Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Useful Doubters

Hamed Abdel-Samad, the German journalist of Egyptian origin who went missing on Sunday, is safe.  It turns out he was not abducted by radical Islamists, as most people suspected, but apparently got caught up in some rough stuff with people he had financial dealings with.  The story isn’t all there yet, so we need to avoid jumping to any conclusions.  It’s still wait and see. 

My first response to the good news was not relief, but “oh dear.”  Another blow to the good folk fighting organized religion.  Here it looked for all the world like Abdel-Samad was being mugged by religious fundamentalists, and it turns out he may simply be involved in something seedy.  Advantage goes, unfortunately, to the other team.

I really hope it turns out that Abdel-Samad is not a jerk and that he is innocent of any foolishness.  Whatever happens, though,  I hope we will focus on the donut.  The work he does is important.

On the one hand, the world of liberals and progressives and bleeding hearts I call my people are quick to condemn the right-wing and its brainless mouthpieces like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin for being unable to distinguish between Islamic terrorists and peace-loving Muslims.  That image of the old lady standing up in a public meeting and declaring Obama is a Muslim sticks in my mind.  She doesn’t need to say anything about his policies.  Declaring him a Muslim, in this country, cuts him down to size.   Never mind that it’s not true.  The point is I don’t hear many people asking, “Well, what if he is?”

What bothers me, though, is that while the right’s simplemindedness often makes it useless and sometimes dangerous, their folly does not hand the left any moral superiority.   In its justifiable inclination to come to the defense of Muslims, because of our wretched need to see everything in black and white, folks on the left often miss what is insidiousness about the Muslim faith.  I’m talking about not what might be called essentially Muslim – that’s open to interpretation, and that’s the problem ­– but what so many make of it.

You can immediately discount criticism of Islam when it comes from the likes of Protestant evangelicals like Pat Robertson (“radical Muslims are Satanic”) and that Mohler guy at the head of the Southern Baptist Convention who also believes Muslims are motivated by demonic power.  But when former Muslims speak out, you want to sit up and take notice.  Not all criticism of Islam is worthy; the quality of the criticism and the authority of the critics matter.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Dutch politician who was born in Somalia and raised in Kenya.  Her story, published in English under the title, Infidel, has won widespread endorsement.  Her other titles, The Caged Virgin and Nomad:From Islam to America, tell you right away where she’s coming from.   Taslima Nasrin had to leave her native Bangladesh homeland – couldn’t even get back there for her mother and father’s funerals – for her outspoken atheism.   Even India, that she calls home, can’t protect her from death threats.  The Muslim radicals are simply too powerful.  These women’s personal stories put substance behind the common view that the status of women in the Muslim world is abysmal.  

What most troubles the Islamicists about Hamed Abdel-Samed would seem to be his declaration that Islam is a “once high culture in decline,” that while it was once morally superior to the cultures around it, it has fallen behind the West both in science and technology and culturally.  And instead of fixing its own house, it has developed an inferiority complex and portrayed itself as a victim of Western imperialism.  Not particularly original, and makes you think of the notion, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn't mean they’re not out to get you….”  But provocative and controversial as hell when uttered by Muslims in the public eye.   Abdel-Samed is member of Germany’s Islam Conference, but he's no diplomat, and whatever his influence, the conference in recent years has ended in failure.  The Salafists are simply too powerful.  One of the issues the conference tried to address was the fact that over 80% of young people in forced marriages in Germany come from Muslim families, for example, despite their minority numbers.  There is work to do in Germany in improving relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.   The left there is no different from the left here and many argue Abdel-Samed is not helping by portraying Islam in such a negative light.  Maybe so.  But let's not be too sure.

Abdel-Samad doesn’t stop there.  Muslims need to stop being dictated to by the Koran, he says, and do as the Christians do – use their scriptures for spiritual inspiration and stop taking them literally.  One might fault him for falling in the biggest trap of cultural comparisons, comparing the best of Culture A with the worst of Culture B instead of finding proper parallels.  But he would respond, I'm guessing, he's only addressing the relative gaps, and not speaking in absolutes.

Still, it's bad enough when you dictate to religious groups how they should interpret their religion.  To tell Muslims, in particular, who insist there should be no separation between mosque and state, that their beliefs are not legitimate, but those of their perceived greatest religious rivals are, is asking for trouble.  He pushes the right of free speech to the limit.

But that’s precisely why I admire him so much.  I am in total agreement with his friend, another ex-Muslim renegade with a (blessedly) big mouth, Swiss-Moroccan Berber Kacem El Gazzali, an outspoken atheist, who argues we cannot stop fighting against organized religion until heretics are free to walk the streets everywhere.  We can't sweep ideological differences under the rug.   In the end, separation of church and state is one thing, but equally important is keeping the state on its toes and reminding it its citizens need protection from religious fanatics.  We may offend each other, but we have to "defend to the death" the civil right to do so, and that has to be the ground rule and the starting point of all discussion.

The Roman Catholic Church official hierarchy claims to speak for the church.  It is becoming increasingly evident, though, in recent years, that that is no longer true, if it ever was.  Hans Küng, the Catholic theologian whose right to teach at Catholic institutions was taken away from him, has not lost any of his civil rights.  He was in the news recently for his thoughts on euthanasia.  One's life is a gift from God, he says, and what one does with it is one's highest responsibility.  That responsibility includes taking charge of the end of life.  Pure heresy, says the hierarchy.  Common sense, say most Catholics.  The church is not the hierarchy; it's the collective "body of believers" according to Vatican II.  And when we speak of the church we need to know what we are referring to.

People like Abdel-Samad, Kacem El Gazzali, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other Muslims and ex-Muslims are as much a product of the Muslim cultural world as any religious voice, and they should be allowed to criticize and to define Islam and be listened to for their insights.

I don’t want to go too far off on another tangent, but watching these courageous Muslims speak out against the negative aspects of their religious cultures reminds me of another courageous critic, Daniel Goldhagen.  Goldhagen wrote two books that came out as shockers.  One, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, charged we should place less of the blame for the Holocaust on Hitler and more on the entire German people.  The second, A Moral Reckoning, charged not only that that it’s not a few anti-Semitic notions that crept into Christianity over the years, but the Catholic Church in particular to blame for fostering anti-Semitism through the ages.  And he didn’t stop there.  It’s the Gospels themselves that are anti-Semitic.

When you go this far over the line of conventional thinking, you risk losing your audience entirely.  Who wants to believe that an entire nation of people are inherently evil.  The charge is not only bogus, but stupid.  It overlooks the complexity of German civilization, ignores the innocents who suffered as much as anybody when the bombs rained down on them, and the efforts of Niemöller and von Stauffenberg, who were motivated as much by a sense of honor and pride in being German as by anything else.  And yet, Goldhagen took time to compile an entire book of evidence to make the case that the anti-Semitism and the inclination to blind obedience inherent in German culture was the sine qua non that brought the Nazis to power and followed them into the abyss.  His attacks on the church are based on critical research and well-documented.

Finding anti-Semitism in the Gospels is not an original idea.  Biblical scholars have pointed out that the Gospel of Mark was written at a time when Christians were splitting away from their Jewish origins and there was resentment against those who would not come along and follow the new Messiah and that the negative portrayal of Jews was no accident.  A. Roy Eckardt (Elder and Younger Brothers), a Christian, comes at it from the same perspective that Goldhagen does. Writers of scripture had a political orientation and were products of their time.  Jewish scholars Michael J. Cook (Modern Jews Engage the New Testament and Lillian C. Freudmann (Antisemitism in the New Testament), as well.    But these are books for scholars, and there is something to be said about writers like Goldhagen who, for all the criticism he is a journalist and not a biblical scholar, brings complex countercultural notions to the public arena, where many of us non-scholars can gain easy access and are likely to engage in a critical way.  This is the level where Abdel-Samed is working and should be judged.

I see two points in all this.  One, a dedication to truth involves a constant review of received beliefs, and when shitkickers, muckrakers and skeptics show up to do that job for us, we need to thank them and make sure they are well-received, even when our bullshit detectors are going off and we want to swat them one.  Good as those detectors may be, they need constant tuning.

Two, if it turns out that Abdel-Samad got his own ass in trouble (and I repeat – that’s not at all clear at this point), it shouldn’t make any difference.  We have no call to insist our very useful troublemakers be angels.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

In from the Cold

I love my retirement.  I’m a happy sojourner of the cyberworld, free to roam, and free to waste time.   That’s the old concept – the new concept is “live in the present.”

I love those viral things that go around on the internet, the Chinese acrobats, the schmalzy babies sleeping with puppies, the images of actual lions lying down with actual lambs, the electron microscope shots inside your gut.  All very entertaining, all very informative for the most part.  Maybe it's just a higher level of spam, but I figure since my touch-typing skills include being able to hit the delete key without looking, I don’t mind if an occasional piece of dreck works its way into the treasures.  Before this wonderful gift that is retirement became my reality, I would not have allowed myself the time.

When I got up this morning, I went straight to the computer, as I always do, this time to see if there was any news about Hamed Abdel-Samad about whom I blogged yesterday.  There isn’t.  He is still missing.  There’s nothing to do but wait, apparently. 

So I opened a link to a bunch of “amazing photos” my friend Ed sent (Arizona Ed, not Missouri Ed), and proceeded to be amazed.  Have a look.  I think you’ll agree “amazing” is the right adjective.  

Oo-ing and ah-ing my way through them all, one in particular caught my eye.  It was a picture of a Mexican bus that had been yarn-bombed.  I got fixated on the fact they had left the Japanese destination marker showing, and that it looked to me like the first two characters were Fujisawa, where I used to live.  When I zoomed in, I saw that it wasn’t Fujisawa but some other sawa/zawa.  I couldn’t tell.  The picture was too blurry.

I became fixated.  What was this obviously Japanese bus doing in Mexico, and how did it get there?  And why did they not bother to get rid of the destination sign which, one assumes, would not mean a whole lot to people in Mexico?

Because the picture wasn't clear, I "grabbed" it and made a separate photo.  I then put that photo into Google images and lucked out.  I got a better picture of it, as well as a great site with other yarn bombings.  Once I got a closer look at the characters I eventually figured out what it said.  It indicates that the bus runs between Ogizawa (Point B in the map to the right) and a place called the Kurobe Dam. (Point A - the purple line indicates a tunnel.)

I was then able to locate the place, and even find an amateur YouTube video taken at Kurobe Dam.  It's high in the Japan Alps, a tourist destination, in Nagano Prefecture, familiar to many around the world because of the Winter Olympics in 1998.  Gorgeous place.  Two minutes of the video will be more than enough, but have a look at what the place looks like, covered in snow (the pictures were taken at the end of April, by the way.)  And, to give some context to the place, note the photo here on the left of Yuki no Ootani, in neighboring Toyama Prefecture.  (For more on Yuki no Ootani, click here; for a video on how these walls are created, click here.)

I had trouble locating the bus route because all I could find between these two places was the trolley bus line that runs underground.  I kept looking for the mountain road I imagined this old bus once ran on.  But that's it, obviously.  This bus must have been a trolley bus in its younger days, running not through the high mountain roads, but in a narrow underground passageway built in preparation for the dam construction.

That changes everything.  For a while there I was commiserating with that poor cast-off bus.  After all those years in the fresh air, high in the Japan Alps, with world-class scenery, I thought to myself, it now has to sit ignominiously on some pollution-filled street in far off Mexico, all tightly encased in a ridiculous suit of yarn.  What a bitter end.  What a way to spend your last few years on earth.

I say that changes everything because now I realized it had not spent its time out in the fresh air most of the time.  It was chugging back and forth in a tunnel in the dark, bringing gaggles of noisy tourists with their cameras hither and yon.  Noble labor, to be sure, but hardly a life in paradise.

Until retirement, when it found its way across the Pacific to a town in Mexico where somebody took the trouble to knit it a suit.  They also left the destination sign on, so the world would know where it came from.  They didn’t wipe out its identity.  They kept its proud history and its dignity.  They left it as it was, but wrapped it in such a way that thousands of people would come by and find pleasure in it.

One assumes (I hope I’m right about this – note that the headlights are knitted over) that with that warm suit on, it doesn’t have to lug people back and forth like it once did.  It can enjoy its new life in a warmer clime, making people laugh and marvel when they see it.

One could do worse than to take one’s retirement as an opportunity to start a whole new life in a whole new place.  In out of the cold.   And live in a whole new way.

Photos: The yarn-bombed busOgisawa Station to Kurobe Dam - photo grabbed from Google Maps; Yuki no Ootani


Monday, November 25, 2013

Hamed Abdel-Samad

Hamed Abdel-Samad
I’ve been following the distressing news in the German press today that the German-Egyptian journalist and writer, Hamed Abdel-Samad, has evidently been kidnapped in Egypt.  His brother called the German Embassy when he realized he had gone missing yesterday without a trace, and there is good reason to suspect he has been kidnapped by Islamicists.

Abdel-Samad is best known for his appeal to the Muslim world to modernize.  He has achieved wide recognition in Germany and in Egypt with the publication of his books on Islam and the Muslim world, especially his autobiography, Mein Abschied vom Himmel (My Farewell from Heaven), and a book entitled Der Untergang der Islamischen Welt (The Fall of the World of Islam) for which he has received threats on his life.   Another book on Islamic fascism is due out anytime.

Aside from his criticism of Islam, he has been considered at risk for his public statements supporting the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from office last July.  It is Abdel-Samad's view that, while the coup was “technically illegal,” it was also legitimate, because no sooner had Morsi taken office than he set about abusing his powers.  It remains to be seen which of Abdel-Samad's critics took these latest steps to silence him.

The German Foreign Ministry is getting involved.  They say they have a crisis team working on the case.  There is a petition on Facebook you can sign if you want to put more pressure on the Ministry.  I’m never sure how much those pressure points help, but it feels better than sitting back and doing nothing.  

Most people in the U.S. have never heard of him, I imagine.  To get a glimpse of who he is, click here.  

I’m a fan and I’ve read most of his work.  I began to follow him after watching the videos he put out with Henryk M. Broder about their trip together around Germany in search of understanding of German attitudes toward minorities and their integration into German society.  Broder, a non-religious Jew, and Abdel-Samad, a non-religious son of an Imam, referred to their trip as their Germany-Safari.   Their travels were filmed and the series was well received on Germany’s Channel One.   It is available in its entirety on YouTube.   In German, and with no English subtitles, unfortunately.

Abdel-Samad has his critics.  Some complain he lacks academic qualifications and is too much of a self-promoting popularizer.  I find those ad hominem attacks unworthy and believe his contributions to the discourse on cultures in contact in Germany have been quite useful and informative.   He has been a major source of information in Germany about the Muslim world.  In any case, whatever you may think of his views on things, the horror of seeing him kidnapped should make anybody interested in a free press and a free exchange of information stand up and take notice.  Stand up and holler, actually.

Please pass the word, if you are able.

I would hope if Abdel-Samad doesn’t show up soon, people in the U.S. and everywhere else will join the efforts to find out what has happened to him and insist he be let free.

photo credits:  Hamed Abdel-Samad in TAZ.
Abdel-Samad and Broder in front of the Brandenburg Gate from the Tagesspiegel, Nov. 11, 2010, reproduced in tomorrow's edition

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Statins - what to do, what to do

The following is a letter I just sent off to my doctor:

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Thank you for acting so quickly to get the atorvastatin to me by mail.  It arrived yesterday and I took my first 20 mg. pill.

I have decided, however, not to take any more until or unless I have built up greater confidence that statins are a good idea.

After resisting advice to take statins for some years now, I made the decision to go ahead with a statin regimen after hearing that the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology had put out new guidelines suggesting that because of my age and risk profile, statins were highly recommended.

My understanding is that you are working at Kaiser with guidelines that have been in place since 2001.  According to these guidelines, my triglyceride level should be under 199mg/dL (as of last August, it was at 98), my HDL level should be 40 or greater (it is at 38) and my LDL level should be 129 or lower (it is at 144).  Furthermore, according to the risk calculator you have been using, statins are advisable for someone my age when the risk of heart attack goes over 20%.  My risk level is calculated at 22%.  Elsewhere I see the cutoff level at as low as 7.5%. 

Because of the potential side effects of statins, which I understand to be “muscle pain and muscle damage; an increased risk of diabetes; memory loss and confusion; cataracts; and, to a lesser degree, kidney or liver damage,” and because of an inclination to want to avoid drugs on general principles, I have resisted taking your advice, with considerable misgivings.

Then the new AHA and ACC guidelines came out, and I relented and began taking the atorvastatin yesterday.

But no sooner do I do this, than I begin to hear reports from people who appear to be in the know that these new guidelines are a bad idea.

1) An article in the Boston Globe claims the new guidelines are a mistake for two reasons.  They suggest we should ignore LDL levels in favor of a risk calculator, but then it turns out the risk calculator overestimates risk by up to 150%.   That would bring my risk level below 20%, and if the LDL level is not a useful number, (except for people who have already had a heart attack – which does not include me) there go the reasons for starting the statin regimen.

2) In the Globe and Mail of Toronto, health reporter André Picard confirms the information in the Boston Globe.   Picard reports on a study published in the British Medical Journal arguing just the opposite of the new American guidelines, namely that “statins have no overall health benefit in this population and that prescribing guidelines should not be broadened.”  

3) An editorial in the New York Times expresses reservations even more starkly:

Patients in good cardiovascular health would be well advised to stay away for now from following the cholesterol guidelines issued last week by the nation’s two leading heart organizations.  

I will keep the medication (it has a discard date of 21 May 2016) until the heart organizations reassess their risk calculator, and provide me with greater motivation for going back to the statin regimen.

Please, by all means, let me know if you see flaws in my thinking.  I could do with a whole lot more information and am keeping an open mind on the question.

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Remember the days when the doctor gave you advice and you simply took it, no ifs, ands or buts?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Clenched Fists

I happened upon a YouTube video the other day of Japanese military forces marching in parade.  I felt a physical reaction like my body was pulled in two directions.  In the first nanosecond I felt my feet move in rhythm and my back begin to stiffen.  In the second, I felt the urge to cry.  Japan, you’re breaking my heart.

I went to Japan for the first time in 1970 because of a job offer and not because I had any particular fascination with Japan.  I struggled with the place for most of the first two years I was there.  We just didn’t seem to be on the same wave length.  The “culture freaks” as we called them, the people who came to study Zen or martial arts or textile making or flower arranging or some other aspect of the kimono/sumo/archery/tea ceremony aspects of the culture, were all in one camp.  Business people and diplomats in another.  And English teachers, like me, were in yet another.  We seldom mixed and I think my fish-out-of-water loneliness in that alien land actually made me foster a lack of interest in shakuhachi/samisen/koto music and yearn for Italian food, the Grand Canyon and Brahms.  I used to say Japan made me proud to be of European origin.

But over time Japan got to me.  It began one quiet night as I was walking home in the dark from the train station.  I had already begun to take note of the sounds of the place, the chant of the sweet potato vendor, the sounds of water splashing as people bathed before the evening meal, the clack-clack of the geta on the pavement.  I had a sudden realization that I had come around. I wasn't missing the bold brash features of Western culture and dramatic scenery so much, or feeling the absence of the Grand Canyon and the trombones and kettle drums and the sweep of violins in a Western orchestra.  I was learning to appreciate the quiet sounds and the very private moments.  The snap of a fusuma, the thin moveable wall-like doors, when inadvertently shut too fast.  The wind chimes and the cicada and the clack of a bamboo water pipe in a Japanese garden snapping back into place.  

I began, in other words, to cultivate a private Japan all of my own.  Not the kind of excitement you get when coming across a good book or new piece of music you immediately want to share with others, but a set of experiences you want to know in solitude.  A sense you have crossed into another dimension, a time in your life for meditation and not analysis.

Japan in 1970 was not yet the powerhouse it would soon become.  There were still pockets of poverty.  The buildings looked makeshift – they were makeshift – and there were large empty fields of weeds.  One could find beauty if one knew where to look, but much of the place was unrelentingly ugly.  At the end of two years, I was ready to leave.  It took me another year and a half, but I did leave, thinking I’d gotten everything out of the place I was going to get.  I was happy to get home to San Francisco.

Only then did I realize how much Japan had changed me.  How many Japanese ways I had made my own, how much I had internalized the aesthetics, how much I was on the same wave length.  I continued to sleep on a futon, I hated it when kids on the bus got up on the seats with their shoes on, I warmed my hands on cups of green tea when it got cold. 

I will always remember watching Vietnamese struggling to get on a helicopter as the last one left from the American Embassy in Saigon.  I remember the aching feeling in my gut as I watched the ones who were left behind, realizing what misery was coming down on those who failed to make the cut.  The horror of war, and America’s part in it, was at the top of everybody’s consciousness in those days.

And I thought of Japan, and their peace constitution and their lack of a standing army, and I wanted to go back and be Japanese once more.

“And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  I had heard that in church as a kid and I still loved both the poetry of the Elizabethan English and the thought itself.  We were the Christian nation, but Japan was way ahead of us, I thought, in institutionalizing the shalom of the Old Testament and the compassion of the New.  I was no longer a believer, but the intertwining of religion and culture I was raised in made me cynical about America and its warlike ways.  And it drew me back to Japan.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution reads:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. 
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized. 
It’s this last sentence that I resonate with the most.  Peace treaties and armistices and weapons reduction are easy.  It’s the human propensity to bully that’s hard to get rid of.  The right of belligerency will not be recognized.  If Japan had absolutely nothing else going for it, that sentence would make me a lover of all things Japanese.   Declaration is one thing and implementation is another, but at least they are bringing the problem into sharp relief and shaming it.

If all you knew about Japan was that they have a peace constitution, you might love it unabashedly.  Unfortunately, the real story is a much more complex one.  For one thing, the humiliation of Japan in the Second World War left many nationalists seething.  Like the folks in South Carolina flying the Dixie flag over their state capitol, there is no shortage of folk in Japan with their own notion of “save your Confederate money.”  These folk have never come to terms with the notion of “Self-Defense Forces.”  They insist enough time has gone by and it’s time for Japan to build its own army back up and be unapologetic about it.

The debate over military readiness is a complex one, and from where I sit there are good arguments to be made on both sides.  It’s an ugly world and advertising one’s vulnerability doesn’t strike me as the best way to go.  I’ve always thought it made sense for Japan to have some degree of military readiness.  But I’ve also liked the fact that you don’t see soldiers in uniform walking the streets, you don’t see military bands and the flag waving you see is usually at sports events where competitions are friendly and cooperative.  Japan, after centuries of imperialist abuse of Korea, agreed to host the 2002 World Cup in Soccer jointly with Korea, the first time any two countries had done such a thing, and peaceniks the world over celebrated.   If France and Germany could do it, why not Japan and Korea, they asked, and it was not an unreasonable question.

Unfortunately, this is not the whole story of Japan/Korea relations.  A poll taken recently in Korea showed 62% still believed that  Japan is a military threat.

Those thoughts came to mind when I came across that YouTube video of Japanese marching in tight formation.  Hands curled into fists raised high as they parade in stunning disciplined uniformity, not a hair out of line.  I realize I’m looking at it through American eyes.  We don’t goose-step, like the Germans did and the Russians and the North Koreans still do.  And we don’t lift our arms so high, like the Brits and their Commonwealth disciples do.  Possibly it’s just the cultural outsider lens I’m looking through, but it strikes me as terribly belligerent.

What is it in human nature that makes us such suckers for uniforms?  What is it about men standing tall and looking powerful?   It’s clearly a primal instinct.  Most people stop and watch a military band marching by and smile.  Kids will march alongside and adults will remark how cute it is to see them salute.  It’s the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and the images of little John-John saluting his father’s casket are everywhere.  We don’t even see it as a military gesture.

I’ve given up hoping America will come away from its love of its military.  Not as long, I imagine, as we remain a world imperial power.  It amazes me how effectively our media and our cultural belief in American exceptionalism have been keeping the population in line for decades now.  Richard Gere becomes An Officer and a Gentleman, and marches into the factory where Debra Winger works, sweeps her off her feet as her friends watch with tears in their eyes and the country celebrates this Cinderella experience as among the noblest of human aspirations.  It’s not just America.  Love of the military is primal and just as organized religion manipulates the fears of the ignorant and the powerless, the state manipulates the admiration of power.  When our feet move automatically to the sounds of John Philip Sousa, the state is ready to harness the force. 

Reasonable people will argue that the military is like fire, and they are right.  Misused, they can be the worst of killers and destroyers, but used for peace-keeping or in defense against chaos or aggression, a fighting force is not a bad thing.  The problem is that the line between defense and aggression blurs regularly and when we march in the band we are not calling the shots.   We take advantage of young people with limited opportunities and put them into uniform and boast we are “making a man out of them.”  And by man, we mean machine.  These days we do this to women, as well.

I’ve been caught up in this military mania for years now, against what I believe are my own best instincts.  When women fought to enter the military, I lent my voice to the cause.  There is no good reason on earth, I believe, why women should be held back from having anything men have or doing anything men do.  I considered it progress when the barriers fell to having women in the military.  I felt even more involved when the barriers were dismantled that had kept gays and lesbians from participating fully, and actually felt pride when I read the news of two men marrying at West Point.  In these cases, the importance of dignity and equality outweighed my desire to disassociate myself from the chief mechanism keeping imperialism afloat.  Now, some time after the fact, I sit and wonder what I let myself be a part of.

I can’t carry this any further than this.  Perhaps the dismantling of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is inevitable.  Perhaps the celebration of force in Japan is benign and I’m falling prey to fear and pessimism.  But I couldn’t let it pass without commenting.

Japan isn’t what it was in the 1970s.  You don’t hear the sweet potato vendors much anymore, nor the sounds of samisen mixing with the clacking of geta as men and women make their way home from the public baths.  Where once I missed Italian food in Japan, these days my Japanese husband and I talk frequently of the Italian restaurants in the Tokyo area we miss so terribly.  Beethoven’s 9th is now a Japanese institution.  They call it, simply, the “Daiku” (Japanese for 9th) and do it up each year in the kind of mass celebrations of uniformity one finds only in Asia.  Japan is all caught up with the West, and in many ways out ahead.

And Japanese, when they march, look less and less like Americans and more and more like other military forces in their robotic movements and their no-nonsense demeanors.  It was the Americans who wrote Article 9, by the way, and pushed the Constitution through, and that’s part of the problem.  They had not yet developed the instinct for democracy – or so the line went – and we had to do it for them.  Today there is no justification, if there ever was, to taking the big brother role, and we can’t be surprised to take note they believe the time has come for them to slough off the influences of their American mentors.  That may include sloughing off Article 9, and eliminating the euphemism of “Self-Defense Forces.”  After all, they have the fifth largest military budget in the world, virtually on a par with Britain and France.

I wish I knew whether this is just paranoia speaking in my head.  Or whether the military bands of Japan, a pale comparison to the jingoism that passes for patriotism in the U.S., are simply harmless toys that adults like to play with.  Dress-up.  Like priests in silks and satin, simply ways of stroking the ego.  I remind myself regularly the “soldiers” in the Self-Defense forces are treated as if they were civilians; if they commit a crime they are tried in a regular court.  They have a lower military-to-civilian ratio than any country in NATO, and so far they, like the U.S., have trouble getting recruits.  There is reason to think things are pretty much kept in check.

But then there’s this damned YouTube of Japanese marching in lock-step and the music is unmistakably in the tradition of the Japanese military music of yesteryear, and the doubts creep in. I remember visiting the Yasukuni Shrine with my seminar students in Tokyo, where the exhibit begins with an explanation of how Japan had to go to war to free Asia from Western imperialism, to see with our own eyes how the English put out for foreign visitors tones down the jingoism of the original Japanese captions.   I've always thought these guys, even when supported by stupid politicians, were harmless kooks, not unlike the nazi thugs that show up in German cities from time to time and the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists in this country.

Go ahead and march if you must, I say to myself.  But can you not raise those clenched fists quite so high?

Maybe the answer to my fears of what’s becoming of Japan is never to play the military marches without playing the Daiku,  immediately thereafter.   And to look closer and see those white gloves raised high are on open hands and not actually on clenched fists.   Sometimes.