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    The banality of evil

    Posted by Sean at 04:17, September 23rd, 2007

    Oh, great. I hadn’t noticed that someone got the bright idea of remaking Halloween . And, this being 2007, the major change is that we now have way more backstory about Michael Myers. John Carpenter and Debra Hill kept it blessedly simple thirty years ago–the child had some inchoate evil in him that was crystallized by his sister’s sexual experience. He was a just plain wrong’un.

    But that’s not good enough anymore. Now we have to have the over-worked and under-attentive stripper mom, the abusive step-dad, and the bullying meanies at school depicted in exhaustive detail so we Get the Message: What’s scary isn’t primal, unknowable evil. What’s scary is that Child Protective Services doesn’t perform more interventions.

    And yes, I’m trashing a movie I haven’t seen. Perhaps it’s well-executed. That doesn’t make the concept any less tiresome.


    Posted by Sean at 03:31, September 23rd, 2007

    No surprise here: Yasuo Fukuda will be the new LDP president. He’s the same age (71) as his father, Takeo Fukuda, was when he became prime minister. Oddly for such an insider-driven country, he’ll be the first child to succeed a parent to the position. (There are other children of former prime ministers active in politics, of course–Makiko Tanaka springs readily to mind.) My good friend and politics junkie Jun’ichiro commented the other day that Fukuda is a good technocrat but may not be a leader. I can see that. I’d have liked it if we could have had Taro Aso’s foreign policy approach without his power lust and general jerkitude. Unfortunately, you have to take candidates as they are.

    I like confrontation, so Fukuda’s make-nice approach is not one I warm to easily, but I think it may actually work in the LDP’s favor for the next few months. He’s apparently planning to keep most key ministers in the cabinet, so there won’t be another upheaval. And looking outside, the DPJ is open about wanting war (between the ruling and opposition coalitions, I mean), so if Fukuda comes on all friendly, it could make the opposition look petty and mean. Not the best image to have if you want a dissolution of the lower house of the Diet to work in your favor.

    BTW, Will Wilkinson has a long post up about research into the moral dimensions of politics. One of his throwaway examples caught my attention:

    Haidt’s early research on moralized disgust shows that its cultural manifestations vary. The Japanese apparently find it disgusting to fail their station and its duties.

    Well, I don’t know that I would refer to that as a cultural “manifestation” of disgust, exactly. I think it’s more accurate to say that the Japanese are acculturated in such a way as to attach reflexive, visceral disgust to dereliction of duty. Doing what you’re told…being what you’re told…is drilled into people to the point that it becomes second nature, so they tend to flinch with child-like “that’s yucky!” horror when someone harshes the wa. (Many foreigners are driven bonkers by the Japanese tendency, when asked to do something that doesn’t follow the usual rules, to grimace, pull the chin inward, and suck in the breath as if confronted with a slug in the salad.) From that vantage point, it’s interesting to think about how the commentators reacted to Prime Minister Abe’s sudden resignation. Faces registered shock but also revulsion. Of course, that’s just my interpretation based on what I happened to see on television. But I really don’t think I’m projecting.


    Posted by Sean at 04:54, September 21st, 2007

    Virginia Postrel slides into the end of an otherwise-lite post that she has breast cancer and is beginning treatment soon. I wish her the best.

    Keats and Yeats are on your side

    Posted by Sean at 22:03, September 20th, 2007

    I very rarely take exception to something Eric says, but I think part of this post is misleading…or maybe just reductive:

    In the context of boys into men, an especially stubborn category consists of something that’s risky to write about, but what I’ll call the “Born That Way High IQ Gay Men” for lack of a better term. Whether anyone likes it or not, society (and I include gay culture, which is very bigoted towards this type of person) really has no comfortable niche for young men who share the following two characteristics:

    • obviously gay (and thus incapable of the “closet” option)

    • extremely high IQ

    I think it’s a tragedy, and that’s because I hate waste. And I hate seeing potential Einsteins frittering away their lives because of early emotional reactions to stuff that really ought not matter. There’s an old Japanese saying that the crooked nail gets hammered down. With these people, all attempts at hammering them down are doomed to fail, because there simply is no place for them.

