Friday, December 3, 2004

Aiko and her Daddy Naruhito

You guys probably don’t know this Aiko kid. She’s a cutie. Just turned three and her face is everywhere. She brushes her own teeth now, we’re told. Pretty good, don’t you think, for the great-granddaughter of Hirohito.

She does more than that. According to an official announcement, "She plays by doing things such as climbing trees, throwing large balls, reading picture books, and playing house…." I wonder how they got those astonishing revelations past the censors. Somebody with loose lips, no doubt, in the Imperial Household Agency.

One pasttime here in Mikadoland for folk who don’t have better things to do is debating whether it is desirable to change the rules so that girls can become Emperorperson. (Empress sounds like the Mrs.) There are three arguing positions. Yes, if they are the oldest child of a ruling Emp. Yes, if there are no boys. And no. Never. Ain’t no way. Over my dead body.

The issue has come up because there is no male "issue," as they say. Don’t you love that phrase? Aiko’s mama has "issues." Well, one, so far. And the country’s all a-flutter over whether said issue is going to sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne some day and have people bow so low they’re down with the chihuahuas.

Something tells me if they make that happen there is going to have to be a dramatic change in the role of the imperial family in this country. If you allowed the regular folk here to have their druthers, they’d really like an accessible monarch. Not like the Norwegian guy who married a girl who already had a kid, maybe, but somebody like Diana, say, except without the penchant for foreigner playboys and with more of an ability to play by the rules.

I’ve become quite a fan of Aiko’s daddy, Naruhito. (I spend almost no time staring at Japanese newspapers pretending to read, so I just realized I don’t know whether the kanji for Aiko is "love child" and for Naruhito is "becoming a man." Probably not. But these would be nice names for your kids, don’t you think?)

Naruhito has my affection because he spoke out not long ago in favor of his wife, Masako. Masako was following the tradition set by her mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, who lost her voice and couldn’t speak for months. OK, you don’t want me to have an opinion on anything? Watch this, suckers!

I once said to a class that I felt sorry for Michiko, that what Japan was doing to its imperial family was on the order of child abuse. Probably all royal families get screwed this way, but the Japanese carry this kind of thing to galactic lengths. Masako, the daughter-in-law, and Aiko’s mum, tuned out recently too. She was, as it was reported, suffering from stress. Her illness is officially diagnosed as "Adjustment Disorder."

See why you have to cultivate your appreciation for the absurd to live in this country? Adjustment disorder? Hell, I’ve had that all my life! I’ve never adjusted to anything without kicking and screaming a hell of a lot first. Never had the money to have it diagnosed, in my case.

You're sick, dahlin'! We nailed your foot to the floor, and you're havin' trouble livin' with it. You got ADJUSTMENT DISORDER! Heal, dahlin, heal!

No, Masako, bless her heart, was (and is!) a very savvy woman. Harvard and all. Daughter of a diplomat. Toodled all around the world. Would have made a stunning diplomat herself, probably. But got tapped by the powers.

Sky opens. Lightning flashes. Goddess Amaterasu speaks. "We want you to consort with our next emperor. Marry. Make baby boy. Live in exquisite opinionlessness. Stop with the flesh and blood. Make like symbol. We will have this from you. Take all the time you need to give us your answer. We will have your "yes" by noon on Friday."

So Masako marries Naruhito and after eight years of trying with 126 million pairs of eyes on your uterus, issues Aiko.

"Job well done! Now give the lady back her life, for chrissakes!" Right?

No. Just as the US of A has its Jerry Falwell who tells fellow evangelists who hate war that they hate America, Japan has its Falwells who ride around in soundtrucks suggesting the goals of the co-prosperity sphere will be met if only Japanese people will rise from their lethargy and fight the good fight. And if Masako will close her eyes and think of Nippon. And do it again. And do it again and again (oh, can you feel the rhythm?) until she gets it right.

What an obvious solution, don’t you think, to let this little cutie who is already throwing balls and brushing her teeth take up the role. I know I’ve labeled it child abuse, but if they lighten up a bit and let her go to regular schools like young William and young Harry, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

And if that could be settled, maybe Masako won’t end up like her speechless mother-in-law. And Aiko’s daddy won’t have to get in trouble any more coming to the aid of his woman, whom he appears to adore. Emp-to-be has all the appearances of a lonely prince who thanks his stars daily he was given this marvelous gift of an intelligent wife when he might easily have been given a ditzy doormat instead. Wouldn’t it be better all around if we could say, OK, obligations met, now lighten the frick up!

Why am I so fond of Hirohito’s grandson, Naruhito? Just before he went off to Europe last May he made a statement to the press that he was sorry his wife would not be going along, and that the reason was she was too stressed out. Well, the doodoo hit the fan. Massive speculations about inner struggling within the Imperial Household Agency. Speculations about whether Naruhito would be betraying the secrets of the household with his buddies among European royals. Speculations over whether somebody would have to fall on his sword.

Naru's mama, the Empress Michiko let it slip that – and I quote:

When a member of a family is suffering, it is a source of sadness for everyone in the family.

And how did this get reported in the press?

Japanese Empress Michiko has given her sympathy -- and possibly a veiled rebuke -- to her daughter-in-law, Crown Princess Masako.

Rebuke? Rebuke?

Where the hell do you see rebuke?

OK, so Michiko also said

During all the years … the sense of heavy responsibility has stayed with me all the time that I should not disgrace the imperial family, with its long history, who accepted me, an ordinary citizen, as crown princess.

Howzzat for an original thought from a lady with a nervous breakdown who finally gets her voice back?

Michiko, also a commoner – yeah, like Lady Penelope Brotherington-Snuffworthy is a commoner – had it easier in one way than her daughter-in-law. She gave birth, like Diana, not only to Naruhito, but to a back-up, Naruhito’s younger brother Akishino.

Like British Royal playboy Edward who got to go down to Brighton and roar around with the ladies, Akishino, if you believe the scuttlebutt, knocked his wife up before royalizing her, but we don’t talk about that. Instead we talk about the scandal he raised on the occasion of his 39th birthday. Referring to his brother’s gaffe in saying nice things about his wife, Akishino had this to say. Are you ready? Fasten your seat belts. This is going to blow you away. I’ll give you the direct quote. I don’t trust myself with such hot material.

“I myself was surprised in no small measure, and I heard the emperor was also very surprised,”

Prince Akishino said in reply to questions from the Imperial Household Agency press corps prior to his birthday.

"I think he should only have made those remarks after first talking to the emperor about what he planned to say in his meeting with the press." . (Kyodo News)

Oh my.

Do you see the pattern? Michiko has a nervous breakdown. Can’t speak. Time passes. She speaks. Says exactly, but exactly, what the Imperial Household Agency determines she should say. Her boy Naruhito says he’s sorry his wife can’t go to Europe with him and the Imperial Household Agency decides the best way to handle this is to have somebody else imperial react with "surprise."

Jewish mothers move over. Here in Mikado land you can kill your mother and father by doing something that comes as a surprise. My question is not why did Michiko and Masako have nervous breakdowns. My question is how come everybody else hasn’t.

I could get killed for writing this. I’m counting on my small potatoes outsider status to protect me. The mayor of Nagasaki got stabbed, but he did call Hirohito a war criminal; I’m just saying I think Aiko is a cutie and I’m fond of her daddy. Leave me alone, fellahs.

OK. It’s now noon and it’s time to break for lunch. I have managed to diddle away the morning instead of reading student papers.

I’m off to the local bento-box café for a bit of little squiggly things. Hope they don’t put anything in it that surprises me and gives me a nervous breakdown.

December 3, 2004

Monday, November 15, 2004

Culture and Religion in America’s 2004 Election

Traditionally, the split between Roman Catholics and Protestants in America has been not much different from the historical struggle between the two groups in Europe. There are substantial differences in theology. Christ, according to the Catholic narrative, is the Son of God, and therefore divine. He was born to Mary, whom the Church has turned almost into a goddess, although they insist she is not "worshiped" but merely "venerated." (The distinction is lost on most non-catholic observers.) Many other theological differences exist as well.

The differences between the Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations today lie much less in doctrine, however, than in political organization and cultural ideology. Where there is doctrinal difference, it is less over the nature of God, sin and salvation and more over who has the authority to speak for God and interpret God's will.

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther was motivated by the corruption among the church hierarchy, especially at the top, to push for a rethinking of Church authority and their claim that they served as intermediaries between us and God. Luther settled on a “priesthood of all believers” and laid emphasis on direct and individual personal communication with God. The importance to history of this point cannot be underestimated, because it led to the focus in Western Civilization on the individual, and helped foster the human rights notions of the Enlightenment tradition. The point illustrates nicely how religion can influence culture. Today, when culture is returning the favor and influencing religion, secular people have no trouble, generally, with Protestants who leave it up to the individual to decide good from bad, right from wrong. They have a lot more problem with the Churches who claim authority to dictate an individual’s beliefs.

