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    Gettin’ 辞儀 with it

    Posted by Sean at 20:24, November 19th, 2009

    So President Obama bowed—BOWED!—when he met Emperor Akihito in Tokyo last week, and friends of every conceivable political persuasion have wondered what it meant.

    Short answer: I don’t know. I don’t live inside his head.

    Long answer: Meeting Japanese people in formal settings tends to make Westerners act Very Weird.

    I’m not sure what exactly the issue is. Part of it, I think, is that Japan is seen as obsessed with etiquette and doing the Right Thing in every situation. Part of it is that Japan is seen as enigmatic, lofty, Zen-like, ineffably subtle, and trailing delicate mists that can only be perceived by the acutely sensitive. The feeling in the air seems to be that sketching out anything less than a body-language haiku means one hasn’t risen to the occasion.

    So the temptation to meet a new Japanese acquaintance more than halfway by going through exaggerated bowing routines apparently overwhelms a lot of people. I’m not just saying that—I’ve seen it happen. Often. (Meanwhile, New Japanese Acquaintance often wears a tight smile that clearly says, “I go through this delicate-mist routine enough with my countrymen, for the love of Amaterasu—can’t we just say hello and get to the part where we order beers?”) I have zero affection for Obama and even less for his political worldview, but I don’t think what he did when meeting Emperor Akihito expressed subservience. He didn’t touch his head to the floor, or anything. He just did that over-enthusiastic thing that people who pride in thinking of themselves as cosmopolitan and aesthetically aware do when confronted with the Land of the Rising Sun: he assumed he could fake it based on goodwill and a Sincere Belief in Diversity. And he looked kinda dumb.

    Added later: What do you mean, you can’t read the kanji in the post title? Let Will (with a major assist from Rodgers and Edwards) tell you. You’ll never forget the (approximate pronunciation of the rarely used informal) equivalent for bow in Japanese again.

    Added after a restorative vodka: This all reminds me of what Phoebe Snow told Esquire magazine decades ago about when her wonderful bluesy voice set her audiences off:

    It makes sense that her taste for rock would send Phoebe Snow back to its origins in black music. Her best work has always involved a blending of the two, rhythm and blues and pop, singing that’s sweet and rough at the same time. It’s certainly no coincidence that a healthy number of blacks always frequent her shows. “I feel like an honorary black, and I’m flattered,” she jokes. “But when they yell out, ‘Get down, sis-tuh,’ I tend to feel whiter than ever. ‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘I believe I will get down now.'”

    I sometimes think that one of the reasons I was able to make so many lasting friends in Japan is that I was very happy being American and didn’t do that trying-to-convert-into-a-Japanese-person thing, which many Japanese people read as a little creepy. I don’t say that because I think Obama was going that far; I’m just noting that being confident in your own identity can be a good thing—preferable to trying to affect behaviors that you don’t understand well enough to pull off.

    Added on 22 November: Rondi says that Chris Matthews tried to flub off Obama’s bow because the Japanese believe their emperor is divine. I didn’t see the broadcast, but I trust Rondi’s judgment (and memory). What the hell? Rondi sets things straight.

    Come visit me/Inspired insanity

    Posted by Sean at 00:31, November 19th, 2009

    I know—I haven’t posted much lately. Political goings-on have been thoroughly distasteful, and I generally don’t like discussing things I find distasteful. (That doesn’t mean I avoid keeping up with the news, only that I haven’t been keen on writing about it.) I also started a new job last month, which has cut into the free time somewhat. But I should be getting back into writing more regularly.

    A few weeks ago, my ‘net friend James, editor of The Painful Truth, asked a few of us for some thoughts on the current health care debate. Mine was the shortest response; it appears toward the bottom of the resulting page, beneath more broad-ranging and fully worked out comments from others. James’s premise—an interesting one—was that having come out of a repressive, you-don’t-know-what’s-good-for-you religious sect might be a factor in whether we liked the idea of ceding responsibility for health care to Big Brother. He didn’t speculate about which side of the divide we’d be likely to come down on, but if anything, I was the gentlest critic of the policy direction taken by the current bill.


