Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why do they hate us?

That was a question many Americans asked after 9/11, and I heard it more than once around that time. Some people around me, knowing that I'm the type that reads history and the international section of newspapers, asked me variations on the question. But as the memory of 9/11 recedes, fewer and fewer people are asking.

The previous post dealt with President Obama's decision about sending troops to Afghanistan, and the fact that it's hard for people to make military judgments but within their power to decide whether we should be there at all or not. I said that it's perfectly reasonable for people to want the troops home, but one then has to face the fact that since Bush didn't do the job he should have done, leaving now would mean that there would likely be Al-Qaeda training camps there in the not-too-distant future. Obama is trying to prevent that outcome while insuring that U.S. troops will not be there indefinitely.

In this post, I want to talk about what we would have to think about if Obama had brought the troops home and abandoned the mission. First of all, it's entirely possible that nothing at all would have happened. Terrorist plots at varying stages have been foiled in the past, and will probably continue to be in the future. It might take some luck for Western governments to foil every one, but it's not out of the question. And it's going to be much harder for Arab terrorists to do anything like another 9/11, since at this point anyone who looks somewhat Arabic in America is going to get looked at the same way as a gangsta-outfitted young black man in a jewelry store. Not that all Arabs are terrorists, but most terrorists do seem to be Arabs. Hopefully, of course, racial profiling won't be necessary to do good police work.

Secondly, and more controversially, we could always dry up the supply of terrorists by doing less to offend the Muslim world. That would have been much easier six years ago, but the abuses (torture, Abu Ghraib, indefinite detention of innocents) of the Bush government will be recruiting tools for Al-Qaeda for the next few decades. Still, the election of a black man in America has had some positive impact on America's image in the world, and a change in policies would help the situation greatly. I'm referring specifically to America's Israel policy, in which America funds and arms a country that dominates and rules a few million Arabs, and is methodically integrating (i.e. stealing) and populating land which according to every international treaty and map does not belong to them. But might makes right, the Palestinians cannot fight back in any effective way, and the U.S. has been Israel's unwavering patron and supporter. A Palestinian who lost his brother, whose uncle's family was pushed into another country, whose father is in an Israeli jail, or whose grandfather who tells over and over again the story of how in 1948 Jewish militants pointed rifles at him and his family and told him to get off this land... why should he not consider America his enemy?

What, you ask, does this have to do with Al-Qaeda? Nothing, directly. But indirectly, it does. Famous images aired at the time show Palestinians firing rifles into the air in celebration the day after 9/11. Not that many did, of course, but while most Arabs were not happy that three thousand innocent people had died, many at the same time were pleased that finally someone had given America a bloody nose. It's that feeling that Obama wants to change, and this is a part of his outreach to the Arab world (including bowing more than the Right would like to see him do). It's called draining the swamp. Osama bin Laden will plot as long as he has money and men. We could bite into his supply of both with a more even-handed Israel policy.

The Right won't hear of this, because the last thing they want to do is what terrorists want us to do. But the irony is that while Al-Qaeda says they want America to get out of the Middle East, they really don't. What they want is an escalation of the conflict, because extremists on both sides of any conflict want it escalated, not solved. Fighting America raises Al-Qaeda's stature, whereas fighting Middle Eastern governments would be physically and politically dangerous. Al-Qaeda wants the whole Middle East to be united under their extremist version of Islam. They claim to be acting for the benefit of the Palestinians, but they don't give a damn about them. They cynically use the suffering of the Palestinians as a way to sweep up the anger and resentment of the Arab world and use it for their own ends, trying to be seen as standing up for Muslims. If America improved its Israel policy, Al-Qaeda wouldn't stop its activities... but support for it in the Arab world would ebb, and that's the important thing. Obama understands this, and he's been trying to make Israel policy less one-sided, but he can't change the political climate by himself. Unfortunately (more on this in a future post), putting real pressure (i.e. threatening to withhold aid unless certain policy changes are undertaken) on Israel isn't a politically feasible option in the U.S. right now.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, they positioned troops to continue on into Saudi Arabia, but never did; this seems to have served as a near-death experience for the Saudis. Understandably nervous even after Kuwait was freed, the Saudis requested a U.S. troop presence. Al-Qaeda used this as a talking point, saying that infidel troops shouldn't be stationed on the holy soil that hosts Mecca and Medina. The troops stayed for over a decade, then finally left after the Iraq invasion in 2003, as Saudi Arabia no longer needed protection. Al-Qaeda, of course, did not give America any kind of credit for this, or ease up on their anti-American threats or activities. They threaten and attack America because it suits their political purposes. This wouldn't change if American was able to secure a just peace and independence for the Palestinians, but doing so would do much to ease the resentment from which Al-Qaeda derives its support.

In any case, just because Al-Qaeda wants us to do something doesn't mean that it's a bad idea to do it. This has been a real article of faith among the American Right: if Al-Qaeda wants us to do something, we must absolutely not do it, or we have surrendered to terrorists, or some such thing. This is as stupid as it is wrong, as it fails to consider that what Al-Qaeda says it wants and what it really wants may be different things. But those who use fear to support their policies have never been much for subtlety.

So, whether you favor or oppose Obama's Afghanistan policy, it's good to understand the background of the situation, and the consequences of your choice. There are alternatives to more troops; they're just more difficult, and require a bit more knowledge and thought. We just need to look at the situation from a point of view other than our own. That's never easy, but always useful, whether you're an individual or a country.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Obama's Afghanistan decision

Um, why are we in Afghanistan, again?

Oh, yeah! 9/11! I remember now.

I seem to recall that a month or so after 9/11, over 80% of the U.S. public was in favor sending troops to Afghanistan. I don't have current numbers on the plan Obama announced a few days ago, but judging from the political ambivalence, I'm pretty sure it's no higher that 50%. Democrats especially want us to get out. (Update: Gallup says that 51% approve of Obama's plan.)

The problem is that Bush attacked, helped the allied Afghans push the Taliban out of power, but wasn't able to get rid of them completely. They're in control of a few cities, and they're in the background, waiting for the right opportunity to gain ground again. It's not that if the U.S. left the Taliban would take right over, but there could be another period of civil war, given the lack of a strong central government with armed forces loyal only to the government. The Taliban could, eventually, take over again. Or, they could gain control of some territory, enough to let Al-Qaeda operate freely again, and then we're back where we were before 9/11. Distracted by the Iraq war, the Bush government never committed the resources necessary to build a new government and a safe society in Afghanistan (if that can even be done, which, to be fair, is far from certain).

So, did we go over there to deliver an ass-kicking, or to make sure the Taliban can never operate so openly as to host Al-Qaeda as they did before 9/11? If it's the former, mission accomplished, let's go home. But if it's the latter, that's not done yet. I think that if you disapprove of Obama's plan, if you want the troops to come home right now, you need to face up to the fact that the Taliban will be back, and will bring Al-Qaeda with them. We'll see pictures of Osama Bin Laden standing in a field, dozens of terrorists standing behind him, promising an even deadlier attack against America. If you think that's a price worth paying for bringing our troops home now, then fine, that's not a totally unreasonable point of view. Maybe we'll be more successful in stopping future 9/11's before they happen. But I think a lot of people have lost sight of why we went there in the first place, and the fact that the job isn't done is Bush's fault, not Obama's. If you approved of the attack against Afghanistan in 2001, you can be legitimately disgusted that Bush screwed it up, but you should give Obama a chance to do it right.

I believe the problem is that most people aren't looking at it in terms of a security problem to be dealt with, but in terms of how they feel about it emotionally. "Our troops have been overseas too long" or "Afghanistan isn't worth it." In some sense I can understand and agree with both thoughts, but I wouldn't want a President who made decisions based on such thoughts. I want a President who makes a clear-eyed decision that weighs national security, values, world opinion, geopolitical strategy, military capability, and morality. Of course, domestic opinion should be considered, but the simple fact is that most people can't be experts on this kind of topic, and can't evaluate whether Obama's plan will be successful or not. I was asked at my workplace what I thought of Obama's decision, and my answer was something along the lines of, "I can't know whether it'll succeed, but I do know that if we do nothing, the Taliban will be back. I know enough about Obama to know that he must have thought about this deeply, he took his time, he asked for a variety of opinions, and he wouldn't have done this if he didn't think it was the plan with the best chance to succeed. So, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt."

I think that most citizens can't have an opinion on how to accomplish the military mission. I think that most citizens should have an opinion on whether the mission is worth doing, whether it's worth the human and financial cost, but I'd hope that people would have decent knowledge of the overall situation when making that decision. In this situation, I'm far from sure that that's the case.

Update (12/6): there's an excellent New York Times article outlining the arduous process that the Obama White House underwent to form and debate the policy that was eventually decided. If more people read articles like this, we would all be better off.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

To Give or Not to Give

As I write this, I'm on a plane from San Francisco to Tokyo, having spent the last week and a half in the home where I grew up. When I was younger, my neighborhood was a middle-class one, trending later towards the upper middle-class. Now, thanks to Silicon Valley wealth, it's become distinctly upper-class.