The Roman Catholic (RC) Church insists it has the authority to speak for God. Pope Pius IX presided over a Vatican Council in 1869-70 in which the doctrine of infallibility was promulgated. This doctrine asserts that one enters heaven through the (Roman) Catholic church only, that only the pope can determine doctrine, and that the pope's decisions are absolute and binding on all believers.

The two views, the RC view and the view of Martin Luther, couldn't be farther apart. There are lots of other Protestant groups, and lots of other differences, but this one will do to illustrate how it came to be that Protestants and Catholics remained polarized within the world of Christianity.

Recently, in America and elsewhere (but I think especially in America) something interesting has happened to this polarization. When John F. Kennedy became president in 1960, he was the first Catholic president the U.S. had ever had. Many Protestants worried the U.S. would now be "governed by Rome." Many Catholics voted for him strictly because of his religion; many Protestants voted against him for the same reason.

In the 2004 election, once again we had a Catholic candidate in John Kerry. Only this time, a majority of Catholics voted against him and for a man who was not only a Protestant, but a "born again" Protestant -- one who believes just as firmly that one has to be "born again" to enter heaven (and that leaves out Catholics) as traditional Catholics believe one has to be Catholic to enter heaven. The question is how could so many Catholics (I believe the figures were 55%) vote against a Catholic and for a Protestant.

The answer lies in throwing out our assumptions that Catholics will only vote for Catholics, and Protestants for Protestants, obviously. And here is where it gets interesting. Within the RC Church there has always been a split between people (let's call them 'traditionalists') who believe in strict adherence to church authority and doctrine and people (let's call them 'progressives') who believe there is truth in the church, but it is not always clearly manifested in everything the authorities claim, because they are obviously beset with human limitations.

Within Protestant denominations, too, there is a split between so-called 'fundamentalists' (the terminology is problematic, but for the sake of simplicity, let's use that term) on the one hand, who believe in the absolute authority of Scriptures (the Old and New Testaments of the Bible) in the same way RC traditionalists insist on obedience to the authority of the RC Church hierarchy.

With RCs and Protestants dividing less over issues that troubled Europeans historically and more over present day political ideologies, specifically the line between absolutism and liberalism, things now look like this:

Roman Catholics I:

The “traditionalists,” followers of the spirit of Vatican I and the doctrine of infallibility. All the popes except John XXIII; Cardinal Ratzinger and the “Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as “The Inquisition”)

Roman Catholics II:

The “progressives,” non-authoritarian, liberal-minded, followers of John XXIII and the spirit of Vatican II; ecumenicalists; theologians like Hans Küng; liberation theologists

Protestants I:

authoritarian, absolutists, “fundamentalists,” those who insist on a strict literal interpretation of the Scriptures, including an Old Testament view of God as Vengeful

Protestants II:

The “progressives,” non-authoritarian, liberal-minded mainstream churches with a diversity of interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel, but stressing the New Testament and the Beatitudes as representative of Christ; ecumenicalists

If you take a look at the two groups in depth, you realize very quickly that there is a resemblance among the absolutists across the religious divide, and a similar resemblance among the progressives. What are we to call this division? It is clearly a question of attitudes, values and beliefs. In other words, it is a manifestation of culture.

For that reason, let me add another dimension to the mix and call it the cultural values dimension. And then add the three issues the political right has used to rally its conservative forces, both Protestant and Catholic: abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research. Note how neatly this has joined Protestant I group with the Catholic I group, and given them Bush as a “values” leader. And notice too that Kerry has "values" (even if the right has attempted to co-opt that word pretty much for themselves) which reflect Protestant II and Catholic II people, as well as the large majority of secularists.

The presence of the modern secularists (i.e., the non-religious) in the picture creates a three-way split, with Religion I people standing at the hard right, the Secularists at the hard left, and the Religion II in between, sharing faith with their co-religionists, and cultural ideology with the secularists.

If you accept this division, you have a tentative answer to the question, “How could so many Catholics vote for Bush, even though their church dictates that only Catholics are “saved,” and that Kerry was “one of their own”? The answer is that they voted their “cultural” and not their “religious” values. Counting the “Catholics” and “Protestants” who voted for Bush and those who voted for Kerry will not reveal the real categories hiding behind those surface religious groupings and not present us with very interesting information. If, on the other hand, we devise ways to identify whether they see themselves in what I have called the “authoritarian” column or the “progressive” column, we will have much more usual information because it will bring us up to date and help us live with the fact that religion no longer calls the shots. For all the hoopla about religion in America, we're fighting not a religious war but a culture war.

80% of American Roman Catholics admit to using birth control, even though the Church forbids it, and even though going against the Church’s teachings supposedly puts one’s soul at risk. Many have had abortions, but continue to say confession and take communion in the mass. Many have been divorced, despite the Church’s absolute condemnation of divorce. The reason the percentage of “freethinkers” within the church is this high may be attributed to the fact that so many Catholics see themselves in the “progressive” column. They have pretty much taken on the cultural values of their Protestant liberal progressive fellow citizens.

It is being asserted that those who claim to be representing “true American family values” (i.e., the so-called “religious right”) voted against Kerry and for Bush because of their stand on abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research. While this may be an oversimplification, there is probably considerable truth to the claim the trend is in that direction.

If religion and culture are seen in this light, then we should stop talking about the “religious right” and identify that group in terms of its cultural values of strict adherence to an absolutist way of thinking. We should see the “culture wars” polarization in America not so much in terms of religious vs. secular, north vs. south, urban vs. rural, or even urban vs. exurban – although these shorthand labels for the division often seem to make sense – but as a division between authoritarian (usually called ‘conservative’) and progressive (usually referred to as ‘liberal.”) mindsets.

It would be foolish to suggest that the differences between Bush and Kerry and their supporters come down to nothing more than a division between absolutists and free-thinkers. Obviously there are major differences in economic policy, in approach to foreign policy, in ideological differences over the role of America in the world which go way beyond these issues I have limited discussion to the place where religion and culture intersect. But I would suggest that each time religion is brought out to explain how America votes and how America is to be compared with Europe and the rest of the world, that we not lose sight of the fact that much that is understood under the rubric of religion might be better understood under the rubric of culture.

Saturday, November 6, 2004

Feinstein’s Regret

A colleague and I got into Monday-morning quarterbacking the election on Thursday and she said to me, “I know it’s going to be painful for you to hear me say it, but I think the gay marriage issue might have made the difference.”

Diane Feinstein is in the news for saying the same thing, much to the chagrin of a lot of her California supporters. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is now taking gas for his decision to take such a strong pro-gay stand and force the issue onto the national and international stage.

Diane isn’t alone. Massachusetts’ gay congressman Barney Frank took issue with Newsom’s stand, urging him to try the Massachusetts approach instead and do the work through the courts and not through the media.

My colleague needn’t have worried about trampling on my sensitivities. I have a pretty tough skin when it comes to gay liberation. It comes from growing up at a time when the stock response to gays was, “I thought people like that killed themselves.” When you live in poverty in your youth, you don’t require fabulous wealth -- a house with walk-in closets will often do.

For about the first twenty-four hours after the news sank in I was fighting against the sense that my house, walk-in closet and all, had just been burned to the ground. Now I’m starting to look for remnants of things to start over on, and there’s a little voice nagging at me to stop with this hyperbole and get as fast as I can into reconstruction. And it’s saying something about compromises.

There’s a book just out by Thomas Frank entitled, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank addresses the fact that all sorts of red state folks voted for Bush despite the fact that they were in effect selling their birthright to economic equality, social welfare, education, decent jobs, healthcare, housing, and keeping the farm, simply in order to slow down the move toward a more relativist approach to sexuality. I say “simply” obviously because I think they’ve got their priorities very wrong. To them, obviously, it feels like a rational choice.

Feinstein and Barney Frank and my colleague are right, I think. This is going to take some time. People come up with some very funny ideas. Like the injustice of segregation is justified by your fear of what might happen to your white daughters if they have to share a classroom with little black boys. Or allowing women to haul their husbands into court for beating on them and forcing sex on them weakens the institution of marriage. Or having a gay fellow soldier gaze at you with lust in the shower is an insult to your manhood.

All of these fears have to be processed through the brain and filtered through a sense of justice and fair play, and that all takes time.

Asking me to wait on same-sex marriage while you work on this, Mr. and Mrs. Red State Person, strikes me as similar to asking black folk to wait another fifty years to end segregation. And asking women to wait a few years before we stop punishing them because a condom broke.

Democracy has taken a couple centuries since the French and American revolutions to reach this stage of evolution. Compared with that, waiting for Americans to catch up with their Canadian and European brothers and sisters on the concept of same-sex marriage is nothing. It will all happen. Gay people will come out one day from under this cloud of fear.

