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    Brief service announcement

    Posted by Sean at 11:59, January 25th, 2005

    I don’t mind all the searches asking whether country singer Kenny Chesney is gay, but I also don’t have an answer. With the physique, the tan, the easily-removable outdoorsy clothing, the cat-like, angular features, and the lonesome tenor, he has plenty of our boys panting after him. That doesn’t say anything about the man himself, though.

    I also don’t know anything about Atika Schubert, though no one seems to be interested in whether she’s a lesbian. I know she’s the CNN Tokyo Bureau Chief, and that her reporting style, while not conspicuously illuminating, isn’t as twinkly and annoying as some other people’s (at least to me). I assume lots of people are interested lately because she did a great deal of tsunami reporting? Or maybe there’s a campaign going to pitch her as CNN’s new star anchor, now that the word is Anderson Cooper is supposed to be it.

    “Specifically, your house

    Posted by Sean at 15:04, January 23rd, 2005

    This fictional letter on Diplomad reminds me of that classic Bloom County sequence in which Steve Dallas is defending an elderly axe-murderess and, at the arraignment, so overzealously argues that she’s harmless (“She’s a lamb, your honor”) that the bemused judge releases her into his personal custody. Priceless.

    (Via biased Susanna.)

    Added on 25 January: One reader (I forgot to ask whether I could quote him) thinks I’m suggesting here that people who have issues with our treatment of prisoners are a monolithic bunch of idiot leftists. To me, Diplomad’s letter was pretty clearly targeting only the most volubly inane cultural-relativist types, who would complain about our treatment of prisoners if we set each of them up in beachfront property in Antibes. Those who question whether our personnel are acting in arbitrary ways that violate our own ideal of the rule of law, or worry that serious rusty-pliers-and-electrodes stuff may be worked on people because of possible failures in the chain of command–they were not, unless I read Diplomad incorrectly, the satirical target.

    People with legitimate arguments to make do not, after all, rely entirely on vague blather about “cultural differences.” And as for torture, the fictional addressee is someone who has complained specifically about treatment at Guantanamo Bay, where I don’t believe anyone has been accused of torture.

    Added on 27 January: My reader was tenacious (in a good way) and pointed me toward this article from The Baltimore Sun, in which torture allegations are, in fact, made about Guantanamo Bay. Sorry for speaking in ignorance. I still read the letter Diplomad cites as satirizing coarse leftism and not pooh-poohing actual prisoner abuse, but if an extra link will avoid possibly misleading people, here it is.

    I saw this film about some people who lived in a dome

    Posted by Sean at 14:31, January 23rd, 2005

    The spirit of international cooperation hovers, dove-like, over the end of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR). Or not:

    An international disaster conference ended over the weekend with participants agreeing on the need to help strengthen developing countries’ ability to deal with disasters, but some critics were already questioning the action plan adopted.

    Not only does the broadly worded document lack achievable numerical targets, but it also largely ignores the input of developing nations, they say.

    “The conference has tended to be about what ideas developed countries had and could do for the affected (tsunami) region,” said a delegate from India. The delegate said that it was important for the affected nations to take a central role, and that “existing systems in those countries be utilized.”

    I wasn’t there, obviously, so I can’t verify the accounts of the delegate from India quoted above, or those from Senegal (drought-stricken) and the Marshall Islands (worried about global warming). However, not much imagination is required to conjure up a picture of first-world delegates–high on their own compassion and the possibilities of fancy, whiz-bang techno-fixes–talking right over people with actual knowledge of the different local circumstances disaster-relief programs are up against in the large and varied “developing world.”

    The recent Sumatra earthquake and tsunami overshadowed everything, naturally. In the weeks since the initial emergency passed, the tsunami has evolved into a heightened version of the usual sexy, telegenic media story: a visually-impressive force of nature, the emotional trauma of sudden loss of friends and family, the occasional unexpected joyous reunion, the noble struggle to return things to normal. It’s the sort of thing that would be rejected as implausible if it were submitted as the script for a fictional made-for-TV movie.