    Paul, formerly of Coming out at 48, has a new blog. Happily, it’s not called Now I’m 51 and Wondering Why No Other Fag My Age in This Entire Room Can Move His Forehead, so he seems to have fallen in with a good crowd. Paul’s writing is always thoughtful and a rewarding read–he doesn’t whitewash things, as he’s already demonstrated with his latest post—so while it was nice to think that he’d moved beyond having to post because he was busy enjoying his life, it’s great to have him back, too.


    Yet another diva from Snow Country has been writing lately—you’ve heard of Sarah Palin, right? I plan to buy the book for the trip home to my parents’ place for Thanksgiving dinner this weekend. (My father’s side gathers the Sunday before. My parents are hosting this year, so tonight when I called home, I got to hear about how heavy a brining turkey is, among other prep reports delivered with you-are-there verisimilitude.) Ann Althouse has been covering the brouhaha very well, especially in this post. I don’t agree with every last thing she says, but it’s depressing to read the return volleys from Palin’s defenders. Too many of them seem to assume that there’s some sort of Law of Conservation of Political Aptitude, by which you must concede that at least one of the four major-party candidates in the 2008 election was a good one. Actually, poor, boring John McCain and Joe Biden are pretty much left out of it. Therefore, if you say Palin was under-qualified, it’s assumed that you must have been gaga for Obama.

    In reality, it’s possible to have believed that every realistic option sucked and that, as a good citizen with a responsibility to vote, it was necessary to prioritize as best one could. I don’t agree with Althouse’s Obama-Biden choice, but it was clearly not the result of being dazzled by Barack Obama’s rhetorical arabesques. Regarding the few pages of Palin’s book that had been released when she posted, Althouse wrote:

    If Sarah Palin did not see the limited value of Nicolle Wallace’s comment about Katie Couric [that Couric had low self-esteem and, like, totally related to Palin as a working mom, with the implication that the interview would be aired as a puff piece—SRK], then she is too pollyannaish and unsophisticated to be trusted with presidential power. Couric is a pussycat compared to the world leaders who will smile and exude pleasantries and then stab you in the back.

    Yeah, I really wish Palin’s defenders would stop trying to have it both ways. If you want to argue that she’s too pure of heart to have known what she was getting herself into, fine—but then don’t argue that she should be facing off with heads of state. If you want to argue that she’s exceptionally shrewd, then please try to explain why she didn’t realize that any segment she did with a big-guns interviewer would be edited to suit the interviewer’s agenda. Palin has done very well at throwing elected officials and other public figures off balance, but she seems to have little sense of how to out-maneuver functionaries and bureaucrats. Maybe that’s evidence of her uprightness rather than her lack of smarts; I don’t know. But either way, it suggests that she wouldn’t have been much good at shaking up the system as a working politician. I’m as desirous as anyone of getting some outsiders into Washington who haven’t spent their entire lives, from the moment they were named Scissors Monitor in first grade, dreaming of lording it over their fellow citizens. But just being an outsider is not a qualification.

    On the radio

    Posted by Sean at 22:03, September 30th, 2009

    Those who miss reading Connie and Kim du Toit’s writing will be interested to know that they’re going to begin broadcasting an Internet talk-radio show this coming Saturday. The site is here. I’ll be interested to hear what that first guest of theirs has to talk about….

    Who has seen the wind?

    Posted by Sean at 11:01, September 28th, 2009

    Bjorn Lomborg has an op-ed in the WaPo about proposed climate-change policies, which, he argues, will be bad for the world’s poor (via Hit and Run). Enlightened energy policy is being used as an excuse for increased protectionism.