I have a sense of connection with the religious right and their fears of sex. I look at Jerry Springer and I see some woman getting into a fistfight with her daughter because she’s been sleeping with her daughter’s boyfriend. Or the Dating shows where some prancing rooster of a twit has three girls fighting each other in front of a TV audience for a one-night stand with the guy. These programs leave a nasty taste in my mouth and I wish they weren’t on TV. I imagine this is the feeling some of the religious right might be having when they think of two men or two women in the throes of sexual ecstasy. As a good friend said to me once about homosexuality, “I have no trouble with it in my head; it’s my stomach that has problems with it.”

That seems primal, just as the fear some whites had of black skin seemed primal and just as greed and the merging of sex with power seem to be primal. Look a little closer, though, and you are likely to find it isn't primal at all; it's simply conditioned thinking. Prejudices are learned. If I'm wrong, and it is primal, fine. Get over it. Some people feel sick at the sight of fat people, short people, children with cleft palates. Calling something primal is not an explanation; it's a description of a pathology. You don't turn aside with a "nothing can be done; it's primal..." You look at yourself in the mirror and say, "What's with you, jerko!" And you get your facts sorted out.

During the late 60s, California battled over the Briggs initiative to put all gay teachers out of a job, and Anita Bryant achieved notoriety for her campaign to “Save Our Children.” Both these movements were operating on the primal fear that gay people’s sexuality was child-focused. Nothing hurt gay people like that degree of misrepresentation. It was so obviously blatantly totally wrong. And yet people could hold that position and act on it from public office.

The left is faced now with developing a strategy for dealing with the fears of the religious right that our cultural attitudes about sex will send us all to hell. It’s not the only challenge, but it’s one of the big ones.

Some people are well down the road. I personally am just beginning to get my head around the challenge. How does one face what appears to be a circling of the moral wagons when they see you as an Indian?

Already I’m reading pleas that we learn to compromise. That’s not my inclination. One compromises when you want to spend fifty bucks on dinner for two and your partner wants to spend a hundred. You eat for seventy-five.

But when people say to you, “Give up your civil rights to equal access to justice” and you say nothing doing, the compromise is not to surrender half of them.

“Justice delayed is justice denied” was the shorthand of the black civil rights movement. Senator Feinstein and Barney Frank and my colleague and countless others, in feeling the pain of loss in this election, are suggesting we might have done better to delay justice. I know the appeal of practical realism -- get what you can now and save the rest for another time.

If that's the way things are going to go in the immediate future, I won't fight it. But I hope people will not allow compromise to cloud the fact that it is still justice denied.

November 6, 2004

Friday, October 22, 2004

When all else fails...

When all else fails, try religion. I mean once you’ve tired of Free Cell, seen the last video on the Blockbuster shelves, and worn out the Monopoly board, what’s out there to relieve the pain? Keeping up with current events holds no promise, given American democracy’s apparent inclination to dash itself on the rocks.

But there is religion!

The Vatican, for example. Have you heard their latest? They’re complaining now that the world is ganging up on them for their little problem with naughty priests and for their stand on homosexuality. Specifically, they’re pissed that the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee rejected the candidacy of Rocco Buttiglione, a personal friend of JP II, for Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security. Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, in fact, of the Pontifical Council for Justice (sic) and Peace called the whole business – are you ready for this (rumble of the drums, subliminal images of Monty Python…) an I N Q U I S I T I O N.

Oh, Mary, sometimes you’re just too good to me.

Buttiglione’s stance that homosexuality is a sin, the committee decided, suggests he might not be the kind of guy you want defending the civil rights of European citizens – which rights increasingly include same-sex marriage, not incidentally.

Difference of opinion, obviously. Culture war, arguably. But I N Q U I S I T I O N !?

Doesn’t this guy ever talk to his buddies across the hall? Ratzinger, for example. You remember him. The guy who, according to his fan club, "keeps himself busy in service to the Truth: correcting theological error, silencing dissenting theologians, and stomping down heresy wherever it may rear its ugly head." His title is (the drums again…) G r a n d I n q u i s i t o r. (Check out his fan club at – I sh*t you not, it’s a real fan club which keeps track of articles defending the war in Iraq and rages against bishops who are "unwilling to discipline legislators who support procured abortion by banning them from the sacrilegious reception of the Eucharist.") (

In case you missed that, they’re talking about Kerry, and making the case for voting for Protestant Mr. Bush instead.

Which brings us to a Protestant version of insanity and my current favorite televangelist, Pat Robertson. Did I tell you I heard Robertson tell his gigantic audience on the Christian Broadcasting Network once that people are mistaken in thinking Christ will come again to "sow peace." "The next time he comes," Robertson announced, "he’s coming with the sword. Read your Bible!"

You remember when Robertson and Falwell had this great moment of telling America 9/11 was God withholding his favor because of its embrace of abortion and gay rights?

Robertson gives these right-wing catholics a run for their money in the way he tells his people voting for Kerry is like voting for damnation. Suddenly, he has taken a very curious turn indeed. He has revealed to the world that Bush told him there would be no casualties in Iraq. For this error, says Robertson, he ought to apologize to America. The White House is sh*tting bricks, but Robertson is holding his ground.

Doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to vote for him, mind you. Only that he should admit when he is wrong. No, you’ve still got to vote for him, according to Robertson, because he has God’s blessing. "And you remember, I think the Chinese used to say, you know, it's the blessing of heaven on the emperor. And I think the blessing of heaven is on Bush. It's just the way it is." (

I mean, who needs HBO?

Jehovah/Yahweh/G*d, in what appears to be a direct communication with the televangelist, told Robertson the war was going to be "A, a disaster, and B, messy." I suppose G*d actually said Aleph and Beth, or possibly Alpha and Beta, and I’m somewhat sobered at the thought The Man might select from all the words in all the world’s languages he has at his disposal the word "messy," but I digress.

Let me try to sum this up. We’ve got a Cardinal complaining that our nagging the Church over its sex scandals is a kind of "inquisition" and loyal defendants of the Chief Inquisitor, who believes all non-catholics are going to hell, telling catholics not to vote for a catholic candidate but for an evangelical who believes all catholics are going to hell. We’ve got a man who believes God is using Islamicist fanatics to punish us for, among other sins, permitting homosexuality in our midst telling us Christ is coming back with a sword to get those same fanatics for (apparently) carrying out God’s will. And we should vote for W because the notion of the divine right of kings apparently still holds sway in 2004.

Don’t leave during intermission. Word has it Religion has a great Act II.

October 22, 2004

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

The Malkin Event – a Debate on Profiling

Part I: The Malkin Event as Theater

Two nights in a row, now, I’ve enjoyed the advantage of living a fifteen-minute walk from the UC Berkeley campus. Last night I went up to hear Michelle Malkin talk. In case you don’t know who she is, she’s that Fox Network News darlin’ of the Right currently making a big splash by trying to convince us we ought to regard any and all folk with suspicion if they “look like an Arab or Muslim.” Moreover, says Malkin, we should stop apologizing for having “relocated” all those Japanese-Americans in World War II and recognize it was “the right thing to do.”

The cynic in me can’t help noticing that every one of the speakers I’ve heard in the last year was pushing a book. And it’s no secret you sell books in direct proportion to the splash you make. But hey, if Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh get so much mileage out of splash, who can blame her for playing this game? Besides, being nose-to-nose with impending impecunitude—my university puts me out to pasture in only eighteen months—I have a new-found respect for making a buck.

Standing in the hallway for half an hour outside Dwinelle 145 seemed excessive. Watching the nervousness on the faces of the well-scrubbed youngsters wearing yellow-ribbons on their suits darting in an about the exits made it obvious the crowd was being very carefully managed. They might have been Mormons, for all their clean-cut whiteboy appearance. They were young Republicans. I managed to get in; half the waiting crowd didn’t.

It turns out the front so many rows were reserved for the young Republicans. And except for a lone straggler here and there in what struck you as the colored section in the back of the auditorium (Japanese-Americans overwhelmed the back of the room) a picture of the event would show America’s current political polarization in stunning relief – with a racial twist to top off the point.

At regular intervals, the claque hooted and hollared their support; the rest of us sat in silence. At the end, the front folk were on their feet; the back glued to their seats.

When was the last time you went to a lecture at a university where all the exits were manned with gun-toting police officers? The book signing had to be cancelled “for security reasons” and the talk was hard to follow because of the din in the hallway, people banging on doors, chants of “shame…shame…shame” and the occasional pro-Palestinian appeal and Spartacus League insistance we dismantle all capitalist structures forthwith. Berkeley does Berkeley so well.

