On (Not) Having Health Insurance and S.B. 562 in California (Warning: This Is a Rant, Not a Polished Essay)

I was there (though I don’t see myself in this specific photo).

Even under the American Affordable Care act, more than 25 million Americans do not have health insurance. About 3 million of them live in California.

I am one of them.

This definitely influences my views on health care policy in the United States, but I am uncomfortable about discussing it because, in my experience, when I bring up my own uninsured status in face-to-face conversations about politics, it leads to probing into my personal situation. I am concerned that the people who do this probing are trying to find some ‘gotcha’ which will allow them to discount my situation so they don’t have to change their own political views. I find this to be especially true among Obama supporters who only want to see the good parts of Obamacare and claim it is a ‘universal’ program which solves the problem of access/affordability of health care in the United States (how is it universal if it leaves out tens of millions of Americans?)

If your impulse is to probe me, to find out ‘why’ I am uninsured, whether I could get insurance by some means, whether I *deserve* to get insurance, here is my response: F******* YOU!!!!

Okay, I will be a little more specific than that. One of the most common responses I get (especially from Obama supporters) when I mention my situation is ‘oh, you’ll be okay because you can stay on your parents’ insurance until you’re 26. This response is terrible. Let me list the reasons:

1) I am over the age of 26. Thus, this is of no help to me whatsoever.
2) Even if I were under the age of 26, would these people expect me to remain under the age of 26? How could I stay under 26 forever?
3) This assumes that my parents have health insurance? How do these people know that my parents have health insurance?
4) As it so happens, my parents do have health insurance – due to a government program called Medicare. It is explicitly only for people at or over the age of 65 (with some exceptions). Though I am not 100% sure about this, I don’t think I would be eligible for Medicare even if I were under the age of 26 just because my parents are insured through Medicare.

I know that this policy of putting people on their parents’ insurance plans until they are 26 has allowed people to get necessary health care which they otherwise would not have gotten, and for that I am grateful. However, you don’t get to use it as a rhetorical device to dismiss the concerns of people who the Affordable Care Act has failed to help.

Looking at what is going on in Washington D.C. right now, I know that if the Republicans’ plans to cut back the Medicaid expansion and cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their health insurance so that rich people pay less taxes become enacted, there will be a lot of needless suffering and death. I do not know how to describe how vile that is in words. However, I am not concerned about how it will impact my personal situation, since even the Republicans can’t cause me to lose health insurance if I don’t have it in the first place.

Now, I want to make a very important point clear: health insurance is not the same thing as having access to health care. Some health insurance plans are absolute shit. There are narrow networks – and often patients receive ‘out-of-network’ care without their consent and then have to pay for it (and when someone is PHYSICALLY SICK, do we really expect them to be able to keep on top of whether or not the nurse taking care of them is in-network or out-of-network?) There are health insurance plans with high deductibles/co-pays. And there are some very pernicious ways which health insurance companies mess with the well-being of patients for their own profit. I don’t want to share the individual stories of people I’ve met because I do not have permission, but if you want an example of a health insurance company’s policy recklessly putting someone’s life in danger, you can read the beginning of this article.

Even though I do not have health care insurance, I have better access to health care than some people with shitty health insurance plans. For example, earlier this year, I had a tooth fracture. I was able to get it treated reasonably quickly and within my neighborhood – for $600. Luckily, I was able to pay the $600 (also, that tooth is now covered with gold, which I think is cool). Some people can’t get that kind of treatment in their neighborhoods – they would have to go a far distance. A lot people can’t pay $600 for an emergency medical treatment without risking their access to housing or food. Some people can’t afford the copay for this type of treatment even if they have dental insurance. Some people who have health insurance don’t have dental insurance. Some people can’t reach dentists who will do this kind of treatment for only $600 (most dentists in California would have charged significantly more than $600 to treat a tooth fracture). Some people, even those who have dental insurance, would not have been able to get it treated as quickly as I did – and with tooth fractures, the longer treatment is delayed, the greater the risk of complications (which would require even more treatment, or if it got really bad, removal of the tooth).

Also, I have the option of leaving the United States for medical care, and medical care is much cheaper pretty much anywhere that isn’t the United States. I can afford the travel costs, and if I needed long term treatment, I have dual citizenship, as well as relatives who would take me into their homes if I had to leave the United States for medical reasons. Most Americans do not have that option.

But really, the health insurance system in the United States – both before and after the Affordable Care Act was enacted – is ridiculous. When I was born, I had health insurance – but only because my father had health insurance, and I was immediately recognized as his dependent. And he only had health insurance because he had just been hired – he had been laid off while I was in my mother’s womb, and if he hadn’t gotten a new job before my birth, he would have been uninsured (and me too). My mother, however, did not have health insurance when I was born, so I know my parents tried to get as many of the hospital bills billed to me (because I had health insurance) and not billed to my mother (who did not have health insurance). This is an absurd situation, and a bad way to allocate the costs of health care. Remember, my mother had JUST GIVEN BIRTH, so this was a bad time to impose the stress of bureaucratic hospital billing on her. Really, all the talk about how healthcare would be better if there was a more ‘competitive market’ or more ‘consumer choice’ is bullshit – in order for ‘consumer choice’ to be effective, the consumer needs to be in a good position to negotiate, and people who have medical emergencies are generally in a bad position to negotiate.

Another example of the absurdity of health insurance in the United States is that I will very soon have health insurance again … because I bought travel insurance for my trek, and it covers medical expenses. It’s significantly cheaper than any non-subsidized health insurance policy I know about, even though there are no deductibles or copays (though pre-existing conditions are excluded – that is legal because it is travel insurance). However, one can only use travel insurance when one is travelling (and they can probably only keep the premiums low because really sick people tend not to travel so much). Nonetheless, I find it ironic that health insurance for when I’m in roadless areas of rural Washington is much cheaper than health insurance than when I’m at home in a city with multiple hospitals. I’ve met a number of PCT hikers from abroad who also thought it was ridiculous that the travel insurance policies they bought to cover their medical expenses in the United States are cheaper than the health insurance policies available to U.S. residents.

