Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

I’m afraid of Barak Obama

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

It comes as a surprise to few who know me, that in addition to my afore mentioned passion for flip-flops, I am an admirer of David Bowie. One of my favorite songs of his, is the rousing “I’m Afraid Of Americans” from the album Earthling.

The thing is that things are really volatile right now. I don’t think people heard Al Gore the other day. I would sum it up as:

1. We are currently on course towards the end of the period in which the surface of the earth is hospitable for human habitation. All of our other issues are linked, or subservient, to this Damocles sword.

2. It is arguable that the United States has a very significant role to play in regards to this situation.

3. Our current state of democracy sclerosis (Gore’s term although he didn’t use it at the DNC) renders the native intelligence and muscle of the United States weak and impotent, exactly when we need it.

It’s not that I think political change in the United States would be nice. It’s that I think that without it we’re all going to die.

The scale of what needs to happen is not like the Apollo program. The scale of what is needed will make WWII look small… ok maybe not small but what needs to happen is bigger than WWII.

If there is something which in my mind could justify a unitary executive, it is this. A dictator that gets this done, might not be a bad thing. That I think this, is dangerous. I hope that there is another way, cause the genie of that kind of power lives in a toothpaste tube. It only comes out, not back in.

When I look at all these earnest Obama supporters chanting about “change” I keep imagining the exchange between Tyrell and Roy in BLADE RUNNER, where Tyrell asks Roy if he wants to be “…altered in some way.” and Roy answers ominously “Had in mind something a bit more radical.” The conversation ends with Roy killing Tyrell (oh, sorry… spoiler alert.)

It’s not that I think Barak is some psychopath who is plotting some terrible ploy and he’s going to sit there in the Oval office stroking a cat, watching the world burn through his monocle. But it may be that the change we need requires or facilitates power of a voltage so high, we’re stupid not to approach it gingerly.

I don’t think Obama is a saint. And although I wouldn’t call him corrupt, we’re talking about giving him a lot of power. Let me see… What was it that power did to people? Hmmm…

If we are in the midst of a revolution (and I hope we are), then we must keep our heads on our shoulders. I’m excited about what’s going on. I loved Obama’s speech. I am filled with hope right now. But it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the mile-high event and the Nuremberg rallies. And although that perception is a potentially potent weapon for the opposition, to ignore it seems historically stupid.

I think we should elect this guy. I think the dangers I sense in him are worth the risk, because we can be more sure of the catastrophe that will result from the alternative.

But the country needs radical surgery, and if we don’t fear that we’re just ignorant. I’ve never had anyone slice into my chest and screw around with my heart before. But I imagine that my relationship with such a process would involve fear. I’m just guessing here.

Here’s another thing that scares me:

Barak losing the election is not the worst-case Scenario. If you want to know what it felt like when Robert Kennedy was killed, imagine an assassination now. Good god! The streets would run with blood. Or we’d all wake up and realize that we’ve had enough of this. Obviously, those are dice I’m hoping never roll. It’s hard to even contemplate.

All this being said, we cannot act out of fear. None of this changes the fact that I think the most important thing to do as an American and as a member of the human species, is elect Barak Obama. Not out of blind love, or lock-step passion. But because it’s the best chance we have right now. Don’t be deluded. This is not going to be easy. It is FAR from in the bag.

Remember, the country we live in is the one where in the last 24 hours, the choice of Governor MILF has almost completely hijacked the election news cycle.

I haven’t been speaking out on the election much because I’m not a member of any party. As such, until the nomination was final, Barak’s candidacy was someone elses problem. We are now in the general election, he’s my candidate, and it’s time to get this done.

We blew it with Gore, and on paper, and in hindsight, that was a mortal lock.

Flip-flops

Friday, August 29th, 2008

I think it was New Mexico governor Bill Richardson at Mile-high stadium yesterday who said that “John McCain may pay hundreds of dollars for his shoes, but we’ll pay for his flip-flops.” Cute. I like Bill Richardson for the most part. But I take exception to this.

What’s wrong with flip-flops?

As foot-ware, I think they are wonderful. I wear them as much as I can. Spend any time with me at all and you know this. There is an acupuncture/pressure point between your big toe and it’s neighbor (right where the thong of a flip-flop goes), the stimulation of which, engenders well-being and longevity. This is why I’m as good-natured as I am, and also why I don’t expect to ever die.

Politically, I think the demonizing of flip-flops has been detrimental to discourse, and morally grounded leadership.