“How many people in this room would make a clean jury on this issue?” I wondered aloud to the Caucasian fellow next to me. He put up three fingers. “My guess is you’re over by two,” I said, and he agreed. He immediately set about chatting up the Japanese-Americans around us for their stories. “I was four when we went to the camps…,” “I grew up in Chicago and missed the camps, but I would have been a Californian….” A solid bank of folk who had strong views on the injustice of the wartime internment. They squirmed, they made faces, they tsk’ed, but mostly they sat in polite silence as Malkin ticked off the “documentation” that allegedly provides justification for the assumption of criminal intent on the part of 112,000 Japanese-Americans, and made the case Reagan was wrong to apologize and provide symbolic restitution.

It was very very hard to sit through this. Hard to listen to a defence of profiling. I am committed to listening to talk that sounds reasonable, even when it may turn out not to be. But it takes a toll.

I have very vivid memories of listening to Harvey Milk and Sally Gerhardt debating California Senator Briggs on the Briggs Initiative back in the 70s. Briggs was trying to keep gay people from being allowed to teach in the public schools. “Why,” Gerhardt asked him, “when child molesters are overwhelmingly heterosexual – and MEN, I might add – would you target gay men and women?” “If you take out the homosexual population, you cut down the odds,” was his answer.

It was one of those moments when I felt my body levitate. I swear it lifted me off the ground. Here we were faced with a man of considerable political power, demonstrating the intelligence of a lump of coal, the reasoning of a village idiot, and folk were shaking their heads and saying, “Well, I guess he’s got a point!”

I tell you this aside to show you where my attitude toward profiling comes from. It’s not just from my head; it’s from deep in my gut that there is something profoundly wrong with stopping ordinary black people without a pretext to check for guns and marijuana, assuming priests are child-molesters, and claiming Muslims “really are the ones to worry about here!” Another word for profiling is targeting. Profiling sounds less aggressive, more scientific somehow. But I challenge you to make a distinction.

Malkin’s talk was put forward as the pro argument in the debate on profiling, the argument in favor. If judged on those grounds, it was a complete flop. The young Republicans came out of it with a stronger conviction they had to stick together as an abused minority; the Japanese-Americans as greater cynics; the demonstrators who were shut out of the event convinced America is going fascist maybe even faster than they expected. Nobody came away the wiser.

Part II: The Profiling Debate

I agree with Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat when he says (September 8, 2004) there are certain topics one no longer needs to debate. I don’t want to listen to arguments that slavery was good for America, that the Holocaust never happened, that gay people should be stoned to death. These three examples have come to be defined as barbarisms in this day and age, and a prior commitment to democracy and human rights precludes debate on some things that come with the evolution of civilization. Nothing good comes of the violence of genocide and demonization, and there can’t possibly be a positive side to the denial of history.

But policy decisions should remain open to scrutiny long after they have come and gone, I think. We can’t deny that we do profile; the only question is when the injustice of profiling outweighs any possible advantages. I disagree with Danny Westneat when he says Michelle Malkin’s argument should not be debated—her argument that the policy that uprooted 112,000 Japanese-Americans in World War II was justified.

Westneat does have a case. He thinks Malkin should be shut down because

"… 39 historians and researchers, including faculty from Harvard, Stanford and the University of Washington, said Malkin's work is "distorted," "historically inaccurate" and "presents a version of history that is contradicted by several decades of scholarly research."

But it strikes me that this rationale Westneat gives for not debating Malkin’s issue would better serve as a counter to her argument, once engaged, than as justification for shutting her down. Besides, there are simply too many voices on the right wanting to give her a hearing. If we don’t, we become the opponents of free speech. Not taking Malkin on only keeps stinking feet in tight shoes. This is a time to take the shoes off and wash the damn feet clean.

If you agree with me on this, the next step is to see how the two sides line up. The heart of the pro-profiling argument is its appeal to practical reality. One school of ethical thinking says “live by principles” and “do the right thing” and damn the consequences. Another one says “it’s the bottom line, the outcome, that counts.” For our purposes here, let me oversimplify (both are in fact moral/ethical arguments) and call the first of these the moral argument, the second one the practical argument.

I. The moral argument

“Greater good” arguments are not part of our political culture. That’s the kind of thing they do in China with their one-child policy. Affirmative Action is an exception to that pattern, and look at the trouble it has being accepted. Besides, with affirmative action, the focus is on building a minority up, not setting one aside. Those of us raised Christian were taught to think it’s wonderful that a shepherd would abandon his flock for one lost sheep, that a father would ignore a loyal son to reward a prodigal one. And our secular culture is largely an Enlightenment one; we favor the Kantian argument of living by principles and not by expediency. And if Christianity and principles-based ethics don’t do it for you, there’s always the U.S. Constitution and the Founders’ conviction that we should base our rules on the rights of individuals. We risk allowing guilty people to go free rather than let innocent ones be punished for crimes they did not commit. We favor equality of opportunity over equality of result, insisting it’s up to us as individuals what we do with that opportunity.

The counter to this is Malkin’s point, that we are in a life-and-death situation, and that such moral reasoning works only when there is no risk of massive destruction. OK, fine. Let’s concede that one and move on. If you have the moral courage to fall on your sword for truth, do so, and we will treasure your memory. I’m willing to consider the practical argument. It will at least put me on the same page as Malkin.

II. The practical argument

There is a time for profiling, and that is when we’re looking for a definite person. If we are chasing a known rapist, for example, and we know for sure he is 6 foot 4 and black, there is no reason to screen travellers getting on airplanes who are 5 foot 2, white, and female. And there is a reason for checking all black males over 6 feet.

But this logic does not extend to saying since the last rapist was black the next one will be also. Profiling to chase down a real person is justifiable; profiling to catch an individual we have put into a feared category is tripping over a logic error, the assumption that what might be, is.

There are two things wrong with this kind of profiling: first, it doesn’t work; second, it makes things worse.

When AIDS first hit Japan, the Japanese knew that most of those passing it on were white Americans. The response was to close down the gay bars and bathhouses to white patrons, regardless of their origins. What they were missing was that the people with the greatest familiarity with the problem, and the safe sex information to fight it, were also white Americans. And while they were keeping those people out, they were letting in Japanese who had travelled to America, contracted the diseases and were now passing it on to their fellow Japanese. Profiling was not only missing the source of the problem; it was creating a false sense of security and weakening the forces battling the disease. It was an approach both clumsy and dumb.

Examples abound. Lest you think profiling is confined to the U.S.A., consider the Tokyo police’s policy recently for dealing with an influx of Chinese gangsters. “If you see someone you suspect of being Chinese,” the posters said, “please phone the police.”

The local Chinese population and other savvy folk started a laughing campaign and the posters came down. (This would not have happened without activist involvement, however.)

But what about the question of efficiency? If you are policing an area that is half black and half white, and you know that 25% of the people who sell drugs in the area are black and only 2% are white, it doesn’t make sense to shake down equal numbers of blacks and whites. That is self-defeating political correctness and an ineffective squandering of resources.

Yes, but only if you don’t do your homework. Suppose now that the black people who live on Avenues A through J have the same profile as the whites who live on Avenues A through J. Should they still be included in the dragnet justified by the 25% figure? Our problem is our reliance on grossly constructed categories which we make because we lack the knowledge to fine-tune them. Police know if they want to find someone, they are more successful if they have help from inside the neighborhood or community they are looking at, and are almost certain to fail if they set all the police on one side and the entire city on the other. How is this different from profiling Muslims and Arabs?

Even Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge admits, “We don't have the luxury of kidding ourselves that there is an ethnic or racial or country profile." If we believe we’re on the track of the bad men on the basis of their headdress, the size of their noses or the kink in their hair, we’re only inviting some blonde to stuff her bra with explosives and makes us all look like idiots. Not to mention dead.

What led to the internment of Japanese-Americans was the knowledge gap between them and the ruling classes calling the shots at the time. The overwhelming number of Japanese-Americans were not remotely interested in helping the Japanese militarists from the country they, their parents and grandparents left behind conquer the country they knew as home. But white folk didn’t know that. They lived in separate worlds. Or, more precisely, the many who did live disconnected didn’t want to listen to those with cross-cultural ties.

The tragic irony was that if you wanted to know who was most likely to support Japan, you had people all around who might have informed you. Instead of using this knowledge – seeking common cause – we pushed them all into the enemy column. The astonishing thing is that even then so many Nissei and Sansei continued to hold on to their love of country, many even volunteering to die for it.

Malkin’s line of reasoning exposes a stunning example of failure to learn from history. Rather than rushing to close the knowledge gap, she’s falling into the kind of self-destructive panic that caused people to stop the teaching of German in high schools just when we needed more German speakers during the World Wars. When we might be harnassing the skills of Arabic- Farsi- Urdu-speaking Americans to teach the rest of us—as many as are interested, at least—all we can learn about the languages and cultures of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia—we are back into advocating roundups of funny-looking people.