There are three supermarkets, one of which caters to the wealthy: better service, more imported items, higher prices. It's changed a little, but there's one thing that's changed rather noticeably: at each of the two entrances, an older black man sits on an overturned milk crate, displaying a cardboard sign soliciting donations. One sign asserts that the man is a veteran, the other that the man lost his job in the recession.

Living in Japan, it had been a long time since I'd really thought about the question of the homeless and/or panhandlers. Should one give? Surely a down-on-his-luck veteran and a recession victim are very sympathetic characters; is that just a coincidence? (One certainly never sees such a sign that says, "Need help–lost money gambling.") Do they really need to be given money, or is this simply in preference to working at, say, a McDonald's? Is the money they get the only thing keeping them from living on the streets? (These men were not unkempt, unhygenic, or shabbily dressed.) I would definitely prefer to work at a fast-food place than to solicit money from strangers, but maybe that's not true for everyone. Are they being truthful? There's no way to know.

For me, though, the most difficult and interesting aspect of the situation is how it makes me feel. I feel uncomfortable passing them and not giving anything. (Which, clearly, is the idea.) My income puts me squarely in the middle class, maybe on the low side of the middle, so I'm far from rich. (The store in question sells the best donuts in town, so I indulged myself while I was there; what passes for a donut in Japan I consider barely worthy of the name.) But going into that store is a virtual announcement that you have so much extra money you can afford to buy overpriced food. So, how can you do that while ignoring the sympathetic figure to whom you could give that money and go shop at Safeway?

The problem, of course, is Kant's categorical imperative: what if everyone did the same thing? If more people gave, would more people solicit? People I know who've gone to India and seen its wretched poverty say that they were advised not to give to the highly sympathetic five-year-old beggars: if you do, they were told, you'll be surrounded in under a minute. But it seems counterintuitive to think that a large number of people in America would prefer to solicit than work. So, one could argue that the categorical imperative suggests that we should give them money: it would not likely cause large numbers of people to quit their jobs and become beggars, and the people who did so wouldn't need to do it for so long before they'd gather enough money to live. It could be seen as people doing individually what they should be doing collectively: make sure that no one lacks sufficient resources to live, especially in such a wealthy society.

Which brings me to one of my favorite themes: individual responsibility and collective responsibility. The store in question has a sign near the entrance that urges people to give to organizations that help such people, rather than give to them individually. But this is clearly self-interested; the store surely doesn't want such people near the entrance making customers feel uncomfortable (and would likely not have a sign urging such donations were it not for the people in front of the store). More importantly, the guy in front of the store is someone you can see, and identify with. Giving to a charity is an abstraction, one that's easy to avoid when nothing is staring you in the face. The guy in front of the store is forcing you to think about the issue. In a society with such a huge income gap, where conspicuous consumption is often celebrated, that may not be such a bad thing.

While I was there, I mostly ignored them. On the last day, as I left the store, I gave one of them a dollar. Why? I'm not sure. If I lived there full-time, would I give them money regularly? Give to a homeless/social welfare organization? Out of good citizenship, or wanting to be able to look such people in the eye? I'm not sure about that, either. But it's good to think about it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How To Write A Biased Newspaper Article

While I was writing the previous post, I had to do a web search for the report I heavily referenced, having read it once but not bookmarked it. Another result of the search is the topic of this post: an article in the online version of the San Francisco Examiner about the report in question.

Writing a biased article is a lot like writing a political advertisement or attack editorial, except that because you're technically supposed to be neutral, you should try to be more subtle about it. The writer of this article, Byron York, doesn't try very hard. After reading this, just for the heck of it I read some of his opinion pieces to confirm my feeling that he's a strong conservative; it didn't take long. At least those pieces are labeled as 'opinion.' This one isn't, but should be.

Are you, by chance, a conservative? A Republican? Did you vote for John McCain last November, as well as the GOP candidate in your local congressional race?

If your answer to these question is yes, then you are very, very strange -- and perhaps not even fully American. At the very least, you're not one of the rest of us.

I'm pretty sure that the 'not even fully American' bit doesn't appear in the report; it's the writer's characterization of the report's thrust. That's the reason for the 'perhaps': it's a weasel word that gives the writer an out ("I didn't actually say that he said that").

Also, the first two paragraphs suggest that the report said that solely on the basis of being a conservative, a Republican, voting for McCain, or the GOP congressional candidate, then you're one of the 'strange' people the report refers to (except that the report didn't use the word 'strange' either). But this is simply not true.

A few paragraphs later, the article says:

Conservative Republicans, according to the Democracy Corps research, don't trust Barack Obama; are scared by the speed with which the president and Democrats in Congress are attempting to enact new programs; don't like government takeovers of business; and believe that many of their fellow Americans don't fully appreciate the threat posed by the Democratic agenda.

You might think those are entirely reasonable reactions to the Obama presidency, or are at least within the mainstream of American political debate. But Carville and Greenberg say those beliefs "are not part of the continuum leading to the center of the electorate." If you hold them, you "truly stand apart."

This is the sneaky part: yes, the Georgia conservatives did say those things. But those are not the beliefs that the report feels set the Georgians (and in general, Fox News watchers/believers) apart from most people who lean right politically.

Along the same lines, the article says:

...the people in Atlanta were something else entirely.

Why? Because the Atlanta conservatives said things about Obama like: "He scares me because of how smart and smooth he is. I think the package he presents, combined with the media running interference for him, he could do a lot of things fast, which he's trying to do, which worries me."

And: "I think the whole basis is, let's ram it through while we have the numbers, while we have the popularity and while maybe people don't know what's going on. ... Once it's through, it's awful hard to repeal."

York is cherry-picking the most unremarkable things said by the Georgia Fox-watchers, the things least likely to be considered controversial. He repeats these, compares them to the report's conclusion that the Georgians are out of step with most Americans, then concludes that it's obvious that the report is trying to fool you:

No, what bothers them about Obama is what he's actually trying to do. If having such concerns means they stand a world apart from the rest of America, then there are millions of Americans standing with them.

If you read the article without having read the report to which it refers, and mocks, you might think it was entirely reasonable, and that the report was foolish, or at least reached foolish conclusions. That's what York counts on. But the reason that the report concludes that the Georgians/Fox-watchers 'stand a world apart' from the rest of the country are not the ones York lists above. Rather, they are (quoting from the report):

  • our groups showed that they explicitly believe he is purposely and ruthlessly executing a hidden agenda to weaken and ultimately destroy the foundations of our country.
  • Closely related to this well-established notion of a secret agenda is a hidden set of liberal elites or power brokers who have guided and directed Obama as a puppet, helping him to reach the highest office in the land.
  • They actively believe President Obama is purposely lying about his plans for the country and what his policies would do, and that he is exaggerating the threats America faces in order to create support for his policies.
  • questions they believe have not been adequately answered or investigated about Obama’s background, including his place of birth, his education, the authorship of his books, the degree of his associations with controversial figures including William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright,
  • They believe Obama is pushing his agenda at record pace because he does not want the American people to know what he is doing.
  • they believe his policies are purposely designed to fail... and to strip away so many basic constitutional rights that we are too weak to fight back and have to accept whatever solution he proposes.

There were others, such as that the Georgians/Fox-watchers love Sarah Palin and adore Glenn Beck. But you get the idea. Everything in the bullet points above is a belief attributed by the report to the Georgia focus group, and all are views that are far out of the mainstream of American political thought. These are the reasons the report concludes that the hard-right conservatives 'stand a world apart' from most Americans, not the far more mild ideas listed by the writer of the Examiner article.

So, to write a biased article, you should treat your opponent's assertions as puzzle pieces, to be taken apart and rearranged as you see fit. Mischaracterize his assertions, omit his reasons that support them, and suggest that other tangentially related things he said were intended to support the assertions that they clearly don't. Then sadly shake your head to let your audience know what a fool this man is, and how lucky they are to have you to point this out to them.

To me, this demonstrates very well the importance of being well-informed. If we are, we can see through pieces of crap like this. As with anything, not being well-informed allows us to be taken advantage of. And that allows, for example, politicians to do things they pretend are in our best interests, but definitely are not. Some people, in response to this, are blindly cynical. "All media is biased, all politicians are crooks." In fact, they're not, but this attitude just attempts to abdicate our responsibility: to learn to tell which are and which aren't. If for no other reason than to serve our own interests, we should try harder.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


If you watched Fox News, never having seen or heard of it before, it would not take you long to discern its strong right-wing bias. There are those who say that the bias is on the 'opinion' shows and not the 'news' shows, but the fact is that even on the news shows the story selection and the giving of credence to unproven assertions (reported as a 'controversy') that always favor the right rather than the left would be evidence enough that the bias affects everything shown by the channel. Another hint, however, would be that the channel was created by right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and the man he hired as its president was Roger Ailes, a staunch Republican who worked on right-wing political campaigns and was well-known in the political world for ruthless attack ad tactics. From the beginning, Fox asserted that it was 'fair and balanced' as opposed to the other media, all of whom supposedly had a liberal bent. This assertion, ludicrous on its face, signaled what was to become more and more clear as time went on: by giving the news and opinion shows from a conservative point of view while insisting that it was not, Fox would function as a propagandist for the right, creating and broadcasting its own version of reality: the one in which conservative ideas are always correct and validated, while liberal ideas are wrong, and even dangerous to the country. Fox would be the channel of American flags, 'heartland values', 'real' Americans, churchgoers, and ordinary working people tired of 'big government'.