When I was in LA in August, my friend Anthony was talking about how when Arnold came into office, he had all these strong opinions and ideas. He loaded up the ballot with all kinds of initiatives with the expectation of sweeping changes. They got beaten. Badly. So Arnold changed his mind. And he is now passionately pursuing things that are almost the opposite of what he was saying during the re-call election. This seems profoundly healthy. It is democracy as dialogue. It is an elected official understanding that his job is to act upon the will of the people, even when that’s not what he said he was going to do. Democrats love to decry Republicans like Schwarzenegger as ideologues. Clearly he is not.

When did we start valuing consistency and “keeping promises” over listening and adaptability? Isn’t the ability to read the lay of the land and respond, more valuable than the ability to articulate positions that will hold no matter what?

It’s fine to have a plan. Good to have a map. But a map is not the territory, and a plan is nothing but a launching pad. Often it seems like people who “stick to their guns” are like drivers who follow their GPS systems into walls, or off cliffs. This is one of many things that bothers me about any form of partisanship. Given the inherent complexity of life, your team/party/country/gender/mythology, no matter how wonderful, is not always going to be “the best”, so to claim that it is, is to set yourself up for stupidity.

I’m not a complete idiot. Of course there are consistencies that are grounded in reality. But whether the universe is primarily characterized by change or consistency is a matter of scale. I would argue that if you pull back far enough, violent, wrenching chaos is pretty characteristic of this thing we’re calling reality. So wisdom seems to dictate flexibility and articulation in our being within it.

When Barak Obama articulates his convictions about our fundamental responsibility to each other; that we are each others’ keepers, I hope he doesn’t change his mind about that. But there are plenty of things that I don’t agree with him about. There are plenty of things I wish he would go further on. I support him to the extent that I trust that he will stay awake in office, and change, listen and flip-flop when needed.

If you look at many of the worst leaders in history, their behavior features astounding levels of consistency and trustworthiness. They stick to their guns, often literally. I don’t think I need to name the obvious examples.

Abraham Lincoln (a Republican president who turns out, apparently, to be Obama’s grandfather), did not enter the white house intending to abolish slavery. He did it, when it became an expedient measure in winning the war to unify the country. I think we can argue about whether or not the union was important enough to justify a bloody war; something Lincoln was unwavering in his certainty about. But I don’t know a good argument against the abolition of slavery. And that was something Lincoln flip-flopped on.

My namesake, Trotsky, was killed because he thought the wheel of revolution should keep turning. Most revolutions turn sour because once in power the revolutionaries become inflexible, consistent, stones. Solid and certain of their positions and their hold on power.

Anne says: The result of certainty is violence.

Cause I’m a jerk, I say: Are you certain of that?

She hits me, and I realize she’s right.

I hope Barak Obama wins. I encourage us all to get out there and do whatever we can to bring this about. It’s not in the bag and I hope we don’t blow it again this time. Given the current political realities in the United States this is probably going to mean presenting him as consistent, solid, unwavering and trustworthy. But whether he’s going to be a good president is going to depend on how flexible his spine is. His facility for mental yoga.

So, again, I hope Barak Obama wins. And I hope he wears flip-flops in the white house.

An Olympic joke

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Ok, so I’ve been telling this one for a couple weeks and I really like the way it works, so while the memory of the China games fades:

Q: How do they fill Olympic swimming pools?

A: Michael Phelps.

If you don’t find this funny, of if it doesn’t even seem to be a joke, it might help to know that this joke is actually dependent on another, older Olympic joke:

Q: How do they fill Olympic swimming pools?

A: Mark Spitz.

See?

Yes, I know that this is my blog entry on the day that Obama is speaking at the DNC convention. But certainly you’re getting enough of all that, and I didn’t want to do it during the Olympics cause you were getting enough of that then.

TSA

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

TSA airport security inspections suck.

Who was it who said that TSA stands for “Thousands, Standing Around.”

There is, on one hand, the whole political argument about being subjected to a search without probable cause, and the attendant argument about whether any of this is really doing what they say it’s doing, but that’s a rant that been ranted in other places by other ranters. Let me just say that I have deeper questions about the whole thing.