To be fair, Malkin insists she’s not advocating roundups, merely profiling. Not displacement; merely inconvenience. But then why is her book a defence of the roundup of Japanese-Americans in World War II? Adding insult to injury, Malkin’s revision of American history calls this a smart idea. She takes pains to demonstrate it effectively isolated enemy agents. Reagan was wrong, she says, to apologize to these 112,000 Americans. We were right then, and except for the fact that Arab-Americans are scattered all over the country, making rounding them up impractical, there’s nothing in her argument to gainsay we’d be right to repeat the exercise.

Most conservatives, even religious ones, set themselves apart from the likes of Malkin and her retrograde campaign. Right after 9/11 an imam and a rabbi were invited to participate in the memorial service in National Cathedral beside Christian clergy. Possibly Malkin’s approach is right and we should have hauled the imam down to the interrogation room and pumped him for contacts instead.

I guess there is no way to know other than to look carefully at her data, and let the debate begin. The real debate, that is, the one that can begin after the dust has settled.

Part III: Beyond Debate

It’s easy to point the finger of blame at the demonstrators protesting Michelle Malkin’s appearance on the UC Berkeley campus the other night for “shutting down debate” or to question Malkin’s motives in pushing her book justifying the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast during World War II and complaining political correctness is preventing us from seeing the wisdom of profiling in the case of Muslims and Arabs today. People of good will draw back and for a whole host of good reasons allow that all sides should be given the benefit of the doubt here. Cynicism gets you nowhere.

But that is an ancillary issue and it misses the more important fact that a defense of the Japanese Relocation policy at any university campus – not just UC Berkeley – is waving a red flag in front of a bull. There is no shortage of people for whom this event is the central injustice in their lives, and coming to their side in this debate will strike a small but determined number of people as a moral obligation. To this core will inevitably be added other people, young and old, who are looking for a chance to engage in something consequential. In short, a protest is virtually guaranteed.

At first, I found myself in full agreement with the protestors at Malkin’s talk. Then, after sitting down and sizing up the complexity in the event, I changed my mind. It was confrontational as hell, but sometimes I know there is a value in getting people riled up. But after describing the event in terms of its splash, and after getting into the debate itself just a bit, I find myself dealing with a nagging feeling we still haven’t gotten the big picture.

I don’t know how long this has been true, but have you noticed how our public forums are almost useless in cutting through hardline ideological polarization? Instead of good faith discussions, town meetings with folk empowered to speak openly and freely, we now seem to have given ourselves over entirely to performances with cheerleaders. We seem to be unaware that presentations only set up a debate; they do not carry it out. Morever, presentations conducted under confrontational circumstances don’t even do that. Instead, they offer the opportunity for cheap shots at the “enemy’s” expense, and the feeling of having won a fight. It’s a world of winners and losers.

Maybe it’s television and other aspects of the popular culture. I know blaming popular culture is a chicken-and-egg business, but I don’t know where else to start. Consider the popularity of courtroom drama in film and on television. Since Perry Mason, we have been conditioned to watching hotshot lawyers shine in the courtroom, blasting away at opposition. Tom Cruise is David to Jack Nickelson’s Goliath. More recently, The Practice has driven it home that the Anglo-American courtroom is not about justice but about process—simply getting things dealt with.

Justice is a hoped for by-product, and it comes only when there is a level playing ground. And in recent years, as rich Americans have gotten richer and poor Americans poorer, we have less and less level ground. The O.J. Simpson trial brought home that it takes money to win this kind of contest, or at least those with a lot of money are more likely to win.

We learn the place of debate in a democracy chiefly from two primary sources: the legislative branch of government and the courtroom. But look at how the courtroom has been represented of late. Daytime TV is chock full of smartass judges who are into giving the fool of the day his comeuppance. We get to project our fear of failure onto some jerk who wants his fifteen minutes of fame and lacks the inhibition to reveal his limitations on the screen. “You on your best day” I happened to hear Judge Judy say to a plaintiff the other day “are not as smart as I am on my worst.”

As with TV News (I’m thinking of the Laci Peterson story), the courtroom is entertainment these days, and we hear a whole lot less about the wheels of justice and how policy can be reasonably arrived at than we do about how there is another monster/fool at loose in the land and how we have heros (Rambos, judges, U.S. presidents) to take them down. What we label “reality” television is in fact “winner and loser” television. TV in the days of Ozzie and Harriet used to be criticized for being so didactic. Nowadays the lesson to be learned is to make sure you’re on the winning side.

In establishing how we function in the larger world, especially in life and death situations like the battle against fundamentalist terrorists, we ought to be about getting it right, not about getting stuff through the pipeline or outshining our opponents. We ought to be looking for problem-solvers to lead us, not for People Magazine style heros and cowboys. We’ve gotten lazy. We don’t want to wait for the time it takes to reach a consensus; we want a slash-and-burn hero who keeps it simple.

The Malkin event put things into a three-step perspective for me.
Step 1: Set up the issue;
Step 2: Debate the issue;
Step 3: Move beyond debate to conflict resolution through consensus.

Because we seem stuck in entertainment mode, we can’t get past Step 1. Proof of that is all the voices calling for more and better debate. We’re blind to the fact that if we got what we wanted, it still wouldn’t be enough. We’d still need to diffuse the conflict situations that now control our lives. Unless we can stop demanding nothing more than entertainment, that’s not in the cards, unfortunately.

Where we need to go, ultimately, is into a state of mind that will make us see the need for conflict resolution. How do we get there when we seem to be having so much trouble just getting from hollaring to reasoned debate? From even distinguishing between the two! I don’t have the answer to that except that when we see it happening we should do all we can to support its efforts, to raise kids with the skill, to spend less time ourselves on it than we do on other things.

The next question, of course, is if it is conflict resolution, and not debate, that we should be pursuing, how do we go about it? How does an out and out advocate of women’s rights, free speech, separation of church and state talk to people blindly committed to replacing modern democracy with a 14th Century style theocracy? The camps are too far apart. The only solution I see is to find go-betweens. People who inhabit the area between the two camps. The kind of people Malkin wants to profile.

A common tactic used by those who work in conflict resolution is to immediately seek out common ground, to find a place which both sides have a vested interest in protecting and maintaining. Richard Clarke’s complaint against Bush is that, while the current administration claims to be seeking common ground with the world’s Muslims, policies on the ground actually mirror his “us and them…for us or against us” rhetoric which punishes innocent Muslims and polarizes them on the other side. Black and white bully policies always lose the hearts and minds of potential friends.

The level of discourse has sunk badly in recent times. There are two common explanations for this. Those with a philosophical bent explain it in terms of a vulgarization of the postmodern zeitgeist which decrees there is no objective truth and reason is only one of many methodologies. If you buy that, you can plough ahead in good faith that the way you see things is as valid as the way anybody else sees things. In the American context, TV audiences get to watch an endless array of reality television in which experts claim to be dealing with problems, while the “reality” is the fool of the hour gets shot down and we get to celebrate the fact we are not the fool of the hour. That’s not blaming TV for our problems; it’s suggesting there is an aching for black and white clarity in the American psyche that ranges across a broad spectrum from reality TV to fundamentalist religion to the support of a president who can “kick butt” over a wuss who uses franco-feminine words like nuance.

Malkin’s claim to be furthering debate on profiling makes her sound virtuous. I’ve implied she may not really be interested in debate, but even if I’m wrong, even if she is, we may both be barking up the wrong tree. Truly hot issues sometimes only get hotter with debate.

Euthanasia, for example. When the Catholic Church and others take a stand against it on principle, we feel we have to line up for or against. People on the front line, however, quietly pull the plug with the family’s consent and dignity is maintained. An occasional “closer look” into the luggage of Arabs with beards and wearing thobes, if done without fanfare and with an attitude suggesting the person being searched is innocent and worthy of respect, will not fall under the rubric of injustice. Such respect need not be phoney; one only needs to be reminded that the Saudis involved in the 9/11 attacks were not wearing traditional Saudi dress and that most who do are not killers. In most cases, a bit more surveillance here and there will not alienate members of a group with whom the goal desperately needs to the quest for common cause.

To sum this up, I think the best approach is probably what I call following the path of perversity. Never be satisfied. When you don’t have civil discourse, demand civil discourse. When you have civil discourse that falls short of debate, demand debate. When you have debate, insist on going beyond debate to compromise, consensus making and the search for common ground.

Then, of course, you can always run around looking for trouble by fanning the flames of difference and stirring things up so you don’t get too complacent.

There’s always stuff to do.

Friday, July 9, 2004

Come to your senses, America

I was up in the mountains a few weekends ago. One of those lovely weekends with good friends and their friends where you feel warm and cozy and can’t imagine being anywhere else or doing anything but talking and laughing and eating and drinking till you run out of things to say. Which is never.

“So what do you do?” asks this Australian expat sitting to my left at the dinner table. “I teach at Keio University,” I say. “Teach what?” “Well, I teach a course in ethics, and …”

“An American teaching ethics; now there’s a concept!”