Enter S.B. 562, the legislation to establish single payer health care in California. For those of you who don’t know what ‘single payer’ is, it basically means that a single entity (in this specific legislation, the government of California) would be responsible for paying most health care costs in California, and that single entity would collect money via taxes, premiums, or fees (S.B. 562 specifically would be funded via tax revenue, not premiums or fees). It’s like the way we fund fire departments – instead of paying for the service of firefighters via fire insurance, the government pays the firefighters, and gets the funding to pay the firefighters via taxes. If you want to know more about single payer, here is a good FAQ.

I have experienced single payer first hand in Taiwan, and I am 100% convinced it is a better way to run a health system. That’s not to say single payer is perfect – the Taiwanese health care system has many problems – but it works much better.

If you are following the politics of S.B. 562, you know that Speaker Rendon shelved it in the Assembly. He claims that he is for single payer, but that the bill is incomplete, is just a statement of principles, and that he needs to shelve it so that nobody can vote on it, amend it, or formally debate it, so that the bill can become more complete..

Huh?

Though Rendon claims that he’s not killing the bill, it’s obvious that this is a move that only someone who is oppposed to S.B. 562 would make. If he thinks the bill has problems, or is too incomplete, or something, then he would propose an amendment, not make it impossible to amend it. And if he’s in favor of single payer, but thinks S.B. 562 is so screwy that it can’t even be amended, then he’d write his own single payer legislation. The reason he’s making it impossible for S.B. 562 to proceed in the California Assembly without proposing alternative single-payer legislation, is that he is opposed to single payer. There is no other plausible explanation.

To be clear, S.B. 562 is incomplete, and it needs amendments. The incompleteness is on purpose, to make the legislation more flexible to political compromise. All of the advocates of S.B. 562 want amendments. But, as I just said, Speaker Rendon has made it impossible for the California Assembly to amend the bill.

And his statement that S.B. 562 is just a statement of principles. I have actually read S.B. 562, and you can too read it too. It is more than a statement of principles. However, even if it were just a statement of principles, I would still favor passing the legislation since it is better than nothing. Legislators pass legislation which is just statement of principles all of the time; it’s far from enough, but it’s not bad either.

And the classic appeal of ‘how are we going to pay for it’ coming not just from Speaker Rendon, but Jerry Brown, and a lot of politicians. Hey, did you know that there is a fiscal analysis which explains how California could pay for single payer. The proposal to fund S.B. 562 is not perfect, and I would welcome attempts to improve the funding mechanisms. If Rendon thinks that the proposed means to fund single payer are too awful to consider enacting, he may say so and explain why he thinks they are awful. However, he has not done that. Instead, he’s ignored the many people who have tried to bring the fiscal analysis to his attention. That shows that he wants CONTINUE to ‘not know’ how to pay for it. A public figure who was sincerely interested in knowing how California could pay for S.B. 562 would read the analysis and then state their opinion, even if their opinion is ‘this analysis is a piece of shit and here are the reasons why it is a piece of shit’.

And yes, one way or another, in order for single payer to happen in California it will have to pass as a ballot initiative. That is true regardless of the effects of Proposition 98. We know that, and the activists are already making long-term preparations. We still would prefer to have the Assembly pass the bill, and for the governor to sign it, because that will improve the odds and speed the implementation of singly payer.

Oh, and then there’s that press release from the Assembly Democratic Caucus. It’s basically tone policing. No, I don’t condone death threats, and neither does the nurses’ association, but I think the accusation of ‘bullying’ and the comparison to schoolyard bullying is way out of line. It’s a very gross example of tone-policing. As one of the protesters who went to Sacramento and chanted ‘Rendon, Rendon, Shame on You, Action Now on S.B. 562′ and saw some of the “violent” imagery, I though the nurses’ unions tactics were entirely appropriate. Really, the nurses’ union has been far nicer in its tactics and rhetoric than many Californians are using to oppose Trump, yet has the Assembly Democratic Caucus come out to denounce “the Resistance” for bullying Trump? Nope, nor should they, since the Resistance totally has the right to say mean things about Trump and use provocative imagery to protest him and “bully” him.

There is nothing wrong with being a sensitive person, but a politician who is so sensitive that they cannot handle pissed off constituents using imagery like this to protest his decisions is not qualified for a high-profile office. If Rendon is too sensitive to cope with this, he needs to find a different career for his own well-being.

Though I don’t agree with every statement Jimmy Dore makes in this video, I generally agree with his analysis of the press release.

All that said, the press release is a good sign in that is shows that the California Assembly has been bothered by the protests. That is part of the point of protest – to bother public figures until they act differently. It would be worse if the California Assembly were completely indifferent to the protests.

I actually have my own qualms with some of the tactics that some advocates of S.B. 562 us, but a) those qualms aren’t related to anything the Assembly Democrat Caucus mentions in the press release and b) I would rather invest effort in passing S.B. 562, or any single payer legislation which might work, than to criticize the tactics of allies who are working even harder than I am to get single payer in California.

And I am really irritated by the title of this article in the San Francisco Chronicle = “Infighting among allies over state’s tabled health care bill” Excuse me, how is Rendon an ally? Okay, maybe they just mean that the nurses’ union has historically been an ally of the Democrat Party, but I think even the implication that Rendon is an ally of single-payer advocates is wrong. Is he an ally because he claims to support single payer? Well, you know who else has said that he supports single payer? Donald Trump. If Rendon is an ally of the single payer movement, then so is Trump. Of course, we know that, in spite of what he has said, that Trump is not ally, because if he were, he’s be pushing Medicare-for-all right now. Likewise, if Rendon were an ally of the single-payer movement, he would either be pushing S.B. 562 (possibly with amendments) or he would write his own single-payer legislation.

