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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Harry Potter fan fiction

Like millions of other people, about eight years ago I got interested in the Harry Potter book series. The stories were charming, innocent, and engaging, and the universe the author created was fabulously imaginative. I very much liked the first four books, and I was willing to overlook some of their flaws, like questionable story logic and two-dimensional characters (Professor Snape and the Dursley family leap to mind). The fifth book, however, left me unsatisfied. Harry had a tough year, but the author's clumsy and highly visible manipulations to remove virtually all support from Harry made the story hard to swallow. Still, I was very keen to know what would happen in the final two stories, and I found I had a few ideas.

I somehow became inspired enough to want to do something I’d have never thought I would try: to write a story. Writing with someone else’s characters is a little like using training wheels, which suited me fine. I did it for no other reason than that I wanted to, and I had no idea whether it would ever be read by anyone other than those I knew. I posted it to a fan fiction site, where to my surprise, the story got many positive comments. I’m sure it will never be mistaken for great literature, but many people spent many hours reading it, and were more than satisfied after they finished; a few told me that they lost sleep, having stayed up too late because they couldn't stop reading. What more could a writer want? Over time, I found that through fiction I could explore issues in which I was interested; character development and moral dilemmas played significant parts in what I wrote. As I write this, I have completed five of my own Harry Potter stories. (I do plan to write again, but my next story will be an original one, not in the Harry Potter universe.)

My first two stories (Harry Potter and the Veil of Mystery and Harry Potter and the Ring of Reduction), completed before the author published the sixth book of the series, were my own versions of Harry and his friends' sixth and seventh years at Hogwarts. Late in the fifth book, Dumbledore tells Harry that the power he has that will defeat Voldemort is love. We are not, of course, told how this works. In these two stories, two central questions are: what is the connection between Harry, love, and Voldemort's defeat; and how can Snape appear so evil and still be trusted by the good and wise Dumbledore?

The third story (Phoenix Intuition), in the same timeline but set four years after Harry has finished studying at Hogwarts, had a substantially different style than the first two. The sixth and seventh year stories were in the same style as the official books: covering Harry's year from July to June, told entirely from Harry's point of view, in familiar settings. Phoenix Intuition has four concurrent storylines (which of course came together in the end): one featuring Harry and his friends, one focusing on the story's villain, one telling the story of political intrigue in the wizarding world, and one focusing on the Muggle political world (which is being manipulated by a wizard). This one wasn't as well received by fans as the others, probably because of the different style and the lack of strong focus on the central characters.

After that, I had no specific plans to write anything else in the Harry Potter universe, but after the seventh and final story was published, I got inspired again. The next story (Harry Potter and the Antiquity Link) was set immediately after Harry's defeat of Voldemort, and I considered it more of a character sketch than an adventure story, as the trilogy had been. The central question: what was the psychological toll on Harry of the events of the seven published stories? He'd been through all kinds of trauma, culminating in a decision to give up his life to save wizarding society. What would that do to a person? This story was about answering that question, both for the reader and for Harry himself, who is mentally out of sorts and has no idea why.

My next story (Harry Potter and the Amulet of the Moon) was a follow-up to that one, and asks the question: what might have happened if a character (not Harry) in the published series, faced with the most critical choice of his life, had chosen differently? The main theme is how our experiences shape us, and how the same person with different experiences might end up a very different person than he thought he could be.

The main difference between my stories and the official ones is that the real ones are written for both children and adults, while mine are with adults in mind only. Mine explore issues such as personal vs. collective responsibility, capital punishment, spirituality, self-interest vs. self-sacrifice, political machinations, relationships, and various types of moral dilemmas. (In other words, the kinds of things I want to write about in this blog.) I imagine children would be bored silly by these aspects of the story, but some readers tell me that these things are what they enjoy about my stories.

In the end, my audience for these stories was myself: I wrote what I wanted to read. I made them available on the web in hope that others would enjoy them, and I now make them available here. I hope anyone who has read and enjoyed all of the published Harry Potter stories will give these a try.