From its beginning in 1996 to the present, Fox has gradually increased its audience to the point where in sheer numbers, it has passed CNN and leads by a significant margin. Its audience, unsurprisingly, is overwhelmingly conservative. Being in Japan, I don't and can't watch it, but I can see numerous YouTube and other video clips of it, and it's quite amazing. It occurred to me recently that if you watched only that channel for news, and uncritically believed everything it said, you would have political 'knowledge' that differed substantially from what most of us would consider the facts. In fact, surveys have shown that people who get their news primarily from Fox do more poorly on tests of knowledge of political information than those who get it from most other sources, and are more likely to believe factually inaccurate points of view pushed by conservatives. In essence, Fox News creates its own reality, and offers it to those who feel comfortable basking in the knowledge that everything they believe is correct.

As is true on the other cable networks, the opinion shows are much more popular on Fox than the regular news, and therefore, more is offered. On CNN, opinion shows like Crossfire featured liberals and conservatives arguing with each other, spouting talking points. The more heated the debate, the higher ratings the shows got. On Fox, the opinion shows only featured conservatives, except for one show (now gone) called Hannity and Colmes, in which the milquetoast liberal Colmes performed for Hannity the same function that the Washington Generals did for the Harlem Globetrotters. The more conservative the show, the more the audience liked it. The more anti-liberal assertions the hosts made, the more the viewers ate it up. This created a vicious circle: the conservative viewpoint got more extreme, which excited the viewers more and gave them a more and more skewed version of reality. The increased ratings pushed Fox to put on more and more extreme voices, and for those voices to be more extreme, which got even higher ratings, and skewed the viewpoint of the audience even further, which made Fox go even further to the right... you get the idea. This explains most of the absurd anti-Obama charges that were made during the campaign: Obama was a Muslim, he was born in Kenya, he sympathized with terrorists ('palled around' with them, as Sarah Palin famously charged during the campaign), hated white people, and so forth. Dismissed by the general population as ridiculous–53% of Americans did end up voting for him, after all–these charges were widely believed by Fox News viewers.

So, for a while I've had a general sense of the dynamic of this, but I recently read a detailed analysis which puts the whole question into sharp and disturbing focus. A political consulting firm conducted detailed focus group interviews with two groups: one group of conservative Georgians who watch (and believe) Fox News, and a group of conservative-leaning indepenents from Cleveland who didn't, or did only occasionally. While the two groups had generally similar leanings, what they believed about politics was very different.

The Fox viewers (quoting from the report):
The self-identifying conservative Republicans who make up the base of the Republican Party stand a world apart from the rest of America, according to focus groups conducted by Democracy Corps. These base Republican voters dislike Barack Obama to be sure – which is not very surprising as base Democrats had few positive things to say about George Bush – but these voters identify themselves as part of a ‘mocked’ minority with a set of shared beliefs and knowledge, and commitment to oppose Obama that sets them apart from the majority in the country. They believe Obama is ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt the United States and dramatically expand government control to an extent nothing short of socialism. While these voters are disdainful of a Republican Party they view to have failed in its mission, they overwhelmingly view a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of this country’s founding principles and are committed to seeing the president fail.

The conservative-leaning independents:
For additional perspective, Democracy Corps conducted a parallel set of groups in suburban Cleveland. These groups, comprised of older, white, non-college independents and weak partisans, represent some of the most conservative swing voters in the electorate, and they demonstrated a wholly different worldview from Republican base voters by dismissing the fear of “socialism” and evaluating Obama in very different terms. Most importantly, regardless of their personal feelings toward Obama or how they voted in 2008, they very much want to see him succeed because they believe the country desperately needs the change he promised in his campaign. Though we kept discussion points constant between the two sets of groups, on virtually every point of discussion around President Obama and the major issues facing our country, these two audiences simply saw the world in fundamentally different ways – underscoring the extreme disconnect of the conservative Republican base voters.

I'll cut and paste a few of the more remarkable comments and conclusions of the report:

The notion that Obama’s health care reforms represent a government takeover of all aspects of health care is an article of faith; they reject as laughable the suggestion that it might not, pointing to his arguments to the contrary as further proof of his determination to lie and deceive to fulfill his ultimate agenda.

This is a good example of what happens when you believe an alternate reality: if someone tells you the truth, instead of considering the possibility that it might be true, you call them a liar, which to you is obvious because are clearly not telling the truth: because, after all, you know the truth.

A central part of the collective identity built by conservative Republicans in the current political environment is their belief that they possess knowledge and insight that the majority of Americans – whether too lazy or too misguided to find it for themselves – do not possess. A combination of conservative media outlets are the means by which they have gained this knowledge, led by FOX News (“the truth tellers“), and to a lesser degree conservative talk radio. Their antipathy and distrust toward the mainstream media could not be stronger, and they fiercely defend FOX as the only truly objective news outlet.

So, looking at the world through their eyes, the Obama presidency is a very scary time, and only they know the truth. No wonder they're frantically trying to stop everything he does.

One man in the conservative group said:

I don’t just watch FOX News. I’ll watch CNN, I’ll watch regular you know prime time news just to get the comparison of the story and kind of figure out where the truth lies and facts don’t lie, and I think FOX News is reporting the facts… The other news stations aren’t picking this up and running with it tells you that, you know, I mean it tells you something.

Again, if you start from the notion that only Fox is objective and correct, then one can see where this would be disturbing. It's quite remarkable: it's as if a small but significant portion of the country has bought into a giant conspiracy theory.

Building an Underground Movement

The final aspect of the collective identity shared by conservative Republicans is the call to action. The attacks they suffer for their values and the special knowledge they share as a result of their devotion to conservative media and active rejection of mainstream media are ultimately meaningless if it does not help defeat Obama and his hidden agenda. This is where the sense of collective purpose is greatest. They see a nascent movement building, still not fully realized or activated but with a growing number of people watching and listening, growing increasingly frustrated, and looking for ways to stop the growing threat they perceive.

I strongly urge anyone who has more than a passing interest in American politics to read the whole report. It's long–it probably takes 20-30 minutes to read–but it's extremely informative, and explains a great deal. Most importantly, it explains why the Republican Party is tilting so strongly to the right: its base supporters have become more and more extreme, to the point that they disdain any cooperation with Obama or the Democrats whatsoever. It also explains why the percentage of voters who identify themselves as Republicans–20%–is at an all-time low. Many people, like the ones in Cleveland, can't stomach what the party has become, typified by Sarah Palin, who the Fox News viewers love.

So exactly what percentage of U.S. citizens, and what percentage of conservatives, can be described as the report does? The report doesn't give a number, though I'm sure there are numbers out there that would give a good approximation. But I'm sure that there are enough to have a real impact on the Republican party. The most popular Fox News programs get 3 million viewers, which is about 1% of the U.S. population. But these are the ones who are active in politics, the ones who vote, the ones who send political e-mail to their friends. They have a disproportionate effect on the Republican party, which can be seen when one reads the political news every day.

For example, one of the many real-world effects of the disconnect of the Fox News viewers with reality occurred recently: the special congressional election in the 23rd district of New York state. The local Republican party chose as its candidate a moderate-to-liberal Republican. Informed of her pro-gay-marriage and pro-choice views, the right wing was outraged, and strongly supported a right-wing businessman who joined the race as a third-party candidate. He got a lot of out-of-state money, made ads, climbed in the polls, and finally eclipsed the Republican candidate, who quit the race in disgust and endorsed the Democrat, who won a district that had been in Republican hands for over a century. I think this is bound to have a strong impact on the 2010 congressional elections: moderate candidates will be discouraged from running, or may be defeated in the primaries, ensuring that in a moderate district, there may be a moderate Democrat against a conservative Republican. This situation, needless to say, favors Democrats, who will become the party of the left and the center; their challenge will be to balance the interests of both groups.

I'm sure the national Republican leadership knows this full well. What I'm not sure of is whether they can do anything about it. And as long as Fox News gets good ratings by ever-fervently preaching to the converted, it's hard to imagine how the situation will change.

The Haunted Condo

Over the past few months, I've talked with a few students about the Miyuki Hatoyama thing (in which Japan's first lady expressed some highly unconventional ideas, concerning UFOs and past lives), which did finally become widely publicized in the Japanese media only after it was overseas. Such beliefs are not unheard of in Japan, but they are unusual enough that most students chuckled at them.

With one student, about a month ago, I made the same point (about comparing it to Christianity) that I made in a previous blog post, then added a new one that came to me at that moment. I postulated for her the following scenario:

"Imagine that you're about 30, as is your spouse. You have no kids, but want to within five years. You live in an apartment now, but want to move to a condo, one spacious enough for kids in the future. You'd also strongly prefer one that's within 30 minutes of central Tokyo. But those condos tend to go for about 40 million yen (roughly $400,000), and you can't afford it; the best you could do now is one for half that price. It'll take another eight or ten years to save up for the down payment on the one you want.

