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    Posted by Sean at 11:08, May 18th, 2004

    So just how badly off are all those welfare states in which wage-earning citizens sacrifice their crass individual goals for the good and harmony of the collective? You’ll have to find out about Sweden from someone else; the situation here in Japan is enough to make anyone my age (32) consider keeping his nest egg as a shoebox full of gold nuggets. It’s not enough that the population is aging. It’s not enough that money paid into the Social Insurancephalopod is mismanaged. (At least it isn’t diverted into a thinly-disguised government slush fund, the way savings accounts through the Postal Service are. Actually, come to think of it, maybe it is. I’m probably better off not knowing). We also have pervasive non-payment of premiums (link to Japanese article as usual–sorry if you’re not Amritas).

    Those of us who work for corporations have the money taken directly out of our wages (like FICA), but the self-employed and students of at least twenty years old have to pay in themselves. Now, of course, most people do work for corporations, so in the grand scheme of things, the amount of money that’s being lost is not as great as the “Non-payment of Social Insurance Pension Premiums Still Near Worst-Ever Level of 37%” headlines make it sound. Even so, I agree with the media that it’s an indication of how little people have come to trust the pension system, for all the hot air about reform.


    Posted by Sean at 23:28, May 17th, 2004

    Are you nice enough to the Asian-Americans in your life? Really? Reallyreally? If not, you still have a week or two to straighten out:

    May is Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month

    The bed’s too big / The fryin’ pan’s too wide

    Posted by Sean at 02:45, May 17th, 2004

    Andrew Sullivan has a new piece out on gay marriage, headlined Integration Day in The New York Times (registration required, as if you needed to be told). Sullivan’s writing meant a lot to me when I was coming out in the mid-’90’s and most gay writers were in the vein of, like, Michelangelo Signorile. But Girlfriend is really starting to annoy me something fierce.

    Get a load (heh-heh) of this:

    I remember the moment I figured out I was gay. Right then, I realized starkly what it meant: there would never be a time when my own family would get together to celebrate a new, future family. I would never have a relationship as valid as my parents’ or my brother’s or my sister’s. It’s hard to describe what this realization does to a young psyche, but it is profound. At that moment, the emotional segregation starts, and all that goes with it: the low self-esteem, the notion of sex as always alien to a stable relationship, the pain of having to choose between the family you were born into and the love you feel.

    One wants to just whisper in his ear that when Margaret Cho said the best reason for gay marriage was that it was inhumane to deny a gay man a bridal registry, it was a joke. But, fine…what he’s saying isn’t that superficial. It’s still, despite his unremitting complaisance as a writer and public personality, offensive.

    I like having people’s respect and approval. Resilient as my ego is, my nerves are not sheathed in titanium, and having my friends and loves and the life we cherish referred to as perversion all over the place gets me down sometimes. But either you claim control over your own life and mean it, or you slaver for people’s approval and give them the ability to define your worth. No fair congratulating yourself about being willing to take an unpopular stand out of moral conviction and then informing people that they will love you for it. That maneuver makes me as nauseated as…as…John Derbyshire in a roomful of Muscle Marys.

    Just to be clear: I’m not downplaying the hardships of being gay, and I give guys and gals who are just coming out quite a bit of leeway in finding their way at first. I have a more privileged life than a lot of people, but coming out was deeply painful. I didn’t think I would make it through; I don’t consider it whiny for anyone at that stage to be having difficulties getting it together and needing a lot of accommodation from supportive people. If I thought there were a policy proposal that would magically make that hurt unnecessary for future gay men and women, I’d be agitating for it in a second. Also, no one is going to stop me from being a thoroughgoing homo: being in love with a man, feeling that thrill when a cute guy comes into my field of vision, hanging out and being queeny with friends, and (what have I missed?…oh, yeah) mind-altering screwing. I know my own mind, and that’s where it’s at. I wish that didn’t present an obstacle in getting along with some people, but reality is, it does. Though I’m grateful that people cut me lots of slack when I needed them to, now that I’ve righted myself and become a sovereign adult, I deal.

    All of this blather about how our need for marriage is connected with [yaks all over freshly-cleaned floor] self-esteem and not making us feel so alienated just reinforces the charge that our real problem is arrested development. To the extent that psychologists can even determine whether self-esteem is a useful concept, my understanding is that their idea of where it comes from is pretty old-fashioned. Encouragement from others is part of it, but most of it is meeting and overcoming obstacles, fulfilling one’s obligations, and paying one’s debts. For that reason–much as it galls, galls, galls me that hetero convicted felons, multiple divorcés, and deadbeat dads are free to indulge in messed-up marriages without interference, while we’re told that we’re going to spell doom for the concept of the family–I don’t trust our own high-profile crew of dissolute, flim-flamming party animals with marriage any more than Rick Santorum does.