But the frustration that I’m ranting about here, is related to the aesthetics of the experience. I mean, I know there’s probably some sort of security reason why the whole thing has to be flexible or something, but why does it always seem like these TSA inspections are run by FEMA? I know for a fact that there are architects in this country. It follows that some of them are talented. It follows that some of these could solve this. It just doesn’t seem that hard to design a way to do this with a modicum of grace. It’s one thing to have to take your belt and shoes off as part of a public transportation experience. But I don’t think they could do this worse if they tried. Even the newer facilities that have been built in the last few years, look like they were set up in a couple of hours by some high-school student council committee.

Beyond the design issues, there is the problem of the staff. There seem to be two types.

The first is the type that knows that there is an inherent arbitrary absurdity to the situation and the best thing they can do is try to maintain compliance with this week’s regulations with a minimum of stress. These people are relatively helpful.

Earlier this summer I was going through security in Las Vegas (on the way from Edmonton Alberta to Chicago Illinois… in addition to architects I think we could use some cartographers.). I have taken to carrying Sigg water bottles with me when I fly. By filling them at water fountains at the gate, I can avoid the carbon footprint of bottled water and the bacterial footprint of onboard water tanks. Anyway, the trick requires going through security with the bottles empty, but in Las Vegas, because I was on a lay-over I didn’t expect to have to do the TSA thing, and one of my bottles was full of Canadian water. So the guy said, you’re going to have to empty it, and then escorted me on a circuitous path that took me around the entire inspection area and back to the other side. We walked past several water fountains and restrooms. He said he’s having to do this more and more because more and more people have similar hydration strategies to mine, and he doesn’t think it’s right to take their bottles away. When I said “And there’s no way I can just dump it on THIS side, he shook his head and rolled his eyes.

The other type of TSA employee is apparently dealing with the largest amount of authority they have ever had. They are not dealing with it well. They have allowed their perception of the stakes of their situation to stress them out, and make them vaguely abusive. Harking back to Milgram, these people have been given instructions that allow them to be stupider and ruder than they probably would be in normal circumstances.

I was going through security in New Orleans once, several years ago. I had a button shirt that I was wearing over a T-shirt. It was unbuttoned and untucked. I was flying north and I would want it buttoned by the time we landed. The guy told me to take my jacket off. I told him that it wasn’t a jacket, it was a shirt. But he made me take it off. I asked him if he would have made me take it off if it had been buttoned up. He just stared at me. But I really wanted to know, so after getting through, I went back out, buttoned and tucked in my shirt, went through again. The guy just stared at me. He was clearly pissed off at me, but he couldn’t ask me to take my shirt off.
Ok, so that’s a story about how I’m kind of a jerk, but the point is that these rules are CRAZY, and they set up situations in which human interactions become really dumb. Unless this craziness is the common enemy we’re at odds with each other.

On the positive side, the TSA has set up TSA Complaints, and I have heard reports that this has been effective. Some things that people have complained about have been addressed.

However, in addition to the TSA staff, there is another group of people who frustrate me when going through airport security.

The other passengers.

I’m sure I’m guilty of pissing people off in TSA lines as well, but I have NEVER gone through one of these lines without feeling that people aren’t paying attention or thinking ahead. I understand that some people don’t travel very much and aren’t used to this process, but it just isn’t that tricky. Here are some “rules” that have emerged for me.

1. Think ahead. Pack your carry-on with a thought towards this process. Put the contents of your pockets in your bag before you get anywhere near the scanner.

2. Think through how many of those plastic tubs you’re going to need. Grab that number and keep moving. Keep your stuff together for as long as you can.

3. Put your, laptop, little baggie of liquids, your shoes, and belt etc in the tubs at the last possible moment, and send them through the scanner.

4. At the other end, the priority is to keep moving. Grab your stuff and get as far from the scanner as you can. If you are standing at the exit to the scanner, putting your shoes on, you are causing a problem.

If people would just do this, it would move SO MUCH smoother.

All of this of course is filed under the heading of sweeping generalizations. There are plenty of anecdotes about helpful TSA folk and efficient passengers. But on the whole, I find everyone to be at least mildly irritating, if not wildly infuriating while involved in this hateful practice.

It has always driven me irrationally crazy, and I could never figure out why. Going through security at Jet Blue in JFK this last weekend, I suddenly realized why this is so irritating to me. As a theatre artist a big part of my job/interest is movement through time and space. I’m not an expert when it comes to the legality of this whole TSA enterprise. I am an expert when it comes to how it’s performed. TSA security inspections are badly staged!

I can see how to fix this problem but I need everyone to either train more or rehearse.

Oy vey

The Dark Knight (part 2)

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Here are a couple of other thoughts that didn’t really fit in the first post.

