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    Healing the wounds

    Posted by Sean at 01:50, May 21st, 2005

    Speaking of tin-eared PR, what’s the best way to smooth over tensions between gays and straights or Arabs and Israelis? Why, have an interracial homo threesome. On display in an art gallery. With a bed as the focal point. No, I’m not kidding:

    But, don’t expect a sex show if you visit the Jack the Pelican Gallery. Quite the contrary.

    The gallery literature says the performance art is rather more innocent than that.

    “A spectacle of casual sex this is not – Gil & Moti want to fall in love,” it says.

    In 2003, Gil & Moti decided to fall in love with an Arab. They staged their life-performance “Dating Gil & Moti” at the Haifa Museum. – to consternation and applause.

    Decided to fall in love with an Arab? Like, as a New Year’s resolution? That’s a great way to get out the people-are-people message. Sheesh.

    Getting our story straight

    Posted by Sean at 01:16, May 21st, 2005

    Q and O has a great post on the whole commotion over the Newsweek Koran-not-down-the-toilet incident. Dale Franks and Jon Henke get some help from a column by Anne Applebaum:

    Now, it is possible that no interrogator at Guantanamo Bay ever flushed pages of the Koran down the toilet, as the now-retracted Newsweek story reported — although several former Guantanamo detainees have alleged just that. It is also possible that Newsweek reporters relied too much on an uncertain source, or that the magazine confused the story with (confirmed) reports that prisoners themselves used Korans to block toilets as a form of protest.

    But surely the larger point is not the story itself but that it was so eminently plausible, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and everywhere else. And it was plausible precisely because interrogation techniques designed to be offensive to Muslims were used in Iraq and Guantanamo, as administration and military officials have also confirmed.

    I disagree with this somewhat, in the sense that I don’t see the believability of the story as the larger point. I think we’re looking at piss-poor judgment from both sides.

    PR matters. There are hundreds of millions of people whom we want to bring around to our vision of civic life: a free market of competing but coexisting ideas. We have an advantage in that people seek to be free of the tyranny over them. We have a disadvantage, however, in that many perceive America as a place that’s unmoored from tradition and basic considerations of civility.

    There are few more resonant ways we could convince large swaths of the world population that such fears are justified than to have descriptions get around of armed forces personnel gleefully polluting people before prayer time or otherwise treading on their religious taboos to get a rise out of them. Soldiers are the most disciplined group of people in any society; if they comport themselves that way, it’s not a stretch for people to imagine that liberalizing will turn daily life into a Britney Spears video.

    Note that I am not against ruthlessly breaking down the will of a known terrorist to get specific knowledge out of him in an emergency. Nor do I fail to sympathize with soldiers whose duty it is to run prisons that house suspected terrorists. You can hardly blame them for being rough and gruff and showing temper.

    I am also not suggesting that we try to be as nicey-nicey as possible to see whether we can win over those who have already committed to thuggery and terrorism. The problem is that they are not the only people watching. There are a lot of ordinary people who have not traveled to the West and can only judge our character through images and reports. That many of those issuing the reports will labor to make the US look evil does not mean that we should be making it easy for them.*

    But, for heaven’s sake, neither should Newsweek. Eric and Rosemary, among many others, have given it the drubbing it deserves. A few months ago, a reader wrote to me, angrily but very civilly, to take me to task for having approvingly linked to a jokey post making fun of liberals who bitch about every aspect of our holding facilities that doesn’t compare favorably with the Royalton. I stand by that post, but his point was good, too: we know there’s been real malfeasance. How systemic it is, how the perpetrators are being dealt with, how further incidents are being prevented–these are all legitimate questions for citizens and the press.

    Does a report of what may have been a few isolated incidents of low-level personnel getting out of hand really warrant reporting, given the (now non-hypothetical) damage it can do? Of course, in order to recognize what’s unduly inflammatory, reporters would have to have a sense of the tremendous moral and emotional heft that religious symbolism has for many people. They can’t even do that for their own countrymen.

