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    God, I thank thee that I am not as…

    Posted by Sean at 02:43, December 15th, 2007

    So the candidates have started pushing the electorate’s God button for real now. “What do you think of that?” some friends have asked, adopting a “Gotcha!” tone that seems to assume I managed to reach age thirty-five without noticing that most registered Republicans aren’t atheists.

    Well, if you care, I think that religion is a repository of genuine wisdom about life that our civilizations have built up over time. If a given religion is the source of a candidate’s deepest beliefs and those beliefs are going to be driving policy, I’d kind of like to know about it. That said, I essentially agree with what McQ says at the QandO blog here:

    If you’re a politician, I don’t care what your religion is. I don’t care if you are religious. What I care about is your character, your ethics, your public record and your ideas. And while I understand your religion could have a certain level of effect on the development of all of those things, that isn’t the point.

    It’s one thing to explain to voters how your faith contributed to the development of your way of thinking; it’s another to imply that simply being religious somehow makes you a better candidate for office.

    In reality, I don’t think it does. A lot of politicians seem to have found a convenient way to balance humility toward the Lord with high-handed arrogance toward their fellow citizens when using the coercive power of the government. That the humility and the arrogance are probably both genuine in most cases doesn’t mean one excuses the other. McQ and a lot of other people are citing Peggy Noonan’s latest column:

    I wonder if our old friend Ronald Reagan could rise in this party, this environment. Not a regular churchgoer, said he experienced God riding his horse at the ranch, divorced, relaxed about the faiths of his friends and aides, or about its absence. He was a believing Christian, but he spent his adulthood in relativist Hollywood, and had a father who belonged to what some saw, and even see, as the Catholic cult. I’m just not sure he’d be pure enough to make it in this party. I’m not sure he’d be considered good enough.

    I hope there aren’t really grounds for such worries. Huckabee would have inclined in any case to play up his upright Christian-ness, but my sense is that he’s chosen to do so in his current coarse way mostly because there happens to be a Mormon in the race. Most Americans already think Mormonism is slightly weird, and playing on that is an obvious way to get a tactical advantage. (And since most Americans think atheists are weird, playing on that was an obvious way for Romney to try to regain his balance.) Of course, it would have been nice if everyone had refrained from building themselves up by casting slimy aspersions on others’ beliefs, especially when they’re not directly relevant to policy. But we are, after all, talking about people who think they deserve to be president here.

    Added later: Whoa. I thought I’d been on the cynical side, but that was until I saw this article in The Weekly Standard by Kenneth Anderson, a law professor and former Mormon (via Ann Althouse). The argument might have been made more compactly, but every paragraph has something to say.

    My former confrères among the Mormons apparently do not count as Christian, yet somehow feel themselves bound by their allegiance to the teachings of the Nazarene to turn the other cheek and meekly suffer these attacks upon their spiritual fitness to participate in the public square. Admirably Christian, I suppose. I myself propose that Huckabee be horse-whipped in the square of public reason and turned out of politics so he can get on with writing The Seven-Day Diet of Creation and Mary Magdalene Got Skinny for Jesus and You Can Too.

    The “all-out” answer that Romney gave was the denial that citizens might ever legitimately and ethically demand to know the content of religious doctrines professed by a candidate for public office. (“Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.”) It is multiculturalist because it essentially treats all private beliefs as immutable and beyond reason, and because it says that to propose to subject any of them to public scrutiny of reason is an act of intolerance akin to racism. It is a position traditionally asserted by the left on behalf of its identity-politics constituencies. It is dismaying, to say the least, that Romney would claim it for his own to deny the legitimacy of all questions.

    It is, moreover, relativist in implication. Toleration is not an assertion of relativism. It is, rather, the forbearance from judging and acting on judgments in the public sphere that one might well believe oneself entitled to make in private. Toleration entails the suspension of public disbelief, or at least political action thereupon, about matters that one might nonetheless consider well within the realm of private moral judgment. Relativism, by contrast, is denial of grounds for judging at all. They could not be more different–and, crucially, relativism removes the possibility of toleration because it removes the possibility of reasoned judgment.

    Added still later: Anderson also has an item on his blog about his piece. Interesting comments.

