• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    You’re a zero

    Posted by Sean at 16:32, December 10th, 2010

    More hazards of living in Brooklyn: you might end up crammed into someone’s tiny studio with pretentious vulgarians drinking eggnog from plastic cups while the Cure is played at you (via Instapundit):

    So when Claudia Argiro, 33, gave a holiday party last Saturday night, she pared down her guest list to about two dozen of her closest friends, hid the TV behind an industrial column wrapped with holiday lights and turned the media console [!] into a bar.

    But one thing she had to have was a bartender. “I’m an adult now, living by myself, and this is my sh-bam, my moment,” said Ms. Argiro, who runs a clothing boutique nearby called Charlie and Sam.

    She called up Tealicious, a catering company in Queens, which sent over Eric Villani, a 33-year-old bartender, who was stationed in a two-foot-wide triangle in the middle of the room. For the next four hours, Mr. Villani stood there, not to make special cocktails, but to pour a vodka punch or a rum eggnog into clear plastic cups, trimmed with sugar-coated cherries and cinnamon sticks.

    As a free-market type, I approve of service industries that fill niche needs. If Argiro is unaware that it’s more traditional to ask trusted friends to pour for guests from a teapot or punch bowl at a small party at home, I think it’s great that she was able to find Villani to help her out. He gets rent money, she gets to enjoy being a hostess without having to worry about the drinks table, and everyone’s happy.

    What’s touching is that anyone in the scenario thinks there’s anything sophisticated about it.

    His presence did not go unheralded in the apartment, in a new warehouse conversion along the Brooklyn waterfront, although the intimate cluster of guests could have easily served themselves. “In my opinion, if you don’t have a bartender at your party, you’re a loser,” said Dustin Terry, who lives a floor below Ms. Argiro and said his job was to get models and Saudi royalty into hot clubs. “The bartender brings class and sophistication.”

    “If you can’t afford to hire a bartender,” he added, “you shouldn’t be having a party.”

    Ah, yes—I remember well when I was a boy and dear mama told me that you must always look for guidance in the social graces from gentlemen who make their living trying to wangle admission to glitzy nightclubs for jumped-up trash that can’t get in by reputation or mien.

    Me, I think that the people who shouldn’t be giving parties are those who, in the words of one bartender, “don’t want to have to look after their guests’ needs.” That’s what giving a party’s about, even if you have a footman for every pair of dinner partners. If your priority is “bringing your party to the next level” (barf!), it’s not surprising that that gets lost.

    One last thing that caught my eye was this parenthetical attributed to some event planner: “Putting out a tip jar, said Lyndsey Hamilton, a New York events planner, is a definite ‘faux pas.'” Is it, indeed? Why on Earth would that be? It seems to me that a bartender who was asked to shoehorn himself into a 2’*2′ space in someone’s studio to ladle stuff into plastic cups—just so the hostess could show the assembled revelers that she can afford a bartender—might as well appropriate a disused KFC bucket, wrap it in construction paper, scrawl “TIP$ MUCH APPRECIATED THANX!” across it with a glitter pen, and park it prominently in front of himself. It would be in perfect keeping with the setting.

    Hope everyone’s weekend is starting well.

    Added later: The Go Fug Yourself ladies noticed this article, too, and they mention something that also struck me: “I feel like the reporter just cackled with glee as the people he interviewed said yet douchier things.” He must have, yes.  The whole thing sounds like a parody; on first reading, I hoped it was a parody.


    Posted by Sean at 08:28, December 8th, 2010

    I thought I’d have a chance to post something yesterday after responding briefly to Julie’s last comment, but I didn’t, so this is the day after the Pearl Harbor Anniversary.

    Japan attacked us, banking on, among other things, America’s willingness to let it keep most of the territory it had then colonized. It was our grandparents’ job to beat Japan, and they did it. Decisively. I’m glad we’re allies now, but I’m also glad America did what it had to to win then.

    Ladies of the Slope

    Posted by Sean at 12:39, November 25th, 2010

    My father’s side of the family has its Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before the designated Thursday every year, and my parents are hosting; therefore, it was this weekend that I helped them and my brother (and the aunts, uncles, cousins, and once-removeds who rounded out the party of thirty-odd people) get a full turkey dinner on the table.

    That tradition over with, my parents and I are going to a restaurant today, where my mother doesn’t have to clean up and my father doesn’t have to stow folding chairs and table leaves back in the basement.

    We’re thankful that we’re American and free, healthy, happy, comfortable, and fond of each other.

    But of course it doesn’t do to get complacent, even on Thanksgiving, and Lisa Miller of Newsweek has considerately provided us with this week’s ration of food guilt (via Instapundit, who treats the enterprise with the casual contempt it deserves). From her exquisitely calibrated tone of patronizing, deep-think concern about the lower orders and her look-what-a-progressive-nabe-I-live-in social-marker dropping, you will have little trouble guessing that she lives in Brooklyn (Park Slope, in her case). This is the opening:

    For breakfast, I usually have a cappuccino—espresso made in an Alessi pot and mixed with organic milk, which has been gently heated and hand-fluffed by my husband. I eat two slices of imported cheese—Dutch Parrano, the label says, “the hippest cheese in New York” (no joke)—on homemade bread with butter. I am what you might call a food snob. My nutritionist neighbor drinks a protein shake while her 5-year-old son eats quinoa porridge sweetened with applesauce and laced with kale flakes. She is what you might call a health nut. On a recent morning, my neighbor’s friend Alexandra Ferguson sipped politically correct Nicaraguan coffee in her comfy kitchen while her two young boys chose from among an assortment of organic cereals. As we sat, the six chickens Ferguson and her husband, Dave, keep for eggs in a backyard coop peered indoors from the stoop. The Fergusons are known as locavores.