In May, single-payer advocates marched through the California Democrat Convention in Sacramento. I was there, marching with my “Make California a Healthcare Sanctuary” sign. At one point, one of the attendees of the convention, wearing a posh dress, pulled me aside to ask “Are we on the same side?” This was so unexpected that I did not know what to say, so rather than remain separated from the group, I just returned to the group without answering her question. However, in retrospect, the answer I would have liked to have given her is “If you want to make single payer happen, then we are on the same side. If you do not want single payer to happen, then we are not.”

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 2)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Content note: this post contains a satirical drawing of hypersexualized women, and a picture depicting sexual harassment.

The Geek Feminism Wiki lists two common criticisms of strong female characters as being:

– she still has to conform to gender-normative standards of attractiveness

– she will wear skimpy or fetishistic gear to fight in, and her battles and acts of heroism will be presented to the audience as erotic spectacles.

There are also the Hark! A Vagrant comics about strong female characters one and two which satirize ‘strong female characters’, including how they are visually presented for erotic appeal.

This is from Hark! A Vagrant!. I think the ‘strong female character’ in the lower left needs to move further to the left so that the audience can see her butt (yes I am being snarky).

If you want to see what the Geek Feminism Wiki and the Hark! A Vagrant comics are critiquing, satirizing, I put in the internet search ‘female marvel characters’ and one of the first hits was this this of the 10 strongest Marvel female characters. I will let you judge the pictures of those strong Marvel female characters for yourself. And here is an explanation of why contorting bodies to show the butt is an issue.

I’ve established in Part 1 that the first criticism about conforming to gender-normative standards of attractiveness definitely applies to the stories of Jin Yong. To the second criticism, I would add that it’s not just female fighters – even (strong) female characters who do not engage in combat are a lot more likely to be visually presented for prettiness than male characters.

The second criticism mainly applies to visual media – whereas Jin Yong novels are prose, not directly visual. But all of his novels have illustrations. Let’s see if this criticism applies to the illustrations.

All of the characters in this picture, including the baby, are female. That baby is SO DAMN CUTE that every adult who meets her wants her to be their daughter, so martial artists – both male and female – keep on kidnapping her and fighting each other over custody. In fact, the two adult women in this picture are about to have a martial arts match over who gets to be the baby’s guardian.

In the above illustration, none of the female characters are drawn in a particularly sexually exploitive way. However, one of them is a baby (and it would be very disturbing if a baby were presented in an erotic way), and the other two are in their 30s, a demographic of women which is less likely to be presented erotically. Furthermore, this is not a fight scene. So let’s look at an illustration of a younger woman in a fight scene:

Here is ‘Iron Hand’ He, who has an iron hook on her left arm, in the middle of a fight scene.

So, here we have a young woman in a fight scene, and she is not being shown in a way which is sexier than her male opponent (well, we get a better view of her face and feet, but that’s mainly because we see her front and his back). In all of the illustrations I’ve seen of female characters in fight scenes published with Jin Yong’s novels, I do not recall any which depicts her in a way which is more erotic than the male characters.

Let us look at yet another illustration from a Jin Yong novel – an illustration depicting sexual harassment.

Zhao Min does not want Zhang Wuji to touch her foot.

Even in this illustration depicting sexual harassment, the female character is not drawn in a particularly sexual way. (To be clear, I am merely saying that the *drawing* depicting this scene is not problematic – the scene itself is very problematic).

There is still the questions of Jin Yong adaptations. Generally, I would say that they do not VISUALLY present female character in a sexier way than the male characters. There is a bit of a double standard in the comic book adaptations by Tony Wong, but even those are mild compared to what would find by browsing the display window of an American comic book shop.

First, let’s see an example from a Marvel blockbuster movie. I typed ‘black widow fight’ into Youtube, and then looked at the first hit which was less than five minutes long – it’s this one from Iron Man 2 (I wanted to pick the first clip under 5 minutes so that I would not cherrypick the example). On the one hand, it’s not that bad in terms of depicting Black Widow as an erotic figure. If I were not critically examining it, it probably not bother me (or at least, not bother me much in isolation – if I kept on seeing stuff like this over and over in movie after movie, there would probably have a cumulative effect). However, her dress emphasizes her breasts and ‘sex appeal’ in way which the male characters’ clothes do not emphasize their sex appeal (not to mention the first bit where we see her take off her shirt and her naked leg).

Here is a fight scene from a TV adaptation which does not just feature any female character, but a female character who is supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world. The fight scene, however, is not an erotic display. (I do have problems with how this TV adaptation handles this fight scene, but they have nothing to do with sexism). I do not recall seeing any fight scenes from any TV adaptations of Jin Yong’s work which are any more erotic than this. Oh, and if you’re curious, yes the fight scene from that TV show clip is also depicted in an illustration from the original novel – the illustration of that fight scene looks like this:

There is the most beautiful woman in the world fighting a whole bunch of guys in a monastery. Even though she ultimately does not ‘win’ the fight, the fact that she holds out so long while she is badly outnumbered is very impressive.

If one really wants to know what this fight is like in the novel, here it is (note: I only took a quick look to make sure it’s the right scene, since I haven’t really read it I cannot tell whether or not this is a good translation).

Even in this scene (which pushes the sexy visuals envelope past what one would usually see in a Jin Yong TV show), there is a good look at the male character’s bare skin too.

Does this means that Jin Yong is not sexist after all? HECK NO! I think the lack of visual eroticism has less to do with respect for women, and more to do with Sinophone cultures’ general reluctance to put erotic visuals in mainstream media. Even in Taiwan – which, unlike some Sinophone societies, does not have government censorship of popular media – if one wants to see people shown in a visually erotic way (like the “Strong Female Characters” picture above), one has to turn to a) American media, b) Japanese media or c) go to the porn section. In Sinophone media, unlike American and Japanese media, there is not a continuum of mainstream-to-porn (or porn bleeding into mainstream, which is another way to look at it) – if it’s not explicitly intended to be porn, then it’s not going to be visually eroticized too much.