Like I said, I love it when I’m in the bosom of my world of friends and their friends. I’ve lived among expats in Japan and elsewhere for over three decades now and they are a major part of my world.

I had never met this man before. I didn’t know him from a tree, but when he insulted me (or my country – I couldn’t be sure which) everybody burst out laughing. Including me. One of those loud healthy laughs that make you feel the stress is leaving your body like the air out of a balloon.

Without any introduction or apology, this Aussie comes out with an insult with stunning confidence. Well placed, it turns out, because the entire dinner party was comprised of people who share my view that having at Americans who even suggest a right to talk about morality is like shooting fish in a barrel.

This is hardly news. It’s now echoed everywhere. A recent Thomas Friedman column (IHT 6/21) summed up my Australian copain’s views – “the longing for an America that exports hope, not fear, and that is an example of the best global practices and values, runs deep in the world. In fact, it is one reason that some people abroad are so angry with Bush – because they blame him for taking that America away from them.”

One of my students gave a presentation in class the other day on affirmative action as government policy in Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. “Not in the moral sense, as they use it in America,” he said, “but in the practical sense, as they use it in Asia.” What he meant was that he was debating the pros and cons of affirmative action not as a moral obligation on the parts of white Americans to pay a debt to the children of those they had wronged in the past, but a means of striking preemptively and taking the wind out of the sails of minorities before they could get too riled up. It was a keen difference, and most of the audience missed it. But he had been in my ethics class previously, so I called him on his choice of moral vs. practical.

Doing something for its practical effect and “leaving morality to others” is an idea with broadbased support among my students and colleagues. They think of morality in terms of sex and religion, and dismiss moral thinking as inappropriate in the political arena.

But practical reasoning, as Kant argued, does not stand in contrast to morality; it can be morality itself. Going against the grain of a tradition of individual-based rights to give a leg-up to members of minority groups isn’t just moral; it’s practical. If it works, it should lead to the development of talents otherwise squandered, and that should help us all. The “moral” reasoning has a “practical” side, in other words.

Similarly, granting special favors to minority groups so that they will not riot, as in the case of Singapore, may be done ostensibly for practical reasons, but it contains an egalitarian moral impulse.

America’s war in Iraq was not merely immoral, but impractical as well. The damage done to America’s moral standing in the world may come someday to have devastating practical disadvantages.

That’s why, although while all people of good will, including most Iraqis, are happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein, most people (including all but 6% of Iraqis, according to one poll I saw recently) think it was done by means both immoral and impractical. The impractical side involves coming to terms with a new world in which America is no longer a model democracy, and with the exception of its open economy in some cases, no longer an example very many people want to follow.

As I write, Guatemalans are remembering the overthrow of their elected government by the CIA fifty years ago. Like the Nicaraguans, they have not forgotten that while America speaks loudly of spreading democracy around the globe, its goals are more often precisely the opposite. According to one UC Berkeley professor, the opposition to America’s war in Iraq is as high as 90% in parts of Latin America. (IHT – Latin American legacy, July 9, p. 6). The coup in Guatemala turned back land reform and favored United Fruit, a company tied to Alan Dulles, director of the CIA and Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, both members of the Eisenhower Administration. The nefarious shenanigans of the current administration didn’t spring out of nothing. They come, like most decay, out of the rot of immoral and impractical government left too long to its own devices, with insufficient oversight by Americans whose love of democracy is more than sloganeering.

I came across something written in 1934 by the French socialist leader Jean Jaurès the other day. Faced with fascism on all sides, Jaurès saw three hopes for peace: the “international organization of the working class,” the “cooperation of industrial and financial capitalism across national frontiers,” and “Anglo-Saxon America.” “We only see their dollar-mindedness,” he wrote. “(but)…should Europe be foolish enough to divide and tear itself apart tomorrow, this great enlightened American idealism would shame it with its proposals for arbitration.” Germans and French at each other’s throats; America proposing peace. How times have changed.

The Americans currently running the show seem not all that concerned about how others see them. Power and influence these days seem to be derived from America’s ability to flatten any part of the world at will, not from being any kind of shining example of morality, practical or otherwise.

In my ethics seminar, after racing across the surface of the ethical codes of the world’s major religions, we turn to the Enlightenment, and Kant in particular, before moving on to more current issues of professional ethics. This semester I had one of those joyous moments that comes to teachers from time to time when your students switch roles on you. One of my ethics students has gone hog wild over Kant and is now sending me e-mails filled with fascination for what he is encountering in Kant.

“No state at war with another,”
Kant writes, "shall permit such acts of warfare as must make mutual confidence impossible in time of future peace, such as the employment of assassins, of poisoners…. These are dishonorable stratagems. Some sort of confidence in the enemy’s frame of mind must remain even in the midst of war, because otherwise no peace could be concluded, and the conflict would degenerate into a war of extermination. For after all, war is only the regrettable instrument of asserting one’s right by force in the primitive state of nature (where there exists no court to decide in accordance with law)…. (S)uch hellish arts, because they are in themselves degrading, when once used, do not continue long within the limits of war but are continued in time of peace and thus completely frustrate the purpose of peace.”

Kant provided much of the enlightenment thought that went into the Geneva Convention and the ideals of democracy. Once, while the French were still struggling to get through the terror of their revolution, and establish principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, America was a step ahead of them in working toward government ruled by law.

Today, with lawyers explaining to us how rules against torture don’t apply if the president doesn’t want them to, how habeas corpus applies only when the bad guys are citizens, when illegal immigrants are sent to prisons thousands of miles from their homes to prevent their families from providing them with necessities, when a law is passed declaring that previous laws separating church and state must be broken three times instead of one before punishment is inflicted, so that one of the president’s primary constituencies can break the law with impunity, when we count our own dead but not the civilian casualties of a nation we invaded contrary to international law, America’s commitment to the rule of law and pride in its own decency is no longer capturing the world’s imagination.

A Japanese philosopher spoke out the other day. His comments caught my attention because he appeared to be among the few I’ve seen lately coming to America’s defense. Referring to the assertion made earlier in the day of an Iraqi prisoner humiliated by his American captors that he would have preferred to be killed than exposed to the sexual humiliation he endured, Shunsuke Tsurumi gave the event what seemed to me an interesting twist:

[The Iraqi prisoner’s] comment made me see the United States as being a far more redeemable nation than Japan. By releasing Iraqi detainees, the Americans knew they risked putting themselves in a compromising position because the Iraqis who were freed would undoubtedly reveal information damaging to the United States. Yet, prodded by public opinion, the U.S. government has begun setting them free.

When President George W. Bush likened his war to a crusade, I had to assume the United States was turning totalitarian. But its decision to release Iraqi prisoners signifies that some degree of democracy is still alive in that nation. (IHT/Asahi: June 17,2004)

Later in this article, Tsurumi makes comparisons between America’s democratic spirit and Japan’s. You may remember the Japanese hostage situation a few months ago, when most Japanese followed the media and marched lockstep behind the government to label the three young people as fools who embarrassed the nation. Tsurumi found this attitude deeply disturbing.

Where did he look for guidance?

Even though America's moral bankruptcy is deep, I still believe the United States will come to its senses sooner than Japan.

I hope you’re right, Mr. T.

July 9, 2004

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Any takers?

Imagine your family sitting around the dinner table every night talking of world events. The topics run from corruption in government and the nation’s leading corporations, to SARS and AIDS, to the war in Iraq. Now suppose one of the children at this table says to you, "You old people, all you do is complain about how messed up the world is; none of you does anything about it!" And then suppose a few days later this child comes to you and announces, "I can’t stand just watching this misery. I’m going to Iraq to
try to do some good."

What is your response? "Go with my blessing!"? "Over my dead body!"? "Let George do it!"?

If you are Japanese, this is not an idle question these days.

When the first three hostages returned to Tokyo on Sunday, they faced signs saying, "You got what you deserved!" "You have disgraced the nation!" "Japan’s shame!"

The other day I took this debate into one of my classrooms and asked for written comments. Let me share a couple of them with you.

– they ignored the worries of the government and their family members. Life
does not belong (only) to the person who has it, but (to others as well).

– they should give some thought to what they have done.

– they went there (for their own reasons), not to benefit the country.

– they should have been more prepared, should have thought of the impact

– they were careless and gave the Japanese government trouble.

– Did Imai (the 18-year-old who went to protest the use of depleted uranium weapons) honestly believe he could do a scientific investigation on this issue without knowledge of science? He doesn’t even speak English!

– I think when a person takes a risk, and especially when the problem could involve the nation, they must think about the effects or impact they have.

I have selected only the criticism here and I need to point out that there was also some support for the efforts of the hostages, and distinctions drawn between the the initial three and the two journalists who were captured later. But in almost every case even those who were slow to blame suggested the five ought to be made to foot the bill for their rescue.