    Alexandra says she spends hours each day thinking about, shopping for, and preparing food. She is a disciple of Michael Pollan, whose 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma made the locavore movement a national phenomenon, and believes that eating organically and locally contributes not only to the health of her family but to the existential happiness of farm animals and farmers—and, indeed, to the survival of the planet. “Michael Pollan is my new hero, next to Jimmy Carter,” she told me. [*speechless*–SRK] In some neighborhoods, a lawyer who raises chickens in her backyard might be considered eccentric, but we live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a community that accommodates and celebrates every kind of foodie. Whether you believe in eating for pleasure, for health, for justice, or for some idealized vision of family life, you will find neighbors who reflect your food values. In Park Slope, the contents of a child’s lunchbox can be fodder for a 20-minute conversation.

    Several thoughts, along with my gorge, come up as I read this. One is that I’m happy I live in Manhattan, where we at least frankly acknowledge, without tarting it up as spirituality, that we like the increased number of choices you have when you make good money. Another is that Miller’s neighbors are just doing, with more hauteur, a version of what my parents did when my brother and I were growing up. We were members of a church that believed that industrial farming and food processing were harmful, and that treating your body as the Temple of the Lord meant eating as much natural food as possible. My parents were never affluent, and when my father was laid off from Bethlehem Steel, money was often extremely tight. Yet we went to the farm to get fertilized eggs; we went to a sympathetic dairy for raw milk; we drove miles and miles and miles to some beekeeper who played Isaac Watts hymns and other improving music at his apiary, or something, to get our honey. We got peanut butter, which looked (and felt in the mouth) like mortar, fresh-ground at the health-food store. Coke was a special treat we had when people came over for dinner after church. I didn’t taste a Pop Tart until I was in college. My mother baked all our bread.

    And because we were a family of straitened means, there was a good deal of clever thrift and making do. When fresh vegetables were out of season or budget, we ate frozen. My parents rented a little garden plot from Rodale Press to grow vegetables during the summer. We got a lot of protein from chicken parts and chuck roast and pollack filets on sale. None of this was what you’d find on the menu at Gramercy Tavern or 11 Madison Park, but my mother knew how to cook and season homely ingredients judiciously. There was never a sense of deprivation. I mean, I had a bratty streak like any little boy and bleated about not having Lucky Charms in the house and stuff, but it would never have occurred to me to complain that what we did eat was poor-quality food, though I’m sure it would have given Miller and the rest of her kaffee klatsch a heart attack.

    See, her central complaint is that we’re Not Doing Enough to ensure low-income families get better nutrition:

    Mine seems on some level like a naive complaint. There have always been rich people and poor people in America and, in a capitalist economy, the well-to-do have always had the freedom to indulge themselves as they please. In hard times, food has always marked a bright border between the haves and the have-nots. In the earliest days of the Depression, as the poor waited on bread lines, the middle and upper classes in America became devoted to fad diets. Followers of the Hollywood 18-Day Diet, writes Harvey Levenstein in his 1993 book Paradox of Plenty, “could live on fewer than six hundred calories a day by limiting each meal to half a grapefruit, melba toast, coffee without cream or sugar, and, at lunch and dinner, some raw vegetables.”

    That “in a capitalist economy” is a meaningless qualifier, though I realize many people in Park Slope find it politically satisfying. It’s not as if the party elites in communist, socialist, or social-democratic societies didn’t have the freedom to indulge themselves, though they may not be able to do so publicly. What matters is mobility: in America, you don’t have to end where you started out if you make the effort to move up. That doesn’t make the Depression less tragic, or the pseudo-mortifications of the elites less silly, but it does mean that Miller isn’t necessarily making the political point she thinks she’s making here.

    How could we be doing better? Three guesses which societies Miller suggests we should be emulating.

    According to studies led by British epidemiologist Kate Pickett, obesity rates are highest in developed countries with the greatest income disparities. America is among the most obese of nations; Japan, with its relatively low income inequality, is the thinnest.

    When asked “What is eating well?” Americans generally answer in the language of daily allowances: they talk about calories and carbs, fats, and sugars. They don’t see eating as a social activity, and they don’t see food—as it has been seen for millennia—as a shared resource, like a loaf of bread passed around the table. When asked “What is eating well?” the French inevitably answer in terms of “conviviality”: togetherness, intimacy, and good tastes unfolding in a predictable way.

    Japan’s relatively low income inequality—for the millionth time—cannot be blithely split out from its overall collectivism and enforced conformity. That’s the trade-off: if you want everyone to live in the mostly-comfortable middle, you have to squelch the ambitions of the top of the bell curve as well as trying to lift the circumstances of the bottom. It’s all very well to admire the community spirit of the Japanese, but I’d be willing to bet that most members of the stratum of Park Slope society Miller speaks for wouldn’t be able to take it for five months together–especially once they saw how many of their child-rearing decisions were supposed to be outsourced to the school system.

    As for our inferiority to France, plenty of Americans place a high value on having the family together for dinner, even if they don’t spend the whole meal nattering about how various tastes are “unfolding” in real time. Ads for restaurants almost always present people laughing and talking together while they eat, presumably because picturing mealtime as a “convivial” experience resonates with their target audience. That Americans think of “eating well” as being related to nutrition may have less to do with any alleged I’ve-got-mine mentality than with the fact that many of us have ancestors, often in living memory, who came here with nothing and worked their way to increased prosperity.