    Lots of people get hung up on stuff that really ought not to matter and end up feeling isolated because of it. I’m not sure what “society” could do better to prevent that. Some isolated mavericks may be geniuses manqués, but I suspect that a lot of them just aren’t willing to learn how to get along with people better, which involves risking rejection, giving of yourself, and making compromises. It’s best to be taught such things by adult mentors and role models in childhood, I agree, but it’s possible to pick them up in adulthood if you’re willing to learn from experience. A free, mobile society doesn’t preclude people’s being cruel in enforcing conformity, but it does allow you to move away from them and try different communities until you find a niche in which you can flourish. Those who decide to stay put where they’re unloved so they can keep indulging in drama-queen hysterics about how put-upon they are are hard to sympathize with.

    Fukuda and Aso speak

    Posted by Sean at 22:42, September 17th, 2007

    Since we all know that polls are the last word in reliability, Yasuo Fukuda supporters can take comfort in last week’s Asahi poll. 53% of voters polled preferred Fukuda as the new Prime Minister, while 21% supported Taro Aso.

    Of course, that poll was taken on 15 and 16 September, and a lot can change in the run-up to an election. Fukuda and Aso appeared at Shibuya Station on Sunday to lay out their policy positions for the public, now that they’re the only two remaining contenders for Prime Minister this coming weekend. The Asahi probably has the best overall summary. Both took care to play to the LDP’s rural voting base by promising to address economic inequalities between urban and non-urban areas. (Aso assured voters that he did not support unbridled market liberalization and competition–as if we needed to be told that.)

    They also addressed foreign policy:

    Disturbed by the serious souring of Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea during the Koizumi era, Fukuda was trying to mend the ties. Abe’s visits to the two countries soon after he came to power have changed the atmosphere between Japan and these countries. But Fukuda appears to be hoping to bring fundamental changes to these important relations.

    Aso vowed to promote the “arc of freedom and prosperity” initiative he proposed as Abe’s foreign minister. This initiative is based on the idea of supporting countries that share such basic values as freedom and democracy. But his vision of the “arc” doesn’t include China and is therefore criticized as an attempt to create a network of countries around China to contain the expansion of its regional influence.

    Aso seems to be advocating a dual approach to dealing with China that combines dialogue with diplomatic maneuvering to put a brake on its influence.

    There’s a transcript of a lecture Aso gave about his “arc” vision here. It might be noted that he doesn’t mention post-Soviet Russia as part of the “arc of freedom and prosperity” either, and in a way it comes off as a more pointed omission than China, because he discusses the democratization and EU membership of the Baltic States and the need for greater stability in Georgia and Ukraine.

    The objective is for us to help democracy take root in a region that we envision as an ‘arc of freedom and prosperity,’ extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black and Caspian Seas.

    Hmmm…any ideas what we might be arcing around? (He does mention the importance of improved relations with both the PRC and Russia at the beginning.)

    North Korea, of course, is one of the biggest issues. The issue of the Japanese abductees is always in play here, and voters liked Aso’s firm line. Fukuda promises to take a more flexible approach:

    In Osaka, both candidates addressed the North Korea abductee issue. Fukuda stated, “I want to be the one to solve this problem,” and his indicated that he had resolved to effect normalization of Japan-DPRK relations through dialogue. Aso stated emphatically, “Without pressure, no dialogue will get off the ground.”

    Abe’s approach was to patch things up with economic heavy-hitters China and South Korea while taking a hard line toward economic empty set North Korea. It was popular. The abductee issue tends to be back-burnered in favor of nukes at the six-party talks, so Japan has essentially resigned itself to trying to resolve the problem with catch-as-catch-can support from its allies. But I’m not sure there is a resolution. The DPRK has been jerking around the families of abductees (notably poor Megumi Yokota’s parents) for years now. Maybe there is no approach that’s going to get Japan the information it wants.