(Now I’m going to shift away from Jin Yong to Huang Yi. Just to be clear, Huang Yi is NOT Jin Yong)

I will say that in the works of Huang Yi, there is a discernible visual double standard between the illustrations of male and female characters (to see what I’m talking about, look at this, this, and this. Furthermore Wan Wan in the Cantonese language adaptation of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan has the most skin-exposing outfits of any major female character of an wuxia TV show I’ve seen. However, the other female character in that show seem to have clothing which is no more revealing than the clothes of their male counterparts. No Princess Leia in a slave outfit here!

Black Widow vs. Wan Wan: who has the more sexually -objectifying-aimed-at-male-gaze outfit?

(One can compare the dress of the male and female characters in this video of the theme song of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan, and yes, I like the theme song for the show quite a bit because it’s a very appropriate song for Kou Zhong, and it’s sung by the actor who plays Kou Zhong).

In short, Huang Yi is worse at this than Jin Yong, but Huang Yi is still mild compare to, say, Marvel Comics/Cinema.

There is something more going on here. Maybe you’ve noticed it already in all of these pictures and video clips. Namely, Jin Yong works (and even Huang Yi works) put relatively more emphasis on expressive parts of the female body, whereas Anglophone mainstream media puts relatively more emphasis on less expressive female body parts.

Here is a video which is just about the ‘beautiful women’ of just ONE Jin Yong TV adaptation, which then ranks six female characters from least to most beautiful. The fact that there is a lot more cataloguing of the beauty of Jin Yong’s female characters than the handsomeness of Jin Yong’s male characters says something. However, the body part which is most emphasized in catalogues is the FACE. In fact, we do not see much of the female characters’ other body parts.

If one goes back up to see the video showing Wan Wan, one also sees that it is mostly focused on her face. Even her dress – which shows a lot of skin for an wuxia outfit – is designed to emphasize her face, not her chest.

Yang Kang really likes Mu Nianci’s feet (this is from the 2008 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes).

In Sinophone cultures, generally when someone says a woman is beautiful, they mean that her face is beautiful. Besides the face, the parts of the body they are most likely to discuss are her hands and feet. One can see this in Jin Yong novels – for all that he emphasizes how beautiful his female characters are, he has very little to say about their breasts or butts.

Does it make a difference which body parts are emphasized for physical beauty? Yes, it does. Breasts and butts are not very expressive. One cannot learn much about how a person thinks or feels by looking at their breasts and butts. Thus, focusing on those areas ignores them as an agent. By contrast, faces give tons of information about a person’s feelings and state of mind. Hands can also be very expressive. Feet are not as expressive as hands, but more expressive than breasts and butts. Thus, when one is mostly looking at the face (and to lesser extent, hands and feet) it is much more apparent that these women are sentient beings and not mere pretty objects.

Even though I do not think wuxia’s restraint in displaying female characters in an erotic way, and the emphasis on the face/hands/feet vs. emphasis on breasts/butts/exposed skin comes from a greater respect of women, I welcome it nonetheless. This is not the main reason why I love wuxia, but for me, it is an extra reason to gravitate more towards wuxia than mainstream American geek pop media.

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Last month I posted “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong”, and Siggy replied with a comment about Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’. This led to me thinking about whether or not Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’ applies to Jin Yong fiction. Since the answer is complex, I’m breaking this up into multiple posts. This post, obviously, is going to be about exploiting female characters for sexy looks.

As I said in the first post of what seems to becoming a series, most Jin Yong non-elderly female characters are described as being physically beautiful. If they are too young to be sexually mature, then they are phenomenally cute (which, to be fair, is not being exploited for sexy looks). In fact, it is remarkable when a non-elderly female character is not pretty because that is uncommon in Jin Yong stories. Off the top of my head, I think Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) is the most prominent non-pretty young female character in the Jin Yong stories.

An illustration showing Cheng Lingsu

By contrast, most young men in Jin Yong stories are described as being plain looking, and if they are described as being handsome, they are probably a villain. IIRC, the only male Jin Yong protagonist who is described as being handsome is Yang Guo (he is so handsome that he starts wearing a mask so that girls will stop falling in love with him as soon as they see his face).

Yang Guo is hiding his handsome face.

So … tons of pretty young women with few plain-looking women, and tons of plain-looking young men with a few handsome young men, mostly villains. I hope that the double standard here is so obvious that I do not have to explain it.

Did I mention that the plain-looking male protagonists of most Jin Yong stories have three or more pretty young women pining after him? (okay, to be fair, a few of them have only TWO pretty young women pining after him – for example, the male protagonist that Cheng Lingsu falls in love with has only two pretty women in love with him) (but hey that means that all Jin Yong stories have at least two female characters, which means they are automatically one third of the way to passing the very low bar set by the Bechdel test)

This is also a common problem in Anglophone geek pop culture. It can even be a problem in ‘feminist’ geek media. For example, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is often described as being ‘feminist’, yet some readers have critiqued it because most of the prominent female characters are gorgeous while most of the prominent male characters do not have handsome looks (the notable exceptions are Cordelia Naismith, Ivan Vorpatril, and in the most recent novel, Oliver Jole).

So far, I have only been talking about Jin Yong novels. When his stories are adapted to screen, his male protagonists experience a bout of adaptational attractiveness. The most notorious example of this is casting Hu Ge to play Guo Jing, a male protagonist who is repeatedly described in the novel as being plain looking.

In case you don’t know what Hu Ge looks like, here is a picture of him playing the allegedly non-handsome Guo Jing.

This, however, is also not particularly different from Anglophone media. I will say this in defence of the Jin Yong adaptations – in the only adaptation I saw with Cheng Lingsu, they did not cast a particularly pretty actress to play her (though, looking at photos of other adaptations, it seems that Cheng Lingsu can suffer from adaptational attractiveness).

What do I want? First of all, unless there is a good and specific reason not to have it, I want there to be gender parity for the level of physical attractiveness of male and female characters (i.e. I want it to be just as likely for a dude to be handsome as a lady to be beautiful).

Second, I want characters to have a diversity of appearances, including those which are not conventionally attractive. I like eye candy too, and I do not mind at all having *some* conventionally attractive characters, but I do not want it to go so far as to exclude everyone else. Only telling stories about conventionally attractive characters (and making all of your major female characters conventionally attractive) sends the message that people who are not conventionally attractive (including women who are not conventionally attractive) do not matter, and that’s not cool.

