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    Abductee and family in Japan

    Posted by Sean at 11:27, July 18th, 2004

    Those following the five-way diplomatic tug-of-war over the family of Hitomi Soga and Charles Jenkins probably know already that they’re…well, I was going to say “back in Japan, ” but only Soga herself had been to Japan before. What Jenkins feared, and the Japanese government tried to avoid, has happened: the US government has at least preliminarily made moves to have him extradited so he can be charged as an armed forces deserter. The initial family reunion took place in Indonesia–Soga flew from here, and Jenkins and their two daughters from the DPRK–because Washington and Jakarta don’t have a mutual extradition treaty (if that’s what it’s called).

    But Jenkins has serious health problems and needs surgery that he had to come to Japan for, so he, Soga, and their two daughters flew in yesterday. NNN (the Japanese equivalent of CNN, sort of) followed their bus from the airport to one of Tokyo’s research hospitals as if it were OJ’s van. Atsushi, who’s home for the bank holiday weekend, glanced up at a close-up of the family’s caravan and deadpanned, “The government put them on a Mitsubishi Fuso bus? Great. At least they’re headed for the hospital already.”

    The two daughters are 18 and 21, and much of the news coverage has focused on speculating what life will be like for them here. Me, I speculate that whatever happened to them would scramble their circuits. They grew up, after all, half-Japanese and half-American in an affluent family in North Korea. So both their parents were of intensely hated enemy peoples; their mother had been snatched from her home country when she was their age now. They were among the select families well-positioned enough to live relatively affluent lives in Pyongyang, and who knows whether they know what’s been going on in the countryside for the last decade or so. The people they meet in Japan may know more about the famines than they do. At least for now, the whole family is here. Now we just need to find out what happened to the half-dozen abductees the DPRK has coolly failed to account for.

    Innocents abroad

    Posted by Sean at 01:10, July 16th, 2004

    Virginia Postrel points to an expansive article by Bruce Bawer, which gives side-by-side reviews of a half-dozen books written by American and European authors about the US and its role in the world. It starts to be a bit of a slog toward the end, but it’s great stuff, all of it. The first book he filets is by one Mark Hertsgaard, whose excerpts read like Amritas’s Kevin Kusoyama, only more cartoonishly leftist. Here’s Bawer’s response to a spiel I’ve heard more times than Carter’s has pills (the first sentence is his summary of Hertsgaard’s argument, not his own opinion):

    America, in short, is a mess

    Breathe, breathe…it won’t be long now

    Posted by Sean at 12:44, July 15th, 2004

    LaShawn Barber graciously gave me permission to reproduce this e-mail, in response to a question of mine about her recent posts on the FMA:

    I don’t think homosexual “civil rights” and black civil rights are similar at all, in practical terms or otherwise. People who practice homosexuality do so because they choose to. They have the freedom to do so or not. Even if people believe they are “born” a certain way, the same still holds: you can choose not to sleep with men. Americans who choose to do so are still Americans protected by our Constitution. No one can infringe on your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without the basic protections afforded you.

    White homosexuals walked through the front doors of hotels and stores, sat wherever they wanted on buses and trains, and were not relegated to second class citizenship. To equate sexual behavior and lifestyle choices with the subjugation, degradation, human bondage of Americans of African decent is a dishonest attempt to manufacture emotion over a perceived “right.” I can’t choose not to be black; however, that lack of choice isn’t what determines my basic rights; the Constitution does. And as I said (I repeat myself often), you already have rights guaranteed you under the Constitution. There is no “right” to be married.

    In the message that brought the above tirade on, I probably wasn’t clear enough on why I thought the “movements” are similar in “practical terms,” but what I meant was restricted to how our publicly recognized representatives relate to their constituencies. Which is to say, when Barney Frank shows up on television, a lot of us glance up from making dinner and mutter, “For Pete’s sake, girl, shut up!” And my understanding is that a lot of black people react similarly when they hear Maxine Waters’s talking head. For that matter–to make sure we hit as many lefty sacred cows as possible–my mother practically put her fist through the picture tube whenever Gloria Steinem showed up on the nightly news when I was little. The people who say they represent the interests of “minorities” of whatever stripe do not always know, or even care, what people at the grass-roots level think and experience. That was all I was saying.