    The struggle to generate international agreement on a carbon deal has created a desire to punish “free riders” who do not sign on to stringent carbon emission reduction targets. But the greater goals seem to be to barricade imports from China and India, to tax companies that outsource, and to go for short-term political benefits, destroying free trade.

    This is a massive mistake. Economic models show that the global benefits of even slightly freer trade are in the order of $50 trillion — 50 times more than we could achieve, in the best of circumstances, with carbon cuts. If trade becomes less free, we could easily lose $50 trillion — or much more if we really bungle things. Poor nations — the very countries that will experience the worst of climate damage — would suffer most.

    Aside from trade barriers, there’s the sheer improbability that the goals being trumpeted can be achieved. Lomborg specifically mentions Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s promises:

    Japan’s commitment in June to cut greenhouse gas levels 8 percent from its 1990 levels by 2020 was scoffed at for being far too little. Yet for Japan — which has led the world in improving energy efficiency — to have any hope of reaching its target, it needs to build nine new nuclear power plants and increase their use by one-third, construct more than 1 million new wind-turbines, install solar panels on nearly 3 million homes, double the percentage of new homes that meet rigorous insulation standards, and increase sales of “green” vehicles from 4 percent to 50 percent of its auto purchases.

    Japan’s new prime minister was roundly lauded this month for promising a much stronger reduction, 25 percent, even though there is no obvious way to deliver on his promise. Expecting Japan, or any other nation, to achieve such far-fetched cuts is simply delusional.

    It’s not that people don’t know that underneath all the upbeat sloganeering. Several years ago, when the Kyoto Protocol was the big thing, the Asahi carried this story:

    With the landmark Kyoto Protocol on global warming finally taking effect today, Japan probably should own up to a major embarrassment: that it may well be unable to meet its obligations under the treaty.

    This possibility, suggested by an Asahi Shimbun survey, contrasts sharply with the fanfare that greeted Japan’s decision to hold an international conference on climate change in 1997 in Kyoto to set reduction goals.

    Under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan has agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions between fiscal 2008 and 2012 by an average 6 percent from the fiscal 1990 level.

    The Asahi Shimbun established that only a few prefectural and municipal governments have done anything about it. In fact, a nationwide survey found that only three of the 47 prefectural governments and seven of the 13 major cities can actually boast decreases in their greenhouse gas emissions.

    Also, latest statistics offered by about half the prefectural and municipal governments surveyed showed double-digit increases over the fiscal 1990 level in greenhouse gas emissions.

    Unlike the central government, prefectural and major municipal governments are not obligated to establish emission reduction goals, and so are still not feeling the heat.

    Grand-scale pronouncements are easy. Putting them into effect at ground level without aftershocks that the economy might not be able to absorb is less easy. And note that, as Lomborg states, Japan is already very good at energy efficiency. The Japanese occupy a resource-poor archipelago; despite being rich, they’re used to relying on ingenuity and near-obsessive parsimony to make the most of what they have. They are very good at it. But there are limits to what a modern, industrialized country of 127 million people can cut down on and still function. The increased use of nuclear power sounds great as far as I’m concerned (though one hopes that it will be accompanied by increased rigor in enforcement of safety standards), but it takes a while to get plants online. And that’s an awful lot of wind turbines.

    Learning to do more with less is always a good thing. So is caring for the environment. But for all the talk about how responding to the greenhouse effe…oops! global war…oops! climate change…means we’re entering a new era, what we really seem to be seeing is a lot of recycling of long-standing political wish lists wrapped in new (at least 50% recycled material!) packaging. And unsurprisingly, the world’s poor stand to get screwed yet again while developed-country politicians curry favor with their constituents.


    Posted by Sean at 16:13, September 27th, 2009

    Hi, there, you four remaining people who are still checking back to see whether I’ve posted anything. Just to prove this is really Sean, I’ll make this about homosexuality and atheism and partisan politics and Japan.