    It wasn’t just Fukuda’s position on the DPRK that came off as dithery; his delivery was shaky, too. Aso was more confident; on the other hand, he hides his lust for power about as well as Hillary Clinton does, and his glee at being in the running for the top spot was possibly a bit too naked. But there are plenty of points that could be scored and lost this week. And as the Asahi notes, neither of them really explained how he planned to work with the newly strengthened opposition parties. For now, Fukuda still has the support of all the major factions.

    Do you wanna hear me sing pop?

    Posted by Sean at 00:11, September 14th, 2007

    Kylie’s new single is due out in a few months, and she is looking absolutely fantastic. I think it’s great that celebrities who love clothes have the money and leisure and connections to try out crazy, adventurous looks–Kylie’s done some experimenting herself–but there’s something to be said for just looking beautiful (and alert and sober and happy) for your adoring public. Surprised the Flea hasn’t noticed yet, actually.

    Added later: Unrelated, except with respect to being fabulous, is this comment by Andrea Harris:

    Personally, I always thought the metric system was for people too dumb to divide by 12.

    She was prompted by this post by Kim.

    Shocked but not surprised

    Posted by Sean at 22:21, September 12th, 2007

    Wow. Shinzo Abe can’t win for losing. Japan’s opposition parties have been calling vociferously for his resignation for months. Yesterday he announced his resignation…and they’re criticizing him for it.

    Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his abrupt resignation announcement on Wednesday.

    “[Abe] had been scheduled to answer questions from party representatives about his policy speech at the Diet today, but he suddenly announced his resignation,” Ozawa said at a press conference, adding that it was the first time in his political career of 40 years that he had witnessed a prime minister resigning within days of delivering a policy speech in the Diet. “To tell you the truth, I’ve no idea what was going through Prime Minister Abe’s mind before he made the announcement.”

    Ozawa denied media reports that he had repeatedly rejected requests from Abe to hold talks with him. Ozawa said the first request from Abe came Wednesday morning through Liberal Democratic Party Diet Affairs Committee Chairman Tadamori Oshima to DPJ Diet Affairs Committee Chairman Kenji Yamaoka.

    Well, it was pretty abrupt. I remember reading the report yesterday and thinking, What was it that made him decide this today? This morning he announced that he’s going into the hospital to have gastrointestinal problems diagnosed, but commentators are divided over whether that was as big a factor as it’s made out to be. Abe has exhausted all his political capital for the moment, but he’s young. It’s been rumored for ages that LDP higher-ups had been urging Abe to step down while he still had some dignity and could make a new bid for the prime minister’s slot after a few more years of seasoning.

    Who knows? Maybe that could still work. But as I see it, Abe has one major problem that no amount of experience is likely to correct: he lacks charisma. Utterly. Koizumi was the sort of man who commanded attention. If you were cooking or reading with the television on in the background, you stopped what you were doing and looked up when he started speaking. He was a natural focal point, in a way that went deeper than his haircut and Elvis fixation and all that stuff. When he staked his job on the passage of the Japan Post privatization bills, it was a serious showdown. His sternness and conviction had dimension and heft. You felt it, even when he was making compromises left and right in practice.

    By contrast, when Abe staked his job on the passage of the extension of the anti-terrorism law, it was hard to get worked up (and I say that as a WOT-supporting American). Abe is clearly a skillful operator when it comes to negotiating with other politicians and playing them off one another–one does not become Prime Minister of Japan otherwise–but only to a certain point. That final promotion to political head of state brought the Peter Principle into play with a vengeance. The issues Abe’s administration has had to contend with–evolving Japanese nationalism, relations with China and the Koreas, the extension of the MSDF mission, tankerloads of corruption scandals–require an alpha wolf. Even in consensus-loving Japan, people get the heebs when it seems as if there’s no one in charge in the cabinet. Abe simply doesn’t project authority.

