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    Posted by Sean at 14:35, July 9th, 2004

    Japanese abductee Hitomi Soga has arrived at her hotel in Jakarta after meeting her husband and daughters. They’ve been apart for a year and nine months. I wonder whether the girls have ever been outside North Korea–probably not, but I haven’t read anything about it one way or another. The Nikkei says that the younger daughter addressed her as “Mommy” in Korean when they met, which reminds you of how much adjusting they’re all going to have to do if they settle in Japan. I imagine their life in the DPRK was pretty privileged; the girls will probably miss home for quite a while before settling in if they come to Japan or settle elsewhere. BTW, it looks as if CNN is covering the reunion and has a nice summary of most of what led up to it.

    Messy and long–be warned!

    Posted by Sean at 13:08, July 9th, 2004

    Only twelve hours left in this week. Good. Last Saturday, I got a message from a church friend of my parents–like an older sister to me growing up–that another friend of ours–like a little sister to me growing up–had died. So I wrote back asking what had happened, of course. I’m thinking, Oh, no, leukemia. Or a car accident. Well, that wasn’t it. I don’t want to name her or give details, but suffice it to say that I was listening to Zen Arcade this week, and “Pink Turns to Blue” hit me like a sledgehammer. I’ve lost touch with most of the people I knew at home–I can’t blame anyone, since I’m the one that was eager to leave–but (I know this sounds dumb) I just kind of assume that the friends I went to church with are okay, you know? Sure, there were a few who had scarily repressive parents and ended up rebelling and getting pregnant at sixteen. But most of us turned out okay, even those who didn’t stay in the church. And C. was so sweet. She was neurotic, she dressed in black, she listened to the Cure–I hated the Cure and was always pushing New Order on her, go figure–but unlike me, she wasn’t a neurotic and brittle and mean teenager. She was disaffected, but she didn’t resent other people who were ordinary and happy. Knowing she’s not around anymore has made me feel hollow all week. She’s buried in my hometown, so it’ll be easy to make time to visit when I’m home in the autumn. 安らかに休んで下さい。

    So I’ve been feeling low, and last night, I had the misfortune to run into two of the people I’d hoped most to avoid. 30 million people in this city and–again, go figure–there they were a few feet down the bar. One is an old acquaintance who refuses to shut up about how he thinks Atsushi’s moving away is the perfect opportunity for me to be a ho. Normally, I’d be happy to walk away or push him off the bar stool if he didn’t cut it out, but last night he was so pitiably schnockered that it would have made me look like the one who was picking on him. I know what the popular image of urban gay life is, but in truth I know very few effed-up, insolvent alkies and have a hard time dealing with those I do know.

    Thankfully, my buddies behind the bar weren’t far from cutting him off. But he managed to get in a last dig: “It’s easy for you to talk about self-discipline, because you’re one of the guys who get to choose, and everyone does what you want.” I’d shrug something like that off normally, but something about the way another guy we know giggled gave me one of those moments of paranoia: Jeez, is that the way people see me? I mean, I’m probably the least attention-courting man in the free world. I take no pleasure whatever in rejecting people who are attracted to me–unless they obviously believe they’re irresistible. I’m very fortunate to have Atsushi, but it’s not as if we don’t work at being good to each other. And furthermore, the only reason we were talking about this in the first place is that this character wouldn’t change the subject even after I tried the old “The weather is really extraordinarily muggy this summer, isn’t it?” routine twelve times.

    So the last thing I needed, having been accused of being a princess, was to keep talking about myself. Enter acquaintance #2. Well, actually, it was two friends. They’re in college, both 20, and they come out together. We met a few weeks ago, and one of them grilled me about Atsushi and me for–I swear–two hours. I kept trying to ask them what they were studying, how long they’d been in Tokyo, you know, keep the conversation two-way. No such luck. And I couldn’t really get irritated, because here’s this kid who’s 20 and saying that he never meets any guys who are interested in anything but one-night stands, and what a relief it is to know a foreigner in a committed relationship with a Japanese man. I was flattered–who wouldn’t be? (And yes, I know what it means that he’s extra gushy and chatty around me, and yes, you can trust me not to do anything about it.) When I was coming out, I made older friends who took care of me, you know? Sometimes they practically had to body-check me away from scummy guys. One of them gave me the talk about not getting so into having sex all the time that you forget how to connect with guys any other way–all that big brother stuff. So now I’m 32 and it’s my turn. I’m happy to do it. But last night, I was no longer in the mood to make my relationship the topic of conversation. Unfortunately, my 20-year-old friend can’t talk about anything else. And being 20–was I this oblivious to older people’s wisdom ten years ago? Sheesh!–he doesn’t seem to understand what I mean when I tell him that he’s not going to find the guys he’s looking for by hanging out in pick-up bars. There are 100-odd gay bars in Shinjuku, and only four or five are flat-out cruising spots–want me to introduce you to one that’s not? No, it’s late. So okay, let’s sit here and talk about me.