"A few months after you start looking, a real estate agent calls you and asks you to come out to see a condo he wants to show you that is in your price range, and fits your requirements. You go there, and what he says is true: it's nice, big enough, 25 minutes from central Tokyo, and the building is modern-looking and only five years old. The price is 20 million yen ($200,000).

"You say, 'It looks really good, but most condos like this go for twice this price. Why is this so cheap?' He explains that about six months ago, a young couple lived in the condo. The man killed his wife, then killed himself, in the living room in which they and the agent are now standing.

"So," I asked the student, "will you buy this condo?"

She immediately and vigorously answered 'no', which from having talked about the subject in general with other students in the past, I pretty much expected. I then told her that I would buy it, with few if any misgivings, and I thought most Westerners would. The point of the question was to point out that she may think that someone who says their spirit went to Venus on a UFO is strange, and maybe they are, but it could also be said that someone who gives up a possible $200,000 in value on a home based on a fear of ghosts could be, and probably would be, seen by those in other cultures as being pretty strange, maybe even stranger than someone who believes in UFOs. She was very interested, and wondered how many Westerners would buy it. I had to admit I wasn't sure. In the next few days I asked most other teachers here (total of nine people: seven Americans, one Canadian, and one Brit); six teachers said they would buy it, two said no, and one wasn't sure.

I then decided to conduct a survey of the students (I ended up asking 60 students these questions), and that I would first ask other questions to determine their general leanings on matters related to their answer to the condo question. I asked the following questions (I need not, but will anyway, stipulate that this survey is nowhere near scientifically valid, and is purely anecdotal):

Do you believe in any form of life after death?

Do you believe in fortunetellers?

When marrying, is it important that the date be a taian day? (Occurring once every six days, considered a lucky day, especially for weddings. In Japan, wedding halls charge substantially more on this day, due to high demand.) Or is a butsumetsu (unlucky) day acceptable?

Then I asked the condo question. With the first three, I intended to get at the following basic ideas: Do you believe in spirituality, in psychic or paranormal phenomena? Do you believe in luck? Basically, in the power of things unseen and unproven. The results were:

Do you believe in any form of life after death? Yes 18, Somewhat 13, No 29

Do you believe in fortunetellers? Yes 8, Somewhat 21, No 31

Do you believe taian is important? Yes 13, Somewhat 19, No 28

Will you buy the condo? Yes 10, No 50

When told the results, students tended to be surprised at the large number of 'no' answers in the first three categories, since Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and there are some Japanese Buddhists; street fortunetellers are easy to find in Tokyo, and taian days are expensive. A few common comments: "I don't care about taian, but my parents/in-laws/extended family feel it's important to have it on a lucky day." "I want to believe in life after death, but I don't." "I believe in fortunetellers when they say something good will happen, but not when they say something bad will happen." The last one was especially common.

Two aspects of this were of particular interest. One was the question of why there's such a huge difference between how many Japanese will buy the condo, and how many Westerners (I assume) will. The other was the fact that while I wasn't specifically keeping track of this, I'm sure that there were over a dozen people who answered 'no' to the first three questions, but then said they wouldn't buy the condo. This seemed inconsistent to me, since if you don't believe in ghosts or luck, why not buy it? What could happen? I particularly pressed those people to explain the inconsistency. Most of them thought about it, and finally good-naturedly admitted that they couldn't. I heard a lot of 'kimochi warui' (literally 'bad feeling', though in this context 'creepy' is probably closer to what they wanted to say). Some said that simply knowing the murder/suicide had happened would stick in their mind, and interfere with their enjoyment of the condo. My response of "for $200,000, can't you make an effort to change how you think?" met with a quick shake of the head. Over a dozen said that probably it would be fine if they didn't know the murder/suicide had occurred, but since they knew, they couldn't live there. Even if they couldn't explain it well, even if it was inconsistent with their other beliefs, they were quite sure that they couldn't buy it.

The best answer, I felt, was from a guy who's a scientist, working in the field of water treatment and purification. He said that as children, Japanese hear a lot of ghost stories, and in Japanese ghost stories the ghosts are more violent and mentally ill than in the west, where for example we have the perfectly friendly ghosts that inhabit Hogwarts castle. Some Japanese parents apparently say to their young children, "You'd better be good, or else the ghosts will get you," which I found quite an appalling thing to say to a young child. So, this student said, even if as an adult you're perfectly confident that ghosts don't exist, there will be a sense deep in your unconscious that you'd better not buy the condo, and will creep you out enough that you feel you'd better not buy it just to be on the safe side. I thought that made a lot of sense.

The ten who would buy the condo were generally aware that they weren't in the majority, but didn't mind. Most didn't hesitate much, and firmly believed that nothing spiritual exists, so there was no problem at all living there. One guy, 60 years old, did say that he would call in a Buddhist priest to spiritually 'purify' the condo, after which he was sure it would be fine. It would cost over a hundred bucks for the priest to come out, but hey, money well spent!

As for me, for the record, I do believe in life after death (reincarnation), I don't believe in most fortunetellers (though I believe a few might have a genuine talent, and should be referred to as psychics rather than fortunetellers), I don't believe in lucky days (though I do believe that if you really believe they'll be unlucky, they might well be), and I would buy the condo.

Students tended to be very interested in the topic and the questions, as was I. My original intent was simply to point out that you probably shouldn't make fun of someone's odd beliefs if you have your own odd beliefs (which you may not realize that you have, or recognize as odd), but it turned into an interesting examination of cultural differences in the area of spiritual and paranormal phenomena. Also, it's now become part of my history with these students, most of whom are my regulars. If they ever make a skeptical comment about someone else's religion and beliefs, I can respond, "Yeah, but you weren't willing to buy the condo." Even a year from now, I suspect, they'll remember what I'm referring to, and laugh.

P.S. After I finished writing this, but just before posting it, my wife found this short article on about Americans' willingness to share a house with a ghost–not just the possibility of one, but assuming there really was one. Of course, there can be a gap between what people say they would do and what they would really do, but this is still very interesting, and shows the culture gap very strongly.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

False Equivalence

You're a 10-year-old boy who's walking down the hall at school. Another boy walks alongside you, and he starts to insult you, calling you names as 10-year-olds do. You ignore him, but he keeps it up, and starts to shove you between insults. After tolerating this for as long as you can, finally, you shove him back. You exchange shoves for a few seconds, after which a teacher turns the corner and sees you.

"Cut that out, you two!"

Now you're really fuming, because you've been unjustly judged as equally guilty. I remember this sort of thing happening to me more than once as a child, and it would surprise me if this hadn't happened to nearly everyone at some point. In fairness, adults have a reasonable defense: most of the time, both children will simply point at each other and say, "he started it!" And in the case described above, there's no way for the teacher to know who did what. But, more importantly, most of the time children get the sense that the teacher (or parents) simply don't care.

Parents or teachers may resort to using false equivalence because they don't know, because they don't care, or because they don't want to be seen as taking sides (even if one side clearly has a better argument than the other). Creating a false equivalence allows you appear even-handed, and to avoid getting involved in the dispute.

This notion came to my mind today because it's a very important concept in the world of politics right now. The media is quite addicted to it because of the very two attributes mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph: the media desperately wants to appear even-handed, and wants to avoid getting involved in disputes. But as in the case with the two children, sometimes the facts of the case aren't equal. Sometimes one side is lying, and the other isn't. More often, one side is exaggerating a little, and the other is exaggerating wildly. The media would prefer to say, "there are many who say that both sides are exaggerating." The irony is that such reporting is itself a distortion of the truth, and exactly the sort of thing the media is supposed to avoid. But generally, if the media is forced to choose between factual accuracy and even-handedness, they'll choose the latter.

This post was inspired by a conversation with my wife about the current health care reform debate. Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he will try to push a version of the bill that includes a public option for health care that states that don't want such an option can opt out of if they choose. I was explaining to her that this was the more 'liberal' option than others, and might not be able to get any Republican votes. This reminded me that it's common wisdom in Washington that any legislation, especially important legislation, should be seen as 'bipartisan', meaning that it should have the support of at the very least one person in the opposing party, and ideally, more. The problem is that it's very clear, and everyone in Washington knows, that the Republicans have made a considered decision to simply oppose anything that Obama does, whether or not it makes sense on the merits. They feel that if they work cooperatively with him, he'll get the credit for any success in bringing the economy back to health, and while it might benefit those who helped him individually, it won't benefit them collectively; Democrats would continue to control the House and the Senate. But if they resolutely oppose him, and the economy doesn't improve, they hope to ride back to power in 2010 and 2012 by charging that he and the Democrats failed to do what they said they would do. So, they've made a strategic decision to oppose him at every turn.

The problem is, then, that the media often points out that the bill isn't 'bipartisan' or that it 'lacks a single Republican vote' without noting that the Republicans have an institutional strategy not to cooperate with Obama. Granted, those who follow politics understand this, but many reading the paper don't, and failing to note this creates a false equivalence between partisanship now and partisanship thirty years ago (or even ten, when the Republicans were in charge but Democrats often cooperated with them) that unfairly makes Obama appear unconciliatory.