    The Unreligious Right linked last week to this very good post about being an atheist out in the public debate. The one problem, as commenter lilacsigil points out, is with the comparison Christina uses to illustrate why it’s out of line to tell self-identified atheists that they’re not actually atheist:

    Let me make an analogy. If you’re not gay, would you say to a gay person, “You don’t understand what it means to be gay”? Would you say to them, “Being gay means that 100% of your sexuality is directed towards people of the same sex”? Would you say to them, “If you’ve ever had sex with someone of the opposite sex, or have even had a slight passing inclination to be sexually interested in someone of the opposite sex, then you’re not really gay”?

    Would you say to a gay person, “I understand what ‘gay’ means better than you do”?

    If you were a busybody, you most certainly would. And, non-hypothetically, if you are a busybody of that particular type, you most certainly do.

    Plenty of anti-gay commentators (both in the media and in informal conversation) are constantly telling us there’s no such thing as a “real” homosexual (we’re just confused, underdeveloped heteros with unexplored anger toward the opposite sex, you see) and that we’re practicing gays because we don’t want to do the hard work of facing up to the truths of nature and the moral strictures that flow from them. If you’re both gay and atheist, the condescension is even more dismissive–along the lines of “You just don’t want to believe in God because if you did you’d have to exercise sexual discipline.” (No, not everyone is like that, but I’m only talking about busybodies.) Anyway, Christina’s post is very good, and so are the comments, some of which are hers.

    [Added after loading the dishwasher and pouring a Scotch: Actually, if you really want to ensure you can never discuss anything but the weather with new acquaintances without stepping into a political minefield and being informed what you think, you can try being gay, atheist, and libertarian. Sententious busybodies on the right will be happy to tell you that you’re a libertine who wants to pretend society doesn’t need rules and order; sententious busybodies on the left will be happy to tell you that you don’t want to acknowledge the degree to which circumstances beyond people’s control affect their ability to make their way in life. And both sides will be happy to tell you you’re not a “real” libertarian if you happen to take a position that isn’t congruent with whatever they’ve decided the libertarian position should be based on some article they read in The Wall Street Journal or something a few years ago. Both sides like to use the same triumphant, “GOTCHA!” tone, too.]


    This diavlog between Michelle Goldberg and Megan McArdle (who’s a libertarian, not a conservative, but who’s naturally seen as being “on the right” in our current political climate) is almost a month old now, and it got a lot of attention when it was posted. Still, if you haven’t watched it, there’s a lot to munch on that’s illustrative of the way things are framed in the public debate lately. I particularly thought this was interesting:

    My sense is that Goldberg’s reflexive assumption about gun owners—that they’re running about eager for an opportunity to shoot someone—is shared by a lot of people, but I don’t think she’s right. McArdle doesn’t go into much detail, but the way she describes the gun enthusiasts she’s met fits those I know, too: they enjoy shooting at the range, and they like the feeling of autonomy that not depending on 911 in an emergency gives them, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy contemplating killing an actual human being. Instead, they rest easier knowing that they’re prepared if they meet some miscreant who threatens them or their property when the police are too far away to do anything about it. It really is a self-reliance thing, and I agree with McArdle that it’s likely that that’s the message those who wear their guns to so-called Town Hall meetings or protests were trying to send: don’t think you have to patronize me, Madam Senator, or protect me, Mr. Congressman—I can handle my own life and only need you to stop getting in my way.

    That having been said, I think McArdle’s right about the PR factor. Carrying a deadly weapon to a political protest is a great way of signaling that you (at least) think there may be occasion to use it, which does not help to bring the tenor of debate back down toward poised, reasonable argument.


    New Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama met with President Obama this week. (He also addressed the UN General Assembly and was presumably in one of the motorcades that made getting to work or home in Midtown East utter hell.) The Asahi editorial contained this priceless quotation:

    The chiefs of the Democratic parties that govern Japan and the United States met for the first time.

