Friday, March 31, 2006

"The Best Justice Money Can Buy"

All too often in our American legal system, we're left reflecting on the influence of money, believing that the wealthy have more ready access to "justice," that justice can somehow be purchased. While this claim has some element of truth, its automatic acceptance obscures the complete picture. Money, in and of itself, is irrelevant to the legal system. Try offering sums of money to a judge; you'll probably find yourself in even more dire straits (I hope!). No, what benefits one before the law is knowledge. Knowledge of statutes, knowledge of procedures, knowledge of the people within the law, knowledge of what strings to pull. More knowledgeable attorneys are generally those we consider "better" attorneys. This, then, is where we begin to discover one of the systemic problems of the legal system in our country. You see, those lawyers with knowledge tend to sell themselves (their services) to the highest bidder, so those with the most resources have better representation in the legal system and are thus more privileged.

This system seems utterly flawed. Justice shouldn't be apportioned based on the relative wealth of those before the system. At the risk of sounding revolutionary, I believe capitalist structures are entirely inappropriate within the legal system. Everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, is equally deserving of fair, competent, and knowledgeable counsel.

The news isn't all bad, though. There's a growing trend of law schools seeking to support students who desire to pursue a career in public interest law, as through Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) and scholarships. Law school is priced for those going into lucrative fields of law who will be able to pay off substantial loans and this proved a barrier to those who might otherwise have liked to enter the public interest field. Hopefullly this trend will continue and more attorneys will eventually end up devoting their careers to causes greater than the accrual of wealth; until then we can only hope that the best attorneys will increasingly dedicate their time to defending those without the financial means to otherwise acquire the best representation.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Crash with Mars Hill Church

Mars Hill Church is the largest congregation in the county, with over 6,000 members attending seven services on Sundays (five in Ballard, two in Shoreline where the pastor's sermon is telecasted in). Mars Hill says "yes" to literal reading and strict interpretation of scripture, to intentionally intersecting the church with the culture (something it does beautifully well), extremely long sermons (average 75 minutes), and defining itself as standing in opposition to the secular tides of Seattle, which Pastor Mark Driscoll constantly refers to as "the least churched city in the nation."

Mars Hill says "no" to female pastoral leaders in the church and gays and lesbians anywhere in the church: as one can safely assume with most "megachurches", Mars Hill is theologically quite conservative. Which is why I was very interested in seeing how members and pastors at Mars Hill would handle the screening and discussion on Crash - the movie about race relations in L.A. that just won Best Picture at the Oscars - held yesterday evening in Ballard.

For me, at least, Crash was a compelling portrait of racism internalized and externalized at various levels - its clear message is that racism is still a major reality in our social fabric despite the rhetoric of progress we often hear. I was curious to see how the generally socially conservative people at Mars Hill would respond to this film with a pointedly progressive political message.

When you go out to a place expecting there to be a difference, you usually find it - this is the prime rule of ethnography, and also a major pitfall. You can't really force yourself not to filter your observations through your expectations - the only thing you can do is to admit your slants upfront before you write about the people you're with. In my case, I find much of Mars Hill's theology quite limiting and sometimes appallingly simplistic and exclusive - this is only exacerabated by its contradictory commitment to "engaging the culture" but at the same time often extolling itself as an island church in the ocean of depravity that is Seattle. This tends to make Mars Hill practical theology focus more on personal purity than on social justice - for this reason, I went in expecting a discussion filled with denial of the movie's real messages (at least as I saw them).

There were about 300 people sparsely filling the front half of Mars Hill's gigantic auditorium. A pastor named James began the evening with some disclaimers, saying, "People called with concerns that we were showing this movie. Some asked, 'Will you really show this unedited?'" I racked my brain for any scenes of especially gratuitous violence or sex in the film, but when I came up short, Pastor James revealed what was distressing some people: "A lot of f-words in this movie... this movie has more f-bombs than a Tarantino!" He invited people to bear through the profane language and try to understand the message, but stressed, "If it bothers you, go ahead and just leave."

(spoilers follow - do not read if you haven't seen the film!)

The scenes got similar reactions as I'd seen when I first saw the film in a theatre with my old roommate when it first came out. Everyone gasped when that little girl got "shot" in her front yard, same when Don Cheadle's brother got shot by Ryan Phillipe. Several people were sobbing heavily when Cheadle's mom saw the body and broke down, and especially when she said "Your brother came home. He bought me groceries. That's the last thing he did." For some reason, a sizable number of people around me laughed when we saw that the white van Ludacris stole was holding a group of Asian indentured migrants - this shocked me a little, and I said pretty loudly "That's really not funny." I had my hat off so that everyone could see I was Asian (a little hackery, I know) and that shut some people up. I don't attribute this laughter to Mars Hill, of course - anytime you watch a movie with a group of people, there are always people who find things funny that you find shocking. Of course, that doesn't mean I have to just take it.