    Am I being cynical here? Well, only partially. I don’t doubt for a second that reporters feel the same compassion as the rest of us, and when they point out that they’re telling the stories of people who have no other public voice, they’re not just rationalizing. But it’s hard to keep covering something like this without falling back on stock disaster-drama clichés and thereby trivializing it.

    The complaints about the WCDR indicate that, sadly but not surprisingly, the same sort of thing is happening among aid agencies. The tsunami provides the perfect opportunity to say, “You see what can happen when you don’t flood us with cash and make sure we have safeguards against everything?” To the best of our knowledge, though, the Indian Ocean disaster was (thankfully) a fluke. It is not representative of the issues facing the third world.

    The problems that most poor countries are dealing with are mundane and un-dramatic. Much of what needs to be done is education, teaching everyday people how to evaluate their own circumstances and adjust their behavior accordingly. Technology is certainly useful in making it easier for developing countries to anticipate, weather, and respond to disasters, but in ways well-heeled do-gooders do not seem to have internalized:

    During the meeting, big players from the developed world-including Japan, the United States, Germany and France-pushed their ideas for a tsunami warning system.

    This did not sit well with some groups from the countries hard-hit by the tsunami. They felt their voices were not being heard when they suggested upgrading systems they already had for warning systems.

    So the countries with non-tsunami problems did not see those problems addressed, and the countries actually hit by the tsunami felt that their knowledge of their own homelands was not taken into account by eager-beaver first-world technocrats. A toast all around, then, for a job well done.


    Posted by Sean at 12:14, January 22nd, 2005

    Wow. Blizzard in the Northeast, huh? (It’s probably kind of stupid for me to be linking a Japanese article to tell you about a snowstorm you already know about in our native tongue–I’m only doing so because that’s where I first learned of it.) They actually had to close Philadelphia International Airport–and this time, not just de facto because of US Air’s fable-worthy incompetence. Stay safe, everyone.

    Japan Post whatchamacallit once again called “privatization”

    Posted by Sean at 20:42, January 21st, 2005

    Speaking of problems in Japan that need addressing: Japan Post (you know, that agency that sells commemorative stamps, delivers mail and packages, and just happens to control a REALLY HUGE AMOUNT of the household savings of the second-largest economy in the world?) is still in the crosshairs of Prime Minister Koizumi’s privatization gun:

    The prime minister explicitly said he would stick to the basic privatization policy adopted by the Cabinet in September. One of the key planks of the policy is the creation of four entities–mail and parcel delivery, insurance service, savings service and an over-the-counter services network–under a holding company.

    “The Fiscal Investment and Loan Program must be reformed because it’s the connection between the entrance of funds, postal savings and kampo postal insurance, and the exit of funds to public corporations. The flow of funds should be shifted from public to private,” Koizumi said. [You know the patronage and revolving-door systems that your econ professors said drive Japan? You’re looking at the monetary engine right in this paragraph. All that’s missing is explicit mention of the federal ministries involved.–SRK]

    “The privatization is an indispensable administrative and fiscal reform to realize a smaller government,” Koizumi added.

    Regarding opposition to privatization within the Liberal Democratic Party, the prime minister said: “They say the number of public servants should be decreased, but they oppose the privatization. That’s like instructing someone to swim but tying his arms and legs.

    For all the bravado of that soundbite, there are critics who say the privatization plan in fact doesn’t go far enough. In my favorite (in a bad way) analogy, it could create the sort of California-electricity fiasco in which bureaucrats still get to make all the rules while the new private owners get all the accountability. In committee, the proposal predictably got bogged down in the usual attempts to shut up everyone with a complaint. But that was December; this Yomiuri piece says, “The prime minister explicitly said he would stick to the basic privatization policy adopted by the Cabinet in September,” which means not the further ground-down version from the very end of last year.

    For those who are interested, the Yomiuri article leads with Japan Post privatization but gives a rundown of the issues the Diet hit in its first 2005 session.