    The issues surrounding gay rights and black rights are not the same, as Ms. Barber articulates. There are particular points at which they intersect, sure, but they cannot be equated overall. I hesitate to link Classical Values again, lest its proprieter think I’m stalking him, or something, but he mirrors my thoughts exactly with this:

    Putting aside the states’ rights and tariff issues for the sake of this discussion, the modern idea that human beings should not be property was on a collision course with the institution of slavery. Something had to give, but the moral high ground claimed by each side simply would not allow it. To me, it’s simple logic that the abolition of slavery destroyed what had previously been private property. Rather than wage war over the idea, wouldn’t it have been more sensible to pay slaveholders to free their slaves, declare slavery over and spare the nation the war?

    Slavery was abolished by constitutional amendment, but not until after the war.

    Inflammatory as it is, can the idea of same sex marriage be as noxious as slavery? Some people think so, but I doubt there are enough of them to start another Civil War. But the analogy is problematic, because marriage cannot normally be said to be as coercive as slavery. (Although I have expressed reservations that it might become involuntary.) Remember that in the case of slavery, it was abolition of slavery that was seen as invasive; slavery was the status quo. Here, the status quo is opposite sex marriage only, so the analogous question becomes whether or not allowing same sex marriage amounts to abolition of marriage. I don’t see how it does, because no one would lose the right to marry.

    Clearly, a significant number of people feel that their marriages will be weakened if same sex marriage is allowed. I have not yet seen a logically convincing argument as to how this might happen, and, despite my reservations about same sex marriage, I don’t understand the “dilution” argument, much less the “destruction” one. It strikes me as based largely on emotion.

    Yet the other side’s position is also quite emotional. A piece of paper and a definitional change (neither of which are needed for two people to live together, share or bequeath property, care for or visit each other in hospitals, or even in many cases to obtain insurance benefits) does not strike me as going to the heart of citizenship in the same way as voting, free speech, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, to bear arms, to sit on juries, etc. Maybe I just don’t care about marriage as much as the people who yell and scream, but the institution strikes me as primarily a legal way to protect children in cases where parents break up. Perhaps it would be more fair to allow marriage only as a child protection institution; childless couples would be legally regarded only as domestic partners and subject to whatever partnership laws existed in a state.

    In any case, I am in favor of states’ rights, and for what it’s worth, I remain implacably opposed to the apparently doomed Federal Marriage Amendment.

    I’m not fond of the “states’ rights” phrasing, but otherwise, I concur. My parents have been together since before I was born, and they didn’t move out of the house my brother and I grew up in until I was out of college and he was 18–and even then, they moved to a place three miles down the road so they’d have more room to entertain. My childhood was the very picture of stability, and I don’t think I’m incapable of seeing the value of marriage.

    But I just don’t get worked up over the fact that it doesn’t include a relationship such as mine. I say this as someone who lives abroad on a work visa that has to be renewed every few years, conducts his relationship in a foreign language, and can’t bring his partner back to the States as a spouse. I am not unaware of the dangers inherent in my own circumstances, and I’d love if they could be legislated away. Sometimes I’m scared when I think about them. But at the same time, I know I’m one of the freest people in history: I chose to live here. And I decided three years ago, without coercion, that taking care of Atsushi was my job from then on. The rest flows from there.

    The most articulate and reasonable gay rights advocates have done a great job of teasing out the meanings and mechanics of marriage in contemporary America. Their conclusions about the weight it bears in signaling the assumption of adult responsibility are correct. But one cannot, from there, summarily argue that marriage rights must be bestowed on homosexuals; the possibility that the way marriage is currently delineated is, itself, flawed must be addressed first. There’s a difference between saying that the government should treat us with dignity, as responsible citizens in full possession of our faculties, and saying that the government can confer dignity on us. Until we get that straight, this whole conversation will be useless.