The highlight of the evening was the post-film discussion - two pastors led the session. A pastor named Gary went through a brief sermon based off themes from the movie. He said right off the bat, "Hopefully, some of you tonight are pushing and prodding yourselves." He hit the nail on the head (as I see it) from the first minute by saying, "This movie highlights two sorts of racial tensions, one that exists on a personal level, and another that is systemic."

Crash served as a point of departure for a discussion of humanity's sin nature (a theology I don't think leads to very robust inspiration for life, but we'll get to that another time) - Pastor Gary said that there were four "reasons" for racism: personal sin, total depravity of mankind, ignorance, and the desire to attain worth and power through being racist. He said that the Biblical statement that humans were "created in the image of God" was a radically new vision of the equal worth of every person, regardless of their color. He called it "PC before PC ever existed" (this is interesting on many levels... the use of the term "PC" deserves some serious investigation).

He also asserted that Jesus himself was the victim of racism: "He was criticized, beat on, persecuted, and rejected by his own people." Apparently, Gary equated these things to being "racism". Later he said there were types of racism based not just on skin color, but also "religion, nationality, sex... any form of discrimination" (this tempts to further investigate what people mean by 'racism'). I wondered if he would include "sexual orientation" in that list.

Ultimately, it was a very compelling and powerful discussion - he said that Christians were called to a "ministry of reconciliation and redemption" and I think that is right on target. He encouraged people to go home and share the film with friends and spark good conversations about the issue of race. He said, "Just because it's systemic doesn't mean we can't do anything about it. ...There's hope in Jesus."

After the pastors spoke, there was a time for Q&A and more public discussion. One young man said, "Racism has sociological factors, that's part of the problem, and we can come up with this policy or that policy, but it misses the point that racism is sin."

That statement encapsulates the general message I feel people received here: ending racism is about reconciling your personal interactions with people of different races - it comes down to an exercise of the personal will not to sin. I find this conclusion valuable, but incomplete: it doesn't speak to political responsibilities for addressing structural racism and histories of racism.

I don't think it had anything to do with Mars Hill that the take-home message was that we only needed to look at our personal interactions and choose not to commit the sin of racism: I think it's a shortcoming of the movie that a broader, historical view of racism is not seen. So while Crash does a great job of bringing back to light significant racism in interpersonal relations, I don't think we can rely on it to deliver a message that socially construced racist structures must be challenged.

More pressing is the question of how we need to renew the language of progress: evident from this evening were conflicting usages of the words "politically correct", "racism", "systemic", and "white guilt" (which, troublingly, was used). If we're not talking about the same things when we all use these words, then we're not really talking to each other. It seems worth looking into.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Two Sides of the Mouth

On Thursday, military officials told the press: "The prison will be turned over to the Iraqi government after the 4,500-odd prisoners being held there are moved, probably within about three months, to another prison now being built in Baghdad."

On the same day, the Department of Defense posted on its website: "News reports that the U.S. military intends to close Abu Ghraib within the next few months and to transfer its prisoners to other jails are inaccurate."

Under other circumstances, I might be inclined to believe there was simply a significant miscommunication and that perhaps Gen. Pace the military spokesman in Baghdad merely had inaccurate information, but this administration has regularly adopted this tactic in dealing with the press. You say one thing, which is popular, loudly and publicy and then quietly retract it later. All anyone, of course, is the first announcement. I've already commented on the Administration's first linking Iraq and 9/11 and then later quietly disavowing those statements; we saw how that turned out. Also, remember Bush's denial that he ever knew Abramoff, followed later by the admission that he did (though even his forced admission obscured the truth - .pdf).

The worst part, however, is that the press seems to allow itself to play into this strategy of deliberate manipulation. Sure, in the White House Press Briefings reporters will ask pointed questions, but the Adminstration has mastered the art of deflection. Where are the hard-hitting questions? Where are the journalistic ambushes? Where is the damned Fourth Estate?

Friday, March 03, 2006

Hardship withdrawal

I'm not sure who even bothers to read my crazy theology and Karl's crazy secular humanism (hehe), but I am sorry that I haven't posted in such a long time, for anyone who cares. As you might have guessed, as the chair of the recently embroiled ASUW Student Senate, I've been rather engulfed by this entire Boyington blow-up.

What's been most frustrating are comments like these (this is my friend Gary from the UW College Republican Online Forum):
"I must say that I take a bit of joy in seeing this happen. How many of us remember being cursed at just for standing by the CR table? How many of us tire of comments about Rich White people? I love how they can't take the heat (so maybe they should get out of the kitchen)"

Gary's a great guy, by the way. I'm just unhappy that people think me and others involved here can't "take the heat" - I've been "taking the heat" for quite a while, as have other progressive-minded people for the past decade of "compassionate conservatism" where meaningful dissent is immediately splattered around on the internet and abstracted into treason. A better word would be blasphemy, but more on that another time.