    This fresh start for the bilateral relationship came after Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took over government by promising “change” from more than half a century of virtually one-party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party, and U.S. President Barack Obama took power by promising “change” from eight years of the presidency of George W. Bush.

    After the meeting, Obama told reporters he is “very confident that not only will the prime minister succeed in his efforts and his campaign commitments, but that this will give us an opportunity to strengthen and renew” the alliance between the two countries.

    And Obama should know, because, after all, he’s all about keeping campaign commitments (to rein in spending, to close Guantanamo, to prohibit anything that could be construed as torture in the prosecution of the WOT) and strengthening and renewing alliances with existing partners.

    Hatoyama apparently wanted to convey his intention to guide his nation away from this traditional relationship [i.e., Japan’s playing second fiddle to the United States–SRK] toward new relations in which Japan is more assertive and ready to play a more active role.

    Some tricky issues were not discussed at the Hatoyama-Obama meeting but must eventually be addressed. Among them are Tokyo’s plans to terminate the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s mission to refuel coalition vessels in the Indian Ocean and review the realignment of the U.S. forces in Japan, including the planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

    The Japanese government must make decisions on these issues before Obama’s scheduled visit to Japan in November.

    Mishandling these delicate issues could strain Japan-U.S. relations and stir up criticism against the Hatoyama administration at home.

    A power transfer can lead to a major policy shift. What is happening in Japan now is a natural part of democracy. The diplomatic challenge facing Hatoyama is how to persuade Washington to accept this change in Japan without hurting the mutual trust.

    Well, it might be noted that the push for a permanent UNSC seat for Japan began under Koizumi and that the plans to restructure United States military deployments to have fewer personnel in Japan began under Bush; I’m not sure those things represent substantive change as much as evolution in a preset direction. The nuclear-disarmament part sounds nice, but surely everyone is aware, underneath the genial dialogue, that it’s not going to happen now that the toothpaste is out of the tube. And Japan has spent decades talking about internationalization and global outreach, but those processes are a two-way street, and the adapting it would need to do at the level of nuts-and-bolts approaches to politics and business is not one that it welcomes.

    “This yuai (fraternity) is a way of thinking that respects one’s own freedom and individual dignity while also respecting the freedom and individual dignity of others,” he said during his 20-minute speech in English.

    He said that based on the spirit of yuai, Japan can become a bridge for the world in five areas.

    I’d love to see Japan, as the most mature democracy in the region, take more of an active geo-political role, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen on what seem to be the current trajectories. Serving as a “bridge” between the rest of the world and Asia makes sense given Japan’s economic power and corresponding contributions to the UN. But fraternity (the Japanese word indicated actually means more like “friendship” or “amicability,” but let that slide) among East and Southeast Asian peoples is notoriously unstable, despite their many elements of shared heritage, and Japan’s history does not, shall we say, establish it unequivocally as the obvious choice for role of altruistic, disinterested referee.

    Minor desires turned to major needs

    Posted by Sean at 23:05, August 30th, 2009

    Still busy, busy, busy…but of course I can’t ignore the bit of news from Japanese electoral politics today. The following is the Nikkei graphic:


    The blue band is the ruling coalition, headed by the LDP. The red band is the opposition, headed by the DPJ. Look very closely, and you’ll see that one is larger. Or you can just look at the numbers.

    It was, of course, predicted that the LDP was going to get spanked in today’s Diet elections, but those are some sorry numbers even so. Voter turnout was high, too. The Nikkei has started reporting what The Australian is saying about the DPJ win:

    Influential Australian daily The Australian prominently announced on the front-page on 31 August the DPJ’s “landslide victory,” and it declared this change of administrations “an event on par with the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s post-war recovery.”