    On Wednesday, even Liberal Democratic Party Diet members close to Abe sternly criticized him after his resignation sent shock waves through the party.

    “I’m disappointed in him as he’s tossed out his administration,” one of them said.

    “How does he see the responsibilities of a prime minister?” another asked.

    At a press conference in Sydney on Sunday after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Abe indicated that he would devote his energies to extending the refueling mission by the Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Indian Ocean, even at the cost of his job.

    He gave the impression that he was determined to do his best to fulfill his international pledge of extending the MSDF mission by holding firm to his post.

    In reality, however, those who took the prime minister at his word were mistaken.

    One temporary advantage his successor will have is that he will have a ready excuse for seeming unprepared and needing a little time to find his balance. The opposition won big in the recent upper house election, but that wasn’t the result of affection for the DPJ as much as it was the result of disgust with the LDP. Unfortunately, I’m not sure there are any LDP players in the running who can project moxie as leaders while making the compromises necessitated by the new balance of power in the Diet. I’ve always liked Yasuo Fukuda, who like Abe is a former Chief Cabinet Secretary. He also has experience in foreign affairs and came off as tough and clear-headed when delivering the Koizumi cabinet’s policy statements to the press. He resigned amid the Social Insurance payment scandals of a few years ago, but there don’t seem to be any contenders for power who are unsullied by scandal these days. We’ll see soon enough who gets the nod.

    Added on 14 September: Speaking of no-charisma public figures, Ann Althouse links to this whinefest by Demi Moore about how she can’t get good parts because Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with older women:

    The 44-year-old told a magazine: “It’s been a challenging few years, being the age I am. Almost to the point where I felt like, well, they don’t know what to do with me. I am not 20. Not 30.

    “There aren’t that many good roles for women over 40. A lot of them don’t have much substance, other than being someone’s mother or wife.”

    Moore refurbished herself into a wrinkle-and-flab-free android–check out the two photos, and notice how spookily vinyl-ish she looks in the more recent one–but didn’t address her failure to translate the bubbly, mischievous charm she projected during her Brat Pack days into adult terms.

    How long can you go?

    Posted by Sean at 22:43, September 11th, 2007

    Flamin’ Nora, this is NEVER going to end, is it (via Henry at Gay Orbit)?

    Sen. Larry Craig filed court papers Monday seeking to withdraw his guilty plea in an airport sex sting, arguing that he entered the plea under stress caused by media inquiries into his sexuality.

    Craig, an Idaho Republican, pleaded guilty in August to disorderly conduct following his June arrest in a sting operation in a men’s bathroom at the Minneapolis airport. A police report alleged that Craig had solicited sex from a male officer at the airport, which the senator has denied.

    Okay, I can certainly understand being stressed out by the knowledge that the media are investigating your sex life. But you’d think that being under the gun that way would make you even more likely to protest your innocence as loudly as possible at every turn. Certainly, people who are stressed out often make snap decisions that don’t make much sense to outsiders, but it’s hard to interpret Craig’s guilty plea as anything but an acknowledgment that he’d done something he knew he could be busted for. (BTW, what could that hand-swiping movement possibly signal? “I can pay by credit card if you’re seeking genero$ity”?)

    If some cop in a public toilet showed me his badge from a neighboring stall and told me to follow him out, I’d be pretty baffled about what he was on about. I don’t pretend to be a choirboy; it’s not that I’m unaware that sex goes on in toilets. It’s not even that I never have throbbingly urgent homosexual thoughts in airport bathrooms–just that they’re along the lines of, Damn it! This tube of Origins Make a Difference Rejuvenating Hand Treatment in my bag is WAY more than four ounces! Great…with my luck, it’ll get confiscated, and for what? Do they expect me to terrorize a 747 full of passengers into submission by getting a flight attendant in a hammerlock and threatening to over-hydrate her skin? And you just know the drug store by the gate, if there is one, will have nothing but Jergens crap that goes on like motor oil…. A police officer who interrupted this reverie to inform me that any accompanying hand and foot motions suggested plans to engage in illegal behavior would get a blank look from me. “What…you think I was trying to sell you drugs or something?” Plenty of people plead guilty to crimes to avoid alternatives that seem worse, so a guilty plea doesn’t necessarily imply moral culpability, but Craig seemed awfully defensive for someone who wasn’t doing anything unseemly.

