The Decline of the United States of America

One of a series.

I drive under the bridge that the Amtrak train tragically jumped the track on in Dupont, Washington over 300 times a year. A considerable part of the coverage was surprise at how fast the train was going. “Even faster than the freeway traffic.” Turns out it was maxing out at 80mph or 129kph. The train lacked the “smart” self-stopping brakes that are de rigueur on trains in other developed countries.

Here’s some perspective for the globally challenged.

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At 320-350 kilometers an hour, Seattle to Portland would take about 50 minutes. Once up and running again, our new, ten minute faster train, will still take over three hours. Plain and simple, we’re getting our ass kicked.

Columbus and Graduation

You dig independent and foreign films, you don’t even mind subtitles, and you have four hours to kill. Here’s your 2017 double feature extraordinaire.

Columbus is a beautiful, slow paced film that explores how to balance personal ambition and family commitment. Columbus, Indiana, not Ohio. Showing now in independent theaters. Two thumbs up from Alison Byrnes who was the only Millennial at her screening.

From the NYT review:

“Jin (John Cho), an English-to-Korean book translator in Seoul, travels to Columbus after his father, an architecture historian, collapses while in town for a talk. As Jin waits to find out whether his semi-estranged father will ever regain consciousness, he strikes up a friendship with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a tour guide and lifelong Columbus resident. A year out of high school, she is tempted to leave to study architecture, but she fears for the well-being of her unpredictable blue-collar mother (Michelle Forbes), for whom she cooks and essentially looks after.”

Graduation provides a lasting feel for life in Romania, and by extension, many other countries where people’s daily lives are shaped by connections and corruption. It also explores how to balance personal ambition and family commitment.

From the NYT review:

“You might think of Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) as a helicopter parent, a father whose heavy investment in his daughter’s success seems both laudable and a little frightening. For Romeo, a doctor in a provincial Romanian city, Eliza (Maria Dragus) — his only child, in her last year of high school — represents his only basket and all the eggs inside. He clings to the faith that his thwarted ambition, his battered idealism and his dented self-esteem will all be vindicated if Eliza wins a competitive scholarship to study in England. He and his depressive wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), who lived in exile before their return to Romania after the end of Communism, are not up to leaving again. Eliza’s escape would be an antidote to her father’s disappointment with the spiritually and morally desolate place his country has become.”

Available on Netflix.

Richardson, Schmidt, and North Korean Naivete—Making Matters Worse

It’s Bradley K. Martin’s fault. A decade ago, his outstanding history of contemporary North Korea, “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” sparked my deep-seated curiosity about life in North Korea.

Next I read Barbara Demick’s harrowing “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Then Adam Johnson’s brilliant “The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel.” Last week, Blaine Harden’s riveting “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.” Next in the queue, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” by Melanie Kirkpatrick.

If you’re more a viewer than a reader, watch “Inside North Korea” and “Camp 14: Total Control Zone.”

One can’t read those books and watch those films and not be alternately repulsed, saddened, horrified, angered, and ultimately, changed.

I believe most people are rational, well intentioned, and deserving of respect. From the time my daughters first started talking, I took time to explain to them my expectations, decisions, and actions. In turn, I tried to defuse conflicts by listening to them. I believe in non-violent social change. Like Gandhi, I believe that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I believe diplomacy always holds more promise for international conflict resolution than military action.

And so why did former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s trip to North Korea anger me so much last week? Because my North Korea self-study has challenged much of what I believe to be true about global politics. I’m not sure anything I wrote in the previous paragraph applies to North Korea. The leadership is not rational and the regime isn’t just evil in the context of contemporary world politics, but in the course of human history. I have absolutely no faith that diplomacy will bring about any meaningful change. I’m not sure of the best course of action, but I know Richardson and “Rock Star” Schmidt are making matters worse by helping delude the outside world that North Korea is changing for the better.

It’s reprehensible for Richardson to say, “the naming of a new U.S. secretary of state could also help reset dialogue”. Yeah right, North Korea is the way it is because of Hilary Clinton. That’s an embarrassingly stupid statement for someone with Richardson’s credentials to make. And when a CNN television anchor interviewed Richardson, all she was concerned about was 44 year-old Kenneth Bae, an American being held in North Korea. No concern for the 23 million ordinary North Koreans whose lives are the most hellish on the planet.

Blaine Harden and Suzanne Scholte explain the problem this way.

“In a media culture that feeds on celebrity, no movie star, no pop idol, no Nobel Prize winner stepped forward to demand that outsiders invest emotionally in a distant issue that lacks good video. Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.”

In part, that’s why I resolve to use this humble blog from time to time to inform others about North Korea, to agitate on behalf of impoverished and imprisoned North Koreans, and to criticize naive, misguided public figures.

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