than I would have, seeing how I have never read the book the movie was based on, I only have one additional thing to add.

This movie is a must-see for younger Koreans, especially considering how popular the notion of “Hell Joseon” has become among many of them.

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This article from Korea Expose describes those who subscribe to the notion of Hell Joseon as those who “find no hope for South Korea; they seek only to abandon and escape the system altogether... embodies despair and hopelessness of the most extreme variety, the idea that the South Korean state cannot be redeemed through effort.”

In other words, Hell Joseon is just another incarnation of nihilism, except that it has been served with Korean lipstick. Regardless of the guise it has been portrayed, nihilism is the very antithesis of the movie's core message, which was delivered by Matt Damon's character toward the end of the movie:

You have to solve one problem and then solve the next problem, and then solve the next problem, and if you solve enough problems, you get to go home.”

This is a lesson that many people, not just Koreans, often seem to forget.

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Thoughts about Forced Filial Piety

It has been revealed that from the beginning of this year to September, the National Health Insurance Service has forced 39 people to pay for their parents' national health insurance premiums.

To be more specific, these 39 people had to pay for their biological parents' national health insurance premiums. Yes, these 39 people had been given up by their biological parents and had been adopted by other families.

This discovery was made despite the NHIS's claim that no such case existed.

I understand why someone would want to force someone's offspring to pay for their parents' medical bills if the parents themselves are unable. Firstly, the government, which knows that raising taxes is not popular, would rather that old people's medical bills be paid for by their children. Secondly, such enforced filial piety laws are probably easier to pass in Korea because of the lingering effects of (near pathological) Confucian values. And finally, though I seriously doubt it would lead to the law's intended results, the rationale behind such laws is to create “ideal” family relations.

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However, all of those factors might have some merit if we were discussing people who were raised by their biological parents. These 39 people were not raised by their biological parents and I assume that their legal ties with their biological parents ended as soon as they were adopted by other families.

It is my professional opinion that now is the time to give the NHIS the finger.

That being said, the government has long been wrestling with how to combat Korea's aging society, part of which is exacerbated by low birth rates. If people can have children, legally give them up, and still be ensured that their children will some day have to pay for their medical bills, that could be a novel way to turn Korea's birth rates around!

But I hope that you'll forgive me for not leaping for joy.