    Knowledge is power (even in Japanese health care)

    Posted by Sean at 20:25, January 21st, 2005

    When I talk about the cavalier way many Japanese doctors treat (in both senses of the word) their patients, friends of mine back home often chuckle, “Well, Sean, you don’t have to go to Japan to find a high-handed doctor who thinks you’re too stupid to be worth explaining things to!” The thing is that, here, it’s been largely institutionalized. The behemoth Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare is 4 Comments | misc | Permalink

    She thought she’d look good in purple jeans / From Santa Fe

    Posted by Sean at 19:34, January 21st, 2005

    This sort of thing leaves me speechless:

    Some attendees clearly resented the Republicans who came in from all over the country to attend the official inauguration balls.

    “There’s this Republican head-in-the-clouds mentality – we just want to have a good time, because we gave a lot of money to the Republican National Committee,” said Denise Ross, 31, of Arlington, Va.

    She also lambasted their fashion sense, recalling seeing women in open-toe sandals and fur coats.

    If it were just Denise Ross, 31, of Arlington, VA, who thought this way, I wouldn’t mind so much; but it’s not. She crystallizes an entire mentality, so just in case any of her fellow-feelers happen to wander by here, I’d like to set a thing or two straight:

    Americans love Washington because the great temples of our republic are there. We know that it houses plenty of dedicated public servants who focus more on the service than on the public, and we’re grateful to them.

    Let’s be clear, though: DC and its environs are a cultural backwater, a fact known around the world. For every self-abnegating true-believer–unshowy and discreet–you encounter what seems like a dozen smug types who appear to have come to Washington in the belief that simply being close to the Center of Power lends profound importance to their every memo, meeting, and trip to the bathroom. Yes, New York and Los Angeles have their obnoxious superiority complexes, too–New York’s in its general where-it’s-at-ness, and LA’s in its inescapable talk about “the Industry.” But those cities also exalt the transformative power of the imagination. That’s more obviously true of LA, which creates movies full of make-believe, but it also inheres in New York’s advertising and investment banking, which fund and publicize people’s dream projects and test whether they have a receptive audience in which to flourish.

    Washington’s magnetism, in the age of lobbies and lawyers for everything, comes from the flat, decidedly un-dreamlike coercive power of legislation and regulation. LA attracts people who want to rule the public by becoming stars and capturing their hearts; Washington attracts people who literally want to be involved in making the rules that boss people around. (And, obviously, while I’m saying “DC” and “Washington,” I’m referring equally to Fairfax County and southern Maryland.)

    And–make me barf!–that goes quadruple for style. How dare anyone in that metro area criticize other people’s fashion sense! This is the place where every outfit is chosen to make sure it can’t offend the sensibilities of someone whose ass might need kissing. J. Press mannequins are dressed with more flair, idiosyncratic confidence, and presence than I’ve ever seen on a Washingtonian.

    As for fur coats with open-toed shoes…well, that’s not an obvious combination. I can see it being pulled off with ease, though, by a lady of a certain age. She would have had to keep her bosom and legs presentable, and to have relaxed into herself enough to be stouter than she was as a girl. And she’d need a positively obscene number of diamonds–drop earrings, clearly, if not chandeliers. But why not? Inauguration day only comes once every four years, and a more self-critical soul than Ms. Ross might have a chance to learn there are clothiers in the world besides Talbots.


    And finally, check out the accompanying picture of Barney Frank. Will the man never learn not to assume that deadly petulant expression in front of the camera? He looks like he went to his plastic surgeon and said, “I was hoping we could do sort of a Barbara Mikulski thing….”

    So their minds are soft and lazy

    Posted by Sean at 14:53, January 21st, 2005

    Why do ads targeted at gay men always have to feature shirtless kouros figures, ask Michael and Chris? (It was especially fun to read this complaint on a blog called “boy’s briefs” with a masthead photograph of a few hundred shirtless men milling around in the sun.)

    I think part of it has to do with the kind of advertising they’re looking at. I don’t exactly make a habit of reading Out or The Advocate (or, if it’s still around, Genre) when I’m back in the States–all that contemptuous muttering tends to make people at surrounding tables look up from their coffee–but you see plenty of ordinary ads there with properly clothed people.