One of the things that is interesting to me about “The Dark Knight” is the viral marketing of the film itself. The campaign, which was aimed specifically at the Batman fan base, used websites that appeared to be political sites for Harvey Dent. As something other than an ardent fan, I wouldn’t have even noticed such a thing, but for fans it was the beginning of a trail of digital crumbs that led to the first images of The Joker. These images then got passed around as both “Look at this cool image” and “Look how cool I am that I figured it out” capital. A lot of this passing around was directed at other fans (read “nerds”), but it is the percentage of it that got into the mainstream, non-nerd public which really impacted anticipation of the film. It turns out that we’re all only a couple degrees of separation away from a comic book nerd. So they made the nerds work for the info, and then let them run with it.

Brilliant!

Speaking of brilliant: The plot of The Dark Knight involves a “social experiment” by The Joker. It’s one of the most inventive and interesting aspects of the film’s story, and handled quite well I think. What it immediately made me think of is another experiment that is of deep significance to current ethical thought in America. It is the so-called “Milgram experiment.” If you aren’t familiar with it, please follow the Wikipedia link I just gave you and find out more.

Here’s why I think Milgram is so important right now. Arguably, the United States lost whatever moral legitimacy it had in Iraq the day that the Abu Ghraib story broke. As shocking as it was to us outside of Iraq, to Iraqis the proper noun “Abu Ghraib” was already familiar and loaded. At that point, it was over.
However, in the States, free from past associations, there was an immediate, and largely successful spin campaign to contextualize the incident. The story-line was simple: The abuses were the result of bad apples. I don’t believe anyone who wasn’t actually in one of the pictures, has ever been held responsible for what is an ethical catastrophe.

However, everything that I’ve read or seen about those American “bad apples” points to the fact that they are completely normal, and deeply misunderstood. And what Milgram shows us, is that put in the right set of circumstances, most normal people will do things that seriously violate their own sense of right. Milgram is evidence that, all things being equal, the “bad apple” argument is unlikely to be right, and when there are systematic abuses, it behooves us to look at the system.

It is comforting to blame the bad apples because it allows us to participate in our supposed good appleness. This is dangerous and doesn’t allow us to deal with the fact that most of us would have behaved the way those soldiers at Abu Ghraib did. In this light, Milgram seems depressing, but I find it deeply hopeful. I think there are 3 responses to Milgram (and these are in order of priority):

1. As a society, take pains to avoid creating Milgram type situations.

2. As an individual, take pains to recognize and avoid getting into Milgram type situations.

3. As an individual, if you find yourself in a Milgram type situation, be in the percentage that disobeys.

It is on this last point that the hope is brightest. In the Milgram experiment there was a percentage who stopped. They were in the minority, but they existed. This statistical thread is what gets humanity through things like the Cuban Missile crisis. The way that this was presented in The Dark Knight is not only moving, but thrilling. The result of The Joker’s experiment seems to fly in the face of Milgram, but I would argue that it doesn’t. All you need, on each boat, is one individual who has the wiles to get control of the button, and is a member of Milgram’s minority.

And here we’re back to the idea of a hero as the person willing to transgress. The person operating on the basis of their own moral convictions. We feel all cool about Batman in this sense, but it’s the same species as The Joker and Clockwork’s Alex.

Free will: Can’t live with it. Can’t live without it.

There are no easy answers to any question worth asking. My ambivalence towards “The Dark Knight” is centered on the feeling that although it is bringing up some pretty interesting questions, it is also, at times pretending that there are easy answers to them.

Rantings of the politically insane…

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

Let me see if I remember this…
There is a story about Laurie Anderson getting an assignment to interview John Cage. Anyone got a citation on this? I think it’s on the Puppet Motel cd rom which I can’t play anymore. (Remember cd roms?!!). As I remember it, she’s sitting there listening to him talk and she’s increasingly obsessed with and distracted by a question that she eventually blurts out:

“Are things getting better, or are they getting worse?”

Cage takes a moment and then says:

“I’m not sure, but they’re certainly getting faster.”

The question is a good one. An excellent one. One that I find myself asking all the time. And Cage’s answer, like many things he said, is most exquisitely useful.

I have often said this but it is one of the profound mixed-blessings of being bi-cultural, that it is almost impossible for me to see only one side of any argument. This would be a great thing, except that I find myself arguing sides of arguments that shock me, all the time. So I try to inch the mix on this blessing towards the good.