False equivalence also abounds when it comes to judging the media, especially Fox News. Fox News is rabidly right-wing in its opinion shows (whose hosts spread lies as if they were facts) and strongly right-leaning in its story selection and emphasis, whereas MSNBC is mostly left-wing in its opinion shows (whose hosts tack strongly left, but do not make up facts) though its morning show is moderately conservative, and its news is straight both in content and story selection and emphasis. Even so, it's very common for commentators to treat them as if they were mirror images of each other. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, it's also the case that the right wing has for many years been 'working the refs', complaining about anti-right bias to a much greater extent than it ever existed. Because they don't want to be accused of bias, media commentators don't like to point to right-wing bias even where it exists. Creating a false equivalence helps them avoid this criticism, and helps them appear even-handed, which the media very much prefers to do. So, as with the children, the facts of the matter take a backseat to the preferences of those judging them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cable Entertainment News

Yesterday I started seeing headlines on news websites about the 'balloon boy', the six-year-old who was thought to be trapped in a balloon that was drifting through the sky until it turned out he was hiding in his family's attic. Apparently, many Americans sat enthralled, glued to the cable news to see how the 'drama' turned out. After he was found, the news channels stayed on the story, focusing on the new question of whether the whole thing was a hoax.

Especially at times like this, it seems to me that CNN (Cable News Network) should change its name to CEN, for Cable Entertainment Network. 'The News You Want, Not the News You Need.' They go into overdrive when an attractive white woman goes missing. JonBenet, Michael Jackson (trial and death), O.J., Anna Nicole's death, and dozens of others that I'm mercifully forgetting have taken up thousands of hours of time, diligently keeping Americans informed on these vital issues. The reason, of course, is no mystery: these topics get ratings, and ratings mean money.

But are these stories 'news'? What constitutes 'news'? One can certainly argue that news is non-fiction events we want to know about, and it doesn't matter whether or not they're important in the scheme of things. The other argument is that news programs should give us information that helps us better understand what's going on in the our city, our country, and the world; information about events that will affect a great many people. The Zimbabwean prime minister may pull out of his governing coalition with the dictator Mugabe, an event that will have a great impact on that country. But in America, CNN dares not spend more than a minute on that, as a nation of Homer Simpsons, remotes in hand, may at any time exclaim "bor–ing!" and switch the channel.

Maybe it's not fair to call balloon-boy-type stories 'entertainment news', as we already have that. It of course isn't really news, but but rather, entertainment industry p.r. pretending to be news. There should be, for balloon-boy stories, a term that means 'information about real events that is quite interesting, but does not have and never will have any impact on your life, or on the lives of anyone but the people involved.' Maybe it could be called True Stories in the News ("The TSN Network!"), because that's what these are, interesting stories. When one of these stories hits, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC abandon any pretense of being news channels, and become TSN channels for as long as these stories get better ratings than whatever they usually report about. Now, that's fine; it's a free country. But I do think that when you do that, you give up your right to be annoyed if people snicker when you call yourself a news channel.

Of course, it's still possible to get real news, though on TV it's a little more difficult. The BBC and PBS, I believe, still do some good stuff, and there's always the print media, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Many blogs are stepping up and providing actual news, and many of the good blogs can be counted on to link to important stories. Even these media have failings, such as an America-centered worldview and wantonly granting anonymity for people to criticize political opponents, but they're still much better than what we see much of the time on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. Still, the fact is that if Americans demanded more information about ethnic strife in Europe, the Chinese economy, analysis of why U.S. health care costs are out of control, British efforts to cover up U.S. torture, or Israeli settlement activity, we would get it. But we don't. As with most things, we get what we deserve, and we deserve what we get.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Criminal Justice (macro level: Deterrence, Rehabilitation, and Retribution)

I've heard it said that there are three reasons for sending people to prison: deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. In the previous post, I commented on the specifics of the Polanski case. Now, I want to consider the way these factors work in his case, and on society in general.

Deterrence, I believe, works in general: I'd guess that many people thought about committing crimes but didn't because of the danger of being caught and punished. Since many criminals are not caught, of course, this purpose is hardly perfect. Criminals are therefore either rational people who think they won't be caught and punished, or irrational people who don't sufficiently think through the notion of evading punishment. I'm sure this has been done, but I'd be interested to see research showing how many people want to commit crimes but were deterred because of the prospect of punishment. I certainly think we need to consider whether prison is a good deterrent for certain crimes, for example, child molestation. Do those who are attracted to children control their impulses because they know taking action will do great harm, or because of the possibility of punishment? I hope it's the former, but it's hard to say. I'd think that deterrence works better for economic crimes than violent ones, since our conscience is more likely to stop the latter than the former. In Polanski's case in particular, his going to prison may be a good idea, more for the bail-jumping than for the rape. (I don't think his going to prison is going to deter any rapists.)

Rehabilitation is a positive goal, and I'm sure it happens sometimes, but as is well known, the problem is that many people find themselves in situations that foster crime, and it's hard to escape those situations. They know they shouldn't hang out with old criminal buddies, but who should they hang out with? The pull of friendship is strong. A lot of social change needs to happen before rehabilitation on a wide scale can occur. Full employment would really help. But as it is, I think rehabilitation gets lip service at best. For Polanski, it's probably unnecessary at his age, but I'd want psychologists to spend some time with him.

Now, the last reason for sending someone to prison: retribution. This is the one of the three reasons for imprisoning people that I'm very uncomfortable with. Of course I understand the desire for retribution, especially on the part of the victims and their families, but it's difficult for me to see how we get any social value out of it, and doing it for its own sake seems to me to be somewhere on the 'morally wrong' spectrum. Jesus is supposed to have said something about turning the other cheek, something which the people who most loudly proclaim themselves 'true' Christians tend to forget. Making someone suffer for no purpose other than that they seem to deserve it... certainly doesn't seem admirable. It's difficult to think of another way to say it than that it feels wrong. I suppose a counter-argument would be that it's a statement of our priorities, our determination that crime can't be tolerated. I can understand that argument, but I can't agree with it. I think a better statement of our priorities would be to do everything possible to see that crime is reduced, so people in the future don't have to suffer.

In addition, if we unproductively imprison someone just because we want them to suffer because they did something to us, it only escalates the cycle of harm and violence that started them on this path. In a way this is a practical argument, but it feels a little moral as well. But for me practicality is important, so I don't want to do anything to make the situation worse.

I've argued before in this blog that public opinion shapes policy in negative ways due to public ignorance, apathy, and emotion; this is another example. People who argue that prison should mainly be about rehabilitation tend to get tarred as squishy-headed liberals by conservative politicians, who use people's anger at criminals as a way to get political support. Attempts to understand the criminal's point of view, necessary for any attempt at rehabilitation, are condemned as 'coddling' criminals. (After 9/11, anyone who dared to consider Al Qaeda's grievances was accused of wanting to give Osama Bin Laden 'therapy' rather than justice.) These attacks are effective, so politicians back off any attempt at large-scale rehabilitation programs, especially those that cost large amounts of money. (Ironically, if they work, they could save money on prison costs in the long run, but it's easy for opponents to ignore this.) So, the situation as it is continues, largely through the support of the citizens for policies that are unproductive, indeed counterproductive, in the long run.

Now, I'm far from an expert, and I haven't read any books by those who are. But it seems obvious that if our country has the highest incarceration rate in the world, we're doing something wrong. The Polanski case would seem to have little to do with the criminal justice system on a macro level, but the first step towards reforming the system is to consider what we hope to accomplish by incarcerating people in the first place. But what we really need is to have people, not only experts but especially voters, look at the situation with rationality rather than emotion. And the first step in that direction is for people to look at those who've broken the law not as scum to sweep away into the nearest pit and forget about, but as fellow humans who have had difficult lives, emotional problems, economic insecurity, or all of the above. (And for God's sake, we could free up a lot of prison space by having a drug policy that focused on public health rather than punishment.)

The last thing I want to mention, and the thing that may be the most crucial, is the trend towards privatizing prisons and the increasing political influence of the "correctional officers'" unions. (The finger quotes are because I don't think they're correcting a whole lot.) Especially in California, those unions have spent a lot of money trying to pass laws to keep prisoners in prison for a longer time: not because it improves public safety, but because it means increased job security for them. It's hard for me to think of a worse way to run a prison system than for those who control the inmates' lives to have an interest in keeping the prison population high. Rehabilitation would be bad for them! We should want fewer people in prison, but they want more. A lot of people vote for ballot initiatives supported (usually, originated) by the guards' union because it's advertised as 'tough on crime'. What I'm saying is not that we should let out dangerous criminals quickly, but that time and money should be spent on trying to see to it that they can get by without crime when they get out, and building a society that has less crime for structural and socioeconomic reasons. That could be done, but only if a lot of people supported the idea, and opposed those who wish to keep people (some of whom, such as drug offenders, have harmed no one) locked up for long stretches so they can have job security. As with any objective that requires thoughtful consideration of large numbers of people, it's hard for me to be optimistic.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Criminal Justice (micro level: Polanski)

A few weeks ago, the 76-year-old French/Polish film director Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland, having been a fugitive from U.S. law enforcement since 31 years ago he skipped bail just before he was scheduled to be sentenced for the rape of a girl who was a few weeks away from her fourteenth birthday. As I write this, his lawyers are trying to prevent his extradition. Personally, I don't care all that much whether he ends up in prison or not, but this case provides an excellent opportunity to examine various aspects of incarceration, both in the U.S. and in general.