    Most of us are not that caricature, including, I presume, Sullivan and the like-minded Jonathan Rauch, whose book Gay Marriage I eagerly pre-ordered and ended up being disappointed by. Like Sullivan’s latest article, Rauch’s book leans heavily on the idea that marriage brings community pressure to be good, which helps keep married couples stable and benefits everyone. Rauch does raise the question of whether this will apply to gay marriages if a lot of people regard them as counterfeit, but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t really address it.

    If we’re going to be using marriage as a cure for the low self-esteem and alienation of “emotional segregation,” though, the answer matters. And the answer is: Those who wish us well and want our relationships to sustain us and bind us to the community are already treating us that way; people who see our relationships as illegitimate will keep doing so no matter who has a license for what. That means that even if gay marriage becomes a long-term fact, we’re initially going to have to be strong for each other, through our formal and informal institutions, every bit as much as we are right now. It may never be the case that everyone is brought around to our side, but to the extent that it happens, it will happen because people can see gays taking charge of our own lives and not bleating, two decades into adulthood, about feeling left out.

    I could also say something about DC-based political journalists who, while they may favor small government, still have the irksome habit of seeing the role of what the government does do as the conferring of legitimacy and Making things Real, rather than serving as a vehicle for the will and collected resources of citizens, but I’m too tired to get into that just now.

    Added on lunchbreak, 19 May: Brian Tiemann has a bit more temperate response to Sullivan, raising some of the same points (and including a penis pun) but giving them more context.

    When a flower grows wild / It can always survive

    Posted by Sean at 12:15, May 16th, 2004

    The human soul craves ritual; one of the things I’m doing to keep the sense that Atsushi’s around the apartment is keeping the vase I bought him for his birthday a few years ago filled. I like lushness and riotous color and things, but I can’t decide whether as a general practice, it’s better in this part of the room to go with Attention-Getting:


    or Steadfast and Unassuming:


    The lighting isn’t so hot in either shot (that inept photography thing again), but if anyone wants to weigh in, I’m open to thoughts from a more experienced flower arranger. My taste in the past tended more to houseplants and potted herbs.

    The boat is the namesake of the place

    Posted by Sean at 22:05, May 15th, 2004

    I wonder whether I’m missing something. In today’s edition, the Nikkei stories about the continuing sad Japan-DPRK struggle over the eight Japanese citizens kidnapped to North Korea in the 1970’s quote a prominent Japanese politician:

    On 16 May, Shozo Abe, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), spoke on a Fuji Television program about the expected focus during Prime Minister Koizumi’s next visit to the DPRK on a former member of the US armed forces, named Jenkins, who is the husband of abductee Hitomi Soga. Abe indicated that Jenkins must be brought to Japan even if against his will.

    Abe said, “Had the DPRK been a country that placed any importance on the will of the individual, the issue of abductions wouldn’t have arisen in the first place. It is in frank talks between the two countries, not according to Jenkins’s will, that this must be decided, and we must get him to come to Japan and bring his and Ms. Soga’s daughters.”

    I’ve read this about twelve times, and while I’m not a native speaker of Japanese, I’m pretty certain that’s what it says. (Jenkins is a deserter–Army, I think–who’s lived in North Korea since the mid-’60’s. The issue that has been raised is that he’s afraid of being arrested if he visits US-ally Japan; whether he really wants to stay in the DPRK has not been clear in anything I’ve read. In fact, I think that his refusal to come to Japan is still hypothetical at this stage.) Granted that being forcibly brought to Japan is not like being forcibly brought to the DPRK, in any sane person’s evaluation…and also that the two girls have a lot more adulthood left than their father and might want to spend it here…the reasoning that Jenkins has lived under a dictatorship for almost 40 years, so we may as well dictate to him some more from a different country, makes my head spin. I could almost see it coming from one of Japan’s unelected, society-manipulating ministry officials; but this guy’s the head of a party that actually participates in the part of the Japanese political system that’s responsible to voters. I certainly hope there’s an angle to the story that I’ve just missed in my newsgathering.

    I like the way you cross the street ’cause you’re…precious

    Posted by Sean at 15:53, May 15th, 2004

    All right, then. If both Nathan and Susanna are going to link John Derbyshire’s latest commentary on homosexuality and just kind of vaguely say that they don’t agree with everything in it without specifying what, I guess it falls to me to point out its weak points. I do so hate having to rouse myself from my normal state of serene benevolence toward the world around in order to be crabby and contrarian. The things I do in pursuit of truth.