I also believe in debate. Argument. The vigorous battle of ideas. Its a way of improving our thinking. Making our ideas stronger. Because of this, if you say to me that you support any of the current presidential candidates, I will passionately take up the cause of the other, and try to convince you. The foundation that this situation sits on is that I have not made up my own mind yet. And I will argue that I am passionate about NOT making up my mind right now. The general election is still ten months away. Because I refuse to hold a party affiliation, I cannot vote in the NY primary. The system has told me that I either play the game or they don’t want to hear from me till November.

Yeah, I tend to agree with the democrats. That doesn’t mean that I want to JOIN their little club. The candidates that actually articulate the things that I think are necessary in our country are cranks that have already been dismissed at this point in the process. My views run towards pacifist anarchy with social accountability. I have no problem with Marx being right, but Smith seems to have been more practical in terms of how the world seems to work. Everybody with “vision” is either a Utopian Capitalist or a Utopian Marxist. Meanwhile what are those of us who live in the real world supposed to do? I want a strong government that distributes wealth equitably, but also stays away from my life, and my personal choices about how to live. Clearly, I’m politically insane. You wouldn’t want me running the government anymore than you’d want me doing open heart surgery. I do, however, feel these things.

Part of my distaste for Party politics comes from a distaste for team boosterism/fandom. The whole “My team/family/race/religion/sexuality/gender/party/nation/culture/species is better than yours, and we’re gonna kick your butt!” is SO infuriatingly tiresome to me. It is the kind of thinking that allows us to find moral justifications for interpersonal violence (what other kind is there). But we reduce even something like doing political good to this same horse-race argument. My good is better than your good, and I will pound you to dust to prove it.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in competition. Far from it. I think it is essential. But it is a much more profound thing than the hooliganism I see most often. I have to thank my friends over at the “Oh My Goodness!” blog (see the link in the sidebar) for the following Carl Wilson quote about democracy:

“This is what I mean by democracy–not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like. Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical, and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but to celebrate it, to stake everything on it. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves.”

I like this. I like it a lot. It confirms in me the political thrill that I feel when I talk to someone who disagrees with me. The ecstatic joy of living in a milieu where I am not “like” those around me. The profound happiness of “otherness”. This is democracy. You don’t need democracy in an environment where everyone agrees. Democracy is a stab at answering the deceptively profound and paradoxical question: How do we live together while preserving the values of plurality and multiplicity? How do we REALLY?

Ok. I will now do the violence of political articulation here. From my point of view right now, this minute:
The Barak vs Hilary presidential candidate argument, misses the whole point. The point is that the United States is being run by corporate interests and we are polluting the planet past its ability to continue to sustain us, while killing and torturing people. Both Barak and Hilary are members of our CURRENT government. Why have they not risked their political lives fighting what is happening RIGHT NOW? Why have they not aggressively pursued the sorts of changes that they talk about. Anyone can say the things that they’re saying. Why haven’t they done it yet? Why should we trust them AT ALL otherwise? This may be asking a lot, but do we not have a right to ask a lot of those who seek from us our political power? Barak, Hilary and Edwards agree on so much, what if they were to form a coalition to actually get some of these things done? We are being asked to care about who’s in the white house. Why? The only reason to care is because they may be able to do something meaningful. So isn’t it just as good if they can do it outside the white house? Why are they wasting our time? People are dieing unnecessarily right now. We are screwing up the environment unnecessarily right now. The civil rights of people are already being dismantled.

It’s like we’re standing inside a burning building watching some sort of competition, where we’re asked to choose which fire-department will come rescue us in a year. And the people with hoses and axes are being told to stand back and not get in the way of the all-important competition. And we are told not to run. To keep our eyes on the shiny trucks.

So is this new? Is this any different than it’s ever been? I doubt it. It’s probably always been this way.

It’s just happening faster.

Going back to some Japan Thoughts

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

Ok, so I’ve been lazy about the Blog. Here I am climbing back into the saddle.

So I waxed rather rhapsodic about Japan while I was there so here are some things that SUCK about Japan:

• Relative rarity of free WiFi networks (Australia, or at least Melbourne, also SUCKs on this count)

• Rarity of AC outlets in Airports, trains, train stations. There are coin operated cell-phone charging stations which are cool, and I understand that free plugs aren’t ubiquitous in the States either, but if you look, you can usually find power to snitch in the US. This leads to another thing: I understand that the power needs are different, but if every little calculator can have the little photo-voltaic cell on it, why can’t my iPhone have a flip top that provides a trickle charge. I don’t expect it to be able to run it, but it would slow the battery drain. Wouldn’t it? (I’m setting this up for my bother Joel to comment on it).