First of all, the reason I don't care all that much is that for me personally, prison should be about prevention: keeping those who are a danger to society locked up. If I'm reasonably confident that the person isn't a real threat to commit another crime, I can accept their not being put in prison if there's a reason to avoid it. Not that there aren't other reasons to keep people in prison, but for me, that's the important one. I do find it extremely unlikely, at his age and with his past, that he will repeat that or any other crime. (Except bail-jumping, which seems a very likely prospect; I couldn't help but be extremely amused to see his lawyer arguing for his release on bail from his current incarceration. Oh, yeah, good idea...)

One group of reactions to this event is highly instructive: the reaction of the film community and the French intelligentsia, which demanded Polanski's release and criticized the U.S. for pursuing the case to such an extent so long after the fact. The only way I can agree with this argument is in considering the notion that if Polanski were not such a prominent person, the U.S. probably would have lost interest. On the other hand, it is generally only prominent people who have the ability and resources to skip bail, flee to another country, and be accepted there without fear of extradition. If I represented the U.S. justice system, I would try very hard to apprehend all bail-jumpers, prominent or not.

Other than that, I find it highly interesting, and nearly mystifying, that so many prominent people are publicly defending a man who no one disputes raped a 13-year-old. I'm like, huh? Or, we could say, WTF? I would say to anyone who defended him, would you say the same thing if he'd raped and sodomized your 13-year-old daughter? If yes, I feel for your daughter. If no, why is your daughter entitled to more consideration than anyone else's?

I think perhaps the main reason they defend him is that, to put it simply, he's one of them. They know him, they like him, they identify with him. And since they do, they rationalize their attitudes. After all, you've probably already done a fair amount of rationalizing if you're friendly with a rapist. (Or if you voted to give him an Academy Award.) This is very human; people rationalize their actions every day, only not so visibly. Still, to those of us on the outside, it looks ridiculous and appallingly amoral. Just because you know him, he's charming, intelligent, and can have a good conversation over expensive wine and cheese, because he makes good movies... he shouldn't face prosecution like anybody else who commits a crime? I think these people really don't realize how bad they look, and I hear there's starting to be some backlash in France against the defend-Polanski reflex. A petition signed by over a hundred Hollywood types, requesting that the authorities drop the matter, has been indelibly contaminated by the signature of Woody Allen. The circumstances were very different–Allen's failing was to the best of my recollection a moral one, not a legal one–but the staggering irony of a man who slept with his longtime partner's 19-year-old adopted daughter defending Polanski hardly needs to be emphasized.

Now, the other question is, should he be sent to prison? At age 76, 31 years after the crime? What would be the purpose? Not, as I mentioned earlier, to protect society; France had obviously decided that its society needed no protection from him. Not to give the victim closure; she had publicly said that she had no desire to see him do time. The best argument I can think of would be deterrence, to let bail-jumpers know that they'll never be safe, and they'd better stay under their rock and never travel to another country, even one in which they'd previously been safe. I do think that bail-jumping should be considered a particularly heavy crime, since if everyone did it, there couldn't be a bail system, and some innocent people would languish in jail unnecessarily before and during their trials.

Now, I know each case is unique and deserves to be treated as such, and I've read that there were some irregularities in this one. Particularly, that the prosecution and the defense had worked out a time-served (six weeks) plea bargain, that the judge was going to torpedo. I've seen this characterized as the potential action of a publicity-hungry judge. This may be true; I'm given to understand that it's very rare for judges to interfere in plea deals. But couldn't it be that the judge was honestly disgusted by a rapist getting off with time served? Could a 'normal' defendant have gotten such a deal? I'd need to know more to judge it, and from this distance, I really can't. My best guess, though, is that especially in that time and place, Hollywood types got cushy deals when caught with their hand in the cookie jar, so to speak.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Talking about kids

As an English teacher in a conversation school that focuses on one-to-one lessons, I have plenty of opportunity to talk to Japanese people about any number of topics. While my students are hardly a representative sample of Japanese people in general, I believe I can get a good sense of how Japanese feel about any particular topic by talking to them.

Every now and then, a topic comes up in a lesson that makes me wonder something about Japanese culture and opinion that I don't know, so I ask students about it. A year ago, when such questions came up, I started to ask the same question of almost every student and keep track of the answers. Again, it's not even close to being statistically valid, but I do think one can draw general conclusions from such information.

A month ago, a 35-year-old female student told me that after seven years of marriage, she told her husband that she wanted to have a child. His response, delivered noncommittally, translates in English as 'is that so' or 'I see'. He added nothing more to his response, and she also said nothing more. To Westerners, I'd think, such a minimalist conversation about something so very important would be baffling, but for Japanese, it's not terribly surprising. Japanese are big on indirect communication, using subtext, tone, and body language to convey things they don't want to say clearly.

What did surprise me, even as a long-time resident who understands the culture pretty well, was that these two didn't have a reasonably clear understanding of what the wanted when they got together. In the West, I'd think that almost every couple talks about this before they get married, and even if they don't have a rock-solid agreement, they have a good idea of where the other person stands on the topic. My student said that before marriage she'd talked to her husband very little about it, and it had only been agreed that they would live for a few years without kids, after which the topic would presumably be addressed.

So, I asked many students this question: Did you talk to your future spouse about kids before you got married? (For unmarried students, the question was, do you plan to do so?) I gave them three choices: no talk, casual talk, and serious talk. I broke the students up into three categories: over 40, under 40, and not yet married (most of whom, naturally, are under 40). The results:

Over 40: no talk 9, casual talk 3, serious talk 2
Under 40: no talk 4, casual talk 2, serious talk 2
unmarried: no talk 3, casual talk 6, serious talk 8

Total: no talk 16, casual talk 11, serious talk 12

I did the age break because I expected the result that occurred: that older people would be less likely to have talked about it than younger people. When I asked the older people why they didn't talk about it, the answer was nearly unanimous: no need. Of course we're going to have children, why do we need to talk about it? The unmarried, who are the youngest group, felt that it was an important topic that needed to be discussed. It is true, of course, that many of my unmarried students are women in their mid-30s, and so would need to talk about it for another reason: to determine whether they even want to try to have kids, given the higher risks her age brings.

Naturally, it seems to me that not talking about this brings the risk of getting married and then finding out that your wishes are irreconcilably different (one student told me of a divorce she knew to be for just this reason). Granted, in Japan your chances of finding someone who wants a kid run 90% or higher, but why take a chance when it's so important? This led to another question, which I asked most everyone: Imagine that a couple, around 30, get married but never talk about kids. After a year, the subject finally comes up, and they discover that one of them firmly does not want children. They end up divorcing. The question is: are they equally responsible for the result, or is the one who didn't want kids more responsible, because he/she should have known his partner would think that if he/she didn't want them, he/she would have said something? Is the onus on the one who doesn't want kids to say something? The results: 23 said the one who doesn't want kids is more responsible, while 12 said they were equally responsible. (Interestingly, those who gave the minority response tended to be surprised that they were in the minority.) Age didn't matter; the percentage was the same for each age group.

Many things in Japanese culture are changing, but this one isn't changing much: it's expected that every couple will have at least one child, and if a couple goes childless, it's assumed that they tried but failed. 'Why didn't you have kids?' is a very personal question, and here should only be asked of someone you know quite well. When I tell my students that my wife and I are childless by choice, the normal response is, 'Don't you like children?' I joke that I like other people's kids just fine, but I find it interesting that people would assume that the reason for not having kids is that you don't like them, as opposed to choosing one lifestyle over another. I think most Japanese would find being childless by choice a baffling choice, thus their tendency to blame the one who neglected to mention their wish not to have children.

Part of my survey was about Japanese attitudes towards children, but part was about the fact that Japanese don't like to talk about serious topics, even ones that they really should talk about. For us, if we're in doubt as to whether to talk to our partner about something, the default tendency would be to talk about it. For the Japanese, the tendency is to not do so. You're supposed to know what the other person thinks about something, and it should only be necessary to say something if your opinion is different from the cultural norm. And, of course, your opinion shouldn't be different from the cultural norm.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The News You Want, Not the News You Need

I can easily imagine the above phrase being used one day to promote a news organization. Okay, maybe they wouldn't phrase it quite like that, especially the second part. Maybe they would try to convince you that 'The News You Want Is the News You Need.' As technology has expanded our potential sources of information, the way we get the news has fragmented, and continues to do so.