    Miller consistently talks as if the freshest produce and the most chemical-laden processed stuff were the only two choices, which makes me wonder how many supermarkets she’s actually been in. She’s not the only one, though:

    Time is just part of the problem, [low-income single mother Tiffiney] Davis explains, as she prepares Sunday dinner in her cheerful kitchen. Tonight she’s making fried chicken wings with bottled barbecue sauce; yellow rice from a box; black beans from a can; broccoli; and carrots, cooked in olive oil and honey. A home-cooked dinner doesn’t happen every night. On weeknights, everyone gets home, exhausted—and then there’s homework. Several nights a week, they get takeout: Chinese, or Domino’s, or McDonald’s. Davis doesn’t buy fruits and vegetables mostly because they’re too expensive, and in the markets where she usually shops, they’re not fresh. “I buy bananas and bring them home and 10 minutes later they’re no good…Whole Foods sells fresh, beautiful tomatoes,” she says. “Here, they’re packaged and full of chemicals anyway. So I mostly buy canned foods.”

    Interesting. Every grocery store I’ve seen has this thing called the “freezer section.” Inside every package is stuff covered with a mysterious white hoar; when you heat it, the hoar dissolves—like the snow joyously melting when Aslan frees Narnia from the White Witch—and then you have vegetables and fruits. No, they’re not as quite as good or nutritious as those you pick yourself (or buy at an outdoor market from the stall run by Distressed Clapboards Farm), but they’re cheap and nourishing, and they’re tasty if you prepare them properly. Also, plenty of foods can be made in big batches on the weekend and stored so you can reheat them on busy work nights. The idea that there’s no real estate between cherimoya from Whole Foods and generic canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup is just wrong.

    And even if people want, laudably, to insist on getting fresh produce if possible, is there really nothing low-income people can do? Maybe their church can pool money and buy things in bulk. Maybe they can form a coop. (Some of the more ostentatiously civic-minded Park Slope residents could volunteer to help with the organizing and accounting?) Or, most simply, maybe someone could rent a van to go once a week or so to a larger, better-stocked supermarket than there may be in the neighborhood and take the food around. The poor still wouldn’t be eating imported cheese and free-range chicken, but part of being a household of straitened means is doing more with less, and that’s been true since civilization began. As someone who made many a meal of ground-turkey meatloaf with frozen string beans growing up, I have a hard time getting all weepy over the inability of people on food stamps to afford heirloom tomatoes.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

    Added later: If you don’t get the allusion in the title but do care, here it is:


    Posted by Sean at 08:24, November 17th, 2010

    A few weeks ago, the NYT asked a bunch of academics to comment on the closing of the French department, among others, at SUNY–Albany. Its respondents obliged, vouchsafing that the humanities ennoble the soul, make workers more savvy about operating in culturally diverse environments, and teach critical thinking. Oh, and they’re interesting and stuff. John McWhorter argues that losing humanities programs at universities doesn’t mean humanist studies will be killed off; otherwise, though they come at it from different angles, all the other contributors think closing humanities departments is a very bad thing.

    Assuming that the NYT asked its contributors to respond to the question as framed here, their answers aren’t all that bad, but it’s interesting that most of them didn’t raise the issue of quality. Harvard professor Louis Menand—try not to hold it against him that he also, blech, writes for The New Yorkerargues as follows, for example:

    First, no department is an island. Universities are places where scholars in one field have opportunities to debate, collaborate with, and learn from scholars in very different fields. The loss of any department is a loss to every department at that institution.

    Second, what parent does not want his or her child to have access to literature, philosophy and the arts? Who thinks those are dispensable luxuries for educated professionals in an advanced society? You would have to have a very primitive view of the purpose of education to believe that the cultural heritage of humanity has no place in it.

    Finally, of course the humanities teach something. Their subject matter is culture, and since everything human beings do is mediated by culture — by language, by representations, by systems of values and beliefs — knowing how to understand other languages, interpret cultural expressions, and evaluate belief systems is as indispensable to functioning effectively in the professional world as knowing how to use a computer. This knowledge may or may not make you a better person; it can certainly make you more productive and successful in the workplace.

    All that sounds nice, but it leaves out one important practical consideration: a lot of the humanities programs that exist at real American universities suck. They make it too easy to skate through to a degree. They assess “critical thinking” through lots of paper-writing—to the near-exclusion of, not as a companion to, testing whether students have systematically absorbed hard facts. And for all the blather about broad education, they have watered-down math and science requirements.

    The Albany program closures are still a topic, and when I clicked through to this NPR story about them from Ann Althouse this morning, these paragraphs caught my eye:

    Upon learning about the suspension of the foreign language programs, David Wills, a professor of French, was shocked at first, but then he was angry.

    “None of us accepted that it was something that a university could do and still call itself a university,” Wills said. “This is not a university if you only have one non-English European language program left standing.”

    That’s also not an unreasonable argument, but I couldn’t help looking up Professor Wills to see what kind of contributions he’s been making to the life of the mind. He’s in the French department, so you can probably guess what’s coming:

    His original research was in Surrealist poetry but his published work has concentrated on literary theory, especially the work of Derrida, film theory and comparative literature. He teaches classes in 20th century literature, literary theory, and film.

    Wills’s major work, developed first in Prosthesis (Stanford, 1995), concerns on the one hand the originary technology or “non-naturalness” of the human, and on the other, the ways in which writing functions as a technological in/outgrowth of the body. Those ideas are extended via what he calls “dorsality,” a thinking of the back and what is behind – the other of the facial – where the emphasis is on certain ethical, political and sexual implications of a technological rewriting of identity. In recent work he also investigates the question of conceptual invention against the background of musical improvisation, for example in jazz, and the instrumentality or technology of the voice.


    Single author

    Dorsality: Thinking Back Through Technology and Politics (Minnesota, 2008)

    Matchbook: essays in deconstruction (Stanford, 2005).

    Prosthesis (Stanford, 1995; Editions Galilée, 1997, 1998 [author’s translation]).

    Self (De)construct: Writing and the Surrealist Text (James Cook University Press, 1985).