• Shu-den. The last train. For all the glory of Japanese mass transit, it doesn’t run all night. On the way back to the hotel one night in Tokyo, Akiko and I were on the last train on the Sobu line into Shinjuku. We were changing there to the Yamanote, but the Yamanote line was delayed. Because the Sobu train was the last one of the night, they waited for the Yamanote line to arrive. When we got off the train, it was already full. As we stood there across the platform from it, it filled up to the point that people were hanging out of the doors. When our train finally showed up, it was full and MOST of the people got off and tried to get onto the now completely full Sobu train. The scene on the platform as our train pulled away was something out of a high-concept disaster movie. The number of people trying to get on was at least two and a half times the packed capacity of the train.

I don’t know the numbers on this but if the MTA here in NYC can run trains all night, why can’t there be some service late night in Japan? Is there a downside? Sound? Wear and tear? Capsule hotels will go bankrupt?

Speaking of sound:
• Sound trucks. Japanese politics features a very vocal radical right-wing, called the Uyoku. As opposed to the radical left Sayoku, Both of these are boarder-line terrorist organizations, and whereas when I was young the Sayoku were the ones demonstrating against Narita airport and the constitution, by the time I was living here in the 80s and 90s it was the Uyoku that was making all the noise. To over-simplify completely, the Uyoku are Neo-Nazis. They’re intensely nationalist. They don’t like foreigners. And they would like us to operate on the basis that the 2nd World War is still on, and that Japan should be much more aggressive towards the Russians in terms of certain islands which are in northern Japan or southern Sakhalin, depending on who’s telling the story.

The MO of these guys is to drive around in black panel vans with white and red slogans written all over them and late 1930’s Messerschmidt loud speakers on the roof. The guy in the passenger seat then proceeds to shout into a hand held CB style microphone and what you can hear through the distortion of the tortured amps is a stream of Mussolini style tirade. They often have a posse which consists of a small parade of men marching behind them in military fatigues, helmets and white gloves, holding various banners and flags.

I was eating my lunch in the court-yard of the theatre in Mito many years ago when one of these parades went by. One of the marchers came over and stood over me, watching me eat my rice-ball. After awhile he asked if I liked Japanese food. I told him that I did, and he walked away as if I had validated something about his life. I was a bit confused by the encounter, but I don’t think I was as confused as he was.

Akiko and I ran into such a parade in Shibuya on our way to see Kayoko’s play and the sound bouncing off the glass sides of the valley of high-fashion retail was mind melting. I didn’t make out ONE SINGLE WORD of what this knucklehead was saying. I don’t know what the issue was, or what he was trying to convince me of. I suspect this has ceased to be the point of these trucks. They’re a form of right wing punk rock. I don’t know their politics enough to know if I agree or disagree with them anymore. But I don’t like their punk rock.

• Misogyny. There’s a lot of it in Japan. It’s everywhere. You see it in the behavior of both men and women. Almost everything I say about liking the basic state of being in Japan is predicated on my being male. I often wonder if Akiko would like Japan if she hadn’t been somewhat inoculated to the misogyny by growing up here.

• Racism. There is a truism that I hold to about living in the United States that states that, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t benefit from being a white person. This is mostly because I’m treated in with a modicum of respect and normality. I assume in an emergency, that I’ll be able to communicate reasonably with members of the Police. for example. In Japan this gets complicated because there is a kind of positive racism in that I’m actually held in some weird form of respect just cause I’m white. This has dissipated over the years just because it’s not the rarity it used to be, but when I was a kid it was SO easy to take advantage of being European that a lot of us didn’t really notice the extent of the effect. I remember that the first few black people I had contact with in Japan, had radically different experiences as “Gaijin”. Some of it was novelty but there was an ugly edge to it. Hip-Hop culture’s hold on vogue has changed this considerably, but there’s a generational issue. The official bureaucracy is not hip to Hip-Hop. The historical situation concerning Koreans and Chinese is an absolute horror story.
One has to be careful. To say that Japanese people are racist… is racist. I know many Japanese people who are very sophisticated about these issues. I’m talking about general social tenancies here, which I acknowledge is dangerous.