Norimitsu Onishi, the New York Times writer, put the story in a Japanese cultural context. "To the angry Japanese," he writes, "the three had acted selfishly." He was referring to Nahoko Takato, who started her own organization at age 34 to work with street children, Soichiro Koriyama, a 32-year-old freelance photographer, and Noriaki Imai, the 18-year-old kid upset over the use of depleted uranium munitions. But the two journalists, both in their 30s, have been caught up in similar criticism.

Onishi hints at the ancient Confucist sense of order where everyone knows his place, and the Japanese adaptation of that notion of virtue which emphasizes blind loyalty and a desire to view authority with a sense of gratitude for favors received. I’ve pushed this analysis a bit; Onishi simply refers to a "sin" of defying "okami" – "that which is higher."

One has to be careful not to fall into the trap of reducing an entire complex modern civilization to the values of only a segment of their numbers. I haven’t forgotten the diversity of responses from my students. And while it is still true that the "deru kugi" (the "nail that sticks up) gets hammered down perhaps more readily here than in a lot of places, the Japanese are not likely to go marching off to Manchuria simply because their
government tells them to, or line up to fly planes into battleships anymore. True, the Aum cult managed to get well-educated men and women to do unspeakable things because of this kind of loyalty but so did Jim Jones in Guyana. Mostly, Japanese are still reeling from this evidence of blind loyalty to a leader. Nobody believes Japanese are a nation of lemmings.

Still, this condemnation of the young idealists who ventured beyond the pale is troubling. This time it’s not a wacko cult leader demanding loyalty; it’s government.

Maybe they were careless. Do their families really deserve hate mail?
Maybe their timing was lousy. Should they really be forced to come up with $6000 for airfare home?

The Asahi Shimbun, perhaps Japan’s best government watchdog, had ten reporters in Iraq. It sent them all to Kuwait just as things got tough. That left nobody to report on the activities of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, currently defending themselves (if you can get your mind around that one) in Iraq. No accountability whatsoever for taxpayer money. Condemnation flows because three individuals cost some money for their
rescue. Yet troops hiding behind fortress walls (so I’m told AD how would I know for sure?) get a blank check for the duration. This is somebody’s idea of a democracy?

As I see it, the chill effect is going to be devastating to Japanese democracy in the long run. What are the chances now that a new generation of kids will go off to troubled areas of the world when the going gets rough? Having a knife at their throats was apparently the most stressful moment the hostages had ever experienced, says the Times writer. Until they got home, that is, turned on the television and saw the condemnation of their countrymen. They and their families are now afraid to show their faces.

"Reckless!" says the Environment Minister of Japan. Quite a different response from Colin Powell’s. This man, who one assumes fell on the sword of his principles and best judgment to remain influential in the Bush war machine, called the shots differently. "If nobody was willing to take a risk," he observed, "We would never move forward."

If this is what a nation does to its young idealists, makes them afraid to show their faces, maybe they ought to emigrate.

WANTED. Country interested in receiving young idealists with energy and enthusiasm, a willingness to take risks, a desire to help children, to gather accurate information, to resist war and to protect the environment. Must be willing to allow for the possibility of mistakes.

Any takers?

April 24, 2004

Thursday, February 26, 2004

A Response to Mary Ann Glendon

“Why can’t we all just get along?” Sounds like such a reasonable question. “Why can’t we be civil?” “Why can’t we just sit down and give each other the benefit of the doubt?” “Why can’t we just put ourselves in the other’s shoes?”

Yes, yes yes. All questions that should be answered with a rousing, “Right on!”

And then you look a little closer and you realize some conflicts simply don’t lend themselves to the assumption of an even playing field. Do we ask Jews to sit down with Nazis? Slaves to sit down with slaveholders? Abused children to sit down with their abusers and assume an attitude of “simple difference of opinion?” There are times when you simply can’t work with the assumption of an even playing field.

Susan B. Anthony was harshly criticized when she once gave precedence to the suffragette movement over the freeing of slaves. Alice Walker was criticized similarly for The Color Purple because her complaint against black men allegedly weakened unity in the black civil rights movement. (You may remember her response: “You tell your story and I’ll tell mine.”) In both cases, these women’s dedication to the rights of women dictated their single-mindedness and left them vulnerable to charges of unreasonableness. Few not feeling the heel of the boot can understand the depth of their convictions.

Sometimes you reason. Other times you shout. Deciding when to do each of these is part of the art of life. On June 27, 1969, people took to the streets in the Stonewall Riots. Because they did, today, people can afford to be more “reasonable.” It’s costing us a lot in stomach lining, but it’s working. Barney Frank asked fellow gays to bite the bullet and give up pushing for gay marriage in the last election, knowing Americans were not ready for it and Republicans were squeezing political victory out of the prejudice. Most gays did shut up for a while, but resentments that come of such compromise with one’s sense of rights only fester and come out stronger at a later date. I disagreed with Barney Frank, but I do still wonder if his ability to think longterm made that the best strategy for the moment. For one thing, the lessening of confrontation seems to be allowing things like Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to do the work of taking the edge off of American homophobia, and – who knows? – possibly advance the cause of gay civil rights even faster than shouting would have.

It’s still an uphill climb. Recently, the Catholic Church’s injunction against gay adoptions brought home the fact the battle is far from over. NARTH, the organization dedicated to the proposition homosexuality is a mental disorder, has on its website, reference to a letter by Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School advocate of “family values.” Unreasonable organizations like NARTH get to look reasonable when they have a Harvard lawyer they can cite to their advantage. She provides the patina of credibility to what is nothing more than a catholic ideological stance in a legal wolf’s clothing.

Let me show you what I mean. Here is one of Glendon’s articles, in italics, with my commentary. It’s lengthy, but bear with me. Her issues have to be responded to.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--President Bush's endorsement of a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage should be welcomed by all Americans who are concerned about equality and preserving democratic decision-making. "After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and millennia of human experience," he explained, "a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization."

It’s not a few judges and local authorities. It’s a sea change in the way homosexuality is viewed. You make it sound as if they were somehow usurping the right of the world not to change. You’re missing the larger social context. Besides, if you think this “most fundamental institution” called marriage has not changed over time, you might try reading a little history of marriage and the family.

Those judges are here in Massachusetts, of course, where the state is cutting back on programs to aid the elderly, the disabled, and children in poor families. Yet a four-judge majority has ruled in favor of special benefits for a group of relatively affluent households, most of which have two earners and are not raising children. What same-sex marriage advocates have tried to present as a civil rights issue is really a bid for special preferences of the type our society gives to married couples for the very good reason that most of them are raising or have raised children. Now, in the wake of the Massachusetts case, local officials in other parts of the nation have begun to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples in defiance of state law.

What does cutting back on other social programs have to do with it? You are attacking one have-not community by making it seem the source of another have-not’s problems. Good legal defence, possibly, but not decent scholarship, and not very big in the integrity department. “Relatively affluent households” may characterize the gay people who have had the resources to take their case to court, but it does not characterize all gay people. Calling these people seeking justice unworthy because they have more money than the state’s poor is astonishingly dirty pool. Would you call any Jew’s demand for justice and fair play unwarranted because some Jews are wealthy?

A common initial reaction to these local measures has been: "Why should I care whether same-sex couples can get married?" "How will that affect me or my family?" "Why not just live and let live?" But as people began to take stock of the implications of granting special treatment to one group of citizens, the need for a federal marriage amendment has become increasingly clear. As President Bush said yesterday, "The voice of the people must be heard."

Of course the voice of the people must be heard. Just make sure you’ve got the voice of the people in their reasoned moments, and not when they are driven by fear and ignorance, and not when they are misrepresented by a political manipulator. As for this “special treatment to one group of citizens” bit, you’re not referring to catholics and evangelicals who want their religious rights to outweigh a claim for civil rights, are you? Take the beam out of your eye, madam!

Indeed, the American people should have the opportunity to deliberate the economic and social costs of this radical social experiment. Astonishingly, in the media coverage of this issue, next to nothing has been said about what this new special preference would cost the rest of society in terms of taxes and insurance premiums.

Economic costs? Radical social experiment? No more radical than giving women the right to vote was radical, than freeing the slaves was radical. Justice is radical only when a society is fundamentally unjust. And the economic costs? A lawyer is suggesting we should give up equity because it costs money?

The Canadian government, which is considering same-sex marriage legislation, has just realized that retroactive social-security survivor benefits alone would cost its taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. There is a real problem of distributive justice here. How can one justify treating same-sex households like married couples when such benefits are denied to all the people in our society who are caring for elderly or disabled relatives whom they cannot claim as family members for tax or insurance purposes? Shouldn't citizens have a chance to vote on whether they want to give homosexual unions, most of which are childless, the same benefits that society gives to married couples, most of whom have raised or are raising children?

Here again your logic is dirty. You are asking that one justice be delayed or denied because another is not in force. Do we close down good schools because we have bad schools? Do we stop ticketing any speeders because we can’t catch all speeders?