Despite this, everyone in ASUW has been diligently responding to questions, disagreements, and inquiries - I wonder if the people on the UWCR forum have this fantastic image of us liberal student government geeks, huddled together in our office shivering with fright and clinging to each other for sheer body heat in the cold wind of conservative reason. My mind has definitely been engaged as I've defended my vote and the views of the majority of the Senate to curious people.

But the reason I haven't posted here in so long has been due to the greater part of the messages I've received - these don't merely disagree, they indignify. For instance:
I thought I should ask, are you of Korean heritage; going by the surname of 'Kim' I rather thought you may be. Should that be the case my dear Mr Kim, it is rather surprising that you are not aware the USMC; Colonel Boynton's old outfit. Spent much time, bloodshed and lives, saving your sorry arsed country from your communist cohorts during 50 to 53. I know because I had the privilege of fighting along side them, and if you are an example of why we fought; I almost regret it now.
I got this e-mail from a man in Australia - he takes it upon himself to remind me how a "real Korean" should feel and act about the actions of the Marines. When we use tactics like this to make ourselves "righter" than our opponents, sure, we might win, but is it democratic?

I haven't posted here in a while because there hasn't been anything very constructive to say - messages like this and countless others that are equally debasing have made me a much angrier and more calloused person than the guy who lasted posted on the 8th. I've been trying to meditate and discern lessons from all that's happened.

Clearly, I've contributed to the poisonous rhetoric used by all sides in today's American politic - last year, I said that if people didn't support a certain amendment in the Student Senate, they were racists. So I'm definitely not claiming to be without sin here. The pain of being on the receiving end of rhetoric like that is now clear to me, and I've seen it take a heavy toll in the past few weeks on friends who are even less accustomed to this world of politics than I am.

Several times in the same period, though, I've had the pleasure of sitting down with some of my conservative friends and just being two human beings, talking about the issue - neither of us compromising our values, but both of us increasing understanding. These were conversations where the people involved could somehow walk away with their dignities not only intact, but enhanced through encounter.

The Qur'an teaches, "Do you not know, O people, that I have made you into tribes and nations that you might know each other?" Democracy seems to be resting on this principle - that through dialogue across difference, progress can be acheived for a society. Instead, we find ourselves in this sickened country, where people can barely talk to each other without someone winning and someone losing. How much longer can this sort of "crossfire democracy" work?

It's been a sobering realization that as fun as it might be, I no longer am allowed to indulge in rhetoric like the stuff I've been receiving. And in fact, no one else is either. If we take our democracy seriously, we all must start by changing the way we talk to each other. One person doesn't make a difference here - but two people make all the difference: you and the other.

In the space between Self and Other, find healing. Find justice. Find peace. Amen.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Troop Poll

I recently came across an important poll courtesy of an anonymous (and liberal) contributor on the University of Washington College Republican Forum. The poll itself is from Stars and Stripes, a daily paper for U.S. servicemen and women authorized by the Department of Defense. Here are some of the most significant findings:
  • "85 percent believe a major reason they were sent into war was 'to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the Sept. 11 attacks.'"
  • Only 43% said their equipment was adequate
  • An entire 72% thought the U.S. should pull out within one year; 29% believed the U.S. should leave immediately

I don't particularly want to discuss how long we should stay, except to say that I believe we have a responsibility to ensure peace in Iraq. The destabilization is an indirect (arguably direct) result of the U.S. invasion and we shouldn't ignore that. We are, however, in desperate need of an exit strategy - we must know what the ideal withdrawal situation looks like and decide how best to bring that about. We should have had such a plan when we went in there, but our hubris and lack of planning are not excuses.

There are, however, bigger issues raised by this poll. One is the complete disconnect between the Bush Administration/Republicans and reality. Remember Rep. Jean Schmidt's (R-Oh) shameful attack on Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa), a retired Marine when she charged "Cowards cut and run, marines never do"? Well, apparently a significant number of our troops on the ground think that what conservatives consider "cutting-and-running" isn't such a bad idea and who can blame them? They were assured they would be "greeted as liberators" and now 2,300 of them are dead. Just awful.

A second imporant issue raised by this poll is the disinformation perpetuated by the Bush Administration making connections between Iraq and 9/11, connections that, as most anyone who bothered to actually investigate the claims knew (our 9/11 Commission, for instance), never existed. Even the Administration, when confronted, said they had never directly made such a connection. 85% of our troops disagree, Mr. President. (More analysis by Dan Froomkin here).

It's a bit terrifying, really, how pervasive the Bush Administration's misinformation has become. I suppose it just highlights that if you get enough people to reiterate the same false information time and again, even Truth can be conquered.