    In short, if this joker hadn’t existed, Roger Kimball would have had to make him up. Let me take a wild guess and say that it’s unlikely that Professor Wills’s course students and advisees do not emerge from his tutelage with a comprehensive grounding in the historical facts and artifacts of French culture. Maybe the rest of the French faculty at Albany takes a more traditionally rigorous approach; I don’t know. I do know that every college student in America knows that if you want to minimize effort and maximize GPA, you choose a humanities major. And within your humanities major, you target courses taught by professors who incorporate lots of “relevant” material from pop-culture and personal experience into the syllabus, because watching movies is easier than reading Choderlos de Laclos in the original. Nowadays, there are at least a few like that in any language and literature department; there were even back in my day.

    I suspect that employers have learned from experience that people whose studies were heavy on post-structuralism (or whichever of its heirs is hot now) deal just fine with “texts” but are not so hot with reality. Critical thinking that only allows you to poke holes in someone else’s hermetically sealed argument isn’t all that useful when you leave the academy and need enough facts at your command to assess and fill your own gaps of knowledge in order to do your job. The more shrewd students have probably figured that out, too, even if they might not be able to articulate why they avoid certain departments. Derrida et al. gave us some fun word games, but when you didn’t finish the deliverable on time, you can’t exactly send an email stating that, human knowledge being inevitably contingent and human subject-hood being inevitably decentered, the client is not in any position to make a firm claim that the widget didn’t arrive. (If you decide to try it, though, please let me know how it went. I could use some amusement. My computer came down with a serious infection over the last few weeks, and I finally got Blue-Screen-of-Deathed and had to reinstall everything. Fortunately, I’m obsessive about backing things up, so I didn’t lose anything but time.)

    Added later: Someone at College Misery links to this withering open letter to the Albany president, which gives all the usual (and valid) defenses of the humanities:

    I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It’s your job as President to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh’). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I’m sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don’t.

    Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

    Once again, that’s great in the abstract, but I’m not sure it applies to the concrete example of SUNY—Albany as it exists. Professor Wills doesn’t strike me as the type to be offering courses on Voltaire, taught with old-style rigor, that he just can’t find students for. Perhaps even the French studies program director isn’t. Erin O’Connor links to another open letter from Albany’s Brett Bowles, which does a good job of pointing out the legerdemain involved in blaming tight budgets for the proposed cuts:

    At a time of severe budget crisis when a business model is being invoked to justify the elimination of academic programs, non-academic units such as athletics should be held to the same standard of cost effectiveness. At a minimum, athletics should be expected to rely on the intercollegiate athletics fee and whatever external revenue they manage to attract.

    Following that principle would allow the $4.27 million that athletics is receiving from the state to be redistributed to cover academic-related expenses.

    If those savings do not sufficiently address future academic budgetary needs, athletics should be downsized before eliminating academic programs and compromising the educational mission of the university.

    True, all of it. But I note that Professor Bowles’s faculty page states that his specializations are “Politics, society, and mass media; contemporary France; European Union; French and European film; documentary film,” so we have another scholar who focuses pretty narrowly on the era of French art and thought that began just before our grandparents were born and extends into the present. There’s nothing wrong with that on a scholar-by-scholar basis, exactly, but when whole departments get tipped too much in that direction, the historical depth the humanities are supposed to provide gets compromised. I have no idea whether it’s been compromised at Albany specifically, but I do note that I haven’t seen anyone address whether it has.

    John Ellis wrote on Minding the Campus this month about the dubitable moral logic behind “defending the humanities”:

    There was a time when “save the humanities” would have been an appropriate cry, but that was years ago, when they were being dismantled in one department after another and replaced with the intellectual triviality and sheer boredom of endlessly repetitive Marxist identity politics, as cowardly administrators looked on and did nothing. The poverty of intellectual content was masked by an elaborate jargon, but that only made things worse: the remade programs became the laughing stock of their campuses. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Enrollments have collapsed, to the point where the smaller departments face extinction. Those enrollments are sinking not because students don’t value the humanities, but because they do.

    Yet the crisis does need a response–but not the one that is asked for. Now that this day of reckoning has arrived, the appropriate cry should be: “restore the humanities.” That rather different slogan would suggest that we should take hold of these failed departments where enrollment has collapsed following abolition of the humanities, and bring them back to health. There is a traditional way of dealing with failed departments in academe. An external chairman is appointed, with a mandate to remake the department as one that can function properly. In this case that will mean remaking them as genuine humanities departments, rather than departments that have been reshaped to indulge the whims of faculty who never outgrew their adolescent utopian political fantasies. That is what we owe our students, who have been telling us so, loud and clear, as they have voted with their feet. The bill is finally coming due for years of irresponsible behavior by faculty and administrators alike. Bailing them out is not the way to go; holding them accountable for the disaster they have created is. Without reform, proposals to pour new funding into “the humanities” will only perpetrate a fraud. Unless this is part of a conscious effort to restore a genuine humanities, it will only prop up the pseudo-humanities.

    Professor Ellis may be exaggerating the extent of the rot; I don’t know. But he’s certainly right that the nobility of the humanities means little if they’re not taught responsibly. Mark Bauerlein was one of the few who made a similar argument in the NYT.

    Old ワイン in new ボトル

    Posted by Sean at 18:27, October 27th, 2010

    The New York Times is running a series of articles about Japan and how people are adjusting to the realization that the economy is probably permanently screwed. The first installment may be lame simply because it’s an overview and therefore doesn’t have room for reporter Martin Fackler to dig into anything specifically. It doesn’t look promising, though. Read it, and you learn the following:

    •   Property values have never really recovered since they nosedived in 1991, so mortgage holders are in sorry shape.

    •   The lifetime-employment system is in shreds, so lots of young people do unstable freelance work and are very anxious about the future.
    •   Deflation means no one wants to take entrepreneurial risks. Such new businesses as are arising are designed to help people weasel their way out of debt.
    •   People aren’t buying expensive clothes, weddings, houses, and nights out anymore.

    All right, you say, none of this is new, but the reporter isn’t trying to argue that it is; he’s arguing that Japan has reached some sort of turning point in how people are responding to it. It’s been two decades since the bursting of the Bubble, and with the world economy now suffering, Japan’s fatalism has deepened perceptibly.

    That sounds fine, but the article doesn’t bear it out. There’s nothing in it that Michael Zielenziger couldn’t have written in his sleep ten years ago, and Fackler surely knows that. (IIRC, he has degrees in Asian studies and has spent his career in Asia.)

    After years of complacency, Japan appears to be waking up to its problems, as seen last year when disgruntled voters ended the virtual postwar monopoly on power of the Liberal Democratic Party. However, for many Japanese, it may be too late. Japan has already created an entire generation of young people who say they have given up on believing that they can ever enjoy the job stability or rising living standards that were once considered a birthright here.

    “Waking up to” implies something in progress but relatively new, but that’s very misleading. In fact, voters have been reform-minded since at least the Koizumi administration. His ascendancy took place within the LDP, yes, but it was widely seen as giving hope that the old guard would be swept aside and needed changes would be made. The LDP won by a landslide when Koizumi declared that he was making the 2005 snap election a referendum on Japan Post privatization. And NHK (the last entity in the archipelago to find out about any new trend, much like the NYT Style Section) has been running programs for well over a decade about the increase in the number of freeters among young people, the failure of property values to recover since the Bubble, the rise of bargain-hunting chic, and the decline in whoopee-making in Japan’s most exclusive entertainment districts. Japan may be experiencing a new and noteworthy crisis of confidence, but you can’t support that by trundling out tired cliches about empty boutiques full of “Sale” signs.

    Not to be outdone, the WaPo this week had an exquisitely vacuous story about changes in Japanese manhood. Men are getting more insecure but also more cuddly, don’t you know:

    To hear the analysts who study them tell it, Japanese men ages 20 to 34 are staging the most curious of rebellions, rejecting the 70-hour workweeks and purchase-for-status ethos that typified the 1980s economic boom. As the latest class of college graduates struggles to find jobs, a growing number of experts are detecting a problem even broader than unemployment: They see a generation of men who don’t know what they want.

    Japan earned its fortune a generation ago through the power of office warriors, the so-called salarymen who devoted their careers to one company. They wore dark suits; they joined for rowdy after-hours booze fests with co-workers; they often saw little of their families. These are the fathers of Japan’s young men.

    But among business leaders and officials, there is a growing understanding that the earlier work-for-fulfillment pattern has broken down. The economy’s roar turned into a yawn. Concern about Japan’s future replaced giddy national pride. As a result, this generation has lost “the willingness to sacrifice for the company,” said Jeff Kingston, author of the recently published book “Contemporary Japan.”

    Kingston added: “And now as Japan begins to unravel in a sense, young people realize that the previous paradigm doesn’t work. But they aren’t sure what comes next. They’ve seen what amounts to a betrayal in Japan.”

    For the love of Amaterasu: “A growing number of experts”? “A growing understanding”?! Restructuring and downsizing entered the Japanese vocabulary as unwelcome buzzwords when I was in college, which was not yesterday. The Long-Term Credit Bank and Yamaichi Securities collapsed in 1997 (later than when I was in college, but also not yesterday). For over a decade, the Japanese media have been chock-a-block with stories about creepy unattached young men and their stuffed animals, brassy unattached young women with no intention of starting families, and various other indications that young Japanese men are turning out to be soft, rudderless, unmarriageable, borderline-autistic pussies. (The clothing thing is particularly comical to read about, since reporter Chico Harlan’s colleague was already writing silly, ill-supported crap about the deeper meanings of new Japanese men’s fashion five years ago.)

    So the idea that insecurity about the future is something we’re just getting around to noticing is malarkey. Like Fackler, Harlan may have good reason to think that Japanese manhood is reaching some sort of significant transition point right now, but memes that have been around since the Lost Decade are not evidence for that. Harlan also demonstrates no awareness that, going back at least to the Heian Period, Japanese culture does not consider it unmanful to be somewhat dandyish or to take an interest in the decorative arts. If elder Japanese frown on guys who host dessert-tasting parties, it may be because having the leisure to do so suggests a lack of career focus rather than because the activity itself is feminine.

    Furthermore, “Japan earned its fortune a generation ago through the power of office warriors” is an inane statement. That a few internationally competitive companies were generating enough wealth to carry the inefficient domestic economy in which most workers were employed was understood ages ago. You can argue that efficiency is only one criterion among many for whether workers are being used well, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that salarymen powered Japan’s fortune.

    The superficiality and lack of historical perspective here are frustrating because the questions raised are genuinely interesting and important. After the Japanese economy had sucked for ten years, there was talk that Japan was ready to bounce back. I remember the conversations: Koizumi had been elected. Korea had recovered from the 1997 Asian financial crisis by instituting hard but necessary reforms, demonstrating that a Tiger Economy similar to Japan’s could manage it. The federal ministries were being restructured to make them more efficient. Trade with a rising China promised to open new doors.

    And then it just kind of didn’t happen. The Japanese set their teeth and kept soldiering on, and ten years later they’ve made little progress. I think Fackler and Harlan are very probably right to say that the Japanese attitude toward the future has hardened from anxiety into real fear, but neither of them seems to want to ask the really thorny questions about where the problems lie. Quotations from economic analysts whiz in and out of each article like late-summer yellowjackets, but they’re never really dealt with.