    Causing a commotion

    Posted by Sean at 23:01, December 13th, 2007

    CNN: “Madonna and, you know, some other people to be inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (via Ann Althouse)

    I have to say, that picture freaks me out, man. Madonna’s never undergone the sort of hideously obvious Botoxing, collagen-shooting-up, and knifing that many stars have; but her martinet’s approach to working out, dieting, and general upkeep (including, no doubt, some inpatient work) have landed her in the same place as a lot of other middle-aged stars. Michelle Pfeiffer is supposed to be pointy; Madonna is not.


    Posted by Sean at 10:45, December 10th, 2007

    The blog at IGF has a post with an interesting comment thread–interesting because it addresses a serious sore spot of an issue without devolving into snarky one-liners. The issue (which is only part of what the original post is about) is the extent to which our gay civic duty, as it were, compels us to identify with people we don’t really have much in common with besides homosexuality.


    Posted by Sean at 10:29, December 10th, 2007

    The Yomiuri has a lengthy article on an issue increasingly facing hospitals: elderly patients with no family who will take them when they’re discharged after lengthy stays:

    About a year ago, a man in his 60s who had been admitted as an inpatient to a university hospital in Tokyo, began behaving violently after he was given permission to leave hospital but was rejected by his family. Since then, he has continually caused trouble in the hospital and has often acted aggressively toward nurses.

    According to the All Japan Hospital Association, many hospitals nationwide have similar troubles with long-term hospitalized patients with no place to go. Such patients tend to think they have been abandoned by their family as well as society and give in to despair, often causing problems for the hospital where they stay.

    Support systems for hospitals are indeed insufficient. Municipal welfare offices, which deal with matters related to nursing care insurance, do have information about care facilities. “But due to poor coordination between hospitals and welfare offices, information related to the facilities that could accept patients hasn’t been properly utilized,” said Takao Ando, vice president of the association. Displaying a typical lack of such coordination, the Sakai hospital had never consulted with the municipal welfare office over the patient.

    Officials of both the Tokyo metropolitan and Osaka prefectural governments said there were no systems specifically designed to find a place to stay for patients who do not have family or friends to take them in. The officials said the issue had been dealt with by each hospital individually.

    Ads for assisted living facilities and for regular old condominium complexes for the elderly that just have health care providers on the premises have been frequent since I’ve lived in Japan. But as in the States, the nice ones cost a lot. A family of a few brothers and sisters who earn good money can, I’ve been told, manage without much difficulty if the parents’ pensions are factored in. (Well, and if the younger children don’t expect the eldest son to do his traditional duty and thus stick him with the whole bill.) But those without relatives or friends willing to look after them also tend to be in a poor position to do research about alternatives. As the article describes, many become mentally disturbed and start causing trouble for their caregivers.

    BTW, the title of this post is the title of a novel, published in the early ’70s after serialization, that was the first full-length book I was ever able to read entirely in Japanese. It’s also been translated into English as The Twilight Years . It tells the story of a family that’s successfully managed to blend tradition and modernity: Eldest son and his wife (the protagonist) have a house with a separate small cottage on the same property for his parents to live in; they’re doing their filial duty while being able to have their own lives. When the mother-in-law dies and it becomes increasingly clear that the father-in-law is going senile and can’t take care of himself anymore, the wife is forced to figure out how to handle it. Like a lot of serialized novels, it has its share of contrived cliffhangers, but the way it lays out the issues that face the family doesn’t feel forced. Or dated, despite the social changes in the intervening three decades.


    Posted by Sean at 06:16, December 9th, 2007

    It’s always comforting when people working for the public good exhibit resourcefulness.

    Unless they’re cheating. The Mainichi reports that a fireman in Aichi Prefecture, unsatisfied with the number of fires and attendant chances to demonstrate heroism, started lighting his own:

    Since about November last year, Okazaki and neighboring Toyokawa have been the sites of around 40 forest fires all started under suspicious circumstances.

    Umemura had been a member of his local fire brigade since April 2003. Of the roughly 40 fires believed to have resulted from arson, Umemura went out to fight the fire on 18 occasions.

    Police said after Uemura set the fires using his cigarette and match contraption, he would return to his home then go back to the scene of the blaze and help put it out.

    But police began to suspect something was amiss when Umemura kept finding the device that had caused the blazes and called him in for questioning, where he admitted to setting the fires.

    The article in the Japanese edition further states that he wrote about the fires on his blog–not that he was a dummy and revealed his role in starting them, but that he described the occurrence of the fires and his participation in putting out and investigating them.