***

So far, I’ve been saying that Jin Yong stories are just like Anglophone geek pop media. This was the point at which I was going to start talking about how Jin Yong stories (and wuxia in general) are DIFFERENT from Anglophone geek pop media, until I decided to split this post into two parts. So, that will be discussed in Part 2!

Confusing Intelligence with Goodness

Content Note: This post discusses ableism, thus there are a few ableist slurs used as examples

The post I published couple weeks ago, “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong” was originally going to part of a much bigger post, but since it felt too ambitious to me at the time, I decided to break it down and focus on just a couple of ideas. However, by coincidence, I read this essay which is about one of the other points I had originally planned to discuss – namely, mistaking intelligence for goodness.

That article, like my blog post, used American political discourse as examples of how Americans tend to associate intelligence with (moral) good, even though there is no reason whatsoever to expect a ‘smart’ person to be have more moral/ethical behavior than a ‘stupid’ person. For example, there is the term ‘libtard’, and I hear/read a lot about how anyone who is Republican must be ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ (the main reason I hear a lot more about Republicans being ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ than Democrats being such is that I live in a city where the Republican party is so unpopular that they do not even bother to have candidates running in most local elections – I am sure that if I lived somewhere else I would hear a lot more about how ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ Democrats are).

I have also had experiences which are a bit like Rick Perlstein’s childhood experiences. In high school I had a reputation for being ‘smart’ – in fact, in the yearbook polls, I was voted ‘smartest girl’ for four years in a row. Mind you, at the time, I was not convinced that I really was the ‘smartest’ person in my year, but I was very good at making myself seem smart. I was so confident in my ability to impress my peers with my ‘intelligence’ that I did not mind at all telling them that I had been in special education in elementary school, because I knew even that fact would not dislodge their impressions that I was ‘smart’. And no, they did not believe me, even though it’s true.

Even today, I am still very good at persuading others that I am smart. However, once in a while, for whatever reason, I impress myself on people as being ‘stupid’ rather than ‘smart’, and I notice that it leads to me being treated in a significantly worse manner. When people who think I am ‘smart’ and people who think I am ‘stupid’ watch me do the exact same thing, the people who label me as ‘smart’ judge it much more favourably than the people who label me as ‘stupid’, even though, in theory, they ought to judge my action based on what actually happened rather than what kind of person I am.

And one of the reasons why life is more difficult for those who are perceived as being ‘dumb’ is that, in current American culture, ‘smart’ is associated with moral goodness, and ‘dumb’ is associated with moral badness. And this is so much easier to notice when compared to a milieu where intelligence is NOT associated with good morals.

In Jin Yong’s fiction, intelligent characters, though not necessarily evil, have a strong tendency to be amoral (Huang Rong and her father Huang Yaoshi are excellent examples, but there are plenty of others), whereas the people with good moral sense tend to be not so smart. In my earlier post on this topic, I tried to make the point that, since Jin Yong’s female protagonists tend to be more intelligent than his male protagonists, and intelligence is associated with amorality, this means that femininity is *also* associated with amorality and this has a misogynist scent. However, setting aside gender, immersing oneself in the stories of Jin Yong is a really good way to experience a mindset where the actions of intelligent characters are suspect, whereas the not-so-smart characters are more inclined to do what’s right for the world and not just themselves/closest loved ones.

Many cultures (including American culture) associate bad health and disability with immorality. This is ableist. And I think this extends to cognitive ability (or lack thereof). ‘Stupid’ people lack the level of cognitive abilities of ‘smart’ people, therefore they tend to be perceived as less moral. On the flipside, people with greater cognitive abilities are more likely to being perceived as morally good.

I strongly disagree with this view. I do not think there is much connection between one’s cognitive abilities and whether one acts in a moral/ethical manner. They are, it seems to be, independent variables. Thus, I actually also disagree with the way Jin Yong presents intelligent characters as being more likely to be amoral or immoral (unless they’ve submitted themselves to someone more moral than themselves), and not-so-intelligent characters as more likely to be moral. However, his fiction does offer the service of running counter to the prejudices of my culture, and thus makes it easier for fish to see water.

Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Ah Zhu is possibly the most intelligent character in the story, yet her entire agenda seems to be serving or helping male characters.

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

There is a rule which applies to pretty much every major female character in the fiction of Jin Yong: she must be beautiful and/or intelligent.

Most major female Jin Yong characters are both beautiful and intelligent, but some are beautiful without being intelligent, and a very few – such as Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) from The Young Flying Fox (飛狐外傳) are intelligent – without being beautiful.

This rule does not apply to major male characters – a few are described as being physically handsome, and some of them are intelligent, but many of them – even the protagonists – are neither handsome nor intelligent.

The physical appearance aspect is fairly straightforward – the female characters are meant to appealing to readers who are attracted to females, whereas Jin Yong most of the time did not offer much to readers who are attracted to males (the most notable exception is Yang Guo, the only male protagonist who is described as being handsome – in fact, he is so handsome that he wears a mask to stop women from getting crushes on him). Feminist critics generally – and in my opinion, correctly – would say this is an example of objectification of women without equivalent objectification of men.

The intelligence aspect is a little trickier. In the Anglophone world, most feminist critics say they want more intelligent women in fiction, particularly women in leadership roles. Jin Yong’s fiction is not only full of intelligent women, some of them also rise to significant leadership roles through their own merits – for example, Huang Rong becomes the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, Ren Yingying not only leads the Sun Moon Holy Cult, she also returns the Wulin back to a state of peace, and so forth.