The general consensus that I've seen out there is that this is a bad thing; it gives us the news from a narrow perspective, through a worldview that we agree with. Viewers of Keith Olbermann's show on MSNBC, it can be assumed, feel that Bush 43 was the worst president ever, and that Obama's main failing is that he's too conciliatory to Republicans. Viewers of Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity no doubt are already persuaded that Obama is a true danger to the Republic. And the more we watch these shows, the more strongly we believe this, because the programs present information to support our preconceptions. Now, media analyst Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and CNN tends to separate the 'news' and 'opinion' portions of those channels; he'll say that while Fox's opinion shows are conservative, the news programs are straight and factual. I can't watch Fox News or MSNBC in Japan, so I don't know how true that is, but it would very much surprise me if, for example, Fox News didn't run more stories that while being straight news didn't have an inherent right-wing lean (that is, more stories like "Obama Misses July Deadline For Senate Health Care Vote" than "Overflow Crowd Watches Obama Pitch Health Care Plan"). It would be in the interests of their ratings to do so. Fox's audience can be said to inhabit a certain portion of the ideological spectrum, as does MSNBC's on the other side.

But it seems to me that this is not so different from the way the news has been presented all along; the difference is just a matter of type and degree. From the Sixties to the Eighties, when the TV news came from ABC, NBC, and CBS and the print news was led by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, the news was directed toward a particular portion of the ideological spectrum as well; it just happened to be the middle ninety percent. Anything that the Republicans and Democrats agreed on was simply accepted as common wisdom, and rarely questioned or analyzed. The leader of the Libertarian Party, for example, would have had a hard time getting on TV. No doubt some TV producer would have defended this as the way it should be. "Only one percent of the American people subscribe to his views," this imaginary producer might say. "If we give him airtime, do we then have to give it to someone else whose beliefs are accepted by one-tenth of a percent of the population? Where does it end?" This does seem like a reasonable argument on its face, but at the same time, it has the effect of not exposing Americans to points of view that they might not be familiar with, but might agree with if they heard.

It has, of course, been pointed out that the mainstream media tend not only to broadcast from a worldview that their viewers will agree with, but also from a point of view that is acceptable to the government. This fact has been written about extensively by Noam Chomsky, possibly the most famous person that most people have never heard of. A brilliant intellectual, he has been an unsparing critic of U.S. foreign policy, especially during the Cold War. He has always held America accountable for the gap between its declared beliefs and its actions, pointed out its hypocrisy, and noted the sometimes destructive impact of its policies on ordinary people around the world. His arguments are often dismissed, but rarely convincingly refuted. They are dismissed not because they don't make sense, but because he isn't among the ninety percent in the center. He doesn't come from the same worldview as most Americans do, and that virtually all of the American politicians, industrialists, and media do. (To get a sense of why this is, I recommend this hour-long documentary on YouTube in nine parts. It's almost twenty years old, but still very relevant, and well worth watching.) He points out, for example, that in the late '70s it was much easier to find media coverage of Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia than of Indonesia's genocide in East Timor, because the former was done by a pro-Soviet regime and the latter by a pro-U.S. regime. Obviously, you don't have to be anti-U.S. to disapprove of genocide; Chomsky argues that the media and the government are intertwined to the extent that the media, while not following the imperatives of one political party, buys into the general Establishment agenda and acts as a witting or unwitting propaganda arm. If the news were gathered and reported by an outside agency, one with no stake whatsoever in the U.S. government, Establishment, or popularity, dedicated to being scrupulously factual and avoiding any point of view, the news would look quite different, I'm sure Chomsky would argue.

Again, this could be defended as natural; after all, the government reflects the people, and this is what people want. If we wanted something different, we would elect different politicians, and the media would reflect a different Establishment status back to us. So, let's say that Fox's audience covers 20% of the U.S. ideological spectrum: the 20% that's the farthest to the right, except for the most extreme one or two percent. Let's say the same thing for MSNBC on the other side, leaving a little over 50% for CNN and the broadcast networks. (This doesn't translate into higher ratings for CNN, though, as the partisans tend to be more enthusiastic and watch the news more. As I've heard said somewhere before, there's no such thing as a raging moderate.) So, then, what's wrong with this? Or, more precisely, why is it all right for us to get our news from a source that's biased toward the Establishment, representing (let's say) 90% of us, but not one that's biased towards our political party, representing 20%? Aren't they both biased?

With the health care debate, we've seen some extreme results of this kind of fragmentation: the bogus 'death panels' claim was spread far and wide on Fox, reported as assertion on its news programs and asserted as fact on the opinion shows. But this seems to me to be not a problem of fragmentation, but one of poor reporting and insufficient analysis. It would be possible for an ideologically biased news operation to nonetheless report news accurately; it would simply be selective in what it reported. I don't mean to defend this fragmentation of news, but I do think it should be considered that at least in concept, it is the same as it ever was.

Monday, September 14, 2009

To Venus in a UFO, part 2 (spirituality)

"Hey, I know this guy. He's pretty amazing. First of all, his mother was a virgin. Never had sex in her life, but she had a son! And when he got older, he did some incredible stuff. He could heal people by touching them, and he took a tiny amount of food and turned it into a big amount. Like magic! And he walked on water. No, really! I saw it! And after he died, he came back to life!"

If you had never heard of Christianity, you'd roll your eyes and ask your friend what he'd been smoking. Or, at least, you'd nod politely and back away slowly. Either way, you'd take it as evidence that he was a real nut case. But as we know, there are literally millions of people on this planet who believe this. Most Christians, I believe, think of this as a parable, not to be taken literally. But there are a good number who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true. ("Two of every animal? Really? What about the gene pool? Okay, okay, never mind... and he lived to be how old? Really?" When every question raised can be answered with 'God took care of that', the discussion doesn't last long.)

Very few people (Christopher Hitchens leaps to mind) snicker at this; it's such a part of Western culture that whether you believe it or not, it's old hat. But I'm now thinking of those of my students who snickered at the notion that the wife of the new Japanese Prime Minister once wrote that she believes she traveled to Venus in a UFO, and said on TV that she was acquainted with Tom Cruise in a past life. I suspect that many Westerners would snicker at this as well, which is why the Western media ran so many stories about this. The stories themselves didn't snicker (though the New York Times used the word 'kooky', not in reference to Ms. Hatoyama per se, but it wasn't hard to get the drift), but the editors knew the readers surely would. 'Get a load of this woman!' they were saying, in so many words.

So, to me, the logical question is: Does anyone who doesn't snicker at what is written in the first paragraph of this post have any right to snicker at the wife of the Prime Minister? If I had to choose which one was crazier, I'd give it some hard thought. But I have no doubt that plenty of Christians would, and did, get a good laugh out of this story. 'Ha ha! A triangular-shaped UFO! Hey, that's good! Tell me another one!' If it was then pointed out that Christians believe something that appears equally unlikely from a scientific point of view, I doubt many of even the moderates would grant the point. They'd point to the belief's long history and its place in the culture. And if this were suggested to Bible literalists, I strongly suspect the inquisitor would face their righteous wrath ("How dare you compare the Word of God to a crazy Japanese lady!"), but would not get any kind of reasoned discussion. (I know I am engaging in substantial generalizations, but I do believe I'm not too far off. And so that the reader knows my point of view, I was not raised with any religious teaching, and believe the Bible to be a mix of fact, recollection, third-hand anecdote, and fiction.)

Now, I don't mean to say that there should be a reasoned discussion about the Bible and whether it is literally accurate, mostly because I don't think there'd be any point. With something like this, either you believe it or you don't. Ironically, though, I'd think that scientists would be readier to believe Ms. Hatoyama if forced to choose. The existence of UFOs and spirits can't be proved, and can't be disproved. But I think most scientists would state with certainty that a woman cannot have a child in the absence of sperm, that food cannot be spontaneously generated, and so forth. 'Well, they were miracles, which by definition are outside the realm of what is humanly possible.' Fine. But I don't think this has any greater credibility than the claims of the PM's wife.

I do know that there are any number of Christians who don't believe in the Bible literally, and chuckle at those who do. At least if they make fun of Ms. Hatoyama, they're not being inconsistent. But why make fun of anyone? Unless someone ties me to a rack and pulls until I profess complete agreement with his worldview, why should I care whether any particular person believes any unprovable thing he chooses? Why ridicule him? (Why people have the urge to ridicule and judge others will, I suspect, be the subject of a future post.) I'd rather just nod, and accept that this is the way he sees the world. As do I with Ms. Hatoyama. She seems like a happy and fulfilled person, so good for her.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

To Venus in a UFO, part 1 (the media)

On August 30, the Japanese held an election for the lower house of Parliament, which (as is the case in the U.K.) is the primary branch of government; the leader of the Parliament is the Prime Minister, who is not chosen directly by the people, though everyone knows who that is when they vote. On September 3, the New York Times and other Western media started reporting that the wife of the new Prime Minister had, a year ago, written a book in which she said the following:

“While my body was sleeping, I think my spirit flew on a triangular-shaped U.F.O. to Venus,” she said. “It was an extremely beautiful place and was very green.” Her first husband suggested that it was probably just a dream — but Mr. Hatoyama, she insisted, would not be so dismissive. “My current husband has a different way of thinking,” she said. “He would surely say, ‘Oh, that’s great!’”