    There’s also this item in the Asahi, which begins, most comfortingly, as follows:

    The recent case of university physicians cheating on their qualifications for certification exams was not an isolated incident.

    Six physicians at Tokyo Medical University were also punished last year by a medical society for forging treatment papers needed to qualify for an internist certification exam, sources said Friday.

    The revelation follows the case at Showa University’s School of Medicine, in which five doctors were found to have padded treatment records to qualify for an internist certification exam.

    The doctors in question padded their own treatment records with files on patients actually treated in a different department.


    Posted by Sean at 05:46, December 9th, 2007

    A doctor who lives in Meguro Ward very close to where Atsushi and I used to live has several hunting rifles (which are tightly controlled but still legal in Japan). He came home around noon today with one and left it in the living room. [The Mainichi says he was cleaning them, not that he’d just brought one home. My mistake.–SRK] He also left his two little boys unsupervised. You can probably guess what’s coming.

    Dr. Tatematsu’s younger son Naoki (2) was hit by a bullet in the lower abdomen and died approximately an hour after being transported to the hospital.

    The Meguro Police Department is conducting a thorough investigation of the circumstances of the shooting but believes it is possible that the elder Tatematsu boy (5) was nearby and picked up the gun, accidentally pulling the trigger.

    When my little brother and I played together, we probably spent a good 30% of the time pretending to shoot each other. To little boys, any object that’s vaguely long and narrow becomes a gun–never mind the super-cool real thing. (Of course, in these cases, there’s always an outside chance that the truth will turn out to be more sinister, but lax supervision is certainly a plausible, if sad, explanation.)


    Posted by Sean at 08:02, December 6th, 2007

    Friends who don’t live here frequently ask me what it is about Western media reporting about Japan that drives me up the wall. I usually complain that journalists recycle the same scripts over and over, but that in and of itself isn’t really it. Some things said repeatedly because they’re actually happening repeatedly. But The New York Times business section featured an excellent example yesterday of things I sometimes find it hard to put my finger on: skating over the interesting issues a story raises in a way that means there’s little new for people who know Japan and plenty that’s potentially misleading for people who don’t

    Martin Fackler, who wrote the piece, doesn’t make any factual errors that I can see. (Well, the first sentence should probably say, “remote northern coast of Japan’s main island,” since he’s not talking about Hokkaido.) And he tries to give several points of view about a controversial phenomenon. The result is still unenlightening. I assume that one of his editors, not he himself, wrote the headline and subhead. Still, they do pretty aptly sum up the article, which presents a phenomenon with quite a long history with little context:

    Japan’s $4.7 trillion economy has expanded for the last five and a half years. Urban centers like Tokyo and Nagoya, the seat of the Japanese car industry, are thriving, as seen in the building boom decorating Tokyo’s skyline with glittering new high-rises.

    But in regions like Akita, the mountainous northern prefecture that is home to Noshiro, downtowns have emptied and factories have closed, and an exodus to Tokyo of youths seeking jobs has left behind towns that are predominantly for the elderly.

    There is widespread concern here that these changes are turning Japan into a nation divided into winners and losers, split geographically between prosperous cities and the depressed rural areas. Many here attribute this growing disparity to Japan’s embrace of American-style economic liberalization, begun in the 1990s to end the nation’s decade of stagnation.

    The measures to open up markets helped revive cities like Tokyo and lowered prices for Japan’s long-suffering urban middle class. But elsewhere in Japan, they are seen as bringing unwelcome and wrenching change.

    For all of Japan, the question now is whether this sort of reaction will be strong enough to stop or reverse economic liberalization. The central government has already begun to tighten restrictions on large stores, and many in rural areas are calling for more public works.

    But many in Tokyo and regions like Akita say Japan’s soaring fiscal deficits make it impossible to return fully to the old ways, and many advocate opening markets further.

    There’s no indication in this flurry of “some say” explanations of whether any of them have, you know, more evidence than others. No one can gainsay the point that market liberalization has plenty of enemies in Japan. Whether–given the collapse of the Bubble produced by the “old ways,” increased competition from China in the manufacturing and tech sectors, and Japan’s dependency on export markets for its wealth–it has any viable alternative is another matter. Of course, Japan is not going to become Estonia. Japan will continue to make the trade-offs that suit its own culture, which does indeed include a tendency to distribute benefits through the group, even when the group is the entire population of the country.