The rub here is that, whereas intelligence is generally considered to be good in the Anglophone world, it is not associated with goodness in the fiction of Jin Yong. The most intelligent protagonists are Yang Guo and Wei Xiaobao – Yang Guo is mischievous and considers helping the Mongols in their mass murder of Chinese, though in the end he works for good. Wei Xiaobao is an obviously immoral antihero, and Jin Yong himself says that it is wrong to follow his example. By contrast, the Jin Yong protagonists who are most obviously good in a moral sense are not very smart – and often need smart women to get them out of the fire. And many of the smartest characters in Jin Yong’s fiction are either morally grey or outright antagonists. In Jin Yong fiction, intelligence tends to make characters think that they don’t have to follow the rules or care about consequences to others, and if they are not restrained in some manner (by being taught Confucian principles and/or Buddhist principles, falling in love with a person more moral than themselves) they are bound to do more harm than good.

This is how the female characters get objectified for their intelligence – they are there so that the good male characters can make use of their intelligence without being tainted by the immorality which comes with intelligence. Furthermore, the female characters ‘need’ their less intelligent male lovers to offer them a moral center so that they do not sink into immorality. One of the many examples of this is Zhao Min and Zhang Wuji – Zhao Min is a badass, conniving Mongol princess who is both ruthless and clever enough to both take over her own family and rule all of China – but that all ends when she falls in love with Zhang Wuji, who is a Super Nice Guy and she wants him to like her. An even more extreme example is Ah Zi and Qiao Feng (though, to be fair, Ah Zi is not especially intelligent – but she is very sadistic) – to quote TV Tropes:

Morality Pet: A rare example of an older, stronger man being a young girl’s morality pet can be found in Demi Gods and Semi Devils. Xiao Feng is the only person who can bring out any sort of redeeming qualities in Ah Zi. Any good deed that Ah Zi ever attempts has been in the effort to seek his approval.

Meanwhile, Qiao Feng also gets a ton of use out of Ah Zi’s very intelligent (and mischievous) sister Ah Zhu.

There are, at most, two counter examples. One is maybe, maybe Wei Xiaobao and Shuang’er – Shuang’er is very subservient to Wei Xiaobao (even though he does not deserve it), but with her obedient goodness, she occasionally persuades Wei Xiaobao to be a bit less blatantly immoral. But I think this is a very borderline example. The better example is Yang Guo and Xiaolongü – he helps ground him so he is less inclined to being implusive and mischievous (and this is the only major example in Jin Yong fiction – well, except for Wei Xiaobao and some of his wives – of an intelligent male character being lovers with a not-particularly-intelligent female character).

I love the work of Jin Yong, and I love that it is full of so many complex and diverse female characters. But I cannot help but notice that the female characters are there to be used by the male characters – whether they are used for they physical appearance or used for their brains. And I am not sure that being objectified for one’s brains is much better than being objectified for one’s physical appearance.

And this raises the question: why do feminists often say they want more intelligent female characters? Do we really want more intelligent female characters, or are we really seeking something else and we just think having more intelligent female characters would be expedient to reaching that other goal?

Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 2)

One of the advantages Amtrak has over domestic airlines is that passengers are treated with a lot more dignity. There is no TSA – all you have to do to board an Amtrak train is show a photo I.D. and a ticket (and conductors don’t always check photo I.D.). Baggage policy is more flexible (which, do be fair, is partially due to technological differences). While different conductors are stricter than others, they generally try to help passengers have a good experience.

Furthermore, while Amtrak employees have complaints about their work (like most workers), the general impression I’ve gotten from my conversations with Amtrak crews is that they believe they have decent jobs, and a quick internet search indicates that most Amtrak crew members are paid a living wage (unlike many airline crew members). While I have encountered Amtrak crew members of all races, a disproportionate number of them seem to be African-American. That might be partially because working on trains has historically be culturally coded as a ‘black’ job, but it may also reflect that the federal government, as an employer, tends to discriminate less on the basis of race than private employers.

Amtrak is owned by the government. It is essentially a government-owned utility with the purpose of serving the people, not making money.

The Trump administration’s attempt to cut down Amtrak is not a new trend. Some Republicans in Congress have been trying to attack Amtrak for a long time, saying that it ought to pay for itself through passenger fares. However, this reflects the views of only certain types of Republicans and other right-wingers – there is another set of right-wingers who support Amtrak.

I remember one time, when I was on an Amtrak train (one of the train lines which might be eliminated under Trump’s budget proposal), I was talking to a libertarian who told me that government is too big and ought to shrink down. I pointed out to him that he was riding Amtrak, which receives government subsidies. His response was that Amtrak was useful, unlike some other government activities, and that highways and airports are also subsidized by the government, so he couldn’t avoid using a mode of transit which is subsidized by the government. The thing was, he lived in a rural area. I suspect that, if he were a Silicon Valley libertarian rather than a rural libertarian, he would be in favor of cutting Amtrak’s subsidies.

Generally, I have found that rural people – regardless of their political affiliation – like passenger train service, and are opposed to cutting Amtrak. When riding on Amtrak, I have found that a lot of passengers live in rural areas. This is partially because a) many rural areas are not served by an airport and b) even if there is an airport, travel by train is sometimes significantly cheaper. For example, I learned that travelling between Arizona and Texas – especially if one buys tickets at the last minute – is much cheaper by train than by airplane. Now, maybe if the airline industry were not an oligopoly without sufficient public control, the airfare between Arizona and Texas would be more price competitive with train tickets. But that is how things are now.

Speaking of price, cutting Amtrak subsidies is a class issue, not just a rural issue. Aside from Amtrak crew jobs being better than airline crew jobs, people who ride Amtrak – especially the train lines which Trump’s budget might cut – tend to be poorer than airline passengers. Also, it is a disability issue, since some people, for medical reasons, cannot travel by airplane.

Anyway, back to the rural issue. Yes, it is true that some major metropolitan areas might also lose all passenger train service under the proposed budget. I find it particularly shocking that New Orleans might be completely cut out, since New Orleans is currently one of the major passenger train hubs. On the other hand, New Orleans does have a couple of airports as well as Greyhound and Megabus, so losing Amtrak would not be as devastating to NOLA as would be to a rural town.