    The excerpt that Susanna quotes (which Derbyshire himself cited from someone else) is the part I have the biggest problem with. Line-by-line, it’s perfectly accurate; what it lacks is context. It exemplifies an annoying tendency the hard right often exhibits when the talk turns to social policy: When it wants to make America sound like a sick society that has forgotten religion and individual integrity, it rolls leftist feminist, ethnic, and gay activism together into one big nasty juggernaut produced by broad-based cultural changes in the ’60’s and ’70’s. When it wants to make homosexuals seem manipulative and fundamentally anti-society in our thinking, it slices out gay liberation as a cultural development and gay activism as an industry and presents them in isolation.
    I doubt that this is done out of conscious craftiness, you understand, but it does give a distorted picture. Gay activists, tiresome (and frequently downright destructive to their own people’s interests) as they undoubtedly are, did not invent the idea that citizenship consists of goodies and entitlements, that the way to redress previous wrongs is through quotas and brainwashing and diversity retreats and cutesy bureaucratizing and funding grants. Strip that stuff away, and 90% of contemporary American public life disappears–gay, straight, bi, or other.
    I do agree–and have said before–that the problems such an approach to civic participation presents for gays are different and probably worse than they are for women and ethnic minorities. I’m not big on the idea that we need “role models” who are exactly like us in order to set and achieve goals for ourselves. And yet…if you’re gay and come out in late adolescence/early adulthood, sexual awakening tends to come down on you like a ton of bricks. Straight teenagers find sexuality confusing and frightening, too–I know that–but I think that most of them have a chance to sort of ease into it at the same pace as their bodies are developing. They see their desires for love and companionship and sex mirrored in the way their parents and community elders live. Being gay means learning to navigate those things, in many cases, from square one. It’s hard but nowhere near impossible to do responsibly. However, when that initial stage of big-time identity shift hits the spoiled leftovers of ’60’s anti-establishmentism, the results are not pretty.
    But I don’t think they’re intrinsic to homosexuality, either, which (intended or not) is the way the Johnson quote, with its unleashed-monster metaphor, makes them sound. For all the talk about the return to traditional values in America, after all, the divorce rate is still vertiginously high, the rate of births to single mothers has declined but is not exactly negligible, and you still encounter plenty of rude and uncivilized people. That doesn’t mean that the recapturing of wisdom that was thrown away in the last few generations is a figment of the imagination. It just means that lasting change requires time to take root; the important thing to focus on is which direction things are heading. Despite the many troubled aspects of gay life, I think we’re steadily getting our act together.
    And I feel compelled to point out that there are plenty of straight people who are in on the act. When I was coming out, none of my ten or so close friends was gay. The man with whom I had a halting relationship–I was a selfish, cocky, immature little bitch to him and still regret it, BTW–made arguments in favor of accepting my sexuality that I didn’t really find convincing. The support and encouragement that I responded to came from straight friends who didn’t want to see me go through the rest of my life trying to drink away what was obviously a fundamental part of myself. Some of them have exactly the same instinctive revulsion toward homosexuality that Derbyshire describes, and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t bait them, and they don’t make an issue of it. Pointed but good-natured humor is a big help, in my experience, and the enforced humorlessness of so much of the leftist program has, as Derbyshire implies, done nothing but dam up feelings and leave them to fester. I would just add that, in a free society, both gays and straights have to be equally prepared to be dished at when humor is necessary to dissipate tension and make civilized interaction possible.
    Along those lines, while this issue was only taken up by implication in Derbyshire’s article, it seems apposite here: this debate, like that over the role of women in society, that over parental autonomy in child-rearing, and that over cultural assimilation for immigrants, will continue to be contentious–it’s a debate, see?–and sometimes acrimonious. If we want to deal with these things honestly, we all have to be prepared to have our egos bruised and our cherished ideas exploded sometimes.
    That means that when conservatives say that they believe homosexuality should be decriminalized but still think it’s immoral behavior, gays have to quit wringing their every word for evidence that they “really” hate us and want us all lined up and shot. It also means that conservatives have to stop picking over the lives of gays who say they’re happy for evidence of the slightest misgiving or strain of melancholy to prove that we “really” aren’t. There are quite enough genuinely theocratic religious types and drug-addicted, financially insolvent homos running around, but it’s unworthy of free people who have given their own life choices due moral consideration to have to comfort themselves with the belief that no one could ever possibly be happy (at least in the Earthly sense) living any other way.
    The Internet, for all its virtues, tends to aggravate that particular problem. It is way, way too easy to read someone’s one-paragraph comment, or even ten-paragraph post, and assume that it holds the key to the writer’s entire way of thinking. But while posts emerge clean and self-contained, they originate in real life, where bad traffic, a botched account at work, an old injury that’s acting up, or an irritated exchange with the spouse can influence how one treats a topic as seemingly unrelated as whether Will & Grace should be on the air. The way to find out whether you’re interpreting someone correctly is to ask and see whether he explains it satisfactorily or, on the other hand, digs himself in deeper. The only things you have to lose are your assumptions. (Anyone who wants to point out that I don’t always take my own advice here is welcome to do so; we don’t jettison our ideals for the silly reason that we can’t always live up to them.)
    Added at 16:10: I noticed when going back to Susanna’s page that Myria, who writes the It Can’t Rain All the Time (presumably named after the wonderful Jane Siberry’s wonderful song from the soundtrack to The Crow) weblog had also tracked-back with an interesting response. I’ve always liked her posts, though I don’t read her regularly. Good thoughts on this one, and a color scheme to die for, darling.


    Posted by Sean at 13:32, May 12th, 2004

    After 9-11, then after the Bali bombing, then after the Madrid bombing, I’ve thought, like everyone else, about what would happen if I were blown up or taken hostage. I can’t say that I might not panic in the end, of course, and obviously I lead a good life and don’t want it cut short. But I’ve been free to seek my own definition of happiness, I’ve had plenty of all-American joy, I keep up with my responsibilities. I figure that if my last minutes or days are painful, it doesn’t alter the three decades, courtesy of the American way of life, that led up to them. I hope Nicholas Berg, with his start-up business and nice family in West Chester, had a chance to think those thoughts.

    Stay out there on the town and see what you can find

    Posted by Sean at 03:55, May 11th, 2004

    There’s been a lot of fuss about Loretta Lynn’s new album–by all accounts fantastic, and I can’t wait to hear it. But nearly no one seems to be reporting the really important item: she doesn’t actually cook with butter-flavored Crisco.

    Check items off, let nothing be missed / Say I to myself and my 100 lists

    Posted by Sean at 18:42, May 9th, 2004

    I have today off, so I went out last night and flirted shamelessly while getting schnockered enough to be hung over this morning. Mark you, there was nothing self-indulgent about this: I was preparing for a round of bureaucratic errands (reregister domicile in new ward of city, reregister name seal in new ward of city, renew passport at embassy, change address at banks and credit card offices) that began at 9 a.m. sharp. The hangover was necessary to dull my irritation at the inevitable snags that come up in a full day of filling out forms at government agencies. The shameless flirting was necessary to practice the people skills you need to deal smoothly with functionaries. The woman behind the passport counter did not, it is true, lean in and ask, “So, dude, is the rest of you as hairy as those forearms you’ve got there?” But let me tell you, I’d’ve been ready to answer with aplomb if she had.

    Speaking of functionaries: as much as anyone else, I go in for orgies of complaining about them when they’re surly or clueless. But I have to say that everyone I dealt with at the embassy today was just great. The man at the next window had what sounded like a legitimate gripe about the way his passport renewal was being processed. He made his displeasure clear, but he was polite about it and didn’t blame the guy behind the counter. The guy behind the counter, for his part, apologized profusely and made sure the poor man knew exactly what needed to happen for his passport to be done as quickly as possible. There’s a lot that I value about Japanese politeness; as long as you act like a civilized person, you don’t really have to mean it, and that understanding can make difficult situations much easier. You deal with what people say and do and don’t get worked up over what you assume they’re thinking. But as an American, I have to say that it’s a beautiful thing to see forthright goodwill in trying circumstances. It made the rest of the day much easier to deal with–how many times can you write your address in six hours before cracking, after all?–even after the hangover wore off.

    Now that you’ve seen the doctor, don’t call me anymore

    Posted by Sean at 23:10, May 8th, 2004

    It’s weird. I understand there’s no more important news to talk about right now than Torture Is Bad and Friends Just Went off the Air, but you’d think CNN or someone would be mentioning, at least, the fact that Yasuo Fukuda (the Chief Secretary of the Japanese cabinet) and Naoto Kan (the very attractive head of the Democratic Party of Japan) are resigning amid scandal: they didn’t pay into the National Insurance pyramid pension scheme for stretches of time. Kickbacks, gladhanding, and revolving-door retirement are so woven into the fabric of Japanese government that maybe no one much notices something so restrained as a simple failure to pay a few months of bills.

    But Fukuda was a very articulate spokesman for the Koizumi government’s support of the US in the War on Terrorism, and there is, after all, an election coming up. That’s the potentially serious part, though how it will play out is not apparent. The joke of the matter is that Kan’s ten months of non-payment occurred while he was the Minister of Health and Welfare (back when that’s what the ministry was). I have no doubt that, given his position, the gentleman was ideally placed to decide whether paying the premiums was a sound move in terms of his personal finances. But it does rather hilariously highlight the frequent gaps between the self-abnegating civil servant image that Japan-groupie social scientists get quivery over and the avoidance of personal accountability that goes on in reality. No, really, it’s funny. You can start laughing any time.