    Maybe I’m just naive, but it seems to me that the best way to stop shenanigans in the rest rooms is to post prominent signs that say “PREMISES MONITORED BY POLICE FOR YOUR SAFETY,” then to be sure a police officer does, in fact, look over the place once every ten minutes or so. If Craig really was caught by an excessively zealous patrol officer, then it’s only reasonable to wish him the best in getting his name cleared. (Eric thinks there may have been a constitutional issue, too.)

    But whichever way Craig exercised poor judgment, it was still poor judgment, and he’s making himself and his party look like fools. I wish the guy would just stop the press conferences, quietly go about seeking his day in court, and devote himself to a life of anonymous service to others until he figures out how not to be such a public flibbertigibbet. Yeah, I know–it’ll never happen, and I’ve just written a post about the whole ridiculous mess, which I’d promised myself I wouldn’t do.

    I never thought I’d live to see the day when I prayed the media would get back to obsessing over Britney.


    Posted by Sean at 05:59, September 7th, 2007

    Well, Tokyo wasn’t wiped out by last night’s Epochal Vortex of Death, though of course it managed to screw up air and rail transit schedules beautifully. At my office, we were ordered to leave by eight o’clock (which people do have to be told here in Japan). One thing you never get used to if you’re from the States (or Australia, say my antipodean friends), is seeing weather graphics like this:


    Notice the way the storm essentially covers the entire width of the country as it moves northward. There’s been only one confirmed death, and there have been several dozen injuries, but things appear not to have been as bad as the “Storm of the Century” (all seven years of it?) fears.

    Hey You

    Posted by Sean at 09:48, August 26th, 2007

    My computer came back from Toshiba this weekend, so I’ve been getting it back into something reasonably resembling the shape it was in before it went crazy on me. Can’t quite get rid of all the crazy, though. You know how these things go–once you start installing programs and they start talking to each other, all kinds of bizarre things happen. I am now the proprietor of a machine on which

    • iTunes has alphabetized my Madonna songs after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and before 10,000 Maniacs. This state of affairs is so plain weird that I’m tempted to go to the Apple store to ask whether Madonna’s first initial is now assumed to come after Z in the letters or before 0 in the numbers and other characters, just to satisfy my curiosity. Maybe something wacky happened when I sneaked my tracks back into iTunes from my iPod, which was the only place they’d been backed up? But why only Madge?

    • no browser wants to open google.com or gmail.com. I’ve tried making a special permission in Norton 360, turning off the firewall temporarily, and using every conceivable alternative URL. Nothing works. Good thing Gmail Lite is around.
    • the brightness refuses to stay set at three levels below maximum. It reverts to full-on lightbulb-in-the-interrogation-room setting whenever I restart the computer. Now that I think about it, maybe it did that when I first bought the machine three years ago and I’ve just forgotten what I did to fix it.

    These modern conveniences–such a time-consuming chore to work with. Should be back as normal soon.

    (BTW, speaking of Madge, the title of that newest single captures with exquisite, if obviously unintentional, perfection the strident haranguing tone she adopts when she gets going on one of her moral crusades. And please–no one whose personal dressing room and gym probably consume more energy per day than Sierra Leone should be preaching at us to…uh, actually, I’m not sure what the hell she’s telling us to do. This is not one of her more incisive sets of lyrics.

    But of course I can’t help liking it anyway.)

    Added on 28 August: Speaking of Windows-related woes (which started this whole situation), I just got this from a colleague. The parody of Word–I hate that damned paper clip!–made my day.