Oh, and Greyhound? I’ve heard that their prices went way up after they bought Trailways, their main competitor. They also eliminated a lot of routes. This is another great example of how reducing competition increases prices and reduces service. Usually, travel by Amtrak is cheaper than Greyhound, though Greyhound is sometimes faster and usually has better wifi than Amtrak. If Amtrak gets seriously cut back, I predict Greyhound will become even more expensive, and their service might get crappier. MegaBus pretty much only serves major metropolitan areas because that is the most profitable market for long-distance buses.

As it so happens, last week (assuming everything went according to plan – I scheduled this post to go online about two weeks after I wrote it) I went from San Francisco to San Diego by train. Guess what? Neither of the train lines I used (the San Joaquin and the Pacific Surfliner) are directly threatened by Trump’s budget. In fact, I think the proposed cuts to Amtrak, if they come to pass, would barely affect the San Francisco Bay Area. We would still have the Amtrak lines which are not affected by the cuts, as well as Greyhound, Megabus, Caltrain, the airports, etc. The attitude of most San Franciscans towards Amtrak is that it’s nice, and they do not want to cut its subsidies, but they do not consider it particularly important.

Let’s compare that to Dunsmuir, California.

Dunsmuir is in Siskiyou County, which consistently leans Republican. Amtrak has tried to end passenger service to Dunsmuir before, but the people of Dunsmuir insisted on keeping passenger service, and eventually the City of Dunsmuir made a deal with Amtrak. Dunsmuir does not have an airport with scheduled flights, nor does it have Greyhound (and the nearest airport with scheduled flights is only served by two airlines – one of them is United Express). If Dunsmuir were to lose passenger train service, then the only remaining means of long-distance transit would be the interstate highway (technically, it would also still be accessible by freighthopping, which is illegal, and by foot and horse, but that is not enough to keep a town alive in this day and age). Losing Amtrak would be a much bigger deal to Dunsmuir than to San Francisco.

Yes, you guessed it. The proposed budget cuts to Amtrak might end Amtrak service to Dunsmuir, a town which needs it more, not to San Francisco, a city which needs it less.

Of course, though losing Amtrak would be bad for Dunsmuir economy (and Dunsmuir’s economy isn’t doing so great in the first place), the people of Dunsmuir also have cultural reasons for keeping Amtrak. Dunsmuir was founded as a railroad town, and Southern Pacific is still one of the biggest employers in town. Trains are a key part of their heritage. To them, losing passenger train service would be like San Francisco losing its cable cars. And yes, the city government tried to eliminate San Francisco’s cable cars in the 1940s and 1950s, and it took citizen activism to keep the cable cars running, just as Dunsmuir had to make a fuss in order to keep Amtrak. San Francisco cable cars have much less utility than Amtrak trains, and also require subsidies from local taxpayers to keep running, yet shutting down cable cars would be as unpopular today as it was in the 1940s/1950s because San Franciscans recognize their cultural value (and their tourist-economy value, which is derived from their cultural value).

By the way, one of the conservative/right-wing arguments for subsidizing Amtrak is that Amtrak is preserving a piece of the United States’ cultural heritage.

Though I have not done the research to confirm this, based on what I’ve read, it seems that Republicans from rural areas tend to like Amtrak and favor having Amtrak serve their communities. For example, Doug LaMalfa, the Republican who represents Dunsmuir in Congress, has voted in favor of Amtrak subsidies (he is opposed to California’s high speed rail program, but that might be because HSR, unlike Amtrak, would not serve his district). I recall reading years ago that Republicans in southern Mississippi also tend to be pro-Amtrak, and a quick internet search yielded this article (which is obviously out-of-date, but also supports my hunch than rural Republicans tend to support Amtrak). IIRC, the article I read years back quoted a Mississippi politician as saying something like “the Yankees are trying to take away our trains”.

It seems to me that Republicans who most aggressively Amtrak are from affluent-to-rich suburban or urban areas, or are just plain wealthy (Trump obviously belongs to this group).

Likewise, the politicians – both Republican and Democrat – who most favor ‘deregulation’ of the airline industry and allowing high market concentration by ignoring anti-trust laws are so wealthy that they can afford to travel by private jet, or rely on campaign contributions from people who are wealthy enough to travel by private jet.

I hope that the Democrats and rural Republicans can work together to prevent these cuts to Amtrak’s budget. Even though some Amtrak lines are not directly threatened by the budget cut, the way it works is that because Amtrak currently serves so many rural areas, there are a lot of representatives in Congress who have a stake in sustaining Amtrak service in their district. If a bunch of congressional districts lose Amtrak, then there will a bunch of members of Congress who will have much incentive to, say, vote to increase funding to the Northeast Corridor.

Yes, the national network train lines operate at a net loss, but they increase revenue on other lines thorugh connecting passengers. For example, a national network train (the Coast Starlight) might bring a passenger from Portland to Sacramento, and then they will take the San Joaquin to Fresno. Without the Coast Starlight, they probably would not choose to use the train, and thus the San Joaquin misses a potential passenger.

And we get back to national cohesion. You either have the principle that one tries to serve as much of the nation as feasible because this nation is for everybody, or you’re only going to serve the people it’s ‘profitable’ to serve, which in the case of Amtrak would mean that people in the Northeastern United States would have Amtrak service and nobody else (not even California).

And transportation supports national cohesion in another way. You probably think that there is some region of the United States where a lot of people have very messed-up ideas. If so, and you want people in that region to have less messed-up ideas, you want the United States to have a good transportation network. The better (by ‘better’ I mean affordable and convenient) the transportation network, the more people in that region will travel, the more they travel, the more ideas they will be exposed to, and the more ideas they are exposed to, the more likely they will replace some of their very messed up ideas with less messed-up ideas. Though all forms of transportation support the flow of ideas, I think that trains, because they foster more social interaction between strangers than other forms of long-distance transit (except certain types of boats), serve this purpose particularly well.

So to wrap this all up – transportation, like water and electricity, needs to be treated as a utility. This is necessary to ensure fair treatment of passengers – both in terms of price and dignity. When transportation is offered by private companies, it needs to be regulated by the public. It’s also sometimes a good idea for transportation to be delivered by a government-owned utility, like Amtrak. Sometimes, offering transportation to some places requires operating subsidies, but the benefits to society as a whole can justify the cost of those subsidies.

Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 1)

Note: This post is scheduled to go online a little less than a week after I wrote this, while I do not have access to the internet. It might already be out of date by the time it is posted, and due to lack of internet access, I may be slow to moderate/respond to comments.

***

I’m guessing that just about everyone who is reading this post knows that, on April 9, 2017, United Airlines (or more specifically, United Express) called in Chicago Aviation security officers to forcibly remove a passenger who was already boarded and seated and posed no threat to anybody, and those officers broke the passenger’s nose, gave him a concussion, and caused him to lose two teeth. This has sparked a lot of discussion, including (but not only) the fact that the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly, and that this situation (the broader situation, not just oligopoly) exists partially because the government chose to hand over airline regulation away from democratic systems and towards airline managers.

Though it was published before April 9, this article explains how enforcing anti-monopoly/oligopoly laws is necessary to preserve/expand civil liberties. That article focuses on African-Americans, but I think its points can be applied more broadly, and I think the United Airlines incident is an example of the link between concentrated market power and violation of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, another piece of news which has gotten far less attention (for obvious reasons) is the Trump administration’s proposal to cut all funding of Amtrak’s national network trains. You know those trains which I rode last year? Those routes might be eliminated if the budget passes in its current form.

The common thread in these two news stories is that they are about how transportation policy in the United States has been moving towards giving the private sector, as opposed to public sector, more control over transportation, and that this is bad for societal cohesion. In other words, the United States is moving away from treating transportation as a utility.

Let’s go back to airlines. It has been more than ten years since I was ever on a domestic flight in the United States, and most of my experience with U.S. domestic flights was with an airline which no longer exists (TWA). Thus, I do not have personal experience with current conditions on domestic U.S. flights. However, I do have recent experience (within the last five years) with domestic flights in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, and I can tell you that they have much better customer service than what people describe with domestic airlines in the United States at much lower prices. Now, some of that is because people are going to talk more about their horrible experiences with airlines than their boring experiences with airlines. However, it does seem to me that Americans are dissatisfied with airline service in the U.S. in a way that most East Asians are not dissatisfied with their domestic airlines. Furthermore, the domestic airlines in those countries either have government price controls (Taiwan) or are much more competitive than the regional air markets of equivalent size in the United States (Japan and South Korea).

Some of you are probably thinking ‘Domestic flights in Taiwan / Japan / South Korea? That’s ridiculous! Those countries are so small!’ Well, it’s not ridiculous because Taiwan and Japan are island countries, and South Korea has an entire province (Jeju) which is not on the Korean peninsula, just as the United States has an entire state (Hawaii) which is not part of the North American landmass.

Since I know most about Taiwan, I will focus on the airline industry there. Most domestic flights in Taiwan connect the main island to the outer islands. There is also ferry service to the outer islands (except Kinmen), but since air travel has some advantages over sea travel, having both air and sea connections means better transportation than having only sea connections. Since some islands are only served by a single airline and can only sustain a limited number of flights (for example, Qimei, an island with about 3,700 inhabitants, has only two flights per day), market competition clearly cannot keep airfares reasonable. Thus, the government imposes price controls. And when the airfares go up, the islanders make a big stink about it, and it is reported in the news.

Obviously, Taiwan’s regulation of domestic air travel has big problems because this happened (note: I once took a TransAsia flight from Taipei to Kinmen – if the timing had been different, I could have been on that flight). However, Taiwan’s approach – treating airlines as a utility – is the approach which best serves its interests. When I interacted with airlines in Asia, I generally felt I received good customer service. For example, I once got a refund for my ticket with very little fuss for a flight where I was a no show (I did not cancel – I was a no show). That airline had a monopoly for that particular route, so the most plausible reason why they gave me a refund so easily is that they were legally required to do so.

Now, one may ask ‘who cares if the outer islands, which have a total population of less than 300,000 people, have good, affordable transportation?’ First of all, good transportation is critical to maintaining the economies of the outer islands, but that is arguably not important to the 23 million people who live on the main island (the total population of all of the outer island is less than 300,000). The most obvious benefit to the people on the main island is military security – in every single instance in history when there was warfare between China and Taiwan, it started in the outer islands because they are the buffer zone. It is in Taiwan’s interests to keep the loyalty of the people in the outer islands, and for the outer islands to have sufficient resources to support Taiwan’s military (which is heavily concentrated in the outer islands).

But beyond the question of how helping the outer islanders benefits the main islanders, there is the basic principle that they are all part of same society, and that it is the duty of a society to take care of its own people.

Here one might say ‘yeah, that’s Taiwan’s situation, how is that relevant to anywhere else.’ True, people in New York City do not depend on upstate New York to serve as a buffer against military invasion (though I suppose that, if there were any serious threat of Canada invading the United States, that could change). However, the point about broader social and national cohesion applies just as much to the United States as to Taiwan. That is the case made by this blog.

One of the issues I’ve seen come up again and again in discussion about United Airlines is that some people cannot avoid using United Airlines if they want to travel to/from certain places by air because United Airlines is the only feasible option. Though I do not know the details, apparently Louisville (the destination of the flight) is one of those places where flight options are limited. Thus, one cannot rely on the power of the market to ensure good service – if the government does not step in, then the managers of the airlines will just do whatever the heck they want, which is probably to make themselves richer at the cost of both passengers and employees (it turns out the employees who were working on that flight are grossly underpaid, which might be related to why they performed so badly – employees who can’t take care of themselves can’t take care of passengers).

I have zero sympathy for United Airlines, and I would not feel sorry at all for them if they go out of business because of this scandal. However, because the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly which does not have sufficient public control, I do not expect eliminating United Airlines will improve conditions for passengers. On the contrary, I think increasing market concentration might make the surviving companies even less inclined to treat passengers fairly.

Now let’s get back to trains…

(To be continued in Part 2)