    But there are, in fact, trade-offs involved, and it’s perilous not to recognize them. Fackler coolly reports that “many in rural areas are calling for more public works” without giving even the slightest hint of the degree to which the post-war “Got a problem? Get a cement mixer” approach to rural economies helped get them into their current pickle. During the era of economic hypergrowth, massive road-building, earthworks, and other construction projects gave people in rural areas something to do besides farming. Cruelly, it also deceived them into believing they were earning their money by producing value for the economy just like the major cities, and it diverted their energy away from building other skills and exploiting local assets. Now that the funding for boondoggles is harder to come by, keeping the egalitarian mask over productivity disparities is more difficult. Residents of rural areas have less income and purchasing power. Keeping out imports and big-box retailers may protect local businesses from “excessive competition,” But there’s a case to be made that it also “protects” cash-strapped consumers from goods they can more easily afford.

    We hear little about their problems in Fackler’s article, but to his credit he displays some awareness that the mom-and-pop retailers he’s writing about are not limitlessly sympathetic characters: “In interviews, local business leaders bemoaned their declining fortunes, but also quickly dismissed suggestions that they seek new opportunities in nearby emerging markets like China or Russia, which sits just across the narrow Sea of Japan from Akita.” Plenty of people in rural Japan were perfectly happy for Tokyo and other major commercial centers to do the hard work of wealth creation when painful adaptation to new economic realities was something expected only of foreign markets when Japan came up with innovations in metal, automotive, or electronics manufacture.

    Fackler might have produced a genuinely illuminating piece if he’d explored in more detail the proposals for economic revitalization that forward-thinking locals are putting forth, exactly who’s moving to scuttle them, and how they’re defending their resistance. It’s too bad that he or his editor decided that the boil-in-bag narrative of how the cities are wicking away young talent from rural areas and leaving them in the dust economically was all that needed serving up. His article ends just as it starts getting interesting.

    Got the sound of you ringin’ in my ears

    Posted by Sean at 23:42, November 29th, 2007

    Been busy of late. Lots of news, though. The best is that Virginia Postrel seems to be doing well with her cancer treatment and is posting again. Best wishes to her.

    Speaking of recovered cancer patients…KYLIE! Of course. Some people seem to be bewildered that her new album doesn’t address all the profound, life-changing experiences she’s had in the last few years, which only makes you wonder whether they’ve ever heard her music before. Kylie is not Madonna, who apparently regards every thought that floats through her head and everything that happens to her as deeply meaningful and worthy of picking over in song. Kylie is an entertainer, and (bless her heart) seems to feel no need to sing about elements of her personal life if she can’t do so in a way that pleases her fans.

    The new album is good, of course. With the glut of super-skilled writer/producers for hire and all the technology at their disposal, no dance diva with a recording budget will ever make a truly bad album again, I suspect. “The One” is a terrific-sounding rip-off of Madonna’s terrific-sounding rip-off of Kylie’s previous terrific-sounding rip-off of Madonna’s previous terrific-sounding rip-off of “I Feel Love.” And so on.

    The thing is, about half the songs on X would, frankly, have better served the strengths of her sister. Dannii Minogue has a deadpan, husky voice that’s emotionally blank but stays immediately recognizable even when processed to death–perfect for imprinting a brand on club songs on which the beat is the point. She goes with the mechanical flow…kind of like an antipodean Britney without the skank factor.

    But Kylie’s gift is for humanizing dance-pop. Fans want to hear her coo, sigh, burble, pout, and wail, and there’s little room for that in the kinds of brittle, boxed-in tracks everyone’s making these days. Stuck, like Madonna’s “Jump,” two thirds of the way through is the most affecting song on the album: “No More Rain.” Looking forward to the remixes, especially if someone actually comes up with a bassline that hasn’t been done to death.

    And please, can we consign “Nu-di-ty” to outer darkness while there’s still time? No Kylie album is complete without one track that totally sucks, but really! These things do have their limits.