    Merging ahead–maintain speed

    Posted by Sean at 22:38, July 13th, 2004

    I’m not sure whether anyone in these parts cares about the financial news–Japan is so ’80’s to pay attention to, anyway. But the Mitsubishi-Tokyo Financial Group and the UFJ Group just announced that they will merge into the largest financial institution in the universe by the end of the week, surpassing the globe-buggeringly huge Mizuho Group. Lip service is, naturally, being payed to their complementary strengths, kind of. UFJ is based in Kansai (Osaka-Tokyo-Kobe) and Nagoya and has a lot of small-business clients and individual accounts. MTFG is based here in Tokyo and has dealings with a lot of mammoth corporations (especially in guess which conglomerate), though it also has a retail bank, the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.

    A major reason for the merger, you will doubtless be shocked to hear, is that UFJ is carrying a lot of bad debt. (Not that MTFG still isn’t, I’m sure, but in Japan, these things must be considered relative if you want to avoid a heart attack.) Whether this will actually streamline the operations of their trust banks, retail banks, and holding companies, which are all set to merge over the next few years, is anyone’s guess. In Japan, companies often seem to merge just for the sake of getting bigger; but then, so do the federal ministries that are in bed with them.

    oh. mah. gahd.

    Posted by Sean at 14:52, July 13th, 2004

    Ooh, ooh…I’ve figured out something else I want everyone to shoot me for!

    Er, maybe I should rephrase that. It’s just that I’m all giddy now that I know it’s super-cool to be all involved in the 2004 Presidential election. We know this because (1) the celebrities we all emulate are wearing T-shirts encouraging us to vote and (2) the author of a book called Frumpy to Foxy in 15 Minutes Flat has a quotable opinion on how emotionally-charged the whole contretemps will be.

    Now, you’re probably thinking I’m about to say, “If I ever use the fact that I’ve written a book called Frumpy to Foxy in 15 Minutes Flat to get an airing for my political opinions on an election in the middle of a war, please shoot me.” But you’d be wrong…not because you probably shouldn’t, but because that’s not the worst thing in the FOXNews.com article. No, really:

    While many celebs aren’t shy about letting the world know their political leanings, others are more interested in simply encouraging people to get involved in the process.

    Field said Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are among the stars who have gotten decked out in her

    Impossible Princesses*

    Posted by Sean at 11:03, July 13th, 2004

    The expected is happening to the FMA. Obviously, I’m glad as someone who doesn’t think the Constitution should be amended lightly, and relieved as a gay man.

    However, some days I hope I’ll never hear the words gay and marriage in the same sentence again. I still care about our having the legal means to provide for those we’ve chosen to spend our lives with, and I still care about equal treatment. But I don’t see what is productive about this particular argument at this point. The marriage-or-bust mentality can’t distinguish between a dignified life and a life supplemented by tax breaks and other entitlements. It treats compromises (such as civil unions and domestic partner benefits) as unacceptable, even in the short term. The debate has become more picky and detailed and, at the same time, more coarse. At least this round is more or less over, for now. There’s still time for people to learn to listen to each other. Yeah, I know, not likely. But I live in hope.

    * To be subsequently retitled “Kylie Minogues.”

    Mysteries of the pyramids

    Posted by Sean at 09:58, July 13th, 2004

    You gotta love stories like this. The USDA is thinking of redesigning its food pyramid, which tells you the recommended number of daily servings from the various food groups. The reasoning is…well, you can see here (note the assumptions packed into the use of but in the second paragraph):

    The [United States Department of Agriculture] is asking for public comment on whether to replace the pyramid or update it, Hentges said. He was taking no stand on that choice. “We do not have a preconceived notion,” he said.

    Federal officials say about 80 percent of Americans recognize the pyramid, but about 66 percent are overweight or obese.