    I would love to see an enterprising reporter from one of the major news organizations go to all these people who used to man-crush on Japan’s technocratic leaders—the Ezra Vogel and Eamonn Fingleton types—and ask them what genius moves they propose now. When Japan was betting correctly on which industries to pour resources into, it could afford the weak-people-strong-state practices it became famous for: mutual shareholding, proportional reductions, lifetime employment, makework office jobs used to keep the unemployment rate down, a ridiculously hypertrophied construction industry, shut-up-and-copy schooling. The economic devastation of the war was a recent memory, and wealth kept rising. People had good incentives to muster superhuman discipline and perform their roles as worker ants.

    Unfortunately, once the Japan Inc. brain trust started erring, it couldn’t change. Lines of authority were often unclear, and where they were clear, there were too many federal bureaucrats and favored-industry bigwigs with stakes in the existing system to make reform possible. The Japanese system rewards long-range planning and does whatever it can to avoid surprises. Not surprisingly, it’s proven brittle. If having wise technocrats in charge of things was going to work sustainably anywhere, it was going to be homogeneous, educated, rule-loving, diligent Japan. But the collective smarts of the grads of the University of Tokyo Faculty of Laws have not proved a match for a dynamic world market. And a risk-shunning citizenry turns out to be a serious liability when, as Fackler notes at the end of his piece before discreetly concluding it, creative destruction is the only way forward. The best that can be said about both these articles is that they’re consistent with their subject matter: Fackler and Harlan are as unable to break with fruitless established patterns (in their case, of plying American audiences with cliches about Deeply Conflicted Post-Bubble Japan) as Japan has been.

    I’m the same boy I used to be

    Posted by Sean at 16:33, October 15th, 2010

    Thanks to everyone who’s asked whether I haven’t been blogging because I fell into the East River or something. No, I haven’t. I’ve mostly been busy, but I’ve also been somewhat burned out. I keep up with politics because I consider it my responsibility as a citizen, but I generally only post about things that I think would be part of an interesting discussion. Lately the political stuff I read tends to snuff out my good-humored enthusiasm for debate rather than firing it up, and I don’t see why I should become yet another pissy, ranty guy on the Internet.

    For example, there’s this malarkey about Valerie Jarrett. She referred to some gay kid’s gay-kid-ness as a “lifestyle choice,” and naturally after some lefty queer media types told her to GET BACK IN LINE, BITCH! she explained that she was very sorry and that her colorist and her interior designer and her personal shopper and her niece’s softball coach and her dog walker are all born-that-way queer and she loves them all and far be it from her to imply that anyone anywhere ever at any time has a choice about anything. Might lead to libertarianism:

    The comments were made to Jonathan Capehart, an editorial writer at the Washington Post, in an interview Wednesday in which she discussed the recent spate of teen suicides linked to bullying because of sexual orientation. Jarrett praised the parents of Justin Aaberg, a Minnesota teenager who killed himself, for “doing a good job” supporting their son, but she inadvertently stepped into the highly contentious debate about whether homosexuality is innate or a conscious decision.

    “These are good people. They were aware that their son was gay; they embraced him, they loved him, they supported his lifestyle choice,” Jarrett told Capehart. “But when he left the home and went to school, he was tortured by his classmates.”

    Blogger Michael Petrelis slammed Jarrett for the reference, accusing her of taking “talking points from Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council,” a socially conservative organization that condemns homosexuality.

    Personally, I’d like to slam Jarrett for keeping the silly word lifestyle in circulation, it being favored by the sorts of philistines who think it snazzy to “reach out” to you instead of calling or writing like normal people. (Of course, being a philistine puts her in good company in the current administration, but that’s a topic for another day.)

    Ann Althouse has posted about Jarrett’s apology, and she recounts this story, and her commenters run with it:

    I remember back in the 1980s, in the radical enclaves of the University of Wisconsin Law School and similar places, when it was heresy to say that sexual orientation was inborn. I remember getting snapped at by a very prominent left-wing lawprof for referring without scorn to research that showed some evidence that sexual orientation was innate. It was all about choice back then, and the choice model was deemed to be the framework upon which gay rights would be built.

    (If it was inborn, I was told, then it will be perceived as a disease that might be cured, and therefore there can be no talk among decent people about the possibility that it is inborn. But what about science? What about discovering what is true? The official left-wing answer to that question, I learned, is: shut up.)

    Sure, but in my experience social conservatives only like to consider the two less-likely extreme possibilities (innate vs. a conscious decision, as the Politico piece put it) also. They’re clearly emotionally committed to seeing homosexuality as a choice, because then they don’t have to address sticky questions about upright Christian parents who somehow end up having gay kids. (I’m not saying they don’t sincerely hold the considered belief that it is a choice, only that they get worked up over it in a fashion that strongly suggests they have an emotional investment in it.) And they raise the hypothetical possibility that some gene for homosexuality will be discovered when they want to tweak leftists over the abortion-related dilemma that would presumably cause.

    Neither of those seems to be the direction the research I’ve read is heading, though. It’s doubtful that a doctor will ever be able to say, “Your fetus has the gay gene.” What’s more probable is that a doctor will someday be able to say, “See this marker? 30% of male fetuses with it turn out homosexual. See this other marker? When it’s present, too, the probability jumps to 53%. Postnatal environmental factors will determine the rest, but a lot of them aren’t things you can consciously ‘do’ if you’d prefer your son turn out to be a heterosexual architect rather than a homosexual interior designer. While orientation is pretty much fixed by age ten or so, it’s evolving based on all kinds of stimuli up until then.” Scoring cheap political points off your opponents with that little scenario isn’t so easy, which may be why neither the left nor the right appears to discuss it much.

    It fits the observations of most of the gay people I know, though, which may be one of the reasons the “lifestyle choice” locution tends to set people off. It makes the choice involved sound quick and easy, when what actually happens is that most people really take to heart their parents’ desire for grandchildren and (at best) ambivalence toward homosexuality, so they fight and fight and fight and fight and fight and fight every longing they have until they’re exhausted. Then, at some point, they adjust to reality and figure out that it’s better to be a good, honest homo than an unnatural, dissembling hetero.

    That’s a choice, certainly, but it’s not like waking up one morning and deciding to become a vegan. Jarrett probably didn’t realize that she’d implied that gay people make choices entirely driven by preference. But she did, and since she signed on as part of the lefty-PR program, she has no one to blame but herself when Mike Petrelis barks from the telescreen that she’d better touch those toes when she’s told to.

    (And no, you’ll never see a title that quotes Steve flipping Winwood here again.)


    Posted by Sean at 20:03, August 21st, 2010

    The Japanese federal government is adding an agency for food safety:

    On 21 August, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries began a study to the possible end of establishing an “agency for food-product safety,” with centralized oversight of the safety of food products, as early as autumn 2011. The new organization would merge an arm of MAFF’s Food Safety and Consumer Affairs Bureau and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s Food Department of Food Safety, and the plan most likely [to be enacted] is to establish it as an external agency to MAFF. The goal is to submit proposed revisions to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Establishment Act during the regular Diet session next year.

    A system will be created that, by merging functions and eliminating the deleterious effects of vertically segregated administration, will enable rapid response even when problems such as fraudulent labeling of origin or ingredients arise.

    The issues that most stick in the Japanese memory, naturally, seem to involve sources of foreign food products: Starlink and BSE, for example. Whether those actually exposed Japanese consumers to potential harm has been seriously questioned. The more frequent practice of altering use-by dates.

    I don’t mean to make Japan sound like some sort of food-contamination horror show. It’s not. Society is advanced and runs well, and particularly in cities such as Tokyo, your complaint is likely to be that the produce and meat are so disturbingly perfect that they seem to have been developed for a magazine shoot rather than for human consumption. But problems do crop up, and the government does need to step in and protect citizens from being victimized.

    I’m not sure that shuffling around some agencies is going to work, though. Tokyo already tried that in 2001, with it’s vaunted major overhaul of the federal ministry system, when MHLW itself was created through the mergers of the previous ministries of labor and of health and welfare. MAFF wasn’t reconstituted, but I think it had an agency or two added to it? Anyway, all that was supposed to be the big move that eliminated the deleterious effects of having the same function siloed off in several random places. It hasn’t been a conspicuous success, though I don’t think Japan’s any worse off than it was with the old system. It doesn’t seem likely that a new agency will really do better at ensuring the the Japan Agricultural Standard (JAS) is enforced, but it will probably sound like good news to consumers.


    Posted by Sean at 08:11, August 6th, 2010

    The Asahi has an English version of the mayor of Hiroshima’s peace declaration on the anniversary of the A-bombing of that city:

    In the company of hibakusha who, on this day 65 years ago, were hurled, without understanding why, into a “hell” beyond their most terrifying nightmares and yet somehow managed to survive; together with the many souls that fell victim to unwarranted death, we greet this Aug. 6 with re-energized determination that, “No one else should ever have to suffer such horror.”

    Through the unwavering will of the hibakusha and other residents, with help from around Japan and the world, Hiroshima is now recognized as a beautiful city. Today, we aspire to be a “model city for the world” and even to host the Olympic Games.

    This ceremony is honored today by the presence of government officials representing more than 70 countries as well as the representatives of many international organizations, NGOs, and citizens groups. These guests have come to join the hibakusha, their families, and the people of Hiroshima in sharing grief and prayers for a peaceful world. Nuclear-weapon states Russia, China and others have attended previously, but today, for the first time ever, we have with us the U.S. ambassador and officials from the United Kingdom and France.

    Clearly, the urgency of nuclear weapons abolition is permeating our global conscience; the voice of the vast majority is becoming the pre-eminent force for change in the international community.

    We’d all love a peaceful world, but as long as we’re human beings sharing it with other human beings, the best hope of approximating it is for the free, peaceful societies to have enough sheer terrible force at our disposal to make it foolhardy to launch an attack against us. The atom bombing of Hiroshima, though I doubt its mayor sees it this way, was justified for exactly that reason. Japan was an implacable enemy. While it had conclusively lost the war, it was delaying its surrender in hopes of getting concessions, and it was not as easy in the moment as it seems in hindsight to figure out just how long the Allies would have had to wait to hear from Hirohito. The hell of Hiroshima put an end to the hell that had been realized in Nanjing, Korea, and Unit 731; one hates to think of human deaths in terms of their transactional value, but sadly that’s the way war works. And it did work: Japan finally accepted that it had been well and truly beaten, and it got down to the business of creating a vibrant peacetime economy. American, Australian, and other Allied armed forces didn’t have to keep sacrificing their men. Mayor Akiba is right that we need wisdom and not luck to avoid annihilation, but in the opposite of the way he means it. The atom bombings were justified then, and free societies need nuclear armaments now.

    This is what’ll happen if you ain’t giving your girl what she needs

    Posted by Sean at 22:00, July 27th, 2010

    Gawd, what an annoying tool-ass bitch Barney Frank is. Can’t he even buy a ferry ticket without getting his dander up (via Instapundit)?

    Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank caused a scene when he demanded a $1 senior discount on his ferry fare to Fire Island’s popular gay haunt, The Pines, last Friday. Frank was turned down by ticket clerks at the dock in Sayville because he didn’t have the required Suffolk County Senior Citizens ID. A witness reports, “Frank made such a drama over the senior rate that I contemplated offering him the dollar to cool down the situation.”

    Nice as it would be to think that this incident might have occasioned a breakthrough in self-awareness on Frank’s part—I’m manifestly a shriveled-up old crone who’s over the age minimum for the senior discount, yet they’re requiring some dumb little official document I don’t have. That’s a waste of resources…hmmm…maybe picky bureaucratic requirements for anything and everything don’t always make a whole lot of sense?—I’m not holding my breath.

    Can you feel me in stereo?

    Posted by Sean at 18:24, July 23rd, 2010

    If you live outside the BOS-WASH population belt, you may retain the quaint idea that Manhattan is where all the most obnoxious people in New York, if not the world, live. But a funny thing happened while I was in Tokyo: all the annoying people apparently moved to Brooklyn.

    The converse is not true, mind you. I know plenty of non-annoying people who live in Brooklyn. Some of my best friends live in Brooklyn. To paraphrase Tina Fey, I can see Brooklyn from my house. (Actually, it’s Queens, and I can see it across the river from 49th and 1st when I walk down to the bodega, but the idea’s the same.) Anyway, lately when I’ve come across some first-person feature article bleating about modern life and started to think, Hmmm…this character’s really annoying, the next sentence invariably says something about “my neighborhood in Brooklyn” or “down the street from me in Cobble Hill.”

    The most recent example is this, in which the author becomes the millionth city-dweller to lament how technology is draining the human interaction from daily life. Yeah, I know—what was I expecting from reading the “Consumerism” section on Salon, anyway? I live in hope.

    So, you know, Blockbuster’s about to go out of business, and now we all get our movies from Netflix, and there’s “community” instead of community. It’s the perfect chance to contrast one’s own depth and sincerity with the soullessness of his surroundings!

    There used to be four or five Blockbusters within walking distance of my apartment in Brooklyn. [Ruh-roh! – SRK] Now there’s one, and I keep thinking it’s closed until I peer in for a second and spot that one clerk slouched behind the counter. Odds are he’s either talking on his cell phone or reading Vibe.

    The electronic parameters of Internet relationships mean that you get to enjoy the benefits of other peoples’ enthusiasm without the accompanying melodrama. If you were ever part of one of the circles I’ve described, you found yourself wondering, at one point or another, “Why am I friends with this person? We have nothing in common but movies, and if it weren’t for that, I’d cross the street if I saw him.” Internet friendship means you don’t have to follow up an intoxicating geek-fest argument about Stanley Kubrick vs. Martin Scorsese with a two hour discussion of your friend’s latest workplace drama, or her recent breakup with that guy who always wore a hoodie and kept forgetting her birthday.

    The rub, of course, is that any friendship that satisfies the first part of that description and not the second isn’t a real friendship. Which brings me to the one part of Blockbuster’s slow fadeout that is worth lamenting: the sense that the human touch, or what’s left of it, is being lost. Mind you, I’m not talking about Blockbuster’s idea of the human touch, because the chain never had one.

    I’m talking about the pre-Internet experience of daily life, which was more immediate, more truly interactive: in a word, real.

    Sigh. People have been saying crap like this since I was a teenager. First, the Walkman was insulating us from enriching conversations with people we encountered randomly on the street. Then email was making our communications vulgar and superficial. Then cell phones were forcing us to be available to all callers at all hours. Amazon and iTunes killed the mind-broadening experience of stumbling into obscure stuff at hipster-approved independent book and record stores ages ago. Now its Netflix. We get movies by pointing and clicking, whereas Blockbuster used to be where we laughed, cried, argued, and began and ended relationships.

    I’m not kidding:

    Bland and aloof as it was, Blockbuster was a part of that — and for certain types of people, it was a big part. There was nothing special about Blockbuster as a business, but special moments did happen there, simply by virtue of the fact that the stores were everywhere, and they stocked a lot of movies, and people who wanted to see movies went there regularly, sometimes alone but more often in the company of relatives or friends.

    I had some involved, sometimes pivotal conversations while loitering in the aisles at the Blockbuster near my school or apartment or workplace, including one in which my best friend helped me talk myself into breaking up with a girl I was dating who was beautiful and charming but not remotely interested in any film released before the year of her birth. She fell asleep during “Dr. Strangelove.”

    “You’ve got to break up with her, Matt,” my friend advised me. “Hey, have you seen the Albert Brooks movie ‘Real Life’? Seriously. It’s one of the funniest films ever made.”

    That kind of thing never happens when you’re browsing Netflix.

    Of course, some of us like being able to get to a copy of The Eyes of Laura Mars without having to squeeze past some schmo bleating, “She’s got a rockin’ body, dude, but she just doesn’t get how much Bond means to me!” at his buddy, however precious the shared moment may be to the two of them. I find that with Netflix (and Amazon and iTunes and Fresh Direct), I get to spend just as much (if not more) time with my friends while spending less time hearing TMI from people behind me in checkout lines about, like, their bunion surgery. There are fewer places to browse among physical stock, but they’re not hard to find. The Barnes & Noble near my office on Union Square is almost always packed. And that’s not even considering the people who live so far from Brooklyn that the nearest Blockbuster was always far away, even at the height of its success. For them, Netflix must seem little short of a miracle.

    Seitz’s complaint is especially odd since, in that first part cited above, he acknowledges that in his pre-Internet life, he didn’t have genuine friendships with all his movie buddies, anyway. Is the idea that palling around in person made that more palatable or (perhaps more likely) disguised it better than just chatting online about subjects of confirmed mutual interest? I’ve never understood why people who find that technology makes their lives impersonal don’t just find ways to avoid using it. I regularly stop reading Facebook or (have you noticed?) posting here when I consider what’s going on offline more important. I try to respond to non-urgent telephone calls and messages in a timely fashion, but if I’m busy, I let them wait. When I feel like reading, I shut off the TV. If I felt like browsing through videos with a friend, I suppose I’d ask a friend to go to the video section of the bookstore with me. I don’t consider any of this all that hard.

    I assume Eric doesn’t either. He posts about hating videos contrived to prove a polemical point, but in his view, “I am not obligated in any way to create or watch videos.” No, indeed, although acknowledging that does mean forgoing the opportunity to get all windy about how one is too soulful for this impersonal age.