Aid to families with children is an issue which should be dealt with separately from whether their parents are gay or straight. Why are you making this argument now? Why did you not argue that married couples without children should be penalized earlier?

If these social experiments go forward, moreover, the rights of children will be impaired. Same-sex marriage will constitute a public, official endorsement of the following extraordinary claims made by the Massachusetts judges in the Goodridge case: that marriage is mainly an arrangement for the benefit of adults; that children do not need both a mother and a father; and that alternative family forms are just as good as a husband and wife raising kids together. It would be tragic if, just when the country is beginning to take stock of the havoc those erroneous ideas have already wrought in the lives of American children, we should now freeze them into constitutional law. That philosophy of marriage, moreover, is what our children and grandchildren will be taught in school. They will be required to discuss marriage in those terms. Ordinary words like husband and wife will be replaced by partner and spouse. In marriage-preparation and sex-education classes, children will have to be taught about homosexual sex. Parents who complain will be branded as homophobes and their children will suffer.

You’ve reached a bunch of very erroneous conclusions. There is no reason that marriage should be limited to those with children. Men and women past the childbearing years put their lives together all the time. Should they not be able to file joint tax returns because they don't have children? What of the thousands of gay people who were married to opposite sex partners previously and have children of their own? Your assumption that children in gay families are handicapped because they don’t have a male and a female parent overlooks the millions of people raised successfully in homes that do not fit this pattern, as well as the countless numbers of children who have suffered bad parenting in homes that do.

You are upset that children will be taught about homosexual sex. Good Lord, would you really want to withhold such basic knowledge from young people? Your prejudice is right up there on the surface! And are you “branded” as a progressive when you seek positive change? Are you “branded” as a conservative when you resist change? Sometimes a spade is actually a spade. And sometimes chairmen are replaced by chairpersons.

Religious freedom, too, is at stake. As much as one may wish to live and let live, the experience in other countries reveals that once these arrangements become law, there will be no live-and-let-live policy for those who differ. Gay-marriage proponents use the language of openness, tolerance and diversity, yet one foreseeable effect of their success will be to usher in an era of intolerance and discrimination the likes of which we have rarely seen before. Every person and every religion that disagrees will be labeled as bigoted and openly discriminated against. The ax will fall most heavily on religious persons and groups that don't go along. Religious institutions will be hit with lawsuits if they refuse to compromise their principles.

Your fear is that the time may have come when the injustices visited on gays by people citing scripture and religious authority may be turned back on you and you may get a taste of your own medicine. Isn't the real issue here a respect for diversity? Nobody is asking you to become a homosexual, only to go your own way, marry the partner of your choice and give your fellow Americans who are gay the same right. There should there be no live-and-let-live policy for racism, sexism and other limitations on human rights in a civil society. Your religious freedom is not curtailed by extending civil rights to gays; only your right to assign rights to yourself that you withhold from others. Your right to religion gives you freedom to think and to worship and to speak out, not to use religion as a club. You may, if you wish, worship a God who prohibits miscegenation. You may not use public funds in a public arena to keep black kids out of your school out of fear they may marry your daughter. Your use of “religion” is self-serving and harmful to others who do not share your religious beliefs.

Finally, there is the flagrant disregard shown by judges and local officials for the rights of citizens to have a say in setting the conditions under which we live, work and raise our children. Many Americans--however they feel about same-sex marriage--are rightly alarmed that local officials are defying state law, and that four judges in one state took it upon themselves to make the kind of decision that our Constitution says belongs to us, the people, and to our elected representatives. As one State House wag in Massachusetts put it, "We used to have government of the people, by the people and for the people, now we're getting government by four people!"

The sea change of attitudes toward homosexuality has been evolving over decades. It will not be decided by a single act or a single branch of government. Blacks won their rights in the courts; gays sometimes do also. To suggest that a work in progress is an abuse of power is to trivialize the complexity of the system of checks and balances.

Whether one is for, against or undecided about same-sex marriage, a decision this important ought to be made in the ordinary democratic way¬–through full public deliberation in the light of day, not by four people behind closed doors. That deliberation can and must be conducted, as President Bush stated, "in a manner worthy of our country–without bitterness or anger."

At last, something we can agree upon.

Ms. Glendon is Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard.
Her article is available at:

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Taking the High? Road

As the battles rage in the latest culture war in the Home of the Brave and the Free, gays have gotten a taste of victory, and are feeling encouraged that we may soon join many of our friends in other modern democracies in acquiring the right to share in the institution of marriage. It is slowly sinking in that arguments against gays marrying the people they love can only be made from a religious bias, not a democratic one. The genie is not going back in the bottle.

Almost daily now, word comes that another country has seen its way to extend to its gay citizens this long-withheld right to marry, sometimes from surprising sources indeed – I’m thinking of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia. And one of the side effects of the Spanish revolt against the Bush-directed policies of their former government is that a sharper line will now be drawn in Spanish schools between church and state, and gays may soon be adding Spain to an ever-increasing number of European nations supporting gay marriage.

Jubilation and jollity notwithstanding, there’s a long way to go. Massachusetts has just approved an amendment that would ban gay marriages, and has taken a different path from Canada’s three provinces marrying gays without hindrance by insisting those who marry in Massachusetts will not include anybody whose home states don’t like the idea. Fortunately, this foot-dragging will have to be voted on by the Massachusetts voters two years from now, and in the meantime, starting May 17, gays will be getting married, tra la, and the citizens of Massachusetts will have two years to observe the joy and celebration these ceremonies bring into the lives of their gay friends and neighbors before they will be asked to go to the polls and vote mean. A lot of serious thinking can go on in two years.

What especially caught my attention this morning was the parallel between anti-gay marriage focus groups and anti-desegration folk some forty or fifty years ago. I’m thinking specifically of Georgia’s Richard Russell. Russell was ruling class – one of the “fine folk” of Georgia, and destined for an illustrious political career. A hard-working democrat, he did a lot of good. It’s his name on the 1941 bill that Truman pushed through Congress bringing school lunches to kids for the first time. How’s that for something to be remembered by? Hell, he’s even got a Senate office building named after him.

Problem is, he will likely be better remembered as the cracker who drug his feet over integration. He fought the NAACP over an anti-lynching bill and wrote the final draft of the so-called “Southern Manifesto,” which attacked the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education Topeka. Talk about being on the wrong side of history.

What people remember (those who read history) is that while wackos and morons were running around in white sheets and terrorizing black folk in the name of Christianity, more substantial damage to the rights of black citizens was being done by the good folk working within the system. In case white folk have trouble understanding why so many black folk focus on “the system” instead of individual miscreants, here it is, folks.

What Richard Russell did was to appear to take the high road. Rather than let the battle for integration continue to be fought by the ugly rednecks, he went to work making the case for states’ rights. National civil rights legislation, he argued, would erode the “sacred” (sic) rights of the states and shake the very “bedrock of American government.” Same result, less mess.

This time the tactic is the reverse. It’s not Democrats arguing states rights as a way of shutting off a minority citizen’s access to full citizenship; it’s Republicans like Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado arguing we need an amendment to do this, because the states are getting out of hand and going every which way over the issue. Not states rights, this time, but the right of civilization to protect itself from states.

Damn, sometimes these things get muddled. Blacks didn’t want to shake bedrock; they just wanted to live like Americans. Gays don’t want to tell you who you can marry; those outside your religious communities are not remotely concerned who your priests join together and whom they force to stay apart. We are just tired of having you force the rest of us apart!

As for threatening civilization, what kind of drugs are you on, girl?

Wonder if Marilyn Musgrave will look any better in the footnotes of history some forty or fifty years from now than old Dick Russell.

February 21, 2004

Friday, January 30, 2004

Letter to Leslie Moonves

Mr. Leslie Moonves
President, CBS Television
51 West 52nd Steet
New York, NY 10019

Dear Mr. Moonves:

I understand you are under attack simply because you refused to air an ad by suggesting the deficits caused by the war and the failure to
have the successful among us pay more than the losers will be passed on to
our children. Congressmen have taken issue with your partisanship and no
doubt many lesser Americans will too. I trust you will stand up to pressure
by segments of the American population who labor under the illusion the air
waves are public. We all know that if opposition to authority is allowed to
continue there will be chaos in the land. People who have contributed
nothing to making us the world’s mightiest fighting fist, if given their
way, will dilute our strength and leave us with no more dignity than France,
no more integrity than Germany.

Your role in government is a sensitive one. You didn’t get to the top of
what has become the Ministry of Information by failing to recognize on which
side your bread is buttered. That makes you smart, and Our Leader needs
friends like you at this time. His political support is waning, and without
the work of your "ministry" he could actually falter in his way.

Three cheers for CBS!

Yours very truly,

Name Withheld

(In these trying times, it is inappropriate, don’t you think, for people to
be seen as taking a stand either way in political issues.)

for background: