Monday, September 24, 2018

Borscht and Piroshki

I want to try to put my thoughts into words. I never know what I’m thinking until I make that effort. Once I say or write something, I can then say, “Yes. That’s it. That’s what I think.”

I’ve been loosely following two of the leading stories in the news. I say loosely. I haven’t got the strength to sit in front of a computer screen to follow all the shit that comes down as “breaking news.” I watch what I can, and try to keep up. Mostly I say to myself you just have to wait and let the guys in charge make the moves and then you can come in and celebrate or grieve – more grieve these days, of course. And when you think you have something to say, say it. Otherwise, sit still and collect information.

I’m not speaking out so much as trying to think things through. Here are my thoughts in progress on the Supreme Court appointment and on whether Facebook should be censored or otherwise controlled by government.

First, the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is important. So important that I think the country depends on it to keep its search for democracy alive. Note I said search for democracy. I think we need to accept the notion that we are not remotely the kind of democracy we like to tell ourselves we are. We are, in our best moments, a noble effort to form that democracy at some point in the future, and our work as a society should be in moving the marker along the path to that goal. The Supreme Court fails miserably at times, as evidenced by their stepping in to put George W. in office. That decision opened us up to lies from on high which got us into torture as a national policy and a war which resulted in thousands of deaths, and the creation of the Taliban. Also, the decision to give wealthy corporations the right to donate unlimited supplies of money clandestinely, which ultimately buys politicians who vote to reconfigure our tax structures for the benefit of the wealthy and widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But the Supreme Court also gave us civil rights and put the brakes on some of Trump’s worst efforts to paint Muslim refugees as dangerous people. Agree with their decisions or disagree, I doubt anybody in the know can fail to see they are a crucial part of a functioning democracy (and I repeat – “functioning democracy” is in fact a misnomer; it’s a stand-in for “a collective effort to achieve democracy.”)

The democracy project, to put a name to America’s ultimate goal, has had some serious setbacks lately. The two political parties are plagued with a critical mass of self-serving liars and hypocrites, and too many Americans have determined that they are no longer well-represented. They have turned their back on the candidates the parties propose for national office and they take too little interest in local elections. The Electoral College no longer makes sense but we seem to be unable to get rid of it and gerrymandering is a civic crime for which nobody ever gets punished. It leads to further problems with fair representation and both parties are guilty of engaging in it.

The weaknesses in the electoral system have allowed an astonishingly incompetent self-serving fool to take office and turn the executive branch into a tool for destroying government, arguing that “the market” (read: “the rich”) knows better than government, getting support by manipulating Catholics and evangelicals by promising they will eliminate the right to abortion, and white supremacists who fear the “browning” of their country. And, of course, the me-first monied types who don’t want their wealth used for health, education, a clean environment, potholes and the general welfare.

With the executive and legislative branch now firmly in the hands of those who would sabotage government, there is one branch left to gain control of, the one that is supposed to remain above the fray but has been viewed ever since the Bork nomination as a political tool, like the other two branches.

Obama, please note, could have chosen to radicalize the court with a left-winger but continued his naïve practice of aiming for a middle which no longer exists and nominated Merrick Garland, a moderate “centrist” with top-notch credentials, whom even Orrin Hatch was able to describe as “a consensus nominee”. Majority leader Mitch McConnell took it upon himself to prevent the consideration from going forward while the democrats were still in office, quite evidently hoping that if Republicans won in 2016, they could get a more serious right winger into Scalia’s place on the court.

Which brings us up to the present day. Kavanaugh is a living nightmare for those who believe women should have the right to choose an abortion. He has also expressed views suggesting the president should be above the law, leading most people, including the most ardent supporters of Trump, to believe he is Trump’s hand-picked trump card (pun intended) to get-out-of-jail if the need should arise, i.e., if he should be indicted by the Mueller investigation.  

Here, in a nutshell, you see why it has been such a disaster that the likes of Donald Trump should have taken power. You have potentially a man who can use the system to escape a legal finding of guilt. To be sure, nobody can guarantee that this is the only outcome of a Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court. Others would have to become involved. But the potential for one of the most serious setbacks to the democratic project imaginable is a clear and present danger.

And this brings me to the question of where I should step in and form an opinion. Should I join those panicking over what has all the makings of a fascist coup? Should I say Kavanaugh should be stopped at all costs? My sympathies clearly lie with the socialist left. I believe capitalism untempered by a socialist mindset leads to imperialism and war for the benefit of the military-industrial complex, destruction of the environment, and an ever greater wealth gap. I’d like to take the high road and argue that if I want to live by the rule of law I can’t give in when it doesn’t serve my purpose. But I’m also strongly tempted to believe we are on the verge of disaster, and too strict a rule-of-law stance just hands power to the power-mongers on a silver platter. They’ve already managed, through astonishing deception, to seize this much power. Do I help give them the rest?
This leads back to the old story of the question of whether a battle between good and evil can ever be fair. After all, “good” has to play by the rules. “Evil” has no such compunctions. Good is often forced to surrender the high ground and “fight fire with fire” to win. Evil cannot be persuaded by moral reasoning; its only goal is winning.

I’m not suggesting the Republicans are “evil” here. I recognize that not all Republicans are evil and in fact most Republicans are not. There is nothing evil about believing that the market place is a better place to make policy than the back rooms of political institutions. But that’s not who Republicans are these days. Most of the media I listen to paints them as Trump toadies, but that opinion is highly contested. The Brookings Institution says that’s not the case. Others say it more or less is.

To repeat, we are in a chaotic situation where if you play by the rules, you’re liable to be little more than an enabler of chaos and the furthering of current Republican goals, the dismantling of public schools, hunting in Yellowstone National Park, denial of global warming and all the rest. Better to fight the nomination of Kavanaugh at all costs.

That’s one of the little voices in my head. Join forces with women coming from all corners to tell their tales of sexual abuse in years gone by – ignoring the fact that they don’t actually shed light on whether Kavanaugh is telling the truth when he says he’s not one of these abusers. Throw your weight behind your causes – Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, women’s struggle for equity and the rest. Get in there and fight and stop thinking so much and turning every piece of evidence over trying to be fair.

I’m glad a second woman has come out and thrown dirt on Kavanaugh’s reputation, someone from his college days. That makes the case for removing him a bit stronger. But still we don’t know how to evaluate these stories. We can only join a side blindly and hope our side wins. And that’s a pretty shitty way to go through life. Tribal. Not something to be proud of on one’s deathbed.

OK, now how about the Facebook situation. Friend Bill asked me this morning whether I thought Facebook should be censored. Actually, his question was whether it – and the browsers and search engines, should take down or otherwise steer clear of holocaust denials. I responded that the first thought that came to mind was how happy I am to know that somewhere out there in the world there is a Germany where you can't deny the Holocaust and can't legally display the swastika. People do it anyway, but they are then classed as criminals and are prosecuted. That leaves us in the rest of the free world with the luxury of feeling superior because we don’t place such restrictions on our freedom of expression.  

I remember struggling in the 60s with the fact that hippies and college students were able to march down the street waving banners of protest because they had parents paying their bills and they lived in a society which valued the First Amendment. We didn’t spend even a fraction of our time criticizing the actions of the Soviet and Chinese totalitarian dictatorships. We justified our angry expressions of protest against American imperialism in Vietnam on the grounds that we were simply Americans dealing with American problems. Pointing out wrongs and making them right.

Now here we are again faced with the possibility we are missing the woods for the trees. Are we getting the whole picture? Is it the principle of free expression we should be supporting? Or is this a brave new world where the realities have changed so much that to support holocaust deniers (take out holocaust denial, if you like, and put in hate speech) is to hand victory to the evil ones. Or at least do their work for them.

John Oliver makes the point beautifully that in much of the world Facebook has become a primary source (sometimes the only source) of news. And as such can influence millions of people in evil ways – like leading the Burmese to believe the Rohingya are trying to destroy the country rather than see that they are victims of a vicious policy of a military government intent on ethnic cleansing.

Uncontrolled freedom is license, and easily abused. Freedom wrongly exercised can be the  mechanism for one group to do harm to another, as when religious groups argue their freedom to express their religion must necessarily require others in the society to follow the laws they make. Don’t we have a right to stop license - and all abuse of freedom - in its tracks?

The problem (nothing new here) is the line between freedom and license. Getting that line right is a never-ending challenge.

The short answer, I think, is for there to be a number of institutions to oversee all sources of information, some kind of expansion of Snopes and other fact-checking concerns, organizations that might post warnings about gross misinformation. I'd personally like to have them actually censor Facebook and the browsers, but I realize that could lead to overreach. Just as we live by the imperfect rule of assumption of innocence until guilt is proven, I think we have to live with the presence of error and count on all of us to point it out when we see it.

We once had such a system. We called it the "free press." But that sounds more and more like a naive notion that we live in a world where everybody pays their taxes and sweeps the sidewalk in front of their houses. That world is no more. When things moved more slowly, a newspaper or magazine could print a story. Another newspaper or magazine could print another story contradicting the first one, and over time people could dig for facts and check sources and come to a conclusion over which version to believe. These days fewer and fewer people get their information from print sources. We listen to online sources which claim to offer us “Breaking News” and get our news from the entertainment media, where the top priority is not accuracy but profit, through ability to keep an audience glued to the tube.  The responsibility of the citizen remains the same. It’s just that the task has gotten harder since every jack and jill (including yours truly) can play the role of information provider, can blog and comment till the cows come home, no expertise needed.  Our failure to learn critical thinking in school has come home to bite us in the ass. We have this wonderful new world, this explosion of information, but we haven't learned to manage it properly.

And that brings us to what may be the biggest problem of all in the modern age, especially (but not uniquely) in America: the willingness to believe things that cannot be verified. Check out Kurt Andersen’s marvelous book, Fantasy: How America Went Haywire – a 500-year history.”   One of my earliest attempts to shake off the religious indoctrinations of my youth came with the realization that the particular fantasies of my church history were quite different from the fantasies that other church groups had come up with and they couldn't all be right. That led to the idea that maybe the best course of action was not deciding which one to believe, not to convert to another church, shed one fantasy tale for another, but to cut out fantasy altogether. To recognize that once you were convinced you should believe in fantasy at all, you were ripe for any smooth talker to persuade you to take another fantasy as gospel truth (pun intended).  Like the Pied Piper in the White House, for example, now on record for crossing the 5000-lies mark recently. 

In the end, I have to recognize my own limitations. I’m getting old and it’s all I can do to walk my girls around the block so they can sniff every blade of grass, growl at every passing dog, and swallow things that make them throw up on my wall-to-wall carpeting once we get home. Getting out in the streets to scream my ideas about how the world should be run is not in the cards anymore. Kavanaugh will be appointed to the Supreme Court or not. If he is appointed he may help persuade the other conservatives on the bench to vote with him to take women back to the days of coat hangers. Even after all that has happened, all the daily outrages of lies and deceit, I still believe that’s an unlikely possibility. But we’ll see. Blacks will lose the right to vote, of course, and the democrats will have less say in how the country is run.

But the world, I suspect, will right itself after a time, possibly sooner rather than later if democrats get out the vote in November. And if you keep focused on the larger trajectory you can find some reason for hope. I grew up in a world in which blacks couldn’t go to school with whites. Today blacks and whites marry. I grew up in a world where the Catholic Church made many expressions of lust and love into something dirty. Today they are a sick
institution indeed, with their right wing eating the pope alive, or trying to. They are trying to put the blame for child abuse on the homosexual members of their organization, oblivious to the fact that the world has long since left them and their world-is-flat knowledge level in the dust with that cowardly and impotent attempt at scapegoating.

But not everything follows the law of entropy. Not everything turns to shit.

Shit for a time, maybe. But that’s why god made soap and water.

My conclusion, in case you missed it, is no to fighting dirty to keep Kavanaugh off the court, no to censoring Facebook, yes to sticking with the goals of the enlightenment, calling the shots as you see them and never telling a lie or punishing an innocent for a greater purpose, keeping up the effort to keep the democracy project on track – or get it back on track, and finding ways to stay in the swim.

For me, at the moment, that means alternating among listening to piano concertos on YouTube, which provides you with the scores to follow, and to practically anything Stephen Fry has to say, reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and looking forward to tonight’s dinner: borscht and piroshki.

photo credit

Friday, September 14, 2018

Reading the Air - Part II - A film review

Of Love and Law made a big hit when it appeared at festivals in Tokyo and Hong Kong as well as this year’s Gay Film Festival in San Francisco. So much so that it prompted Frameline, San Francisco’s gay film festival organization now in its 42nd year, to buy it and make it available to audiences more broadly – I got to see it last night at the Roxie. It is now opening in Japan for regular distribution. With English subtitles, no less. At least two good reviews are available, here  and here.

Co-director Hikaru Toda displays the sensitivity she showed in Love Hotel, which she also co-directed in 2014, creating a fly-on-the-wall look into the intimate lives of social outsiders, in a country known for being particularly unwelcoming to anyone conspicuously “not ordinary.” As one of the reviews I just cited noted, even if she had limited her focus to the lives of Of Love and Law’s two protagonists Masafumi Yoshida and Kazayuki Minami, she would have had plenty to work with. They are a generous and affectionate gay couple who share both their personal and professional lives as lawyers in Osaka committed to defending the rights of others like themselves. But the similarity is not in the fact that they are gay, but at one level of abstraction up. They share the feature of being “different.”

Toda extends her account of Japanese “outsiders” to four of Fumi and Kazu’s clients. The first of these is Rokudenashiko, an artist making “vagina art” because she thinks treating women’s genitals as obscene only furthers the submission of women to the “male gaze.” Why “obscene”? she asks society. Women don’t find depictions of their sex organs obscene; men do.

A second client is a teacher who refuses to stand and sing the national anthem at school functions. The third and fourth are two children who grew up without being able to get a passport or a driver’s license and were discriminated against in other ways because their mothers were not able to enter them in a family register (koseki), because they were born out of wedlock. Also featured in the film are Kazu’s mother, who works as an assistant in their law firm, and Kazuma, an orphaned teen whom Fumi and Kazu take into their home.

I lived in Japan a total of 24 years over a 36-year period and even today, 12 years since I moved back to the U.S. to retire, it still feels like home. And I’m struck with the fact that the issues taken up in this film are the very same issues I first encountered when I first went there to live in 1970. Some refer to it as the “we/they” phenomenon, others call it “insider/outsider.” In the world of Americans and other non-Japanese who settle in Japan for any length of time, it’s usually viewed as a question of nationality and the connotations of the word “gaijin” (literally “outside person”), the word for “foreigner.” What makes Of Love and Law so interesting is the fact that none of the protagonists of the film are foreign. They are simply different in some conspicuous way from the 98.5% of the population who identify as ethnically Japanese, and are shunned, ostracized, or otherwise discriminated by the majority population for not “blending in.”

Japanese are taught from early on to “read the air,” to sense the atmosphere at any given moment to make sure they are in tune with those around them. All societies put pressure on people to conform, but Japan has traditionally been cited as a place where conformity is pushed to extreme levels. Many will protest such a limited view of Japan is reductionist and out-of-date, and they will be right. But LGBT people can tell you there’s a long way to go before Japanese will be able to see themselves as people do in other modern nations, as part of a blend of folk who look for strength in diversity and for whom “multicultural” and “pluralist” are positive concepts.

Two Americans in last night’s audience at the Roxie are well-known gay activists, They have made connections with gay liberation organizations in Japan and they shared their experiences in the Q&A session after the showing. One of them mentioned that after he had addressed a Japanese university audience, the professor who had invited him contacted him to tell him a student of his had reported to him, “If these gay Americans can come out, I think I can too.”  Only the student didn’t come out as gay; he came out as ethnically Korean.

Anyone who works in the field of Intercultural Communication appreciates how difficult it can be to remove the cultural lens you grew up with and start seeing the world through a new and different cultural lens. If you are conditioned to making judgments about social and cultural morality in terms of individual rights, it’s hard to appreciate the perspective that the group outweighs the individual in importance, and notions of “good” and “bad” that are derived from that perspective. But if the group is your starting point, an outlier who misses out is simply a victim of some kind of bad luck. And conversely, if individual rights are your starting point, this Japanese stress on “reading the air” and putting others ahead of yourself can be viewed as mechanisms for holding back progress toward a more enlightened world view, hurdles in the path toward the goal of extending human rights as far as they can possibly be extended.

You can see, then, how conservatives in Japan can twist the work of these two Osaka lawyers, and for that matter gay liberation itself, as just another example of foreigner (outside) influence on the pure traditional practices of the people of the land of the Rising Sun.

I think there is a way out of this dilemma, but before I get to it, let me address what I take to be an additional complexity to this story of cultural difference. If it were simply a case of measuring social “progress” on the basis of progressive and conservative values to characterize what’s going on, Japanese being the more “traditional” culture, and therefore more conservative, and the U.S. being the more open, and therefore progressive culture, we might simply allow things to run their course and time to bring conservatives around to more progressive thought. The problem with that is that, as many are quick to point out, in some ways Japan is a less inhibited, less “conservative” place than the United States, as many a mother with small children has noticed when sitting in a train next to a man reading pornographic manga. Or when you read of the large number of teenage girls looking for sugar-daddies to help them get access to the latest fashions. Or bored housewives travelling abroad for sex tourism. Or the ever-growing number of young people living together without getting married. In Japan, the line isn’t so much between progressive and conservative as it is between public and private. While American gays from born-again backgrounds have to contend with guilt and shame, in Japan the proponents of a rigid group-centered religion called Nihonism couldn’t care less what any individual might do in the privacy of his or her own home.   To use the example often cited when this group-centered ethic is applied to the English, do whatever turns you on. Just don’t do it in the road and scare the horses.

Most Americans see progress in gay liberation as an additive, accumulative process. First one comes out to oneself, then to one’s closest friends, then to an ever-widening circle of friends and acquaintances. At some point one begins to identify with a gay community and eventually makes gay liberation a cause. In the larger society, one seeks freedom from discrimination in the workplace and freedom to live wherever and with whomever one chooses. More recently, the struggle was extended from simple decriminalization and tolerance of homosexuality to approval, eventually to approval of gay partnerships. The final step, for most LGBT people, has been recognition of same-sex marriage rights. It is easy to assume that progression is universal, and to want to measure progress in other countries according to this scale.

At the start of Of Love and Law, the filmmakers attempt to speak with attendees at a gay festival in Osaka. People are willing to speak with them, but a large number don’t want to be filmed. In an age in which same-sex marriage is legal in some twenty-two countries around the world and in parts of several additional countries, and opinion polls show that in many places more than 80% of people polled favor gay marriage (Belgium – 82%;  Denmark – 86%; Netherlands – 86%; Iceland – 87%; Sweden – 88%) this suggests that Japan still has a long way to go.  

Or does it? Is it possible gays are not pressing for marriage because many of them are quite content to abide by the Japanese practice of living one way privately and another way publicly? One also needs to take into account the fact that for the past five years in a row fewer and fewer Japanese marry every year and the number of weddings in Japan in 2017 was the lowest since World War II.

What Of Love and Law makes clear is that the larger context for liberation is a complex picture. People may not want their picture taken at gay events, but several wards in the city of Tokyo are now allowing gay couples to marry. Rokudenashiko, the artist who is creating all those in-your-face “pussy images” went to court on an obscenity charge fully expecting to lose, only to be found innocent. But only because her vagina toys were not realistic. If she had shown photos of vaginas, the judge would have found her guilty. The “illegitimate” children won the right, thanks to their gay lawyers, to be registered in a family register and the law that once excluded them has been brought up-to-date.

It’s a complex world. And instead of complex, you might say messy.

When I celebrate these victories, I do so looking through my gay American lens. I am ideologically committed to what we in the West call “Enlightenment Values,” including individual rights and struggle against racism, sexism and homophobia, so I cannot pretend to neutrality whenever this cultural conflict raises its head and calls for attention. Watching two gay Japanese lawyers fight for the rights of Japanese, both gay and straight, to be different, I can’t help but see the struggle as parallel to our American struggle against religious authoritarianism. I have to remind myself that’s not necessarily what’s going on, but rather a struggle against an overly authoritarian, paternalistic version of Nihonism.  But whatever the cause of alienation, religious guilt and shame or the inability to conform to the standard practices of the majority, what we have in common is the need to understand – and make others understand – it’s a big world, and no one speaks for the whole of it.

In the Japanese case, as Of Love and Law makes plain, LGBT people, and others outside the norm in Japan are not becoming more American, more foreign, when they struggle for individual rights; they are simply moving from a more rigid model of what it means to be Japanese to a more open, flexible, all-embracing model.

In the end, while it is useful to dig around for cultural similarities and differences in order to better understand what is going on on the other side of the world, when all is said and done, it’s being able to peer into the daily lives of others and watch to see what makes them laugh and cry that brings us together. Academic theory has its place. But so does the invasive eye of the camera. The former may satisfy the intellect. But a picture is worth a thousand words. And a moving picture, creatively framed, a much larger number than that.