    Unsolicited mail and cheapo ads tucked in 2″ X 2″ boxes on back pages are placed by different companies. They target not “gay men” in general but the lowest common denominator–by which I mean both the types of guys who organize their entire lives around making pick-ups and the sucker in all of us who falls for non-reasoning that says, “Buying XYZ will unleash pleasures akin to having a romp with that muffin there in the picture.” It’s not as if you didn’t see farm and automotive equipment being pitched to straight men with pictures of busty women in bikinis and pink workgloves, too.

    Personally, I find these things tedious more for (warning: old, tired complaint ahead) the homogeneity of the men than for anything else. Back in the Calvin Klein bus ad era, the N’aired chests and improbably defined muscles were allusive and stimulating. I still remember smiling up at the giant Samsung ad (with the brawny man with a microwave under his arm) across from Port Authority whenever I came back to New York from home a decade ago. Now that every picture of a gay guy outside Honcho looks like that–usually showing the face with a bland Ken doll expression, too–it’s played out and enervating. Seeing a guy with a jaw full of whiskers and a chest resurfaced to look like vinyl, my first thought these days is less like Mmmm! and more like I hope you keep your nails trimmed, ’cause you are gonna be feelin’ the itch day after tomorrow, honey!

    New ambassador to Japan

    Posted by Sean at 11:02, January 21st, 2005

    It’s been understood for a few months that Howard Baker will be stepping down as US Ambassador to Japan (although the post may officially be designated something “Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s”-ish–I’m not sure). His successor, announced on the day of President Bush’s inauguration, will be current Ambassador to Australia (“Ambassador to the Kangaroo Court,” maybe? I kill me sometimes, I just kill me) Thomas Schieffer.

    His official biography is here. He’s the brother of Bob Schieffer, the CNN reporter. Bet their family dinners are interesting! His given name is also John Thomas, though he has the good sense to go by “Tom.” And, I assume, not to have married a lady named Jane.

    The Nikkei says that many credit Schieffer with building a close, trusting relationship with John Howard during his tenure in Australia. That’s nice, but one is left wondering…well, what The Japan Times wonders:

    Some experts have voiced concern over Schieffer’s lack of involvement in U.S.-Japan affairs and his relative lack of political clout in comparison with former envoys to Japan.

    Baker was a Senate majority leader, while his predecessor was former House of Representatives Speaker Thomas Foley. Among the other political heavyweights who have filled the Tokyo post in the past is former Vice President Walter Mondale.

    But other experts say that political background is not the only factor that determines the selection of an ambassador. In Schieffer’s case, his close ties with Bush make it easier to report directly to the president and to get White House policies reflected in diplomatic undertakings in Japan, they said.

    A Republican congressional source said the appointment signals that the Bush administration’s policy of prioritizing ties with Japan will stay intact, with Schieffer expected to be the president’s closest ambassador. The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to confirm his nomination.

    Well, okay. Given the deep-rooted cronyism in Japan, I suppose Tokyo can’t feel slighted by having Baker replaced by a long-time friend of Bush’s. (Schieffer was one of his partners in the ownership and development of the Texas Rangers.) Also, given the famed closeness between Bush and Koizumi themselves, Schieffer seems unlikely to have to work with Japanese bureaucrats to smooth over friction created between their heads of state.

    Even so, Japan is in a delicate spot right now. No one disputes that the US is its most important ally, but plenty of people dispute the means by which mutual support is given: the US bases here, especially since the announcement that our forces worldwide will be redistributed; the SDF deployed in a non-combat capacity in Iraq; the petition to make Japan a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with the attendant debate over revising Article 9 of the constitution.

    Given that context, and given that Baker hasn’t left office, it isn’t yet possible to know whether Schieffer’s way of being close to the power center–through intimacy rather than through career-earned clout–will be helpful to the Bush and Koizumi administrations. It appears to have worked in Australia, but Australia does not have the self-image of being impossible for uninitiated foreigners to understand that Japan does. We’ll see. In the meantime, best wishes to Howard Baker, who does not have loads of presence as a personality but, from what I’ve seen, was unshowy, workmanlike, and gentlemanly in going about his duties.

    I’m the only fool / That’s as big a fool as you

    Posted by Sean at 01:18, January 20th, 2005

    Happy fourth anniversary, Atsushi.