    Time to go home. All this talk about Atsushi has helped to remind me that I really am lonely without him, a lot of the time. I can deal, and that’s life, but it isn’t easy. So just to cap off the night, I came home and gave an unsuspecting friend of mine an avalanche of raw it’s-hard-to-be-faithful-pity-me drivel, probably convincing him to give me a wide berth from here on.

    It’s hard to write about any of this without coming off smug, I realize. But I’m really not looking for a backdoor way to brag about how perfect my life is. What drags me down is when other people act as if being happy and together somehow puts you outside the great human drama that everyone else participates in. I’m not going to start publicizing all my disppointments for the sake of “humanizing” myself (my whole point is that I’d like not to talk about myself), but I’ve walked around this week feeling like some kind of museum piece. It sucks, even though my friends have, naturally, told me not to let it bother me. My next post will be back to normal–I know how to ride out my down cycles–and the week will, in any case, be over soon. Can’t come quickly enough for me.

    The pilot says we’re climbing

    Posted by Sean at 13:06, July 8th, 2004

    There aren’t many fascinating things about CNN.com, but one is the frequent distance between its photo captions and the content of the stories they’re attached to. Check out this story, headlined “Coping with in-flight violence.” The accompanying photo shows…well, I’m not sure who’s subduing whom there, but the caption pretty clearly says, “As a passenger it’s best to leave it to the experts when flying.” If you fly frequently, you’re already silently qualifying that statement in your head, and if you read the accompanying story, you get:

    “If — and that could be a big if — air marshals are on board it would be preferred that the passengers allow them to do what they have been trained to do,” Hamilton said. “Passengers must cooperate with them and do exactly as told.

    “Federal air marshals have credentials and will identify themselves as soon as practical. It will be easy to see who they are. They will not identify themselves until after someone has identified themselves as a terrorist/hijacker,” Hamilton added.

    But, as he indicated, not all flights carry air marshals.

    “You can’t put them on every flight,” said Mark Bogosian, a first officer who crews Boeing 757-767s for a major U.S. airline. He said he knows that because flight crews are told when an air marshal is on board and who it is.

    “Unless law enforcement is on board, especially now with cockpit doors locked, the passengers and flight attendants are the first line of defense.” Bogosian said. “If law enforcement is not on board and there’s an incident, it is up to the flight attendants and the passengers.”

    In other words, if (purely felicitously) you wander onto an airliner that’s been assigned an air marshal (which you won’t know until an emergency begins), stay out of the way and do what you’re told. Otherwise, it’s you and the flight attendants, baby. Just hope the gay ones are the gym-bunny/tae kwan do-class type! It isn’t until two-thirds of the way down the page that you learn that the article is publicizing…a book about self-defense for airline passengers. No, I’m not kidding.

    I realize that these issues are not simple. Keeping air marshals undercover allows their existence to be used to intimidate hijackers but avoids the expense of putting one on every plane. It also prevents terrorists from taking them out before turning on the passengers, and so on. What sticks in my craw is the way leaning on agencies (or private groups funded by same) for sustenance and protection is constantly portrayed as the desirable state of things. Learning how to take responsibility for your non-specialist self is presented as the outlier, the special case, the thing you do when your minders are busy with other things and you’re caught off-guard.

    Training flight attendants to deal with hijackings would mean more if they were armed. They are, after all, the particular subset of “professionals” and “experts” who know the ins and outs of the planes they man. More than the passengers, they would be able to use their familiarity with the environment strategically. Besides, how cool would it be if one of those hard-bitten, frosted-haired old dinosaur stewardesses on American or United planted herself in the middle of the aisle, growled, “The captain has turned the seatbelt sign ON, sir!” and saved a planeload of people by shooting a terrorist? Her 300 million countrymen would adore her forever.

    Well, probably not all 300 million. In a few days, there would be a story on Reuters headlined, “Flight 123 ‘heroine’ may have committed procedural violation.” There would be investigations and soul-searching and a stack of new clearance forms and a segment on Crossfire. Knowing this, passengers who can’t arm themselves, and who can’t depend on armed crews to protect them, may as well make the best of it and learn how to knee miscreants in the groin. It’d be nice if CNN realized that was the real story, though.

    Introducing Diet Coke / You’re gonna drink it just for the taste of it

    Posted by Sean at 01:01, July 7th, 2004

    What an entertainingly bonkers specimen of humanity Kim Jong-il is. It seems that he invented the hamburger, which is now providing nutrition to growing bodies at the DPRK’s universities:

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has introduced hamburgers to his reclusive, communist country in a campaign to provide “quality” food to university students, media reported Wednesday.

    The hamburgers were introduced in 2000 and dubbed “gogigyeopbbang,” Korean for “double bread with meat,” according to the June 29 edition of the North Korean state-run newspaper Minju Joson. The report was carried by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency on Wednesday.

    Although reports from the isolated country have in recent years mentioned the introduction of the American fast food classic, the latest announcement seems to credit the country’s leader for their advent.

    The news marks a curious development for North Korea, where U.S. consumerism is routinely reviled in the official media and people refer to the soft drink Coca Cola as the “cesspool water of American capitalism.”

    Maybe that explains the last decade of famine: The Great (formerly Dear) Leader was confiscating all the produce to use in his test kitchen. And that patched-together Korean name sounds for all the world like the Académie Française screeching for everyone to say “pret à manger” instead of “fast food.”

    Speaking of cesspool water that keeps you from crashing during project meetings at your people-exploiting capitalist workplace: Here in consumerist Japan, we’re part of the test market for a new Coke product called C2. It’s low-calorie but has some real sugar in it, presumably for the have-it-both-ways market. (It’s also being touted as low-carbohydrate.) My considered opinion, as someone who spent the better part of college knocking back a two-liter of Coke Classic per day without even thinking about it, is that it sucks.

    Well, okay, I guess it doesn’t taste that bad. But the combination of sugar and…Actually, I don’t know what artificial sweetener is used here. It could be cyclamate for all I know. Anyway…the combination of sugar with the fake stuff tastes vaguely molasses-y. Nothing wrong with molasses, but it’s not what I want my Coke reminding me of. Indeed, I disliked C2 so much that I thought of salvaging it by spiking it with Bacardi, as a semi-tribute to the climactic scene in Desperately Seeking Susan, in which Laurie Metcalf’s character orders rum and Tab. Then I remembered that I could safely pour half a can of Coke down the drain without sacrificing a significant portion of the day’s nutrients. I’m a wasteful bourgeois Westerner, after all.

    First, they came for the New Yorkers

    Posted by Sean at 17:27, July 4th, 2004

    It looks as if news of the beheading of the Lebanese-American marine may have been a fake-out; still, some people are getting understandably itchy over the fact that the abduct-and-execute cycle has been repeated a few times over the last several months without decisive response from the coalition side. Reading Susanna Cornett’s assessment made me wonder about something for the millionth time since 9/11. It’s something that seems so obvious to me that it’s been unnerving to see no one commenting on it directly.

    The Onion, in its post-9/11 issue, had as one of its fake headlines “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York,” or something like that. What made it funny, of course, was that it represented a truth that’s a little deeper than the usual idea that salt-of-the-Earth types in flyover country think we city-dwellers are crass and materialistic and sinful and arrogant. I don’t mean that the outpouring of affection for 9/11 victims and survivors wasn’t genuine, or that the sense of solidarity with New York and DC wasn’t genuine, or that anyone but the most odiously opportunistic ideologues believes that those places deserved to be attacked.

    I just mean that 9/11 did little to counter–indeed, played directly into–the idea that our big cities are where dangerous things happen and that you can avoid danger by staying out of them. Which is to say, I think that people believe America is vulnerable, but I’d have no trouble believing that most people don’t feel that they themselves are particularly vulnerable…largely because they don’t live in New York, LA, Chicago, DC, and maybe San Francisco or Houston. There are, plainly, good reasons to think that way. When an al Qaeda affiliate told Japan is was on the to-attack list for supporting the US, it was here in the middle of Tokyo that our train lines removed trash bins from station platforms and other security measures were taken.

    But there’s also an extent to which the sense of what is safe and what is dangerous is based on feel. This is just speculation, but I’d be willing to bet that most people’s sense of threat would become much more urgent if the next attack were on, say, Dallas instead of Philadelphia. It’s not that people value people in one place more than another. It’s just that everyone knows that Philadelphia is a City, whereas Dallas has the image of a piece of middle America that happens to have a lot of people (even though Dallas is waxing and Philadelphia waning in socio-economic prominence). I realize that I’m glossing over other differences–between regions, and also in the ways population centers form now vs. the way they formed when the traditional great American cities were rising. But to many Americans, more on the basis of common sense than any kind of reverse snobbery, the BOS-WASH and SAN-SAN cities, along with Chicago, are in a somewhat different mental zone from the rest of America. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but it probably doesn’t help bring home that, while future attacks may begin in our love-to-hate-them metropolitan areas, they won’t stop there.


    Posted by Sean at 15:38, July 3rd, 2004

    Right after 9/11, Joanne Jacobs wrote something that was, as usual, bluntly true and compelling. Her old blog archives don’t work, but it’s still on Instapundit:

    They hate us because we’re big, powerful and rich, while they’re small, weak and poor. Our culture is dynamic, confident, global and free. Their culture is rigid, defensive, parochial and tyrannical. We’re winners. They’re losers, and they resent it. U.S. support for Israel is a detail. We could let our foreign policy be dictated by Yasir Arafat, and they’d still hate us.

    I don’t know that US support for Israel is a detail, exactly–except insofar as this isn’t all about hatred of the Jews. Israel, as much as America, represents how you can triumph over adversity when people are freed to use their resources to accomplish what they wish, and not sentenced to the circumstances they were born with.

    I’ve given up trying to explain this to nice but knee-jerk lefty guys when the subject turns to politics: As a people, Americans do not believe that there’s only so much happiness or wealth to go around. You can always make more–not by waving a magic wand, but by working hard and looking for new places to contribute. The sort of sappy progressivism that says we can wipe out all the darkness and ambiguity in our life as organisms if we just plan better is unrealistic; the kind that says we can make the means to prosperity more accessible, and give society a more diverse and resilient set of responses to disaster, is so much a part of our reality that it’s easy not to see it most of the time. Almost 230 years after the Declaration of Independence, and it’s still working.

    Happy Fourth of July.

    Send it in a letter, baby / Tell you on the phone

    Posted by Sean at 23:14, July 2nd, 2004

    I was going to post an addendum to what I wrote a few days ago about respect for public spaces, in response to something Nathan had said on the same topic. Then Nathan was no longer able to log in to his own site’s comments, and it seemed unfair to reply to him when I knew he couldn’t reply back. But then, I figure the issue of obscenity in popular culture is unlikely to be solved between now and when he arrives home; it’ll still be hot, one might say, when he’s in a position to get back to it.

    What I was going to say was this: I think that social liberals’ knowing “most people won’t” turn off the television to avoid certain content means something different when we’re talking broadcasting in general from when we’re talking about the Superbowl specifically. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me for broadcasters to assume that young children are in bed or away from the TV by late evening and that programs with sexual or violent themes are acceptable at that hour. Whole 24-hour channels that parents know are going to be minefields of things you can’t explain to an eight-year-old don’t seem to me to cause ethical problems, either, as long as everyone knows what they are. (Even better is if people can block them.) However well it may serve the aims of the atheistic elements who want to destroy society…or whomever…the people who make the decision to put television sets in their children’s rooms so they can watch unsupervised are the parents.

    The problem with the Superbowl escapade was that it violated the gentlemen’s agreement to acknolwedge that whole families watch together and keep it away from anything more controversial than bad calls and shocking sums spent on whiz-bang advertisements. The FCC’s barging in strikes me as wacko; so did the way so many people seemed to take the tack that the female breast itself was some sort of Mound of Discord. The aims of aggrieved parties would, it seems to me, have been better served if they’d gone with measured, slightly contemptuous condescension. Communicating by letter and telephone that they were so very appreciative of the broadcasters’ desire to put on a piquant show…but that they planned to boycott any organizations involved because of the poor judgment about what the audience would find acceptable…could have been devastating if they’d followed through.

    Turn on the news

    Posted by Sean at 02:48, July 2nd, 2004

    The negotiations to get Hitomi Soga, one of the now-repatriated Japanese nationals snatched by North Korean agents twenty-five years ago, together with her husband and children, still in Pyongyang, seem to be gelling around setting the meeting in Indonesia. The president (the way it’s phrased, I don’t think it’s Megawati’s personal property) has a country house in a suburb of Jakarta, which is apparently more convenient than another presidential country house she has in Bali.

    There haven’t been many other notable updates on the whole appalling situation. Recurring headlines have tended to be about developments in the Mitsubishi Motors/Mitsubishi Fuso scandal, which that keiretsu has obligingly kept on low-boil since around 1998. If it doesn’t get much play in America, the gist is: Mitsubishi cars and trucks have clutch problems. (I think most of the problems are with the housing, actually, and don’t remember how the defect affects the clutch as it worsens.) I can’t find links to corroborate my memory of the news stories at the time, but basically, a few car owners who were injured when their cars suddenly jumped into reverse sued. They lost (or the suits were dismissed–I don’t remember) based in part on expert testimony from engineers in the employ of…why, yes, Mitsubishi Motors. Evidence since then has piled up, slowly but steadily, that Mitsubishi knew about these defects as early as 1993 and quietly repaired some of the affected vehicles rather than instituting a bad-PR recall. Unfortunately, a trucker was killed a few years ago in Yamaguchi Prefecture when his clutch malfunctioned, and a woman was killed and her children injured in Yokohama. So now we have the usual round of arrests of executives present and erstwhile, release of a decade-long paper trail of coverups and back-door settling, and accountability-dodging. And a recall. Another reason to be glad my man drives a Toyota.

    Turn this crazy bird around

    Posted by Sean at 23:10, June 28th, 2004

    Wow. Imagine being confined to an airliner for 18 hours, and then stepping out and finding yourself at Newark Airport. Of such forebearance is innovation born. I’m not entirely sure I could stand it, though. I take three or so trips out of Japan per year, all but one of which usually involves a flight of 10 to 12 hours. These flights tend to activate what my old boss calls the Rule of Seven: A man can keep himself amused on a passenger jet for 7 hours, tops, before he’s ready to go bananas from cabin fever. Totally true in my case.

    Besides the sheer patience-shredding length of today’s Singapore Airlines flight, the interesting thing is that the Airbus used was configured to hold fewer than 200 passengers. A lot of recent stories about developments in passenger jets have suggested that the future is not in monster 700-seaters but in smaller jets that go longer distances. I suppose one big issue is that any weight occupied by passengers can’t be used for the fuel needed to travel for 18 hours, so once you get above the capacity and distance of a 747, you have to keep making tradeoffs. It will be of interest to see whether and how this new Singapore-New York route affects the way Asian airlines compete for customers.

    Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one

    Posted by Sean at 23:40, June 27th, 2004

    I was rereading a Virginia Postrel article from a decade ago, and it got me thinking. Maybe one of the reasons the American “return to civility” is taking a while to get off the ground–have you noticed?–is that it requires accomplishing two goals that, I’d imagine, seem contradictory to a lot of people. They aren’t in reality, but assessing which value is ascendant in a given situation requires discrimination.

    One thing we need to do is get rid of the idea that using different behavioral patterns in different contexts is somehow ipso facto insincere. Nowadays, behaving formally is something people do if they have to–as when there’s a difficult but lucrative client to deal with–but the assumption seems to be that it wouldn’t be necessary in a world of perfect, just-folks honesty. Different styles for different arenas as a way of life has an image of being suitable only for actors and PR types.

    There are lots and lots of problems with this way of thinking, but one of the most important is one that gets little play: If you don’t establish low-stakes, essentially content-free ways for people to show goodwill and allegiance to the group, you can’t distinguish between friend and foe until you see them react to a real emergency. At that point the knowledge may come too late to be useful. In America, we want to make room for idiosyncrasy, which does make enforcing social custom more difficult than it is in societies that have no qualms about being openly conformist. (Not to mention any names.)

    But is it really that hard? I’m not talking about censorship; I firmly believe that no expression, no matter how repugnant, should be flat-out suppressed–with exceptions for treason or falsehoods that cause immediate danger, obviously. And personally, I like boisterous conversation with lots of four-letter words and smutty jokes as much as anyone. I like Madonna videos. I like pictures of naked men. (Which of those three is my absolute favorite, I will delicately pass over. The point is….) In America, women don’t show their tits in public, and men don’t walk around on the street in leather underwear, because…well, just because. World cultures have a variety of ways of conveying businesslike public modesty, and that’s ours.

    I’ve never found such arbitrary rules to be all that inhibiting, but I’m no choirboy. When they showed the footage from the gay pride parades yesterday, I was craning my neck to see which of the barechested guys were especially hot just like every other queer with a television. I also wasn’t traumatized, a few months ago, at the irrefutable proof that Janet Jackson’s breast is equipped with the standard-issue nipple.

    But the issue isn’t just uptightness or prudery. The issue is also whether people who visibly flout expectations that take minimal effort to fulfill can be trusted with the big responsibilities. If gay guys can’t restrict thong-wearing to the beach or indoor clubs, is it any wonder that people shudder to imagine how we act when we’re actually out of sight? If Justin and Janet can’t find choreography that keeps everyone’s parts covered when they’re performing at a nationwide event watched by millions of families, why wouldn’t some parents decide it’s best to avoid any further surprises by avoiding their output altogether? (A related question, which probably doesn’t trouble, say, Michelle Malkin, but is of great interest to me: Now that twelve-year-old honor students and members of the 4-H club are wearing halter tops and hot pants, how does a bona fide slut distinguish herself as being actually on the make?)

    I’ve been talking about pop culture partially because these events have made for evocative news lately. But the problem of running all of life’s venues together has infected politics and the life of the mind, too. And that leads to the second thing that needs to happen: once we’ve reestablished the boundaries between the public and the private, we have to make free expression the highest priority in the appropriate areas, and then deal with it.

    Willfully offensive speech helps to keep us from solipsism and complacency. The freedom to shock others encourages us to stretch our imaginations, and confronting in-your-face challenges to our own beliefs encourages us to question them. And the ability to blow off steam is a safety valve; using words aggressively helps us calm down before we’re worked up enough to go the whole way and reach for a knife or gun, as Virginia Postrel pointed out. Of course, there are conditions attached. If all you ever do is throw verbal or visual Molotov cocktails, without developing an argument or having a sense of humor about yourself, you just turn people off. This, to me, was the problem with Al Gore’s Brownshirts remark. There are plenty of people who are up in arms about it that don’t seem to have any difficulty tossing around words like feminazi or Gestapo tactics, so how much partisanship is involved in all the condemnations is hard to judge. The problem with Gore is, everything he’s said and done for the last four years makes it all too easy to believe that he wasn’t exaggerating when he said that he thinks of Bush supporters as equivalent to the Brownshirts.

    Isn’t everything I’ve written here so obvious as not to be worth remarking on? I would have thought so. Maybe behavior is slow to change because people just have a hard time resigning themselves to the fact that there’s no way to eliminate misunderstandings. Agreed-on patterns of surface behavior can allow a clever villain to slide through society undetected, and they can put nice but ungainly types at a disadvantage. A rant, even in a forum in which no-holds-barred expression is clearly expected, can alienate even some people who aren’t determined to be offended. But the alternative, to judge from empirical evidence, is a society in which a lot of people feel that their beliefs are stymied while opposing beliefs are enshrined in policy, and in which no one trusts anyone who isn’t already on his team to behave without being coerced into it. Not good. I do think that American good-heartedness and common sense will fix things eventually, but we’re at such a critical juncture right now that I can’t help hoping it happens faster.