    * And specifically regarding the sexual-harassment angle…the reasons conservative Muslim governments keep women off the judicial bench and (sometimes out of the workplace entirely) are that women are seen as emotional and their presence seen as sexually destabilizing. Smearing prisoners with supposed menstrual blood or using other sexually-charged methods of interrogation reinforces that belief. It seems to me that women simply going about their duties with the same soldierly self-command as their male comrades would be much more likely to throw fanatical Muslim men off-balance.


    Posted by Sean at 21:17, May 18th, 2005

    Earthquake…not a big jolt, but swaying that lasted for a while. As always, I hope it wasn’t bigger elsewhere.

    Long-term commitments

    Posted by Sean at 12:54, May 18th, 2005

    The government is putting more diplomatic energy into its push for permanent membership on the UN Security Council. On Monday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nobutaka Machimura held a gathering of over 100 sitting Japanese ambassadors–as in, they all met in the same room in Tokyo (Japanese, English):

    “In the 60 years since the end of World War II, Japan has played a role as a peaceful nation. With confidence and pride, I want you to persuade key government officials of each country [of the merits of Japan’s bid],” Machimura reportedly told the ambassadors, who had been recalled to the ministry in Tokyo.

    Machimura also told them that reform of the United Nations, including expansion of the Security Council, was currently “the most important issue for the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.”

    “Some countries have expressed support for Japan,” Machimura said. “But some others are opposing it. And the position of a vast majority of countries remains unknown.”

    Japan, Brazil, India, and Germany have been preparing a joint proposal for expansion of permanent membership. The NYT reports a bit more on the efforts of the countries other than Japan and has this droll observation:

    One reason these leaders may be campaigning on the other side of the world is that, in this effort, no nation can count on its neighbors. Argentina and Mexico oppose Brazil. Japan is facing serious opposition from North and South Korea as well as China, where tens of thousands of protesters took part in angry anti-Japan demonstrations last month.

    Italy opposes Germany, while Pakistan is trying to block India. And those two countries in opposition, along with South Korea, are leading a counterlobby pushing a proposal that would not award new permanent seats to anyone.


    Posted by Sean at 12:10, May 18th, 2005

    A North Korean ship that runs between Niigata and the DPRK–I think as a combination of ferry and cargo ship–has put in at Niigata for the first time in a while (Japanese, English):

    The protesters included members of a group supporting families of Japanese abducted by North Korea, who shouted, “Give us our families back.”

    It was the first time that the vessel entered a port in Japan since Dec. 1 last year. The entry followed the March enactment of the revised oil spillage compensation security law, which bans entry of ships without expensive shipowners liability insurance.

    Initially the Man Gyong Bong had intended to enter the port in April, but the trip was delayed because of the revision to the law.

    Later, however, insurance was taken out and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport issued the certificate the ship needed to enter the port.

    Not everyone was sad to see the ship:

    Officials from the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, however, welcomed the arrival of the vessel.

    “We have been looking forward to reuniting with compatriots from our homeland,” a member of the association said.

    For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (在日朝鮮総連合会: Zainichi-Chousen-Sourengou-kai) does the DPRK’s gladhanding here. Technically, Japan doesn’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea, but there’s still trade. There’s also the remittance of funds back home by DPRK nationals, though the nationalizing of Ashikaga Bank a few years ago meant, if I recall correctly, the discontinuation of the only direct banking relationship between the two countries.

    Dean has a link to a post that R.J. Rummel just put up about North Korea, which ends this way:

    So far, what are the solutions offered: Cozy up to Kim, provide food and material aid, meet with his henchmen one-to-one, then maybe he’ll compromise on his development of nukes. Yes, but tell me, how does this help the poor North Koreans suffering this enslavement, and that is what it is, pure and simple slavery under the worst of masters.

    I think one of the reasons that the DPRK’s internal horrors get so little play (considering their extent) is that they’re nearly incomprehensible. In Japan, we fairly often see video from North Korean news–usually, of course, when some Japan-DPRK diplomatic tangle is mentioned. Given the revelations about the abductions of Japanese citizens, the fact that the DPRK tends to fire its test missiles in our direction, and the occasional encounter between ships in the Sea of Japan (the East Sea to Koreans), there are frequent tangles. The first-person stories of Japanese women, often widows of North Korean men, who have escaped and return here, have immediacy and are reported in human-interest features. But those stories come one-by-one; they don’t really bring home the scale of the DPRK’s malefaction and economic incompetence.