The upside to the Japanese attitude towards gender and racial equality is that there is a relative absence of political correctness. People are more likely to indicate their attitude, and you know where people stand, but the underlying ambient level of discrimination is undeniable, and unacceptable. It’s not that this isn’t also true of most other countries, including the States but I believe Japan is shamefully behind, in terms of equal pay and other tangible issues.

• Localized technology. I don’t know exactly how to talk about this yet. It’s something that I really noticed on this last trip and I’m not sure I can be clear here but it has to do with Japanese society’s tendency to create a great deal of innovation that is fundamentally self-involved. It’s like the Americans making cars that only appeal to Americans and then expecting everyone to buy them.

There is this canard about Japan not being able to innovate. I think this is bunk. This is a society that can come up with five, distinct, cost-effective ways to package a rice ball without the seaweed touching the rice, that can be unwrapped without touching the rice directly. The six years I was gone saw a transformation in the way hot cans of coffee get sold out of vending machines. The new trains have these very user-friendly data screens that let you know where you are and how long it’s going to take to get you where you’re going. The thing that gets me is that the layout is reversed depending on which side of the train you’re on. In other words, the whole layout is reversed to make sure that the map is oriented the way the train is actually moving. The next station on the map is in the same direction as the train is moving. This is a small thing, but it’s the kind of thing that makes a difference between technology that’s adjusting to humans or the other way around. The iPhone (which I love) has a flaw in this regard: When it’s in Landscape mode, the volume rocker is reversed relative to the volume indicator on screen, and Apple is the master of this game.

Think for a moment about the latest development in toilet technology that has an actual impact on your life (not in the area of cleaning the toilet). No really. Think about it. It’s probably the development of cheap, readily available toilet paper. I’m willing to bet thats what it is, and I don’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case. This means, that I’ve NEVER seen forward movement (excuse the pun) in the technology of routine bowel evacuation. This is not true in Japan. When I was a kid, the throne style “western” toilet was a relative rarity. Now a toilet that doesn’t have a built in bidet, and automated washing set-up with air-drying and seat warming is a relative rarity. I’ve seen these things introduced in little news items in the States as an example of “those nutty Japanese”. I have never seen such a clear example of “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

Mocking these things makes us look like the filthy ignorant Neanderthals we probably are, but the broader point here is that the innovation that has lead to things things is not permeating world culture. This is the thing I can’t put my finger on, but there’s something self involved about making something that only a Japanese person would find useful. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that of course, but somehow I get the feeling in Japan that it’s not coming from a passion towards the Japanese way of life, but a fear of going out and playing in the bigger playground. It is the old Japanese insularity, and it feeds the conflicted sense of superiority (look at our cool stuff)/inferiority (oh you wouldn’t be interested) that lies at the heart of so much in Japan.

Ok. Thats it for now.

Gotta go do some stuff.

Melbourne 6

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

There’s a recent episode of The Simpsons in which Homer becomes “Pie Man” and goes around fighting injustice by throwing pies in people’s faces. Burns finds out his secret identity and blackmails him into doing his bidding by basically becoming his hit-man. There’s a shot where there’s a girl-scout like little girl at Burn’s door and he sticks his head out to say something like “Just a minute.” We then hear Homer complaining that he doesn’t want to hurt the little girl. And Burns says: “Pie that Brownie, Fruitcake!”
I love that! Can’t get it out of my head.

It’s hot in Melbourne again. That means flies.
I bought two hats. One is a felt Akubra that has, as the guy at City Hats said, “20 rabbits in it”. It’s now the biggest hat I own and its VERY comfortable. The other is a kangaroo leather bush hat by Akubra’s biggest rival Barmah. It can fold up and fit into a canvas bag that came with it. The guy at City Hats said that Kangaroo is the second most durable leather in the world. Like an idiot, I didn’t ask him what the first most durable was.
City Hats is at Flinders St. Station and is a definite stop for anyone interested in getting a good hat while in Melbourne. Small cramped shop with just stacks and stacks of hats. And the guy (I didn’t get his name) was a TRIP. He was complaining about the number of people at the track this year who weren’t wearing hats: “As if skin cancer is more fashionable.”
He was preaching to the choir with me. I love hats. I love wearing them. It saddens me that they are no longer assumed in our society. I’ve been in some old theaters that have a wire hat holder under the seat. It’s so completely civilized. You put your hat in the holder and then fold the seat down and sit. Unlike in restaurants and bars these days where you can’t find anywhere to put a hat. Not even a rack or hook. And then the staff treat you like you’re some kind of trouble-maker because you expect there to be some provision for the hat-inclined.