    2000 miles

    Posted by Sean at 02:43, November 16th, 2007

    Greg Beato (that rare Reason writer these days who’s nearly as funny as he thinks he is) has a column on that now-traditional holiday topic: killjoy secularization. He approaches it from the opposite direction:

    While anti-bias truffle pigs like Brent Bozell, William Donohue, and Michael Medved insist the entertainment industry is out to crucify faith and traditional values, it somehow manages to produce a new crop of straight-to-Hallmark-Channel holiday weepies each year, and not one of them has ever featured Dolly Parton as an unlikely evolutionary biologist who reunites an estranged family by infusing them with that old-fashioned Darwinist spirit. Such powers, it seems, are reserved solely for angels.

    Similarly, if you go looking for a Madalyn Murray O’Hair action figure at Wal-Mart, you’ll have to settle for a 13-inch Samson doll from the faith-based toymaker One2believe. Christian entrepreneurs are better at providing earthly rewards than the folks who believe earthly rewards are our only salvation. In fact, the Lord has called so many believers to spread the Good News via faith-based salt scrubs and godly poker chips during the last few decades that the annual U.S. market for Christian-themed products, often dismissed as “Jesus junk,” is now $4.6 billion.

    Well, one of the reasons for that is that No-God is not the center of an atheist’s belief system in a way that corresponds to God for Christians (and the faithful of other religions). The only reason I call myself an atheist is that daily interaction with other people is predicated on the assumption that we all have a god to talk about, so the word is useful for answering a question that frequently comes up. But I don’t orient my life around some conspicuous void where God would be for other people, any more than I consider myself, in some defining way, an afairyist, achupacabraist, aboogeymanist, or a-Nessie-ist. (To me, it’s similar, if not perfectly analogous, to the belief that government shouldn’t be responsible for doing everything that needs to be done in society. People who’ve never conceived of things any other way will ask, “Well, then, who’s going to do all that?” It’s as if you simply had to designate a single entity your Keeper of Society, rather than being able to believe that responsibility for different social goods could be attended to in dispersed ways that no Big Brother is orchestrating.)

    Of course, there are people who make a fetish out of their atheism, but there aren’t very many of them, which kind of helps to explain the paucity of (non-existent Lord help us) Madalyn Murray O’Hair action figures.

    I want my dog back!

    Posted by Sean at 05:27, November 15th, 2007

    Remember Suck.com’s list of ten warning signs you should stay away from a movie on the basis of its trailer? My favorite was always this one:


    9. The Ominous Ominousness of Ominosity

    Frequently used in tandem with Number 8, this is the one where you see the hero in various happy-family scenes — enjoying a long kiss with the wife, playing with the kids. You know exactly what’s going to happen to that wife and those kids. So why see the movie? In addition to providing a nearly flawless “Do Not Enter” indicator, the Triple-O effect provides support for the theory that Death Wish is the most influential film in history. So perhaps it’s not completely without value.

    I think it was the graphic.

    Anyway, it was always clear that there were more rules to be added, and Andrea has found one…albeit by actually sitting through the movie:

    [D]ear filmmakers, please think of some other way of getting your characters in trouble that does not necessitate them contravening basic human nature. One tenet of which is people do not stand in the middle of the road, thereby making themselves available to be hit by the next high-speed vehicle that comes along. They just don’t.

    I don’t see movies quite as often as I used to, but though I tend to forget those I do before I get home and have occasion to say anything about them here, they usually make good dinner/drink conversation with my companions afterward.

    Not so that Jodie Foster movie, You Talkin’ to Travice Starling-Bickle?! , which regurged just about every cliché in action-movie history, then sucked back up and swallowed several in order to hurl them at the audience a second time. Foster did an okay job, considering that the whole point of her character was to seethe in that watch-me-pointedly-refrain-from-chewing-the-scenery way that is supposed to pass for subtlety. She’s nothing if not professional. And given that you go in knowing exactly how she’s going to be turned into a vigilante, the movie doesn’t spend too much time building up the happy-couple scenes before the lead pipe finally falls.

    Nevertheless, the dialogue was beyond ridiculous, with Foster delivering an improbably perfect one-liner every single time she was about to blow some baddie away. And yes, there was a scene in which she walked blithely in front of a car with a sicko behind the wheel (while helping along a kidnapped teenaged prostitute!). You know that’s gonna end in tears.

    I don’t think this post has a point. Just, as Andrea says, I think The Brave One is the kind of movie you have to see drunk. That may be why my buddy and I forgot about it almost as soon as we left the theater and turned our attention to more compelling matters, such as where to go for some nice beer and fish & chips.