    How incompetent? I don’t know who wrote this Wikipedia entry, but it appears to be accurate for the most part. One section that I wonder about:

    During the early 1970s, North Korea attempted a large-scale modernization program through the importation of Western technology, principally in the heavy industrial sectors of the economy. North Korea found itself unable to finance its debt, because demand for its exports shrank steadily after the oil crisis of the 1970s, until it became the first communist country to default on its loans from free market countries.

    That ain’t exactly the way I heard it. My understanding has always been that the DPRK waited until Western governments and corporations had coughed up the technology they were to provide to help the country develop–then simply nationalized it and refused to go forward with the planned joint ventures. Or, naturally, to pay off the loans involved. By now, if I recall correctly, the DPRK’s yearly volume of foreign trade is considerably lower than the ROK’s weekly volume. In fact, that’s the stat I learned some time soon after I arrived in Japan. The economy shrank so quickly during the 90’s famines that it more or less isn’t possible for it to contract further, so who knows what the figure is now?

    Tokyo and Pyongyang are only 800 miles apart. That’s about the distance between Philadelphia and St. Louis. It’s also closer than Sapporo and Fukuoka, the two most far-flung super-sized cities on the Japanese mainland, are from each other. I’ve often wondered just what the psychological impact will be when the country finally cracks and Western aid workers, investors, and journalists get in and start documenting what they find. A Treblinka with the land area of Mississippi. I doubt we’ll be able to wrap our heads around it even then.


    Posted by Sean at 00:04, May 18th, 2005

    That was the headline on a message I got yesterday. It means, loosely, “Word is our Kylie has breast cancer!” And, indeed, it appears she does (the first report I saw was at Michael’s). Luckily, it was diagnosed early, and Kylie takes care of herself and can obviously get the best available treatments.

    As a British friend and I were discussing last night, Kylie is one of those stars who get such deep affection because she hasn’t forgotten how to work first and foremost to entertain her fans. She doesn’t write “confessional” lyrics in which she works out her spoiled-celeb neuroses, or use every interview to complain that she has deep, dark psychological recesses that people don’t understand. Given the way pop and dance fans have been beaten with the diva-complex sledgehammer for the last quarter-century, it’s touching to have at least one superstar who still seems to enjoy–in a forthright, good-natured way–the sheer fun of dressing up in spangly costumes, dancing around with a bunch of buffed-up guys, and singing a catchy tune. To the good wishes already expressed by millions of her other fans, let me add my own.


    Naturally, Ghost of a Flea has already posted about this. His entry is brief, but I’d be remiss if I mentioned Kylie without linking to Flea.

    The hermit kingdom

    Posted by Sean at 04:28, May 16th, 2005

    Christopher Hitchens’s Slate column about North Korea is a good reminder of just how bad things are there (via Downtown Lad). Something struck me as odd, though. He links to a satellite photo showing the differences in nighttime lighting between north and south. The DPRK is way darker, as you’d expect…but it’s so completely, unrelievedly dark that I have to wonder. Every single hospital blacked out, for instance? And you can see how blacking out military installations would help keep them from detection, but it also means that soldiers on lookout can’t see what they’re monitoring.

    But even if we assume that the DPRK has managed to effect, through force and the unreliability of its power grid, a blackout of the whole country. the photo should still show at least some lights in Russia and China, right? Northeast Manchuria and Siberia aren’t the most population-dense places on Earth…but look at the peninsula right under where it says 40N on the left. That’s cut off right at the edge of Dalian, a Chinese city of 3 million people, which is at its tip. The outcropping below it is the Shandong Peninsula, which is also populous. While China may not have become a first-world country yet, I don’t think its large northeastern cities are invisible at night. There was a similar photo that made the blog rounds a few years ago that looks more like what you’d expect.