Watching Australia oust Howard and get their long-term dream of a new government has been interesting. I have not yet met a single Howard supporter. I know they exist, but they don’t hang around arts type people in Melbourne it seems. The point is, that it makes me think about the next US election. What alarms me most is that in a context featuring a profoundly messed up portfolio of foreign policy disasters, and an accelerating environmental disaster of global proportions, I don’t hear anyone really saying anything that isn’t political maneuvering. Maybe that’s par for the course. That you’ve got to get into the office and then you can do things. But it seems like what we could use is somebody who can craft an ability to grock all of this stuff into an ability to communicate it. I feel like we live in a world where there are so many alarms going on, that we don’t hear any of them.
I mean, have you heard what some of these climate scientists have been saying? When was the last time you heard anyone with credibility say anything along the lines of “Oh, it turns out things aren’t as bad. Our estimates were pessimistic. Global warming is accelerating more slowly than we thought.”? Quite on the contrary, you hear expert after expert saying things along the lines of “It’s worse than we thought. It’s all fundamentally falling apart RIGHT NOW. Our previous estimates were pure Pollyanna fantasy.” When people talk about good news in climate science these days its about the fact that Al Gore has made a difference and a few more people take the subject a bit more seriously. This is like saying that you’ve managed to convince the occupants of a burning building that fire actually exists.

I look at how we live our lives now and I think about a little kid coming up to me when I’m old and asking “What the hell were you people DOING? What was wrong with you?”

And then there’s the war…

Melbourne 5

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

The title of this post sounds like a singing group or a gang of super-heros or a TV detective show: “Melbourne Five”

Ok. So you may have noticed a change to the Blog. I signed up for Google’s AdSense program. This means that the box at the top of the page will be populated by links to advertisers that have been selected by Google’s algorithms (Al-Gore-isms) to be of interest to those interested in the content of the page. I’m curious about this.
I’m interested in a number of things about it:
Whether or not the kinds of things that show up in my ads will seem relevant, useful or helpful.
Whether it becomes irritating.
Whether it actually makes any money.

If you have thoughts about this, I encourage you to let me know. I’m not completely sure how I feel about it and figure getting it out there is a way to clarify my feelings. “I’m sorry your honor, I wasn’t sure how I felt about serial killing so I thought I’d try it out and see. Turns out it’s not my thing.”

Speaking of which: It seems that the “Comment” functionality on my Blog is down. I’m trying to figure it out but for the time being it doesn’t seem to be working. I’ll let you know when it’s back, so if you’ve got comments, save them up.

I’m also thinking about changing the name of the blog to something other than “Leon’s Weblog”. The current title has the advantage of descriptive accuracy, abut that’s about it. So stand by on that as well.

Saturday was election day in Australia. Australians are required to vote. They get fined about $40 if they don’t, so everyone has this thing today that’s kind of like jury duty in the states. They HAVE TO GO, but it’s a privilege. So it’s a total pain to be able to take part in this wonderful thing.

Given the political strategies in the States based on turn out alone, it’s interesting to think about what would happen if we had such a system in the U.S. Another option would be to declare elections with an insufficient turn out, invalid. Until we reach a certain percentage, let’s say 80 percent just to be ambitious, we don’t have a quorum and the election has to be done over.
I know there are arguments about mandatory voting not representing the kind of freedom that Americans hold to, but it also seems clear that two big things that can derail a democracy are voter ignorance and apathy. Not that mandatory voting would make people any less apathetic or informed, but it might help. If you have to vote, you have to at least know something. You at least have to get up off the couch.
I think it’s possible to argue that when you’ve got an overwhelming majority of the people in a country not voting, they’ve voted against the basic idea of democracy and it’s time for something else.

So Labor won. This, it seems, is a good thing. The Liberal coalition has been in power for almost 12 years. Most of my friends here compared this election to the next one in the US; a chance to get rid of an abusive government. Well it seems to have happened. It wasn’t a landslide but PM Howard seems to have lost not only his post but his Parliamentary seat as well. That’s gotta hurt.

The US election is almost a year away. Almost anything can happen in that time. I’m sure many things will. I’m haunted by something I heard Sy Hersh say a few weeks back: The Democrats are going to lose this thing if they don’t wake up. There’s time to wake up and there’s time to blow it. Only time will tell.