Now, it's not extremely difficult to find people who believe such things, but it is relatively rare for such a person to be the spouse of a head of government. I can't be sure, but I'm fairly confident that if Michelle Obama had said this, her husband would never have been elected president. So of course, one of the first things that came to mind was the question, 'did the Japanese voters factor this in when they voted?' Luckily, as a teacher of conversational English in one-to-one lessons I'm in a position to find out, though in a purely anecdotal and unscientific way.

On the 4th and the 5th, I had six students read the brief article, and I was very surprised to find that while all were reasonably well-informed people, none had heard of this. Some shook their heads with an obvious 'the woman is crazy' expression, some chuckled, and one exclaimed 'wow!' every ten or fifteen seconds as she read. (I should say that this comes across as crazy in Japan as it does in America.) Afterwards, when I asked them why the Japanese media hadn't reported this during the campaign, to a person they responded 'I don't know.' Finally, on Sunday, I got someone who'd heard of it, apparently just the day before on a TV program; it seemed as though it had been picked up in their media because it had already been widely reported by the Western media.

But, again, why hadn't it been reported in Japan? One of my regular students works in the Japanese media. (I don't want to be too specific, but it's the kind of media in which popularity is much more important than any consideration of what a well-informed citizen should know.) She's extremely well-informed about entertainment-ish matters, and pretty well-informed about more 'serious' matters. Since this story leans toward the former, I thought for sure she would have heard of it, but she hadn't, and was herself surprised that it had escaped her notice, and that of the media. She suspects that equal time provisions may have had something to do with it, and she mentioned that there's a general tendency in the media not to report on political spouses on the grounds of privacy. She did say that she thought the news would raise the popularity of whatever media outlet aired it.

The government doesn't censor the media in Japan. It doesn't have to, as the media does a pretty good job of censoring itself. I've been told that large media outlets avoid, for example, any critical reporting on the Japanese royal family (which would bring protests from aggressive rightists) or the relatively powerful religious group Soka Gakkai (which could prompt advertiser boycotts). If there was a serious scandal involving either group, then it might be reported, depending on what the scandal was. But an ordinary 'is there a dark side to (such-and-such group)?' story is verboten.

Not that Western media is immune from groupthink, or that there are no boundaries that it wouldn't respect. Generally, the more prominent the media outlet, the more pressure it feels to only report what's in line with mainstream attitudes, and not to report what the 'establishment' doesn't want to see reported. (As an example, you don't see many people in the mainstream media saying that those in the Bush (43) administration who ordered and carried out torture should be prosecuted, even though the fact that laws and treaties with the force of law were broken is extremely clear.) And there are, even in Japan, less 'reputable' media outlets that report what others won't. For example, it's very well understood that in professional sumo, some bouts are thrown. Not a majority, but not a tiny few, either. Occasionally a former wrestler speaks openly about it, but their words are rarely if ever carried by the major media outlets; a weekly tabloid-type magazine called the Shukan Post tends to carry such stories. The mainstream media say they don't carry such stories because they can't be proven, but I believe the real reason is that there are informal agreements between the sumo officials and the media, as well as with Soka Gakkai, the royal family, and others, that such things are not to be reported on. In both Japan and the U.S., the mainstream media is part of the establishment, and there are understandings. I think it could be said that, like many other aspects of life, those understandings are more restrictive in Japan.

In the end, of course, it isn't all that important whether Japanese know that the wife of the Prime Minister believes that her spirit traveled to Venus in a UFO. But I did find it remarkable that such an out-of-the-mainstream belief managed to avoid mass notice in the heat of Japan's most contentious political campaign in decades. Then again, maybe another way to look at it is that the opposition party made no reference to in during the campaign, which to us would show admirable restraint and gentility. Maybe they couldn't have profited by doing so, but if so, then we can credit the Japanese public for disapproving of such tactics. Either way, it shows politics operating with more manners and class than Americans would be capable of. Maybe (what I would consider to be) a muzzled press contributes to having that kind of society. Whichever society you prefer to live in, it's the kind of thing that's interesting to consider both sides of.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mr. James and Mr. Debito

McDonald's in Japan has recently launched an ad campaign featuring a doofusy-looking Westerner dubbed 'Mr. James', who apparently is quite keen on certain types of recently launched burgers. This has kicked up a minor fuss in the foreign community in Japan, a small fire whose flames are being fanned by a man named Arudou Debito, who is a Westerner who married a Japanese, has kids in Japan, and became a Japanese citizen, which I gather is no easy task for a non-Japanese.

He has become the most prominent advocate for foreigners' rights in Japan, and he has an excellent website that features, among a lot of other useful information, all of his activities and investigations of discrimination against foreigners, or maybe I should say, those who weren't born in Japan. He, after all, strictly speaking is not a foreigner, as he's a Japanese citizen, but he definitely wasn't born in Japan. And that's the rub.

Having lived here for twenty years, I am sufficiently confident in my understanding to say that being a Japanese is like being a member of a very exclusive club. The only way to enter this club is to be born here (to Japanese parents), grow up here, and fit basic societal expectations. If any one of these is absent, you can't really be considered Japanese.

I don't want to speak too broadly, but let's say that a Pakistani comes to America. He accepts the culture enthusiastically, he loves America, he tries to learn the idioms perfectly and minimize his accent, he adopts an American-style nickname (let's say, 'Mike'), he learns the social expectations, he makes friends, he becomes a fan of the local sports teams, he watches American Idol. I believe it is safe to say that within a few years, he will be accepted by most as an American. They'll think of him as 'Mike,' not 'that Pakistani guy.' Sitting with four white guys around a friend's living room watching football on Sunday afternoon and drinking Budweisers, they won't think of him as an outsider. He's an American.

I do, however, believe it to be the case that a Westerner who does the equivalent things in Japan, even for a much longer time, will not be considered by those around him to be a Japanese. Now, it's not as though the Japanese aren't nice or welcoming people. He'll have friends, they'll like him, they'll be happy to spend time with him, hang out, and if he needs help, they'll do their best to assist him. His life will be far from bad. But because his face is different, and he wasn't born or raised in Japan, he will always be at worst a 'gaijin' (foreigner), and at best, a little bit different from a Japanese. He can never be the same. I recall reading–I can't remember where–an American writer named Donald Richie, who has lived in Japan for over forty years, saying that he felt a lot better when he finally gave up hoping that he would be considered to be like a Japanese, and accepted the fact that he never would be.

Now, I don't want to get into the question of why this is, because that's at least a long blog post, if not a book. The point is that I believe Debito is, bravely and valiantly, fighting an unwinnable battle. (At least, I believe, it won't be won in his lifetime.) But he may pave the way for others, and he has my respect and admiration. But he has joined a society most of whose members do not want him to join, and will not consider him an equal. On the surface, maybe, but not deep down. Being a very homogenous society, Japanese don't do well with the concept of 'minorities.' Part of Japanese social expectations is that you should be like everyone else, don't make waves, respect your elders, do what society thinks you should do. If you're a misfit, try harder to fit in. If you're gay, stay in the closet. If your parents treat you badly, visit them once a year and be polite anyway, because it's your duty as a child. If you don't want to have kids, don't tell people that; let them believe that you tried and failed. These are the old-fashioned values. Yes, Japan is changing, but slowly, and I'm far from sure that increased acceptance of minorities is one of the ways in which it's changing.

Debito, however, is leading a crusade. When he finds an injustice, he quietly and politely asks the perpetrators to change. If they don't, he makes a public issue of it. And I say, good for him. But here's the problem: he refers to himself as 'Japanese.' I want to say, sorry, dude, but you're not! Yes, you have a piece of paper that says you are. You have a passport. But even the Japanese who know you, and your citizenship, I'd bet if I asked them, 'Is he Japanese?' they'd hesitate and say, 'well, he's a Japanese citizen.' That would be the best they could do. They simply couldn't look at a Western face and unselfconsciously say 'he's Japanese,' like I could with my American friend Mike. And after all, you don't act like a Japanese! You're a shit-disturber! No offense! A terrific shit-disturber! But real Japanese don't do that! You're not supposed to point out other people's wrongs, unless you're a socially-sanctioned entity. You're not supposed to create grass-roots organizations that press for change. That's not what Japanese do.

I link here to a great piece Debito wrote in the Japan Times about Mr. James. He makes a lot of good points; I could disagree with him on a few points around the margins, but basically I agree with him. Any reasonable big company shouldn't do an ad campaign that even comes close to making fun of a minority with stereotypes, and this campaign, while far from horribly offensive, does at least come close. I, however, cannot get myself to be offended, or even to boycott McDonald's Japan. I believe that to the extent that the campaign is offensive, it is so accidentally, not deliberately. Japanese just can't understand the perspective of a minority unless they've lived overseas and been stereotyped, which most haven't. I choose to live in Japan, but it isn't my country, and I can leave if I want to. I don't agree with those who say that as 'guests' in the country we have no right to protest discrimination; I simply have no interest in knocking myself out trying to change the views of those who discriminate. Maybe I'm just lazy. Debito has decided that it is his country, and he's trying to make it a better one. More power to him, but I would rather be Mike, and adopt a country that wants to have me.