    Maybe I just know too little about what things are like in Chinese cities. The Federation of American Scientists, which houses the photo, doesn’t seem likely to have doctored it. But the imaging seems to stop northwest of South Korea and Japan. There must be something here I’m missing.

    Koizumi’s latest on the Yasukuni Shrine and Japan Post

    Posted by Sean at 01:00, May 16th, 2005

    Prime Minister Koizumi delivered a few soundbites at a special meeting of the Lower House budgetary committee this morning. (I think he said these things this morning; the meeting is on NHK now, and I think it’s a simulcast.)

    About Chinese and Korean criticism of visits by Japanese officials to the Yasukuni Shrine, he said, “Any nation will feel the desire to pay respects to its war dead. Other nations should not be interfering based on whether they believe our ways of doing so are desirable.”

    Also, regarding the enshrinement of Class A war criminals at the shrine, Koizumi indicated that his view is that there is no problem because “‘one abhores the offense; one does not abhore the person’ are the words of China’s own Confucius.”

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard him trot out that one before. It’ll be interesting to hear the PRC’s reaction.

    Other remarks revolved around the proposal to privatize Japan Post. Koizumi stressed that “if the bill is rejected, it is impossible to know what will happen.” Regarding who would be held politically responsible if the bill were shot down, he remarked, “Is there any reason that (the cabinet) should resign en bloc? We will fulfill our responsibilities by seeing the bill through to approval; we have no expectation of its rejection.”

    So that’s that, for now. One reason questions about the privatization bill may carry something of a sting right now is that Koizumi has been criticized for giving the heave to two high-ranking bureaucrats who oppose it:

    Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision to remove two top bureaucrats who are vocal opponents of his postal services privatization plan has met with criticism from within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Friday, with party members accusing Koizumi of acting like a tyrant.

    Koizumi, according to the sources, instructed Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Taro Aso to remove Hiroshi Matsui, the ministry’s vice minister for policy coordination, and Hideo Shimizu, director of the postal services policy planning bureau.

    Another source revealed an incident in winter that foreshadowed the two officials’ removal.

    “Mr. Matsui, Mr. Shimizu, I’m counting on you both,” Koizumi told the two men, who were summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office on Feb. 18. The prime minister’s exhortation, while sounding like a request for cooperation, was actually a warning that meant “Don’t dare stand in my way, you guys,” according to an interpretation by a government source.

    One LDP member, a former official in the erstwhile Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, which is now part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, reacted strongly: “This is a reign of terror. Does anybody have the right to throw people out because they weren’t 100 percent behind their master?”

    Well, it’s true that one doesn’t want heads of state in democratic countries ramming through their pet little proposals against the will of the people. But let’s not forget that these two are bureaucrats–that is, appointees, and not elected officials. Enforcing accountability on bureaucrats in the various federal ministries and their entourage of semi-public corporations has been one of the biggest problems for reform-minded politicians, let alone their long-suffering constituents.

    Whether and how to privatize Japan Post have been debated up, down, around, and through by this point. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that, now that a proposal has gelled, two administrators who are staunchly against it should be told that there’s no role for them in implementing it. I understand the questions about morale, but I don’t think it’s possible to take control of a set of wide-ranging and lucrative services away from an organization without making it feel somewhat unloved.

    By the way, don’t feel too sorry for the two demoted men:

    Matsui is expected to remain a vice ministerial-level official, with his former post allocated to Kozo Takahara, vice minister for policy coordination and director of the international affairs department.

    Meanwhile, Shimizu will be demoted to director general for policy planning in charge of communications. Yasuo Suzuki, director general for policy planning, will take over the post.

    This will not help either’s career, of course, but given the power of bureaucrats in Japan–still, for all the noises about reform–both of them have decades of connections and influence to capitalize on.

    Potpourri II

    Posted by Sean at 10:10, May 15th, 2005

    Speaking of olfaction, a reader kindly sent me the link to this study, and I thanked him by…uh, waiting until everyone else posted about it and then figuring there was no point in my mentioning it.

    There’s no better way to get long blog discussions going than to mention homosexuality, though. Regarding the study, Eric doesn’t entirely agree with Rosemary’s take on it. I agree, though I think there’s at least a partial answer to his comments about the choice element. (Virginia Postrel wrote an article several years ago that was along the same lines, by the way.) Eric writes:

    No “rule” is right all the time. I’ve known gay men who I’m sure were born that way, but I’ve known others who’ve simply enjoyed homosexual acts because they’ve wanted to. The element of choice and the word “choice” are so over-invoked that I almost hesitate to use the word, but I’d like to ask a rather cynical question along the “what if” line.

    There are several reasons that a lot of us bristle at the pat “homosexuality is a choice” formulation, even if we don’t adhere to the opposite extreme of “homosexuality is genetic.” For one thing, many of us spent years working overtime to avoid even considering the possibility that we might be gay. I had my problems with the super-conservative Christian sect in which I was brought up in terms of administration, but I really believed the doctrines (up until I became an atheist, that is) and tried hard to make any seeming interest in a girl germinate. It didn’t work.

    I realize that at this point, I’m setting myself up for responses on the order of, “Well, okay, but you could have talked to your pastor and asked for more prayers, or you could have sought reparative therapy on the off chance that you’re one of the low percentage of subjects it appears to work for, or you could have chosen a life of noble celibacy.”

    Fine, fine, fine. My point is not that my homosexuality is some kind of mind-control beam. I know I’m responsible for the actions I take based on it. My point is that people who say that homosexuality is a choice present it as if, you know, you figured out you’re gay by waking up one morning in college and thinking, Uh, let’s see: breakfast. Cold pizza, or vodka and Apple Jacks? The blue shirt or the red shirt? Oh, and, I guess today I could start dealing with my lack of interest in women by trying to figure out whether it represents some kind of deeper issue or something. But women are kind of scary. And anyway, guys are interested in getting off all the time, just like me! Okay, so that takes care of that. Where’s my econ book?… For most gays, coming out is the product of brutal self-knowledge and hard decisions. It’s the way the world and our place in it makes sense to us.

    In Rosemary’s comments, the Artist Formerly Known as Wince takes down the idea that no one would choose to be an outcast. He’s right, but what I think most gay people are trying to get at when they use such formulations is that we’re not gay for the purposes of getting a rise out of our families or pissing off the larger society. (Of course, there are cases of people with identity issues doing so. There are people who convert to Buddhism out of a desire to be funky, too.) Striking out on your own as an adult, living the best life you can based on your knowledge of your own talents and bents and the needs of others, involves the possibility that you’re going to alienate some people. You can acknowledge that without relishing the prospect.


    Posted by Sean at 10:06, May 15th, 2005

    Yesterday, I went to get my hair cut, and the nice assistant girl told me she was going to massage my scalp with oil. My eyebrows rose slightly, and I said, “Uh, I just wanted the usual cut–have I mistakenly ordered the King Xerxes Package?” I had not. My hair place has converted to Avedaism, which also helped to explain the glass of rose-hip tea and lavender-scented hot towel I’d been offered on entering. I’d just figured they were placating me because my hair guy was running late. But it’s apparently part of their routine now.

    I don’t know about you, but nothing makes me edgier than the promiscuous sloshing about of soothing essences. I’m not one of those guys whose hygiene consists of a rough white washcloth and a bar of Ivory soap, but I don’t do anything that requires more than fifteen minutes from turning on the shower to being ready to get dressed. I don’t even wear cologne.

    By the time I was halfway through my haircut, I nearly leapt from the chair and was like, “Okay, this is way too gay even for me.” In addition to rose-hips and lavender, there were bergamot and some other stuff in the massage oil, mint-type-things in the shampoo, and something that smelled like cut grass in the styling wax. (No, I don’t use styling wax, but my hair guy seems to think I’m not getting my money’s worth if he doesn’t gunk up my head before sending me off into the great, wide world.) I had so many plant extracts on me, I was afraid someone would tie me up in a tulle bag and toss me into the sweater drawer.