    And I’m sure we’ll be hearing that from a lot of the non-Japanese press in the next week or so. Whether it’s true, though, I’m not so sure. Voters are understandably angry with the LDP leadership, but there’s a lot about the System that you can’t reach through elected officials. That’s true everywhere, of course–legislators come and go, but functionaries remain, and they tend to know how to defend their territory. But it’s especially true in Japan. And Japan is a huge, rich country, and despite the economic troubles of the last two decades, there are a lot of people whose interests are served by the status quo and who have surely already started laying plans to keep Yukio Hatoyama and his crew from spoiling the party.

    But I doubt all the pressure against reform will come from recalcitrant old-timers. Hatoyama used Barack Obama’s “Change” mantra to fuel his campaign, and he’s likely to discover, as Obama has, that issues such as national defense and social welfare look very different when you actually have to govern. The Australian piece, according to the Nikkei, speculates that Japan will move toward more independence from the United States in diplomatic terms (while retaining its fast relationship with its Down Under neighbors, naturally). Hatoyama would undoubtedly like to, but if he tries, he’s likely to run smack up against obstacles called “China,” “Russia,” and “North Korea.” So what kind of change Japan will get is impossible to predict at this point, though it will be interesting to watch.

    One thing I can say: it’s nice to see the Japanese citizenry projecting boldness and vigor on the world stage. For the last twenty years, the Western media narratives have operated at two extremes: either the grin-and-bear-it Japanese were soldiering on through their economic malaise like helpless drones, or some sensationalizably freakish subculture (like hikikomori kids or people who hang out at manga/Internet cafes) represented the social meltdown that was just around the corner. At least, whatever the Hatoyama administration actually ends up doing, for the time being the story will rightly be one of voters using the democratic process to hold their underperforming leaders accountable.

    Added later: And of course I can’t post about a landslide victory and refer to Australia without yet again bringing in my favorite Olivia song (and see post title):

    Brother, it don’t matter/Sister, don’t worry

    Posted by Sean at 13:48, July 30th, 2009

    This writer is exercised over the Euro-cutesying of vampires, especially in fiction aimed at young girls (via Instapundit):

    At least Anne Rice’s vampires were still primarily bloodsuckers. The first sign that something was awry came with the introduction of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A prime example of the brooding, crying-on-the-inside, leather-jacketed emo boy of the ’90s (see also: Dylan McKay, Beverly Hills, 90210; James Hurley, Twin Peaks), Angel was a vampire who had a soul. He fell in love with Buffy, teared up a lot, and believed in random acts of kindness. Angel, in short, sucked. Or, rather, he didn’t suck, which was the problem. When he did suck, he took limited amounts of blood from consenting human women, or sucked blood against his will, or sucked rat blood.

    Rat blood.

    Think about it. Faced with the impact of his diet on humans, Angel accepts a yucky, cruelty-free substitute, then endlessly lectures other vampires about their moral failings because they don’t do the same. He’s not a vampire—he’s a vegan.

    I’m not nearly the Buffy fan a lot of my friends were, and David Boreanaz is a bit on the non-hairy side for me, but I have to say I think that’s unfair to the Angel character, at least at first. After all, he didn’t just randomly “have” a soul: it was restored to him by Gypsies as part of a curse after he’d practiced typical-vampire predation for hundreds of years. The message that being a good person is worth straining to overcome your most evil instincts and not giving into every craving never struck me as a namby-pamby one, despite the soft-focus teen-romance setting. And besides, there were plenty of other repellantly predatory vampires populating the series to convey to viewers that Angel was not the norm. Whether Grady Hendrix is right about the other stories mentioned, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised.

    That’s what they told me before/Who knows what they’ll say today?

    Posted by Sean at 20:46, July 26th, 2009

    This blogger is, like me, an atheist who was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian sect, and she makes several very good points in this post about arguments between believers and principled non-believers (via the Unreligious Right):

    When I believed I did so because I’d been indoctrinated as a child, and then later on as a young adult, because I desperately wanted it to be true. There was no evidence, no proof, no real good logical defense for my belief. I just felt it; I felt such certainty I thought I knew it was true, although if you’d asked me why I’d have been pressed to defend my belief. I probably would’ve have said it was a matter of faith, if forced to have such a conversation at all. I certainly would not have presumed to understand atheism.

    Seriously though, saying “I don’t know, but there’s no real evidence” doesn’t require faith. Saying, “I know there’s a God, and I know what he wants, and he wants me to worship him”? That requires faith. Undoubtedly. Can you see how those are not truly equivalent though? Stating a positive claim (“There is a god”) asserts that something is true. And, as Tracy often says on The Atheist Experience, “Things which exist manifest in reality.” Since there are NO manifestations of a supernatural all-powerful deity in our reality (zip, zero, zilch, nada, nein, none), disbelief seems only rational. It is not the same as asserting the positive claim “There is NO god”. Lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence of lack. But I have to say it seems more likely to me.

    That said, although I blog about it regularly here and on Atheist Nexus, I’m not so invested in my atheism I’d be unwilling to chance my stance. If I was presented with sufficient evidence, I would discontinue my disbelief, and have to accept the existence of whatever deity was proven. (Whether or not I’d worship a god would be entirely dependent on the character, attributes, and actions of said deity.)

    Those aren’t original points on Angie Jackson’s part, of course, but they’re the sorts of things that keep needing to be addressed. I’ve known some Christians who are very consistent about where they draw the line (or at least the grey zone) between the sphere that human beings can know empirically and the realm beyond posited by their faith. But far more frequently, believers push through faith into non-falsifiability. If good things happen to good people, God is blessing them. It’s obviously evidence that God rules the universe. If bad things happen to good people, God is testing them. His plan is beyond our understanding, after all. If good things happen to bad people, well, the wicked spread themselves like green bay trees, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get theirs. His plan is beyond our understanding, after all. If bad things happen to bad people, God is punishing them. It’s obviously evidence that God rules the universe.

    Just to make things even more arbitrary, in my congregation growing up, our pastor would pull up every few months and deliver a sermon reminding us that God doesn’t micromanage everything. Sometimes while He’s letting the world run along, stuff just happens. It’s still part of His plan, but you’re not supposed to draw blockbuster inferences from it.

    So not everything indicates something important about what God’s cooking up. Except when it does. Maybe you got that flat tire because God was trying to keep you from getting to the post office. Or maybe it was Satan afflicting you. Or maybe you just happened to run over a spike and it didn’t “mean” anything. I grew up around people who spent their entire lives mulling things over this way, and most of them did so because they genuinely believed it would help them serve God better. I remember what that was like, and it really was a source of solace in many ways. There was an answer for everything. You did your best, and if things still came out badly, you trusted God to make it right eventually in His own way.

    As Jackson says, the existence of God was such a part of the reality principle that whether there was really, really, really enough evidence to support it tended not to come into the equation. You believed it, you liked believing it, and you wanted to keep believing it. Of course, you studied the Bible, but the approach was less like “Does this square with reality?” than like “Is there an interpretation of reality that makes it possible to keep believing this is a holy book?” Verses that contained good folk wisdom were evidence that the Bible was the word of God; the rest could be explained away as necessary—it’s a metaphor…God’s sense of the passage of time doesn’t match ours…when it was written this was actually socially progressive…when it was written this was the best available interpretation of the natural phenomenon in question…God’s plan is beyond beyond beyond our understanding.

    Eventually, it occurred to me to wonder why, if we were supposed to be so tolerant of ambiguity and paradox, we didn’t go the whole way and just become Buddhists. The Bible started seeming to me like any other book. If, to the best of our human comprehension of the text, it had some wise parts, some dumb parts, some beautiful parts, some execrable parts, some lucid parts, and some obscure parts, then styling it God’s handbook for living and trying to gain understanding of it through close and closed readings might be comforting, but it probably wasn’t very useful. Human society still progressed by experimenting with new ways of doing things and continuing with what proved to work (capitalism, representative democracy, the scientific method). That Christians then circled back to look for ways the Bible could be seen as the underpinnings of what proved to work didn’t change the process of discovery. Our knowledge keeps growing because we keep pushing for more of it, but it remains flawed and provisional.

    I don’t begrudge Christians their faith. We all get at most several decades on Earth to figure out how we believe we should live and then act on it, and that involves figuring out what meaning we think the spiritual part of experience has. No one is entirely rational, and few of us would really want to be. I also have no problem when it’s pointed out that people on all sides of the God question believe things for which they have no proof. What bothers me is when believers want to toggle back and forth between “God’s love and mercy are obvious” and “God’s plan is unknowable” depending on which line happens to help them argue for theism at a given point in the discussion. That simply isn’t the same as an atheist’s arguing that there’s not enough reason to think God exists.

    Don’t expect much change in Japan, either

    Posted by Sean at 10:33, July 26th, 2009

    The DPJ has released a policy document to allay fears that, to put it bluntly, if it scores a majority in the Diet in next month’s elections it will screw things up because it doesn’t really know what it’s doing:

    The policy pamphlet will serve as the basis for Minshuto’s campaign manifesto for the election that many people expect will upset the balance of power.

    For example, Minshuto will no longer insist on the immediate end of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean to assist in the U.S.-led fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

    Minshuto has also backed down on its previous position concerning the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that Japan has with the United States concerning the U.S. presence in this country.

    Minshuto had long opposed the MSDF’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

    The policy pamphlet also calls for the implementation of inspections of cargo ships under economic sanctions against North Korea called for by a U.N. Security Council resolution.

    The move is aimed at deflecting criticism from Prime Minister Taro Aso who roundly attacked Minshuto for failing to deliberate a bill that would have allowed for such inspection of cargo ships. The lack of deliberation led to the bill being scrapped.

    To alleviate concerns among officials of the U.S. government that a Minshuto administration would drastically alter relations with the United States, the policy pamphlet says the party will propose a revision to the SOFA with the United States.

    In the draft document, Minshuto sought to start a comprehensive revision of the SOFA.

    Hmmm…shifting away from pie-in-the-sky positions when the prospect of actually taking the reins of government forces pragmatism on you. A memory is stirring…something familiar-sounding…no, lost it. Won’t come. The DPJ is also planning to push up subsidies for farm-family income to 2011. I’m not sure whether that represents an attempt to combat the LDP’s traditional dominance outside urban areas or just the pro-bucolicism sentimentality that seems to stir hearts in every industrialized democracy.

    Aso dissolves lower house

    Posted by Sean at 23:29, July 21st, 2009

    Prime Minister Taro Aso has now dissolved the lower house of the Diet:

    Official campaigning will kick off Aug. 18, but politicians were already behaving as if the race had begun to determine whether Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) would gain control of government.

    In an unusual move, Aso first felt compelled to apologize for his recent flip-flops on policy as well as internal discord within the party.

    “My careless statements caused distrust among the public and hurt trust in the political sector,” Aso said at a news conference Tuesday. “I extend my deep apology.”

    Earlier on Tuesday, Aso apologized at a meeting of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers for his statements and the woeful performance of LDP-backed candidates in recent local elections.

    Aso said at the news conference he would make three pledges to voters.

    He promised to achieve recovery in the domestic economy. He also vowed to assuage growing concerns about jobs, old age and child-rearing and pledged to comprehensively reform the taxation system, reduce the number of Diet members and central government bureaucrats and eliminate the controversial practice of amakudari.

    Bonus points to the Asahi translator for thinking to use assuage there. (“Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” was always one of my favorite hymns growing up, though the post-piety me can’t help thinking that was more due to Haydn’s rousing melody than to the text. Still, assuage is a cool word.)