    And clearly this is because the federally-approved graphic representing the ideal diet is the wrong shape. The entire article paints a pathetically humorous picture of a nation of affluent, literate, free citizens–with more dietary choices than most of history’s emperors–who have no prayer of figuring out how to eat well without the USDA. No joke. This is the second paragraph from the article:

    Too many are confused by the recommendations and can’t figure out how to implement them. The proof, Agriculture Department officials say, is that two out of three Americans are fat.

    I doubt any higher-ups from the USDA are reading this, but just in case, here is my public comment: No one gives a flying f**k about the food pyramid. Go think about something else.

    Surely somewhere in America, there’s a pig with trichinosis or a slaughterhouse with substandard sanitation to keep you occupied. As far as nutrition goes, we wouldn’t exist if thousands of years of our ancestors hadn’t known how to combine foods for a healthy diet without the assistance of a food pyramid. Granted, the problems nowadays are somewhat different. It used to be that, say, knowledge of the Three Sisters (a garden stand combining beans, squash, and maize) was precious to Native Americans because it made sure no nutrients were missing from the diet. Today, we’re so decadently rich we want to avoid getting too much nutrition.

    Still and all, everyone in America knows that you need fresh fruit and vegetables, starchy foods, and (because most of us can afford them regularly) meats, in moderate portions, for a balanced diet. Unless you’re insane, you know that you can’t expect to eat nothing but Entenmann’s pound cake and be healthy. Whether you think enriched wheat flour and high-fructose corn syrup are the foods of Satan, or think meat and carbohydrates shouldn’t be eaten at one sitting, or never eat anything but organically grown plant foods, or whatever, doesn’t change the list of essential nutrient-rich foods much. Those who prefer to eat yummy products with low food value will not be enlightened or guilt-tripped by a revised food pyramid into changing their eating habits. The taxpayers, however, will be out yet more money, and an office-full of busybodies in an industrial park will have something to do for the next few years. And we all know that’s what’s really important.

    Nothing’s better than more

    Posted by Sean at 12:12, July 11th, 2004

    I keep not commenting on things Alice in Texas says because it’s fun to go to the site of someone you have no communication with and occasionally see yourself linked. (Seeing yourself upstaged by having your ideas fleshed out with more point and humor than you yourself managed is not fun, though it is instructive.) Unfortunately, homeschooling four children appears to make it difficult for her to hang around in gay bars where we might meet, so our mutual introduction will have to be on-line. So, taking her links as an offer of a handshake, let me say, Welcome to America, Alice…uh…from a guy who lives in Japan.

    Anyway, she’s almost always right on, as when she says this:

    But then, liberals have always had a problem with boundaries. They would like all walls taken down, giving everyone free access to everyone else’s possessions and property, allowing us to be one big happy family all together. Because if only people would simply hand over everything they most treasure to complete strangers, the world would be a nicer place. Oh yeah. You see, it’s all about stuff.

    What most bewilders me about such people is their ability to act, on the one hand, as if our kind of social order were so natural to the human organism that you can meddle with it at will without making it collapse…and then to display, on the other hand, a tendency toward control-freak micro-planning when they get their hands on actual institutions. But as Alice encapsulates here, there’s a whole skein of other, equally nasty assumptions involved: that there’s a fixed amount of good fortune to go around, that therefore envy is the natural and proper reaction to others’ good fortune, and that it’s better to make everyone equally miserable than to allow unequal outcomes of any kind.

    Unsurprising lack of shake-up in the Diet

    Posted by Sean at 11:05, July 11th, 2004

    The morning edition of the Nikkei says the LDP + Komei Party coalition won 59 seats, eight more than it was shooting for. There were still, when the dead-tree version was going to press, two seats that hadn’t been decided. The chief opposition group (the Democratic, Communist, and Social Democratic Parties of Japan–no jokes from the peanut gallery, okay?) won 55 seats, so the result is, not surprisingly, an uneasy split. Voter turnout seems not to have been all that high, considering how it was hammered into us that this was a referendum on social welfare policy and the Iraq occupation.


    Posted by Sean at 22:10, July 10th, 2004

    Polls are closed, and vote counting has started. We’ll see what happens.