Saturday, November 26, 2005

NBC's Hot Air

At the Macy's Day parade in Manhattan Thursday, the M&M balloon crashed into a light pole, hurting an 11-year-old girl and her older sister. You wouldn’t know it watching NBC. The M&M balloon crossed the finish line, blown and healthy, while Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Al Roker, the day's three stooges of journalism (it's regrettable to say), told their jokes and gushed cheer all the way, never once mentioning the slightest mishap. How? NBC spliced in last year's footage of the M&M balloons crossing the finish line. Piling lies on injuries, Couric did tell the audience that NBC had briefly moved to tape, but only "because of today's windy conditions." The others' repartees are too revolting to reproduce, though Lauer ended with a crowning deception: "It's obvious the three of us have had a great time today, and we hope all of you did as well." Never a mention of the accident and the injuries. The only thing missing was a Jessica Lynch float. And the networks wonder why their credibility is nosediving as fast as their ratings.

Bush's Bathtub Hoax

When (correspondents often ask me) will the public wake up to the fraud being perpetrated on the nation for the last several years by this dark-shaded White House and in the name of--fill in the blanks: security, anti-terrorism, freedom, values, "ownership," "our way of life," whatever that last may be at the moment (shopping?). The question keeps recurring as if it could have a satisfying answer. But the question assumes too much, beginning with the notion that people are somehow asleep. That this couldn't have happened if they'd had their eyes open and their wits about them. That people are being willfully deceived. But the deception is self-inflicted. I'm, reminded of the time H.L. Mencken wrote his famous, and famously fictional, history of the bathtub. Newspapers ran it all over the place. Some ran it as nothing more than the fictional, humorous ditty he intended it to be, "a tissue of somewhat heavy absurdities," as he described it in a subsequent essay, "all of them deliberate and most of them obvious." Ironically, Mencken wrote the piece in December 1917, "to sublimate and so make bearable the intolerable libido of the war for democracy," what was then known as the War to End All Wars, what then became known as the Great War, and what, once it took on serial proportions, finally became known as World War I (man's hope for sequels having to be quenched at every opportunity). The point being that Mencken was sick of the bullshit associated with the justifications for the war, most if not all of those justifications being bunk. And if the country was so richly engrossed in bunk and on a scale so deathly as the bloody fields of Flanders, then why the hell not write a history of the bathtub, allege that it was put into the White House for the first time in the 1850s, and how "the intrepid Millard Fillmore, of Cayuga, N.Y., took the first presidential bath."

Problem is that gullibility being a national necessity (you wouldn’t have a nation of shoppers without first having a nation of gullibles) many newspapers ran the bathtub history as god's truth, as history right out of the books. Before long Mencken got worried, "[f]or it quickly appeared that at least nine-tenths of these readers took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness! Some of them, of antiquarian tastes, asked for further light upon this or that phase of the subject. Others offered corrections in detail. Yet others offered me corroboration! But the worst was to come. Soon I began to discover my preposterous 'facts' in the writings of other men, some of them immensely earnest.[...] They got into learned journals and the transactions of learned societies. They were alluded to on the floor of Congress."

And we wonder how the hoax of the weapons of mass destruction went from a fiction in the ramped-up imagination of a few oversexed and underemployed dissidents, a few overzealous CIA hacks, too many Internet trawlers and one prodigiously somnolent president all the way to a national policy and the most useless war on the planet since the last great useless war (the one by the same producers but in a more southeast Asian way)? It isn;t a matter of people having to wake up to realize the truth. It's nothing so noble, nothing so hopeful. It's a matter of people fully awake, fully aware, fully cognizant, even literate in some cases and brilliant in rare ones, wanting their truths chewed for them and mollified into digestible deceptions that make the days go by easier. It was never a matter of an American public being deceived on a large scale so much as it was a public craving deception, asking for it, getting it, and rewarding the deceiver in chief (our Grand Inquisitor of the moment, if there ever was one) with reelection. Those who would speak the truth would be slapped around and sent on their way, reviled and unneeded. Recall again Mencken's conclusion: "No normal human being wants to hear the truth. It is the passion of a small and aberrant minority of men, most of them pathological. They are hated for telling it while they live, and when they die they are swiftly forgotten. What remains to the world, in the field of wisdom, is a series of long-tested and solidly agreeable lies. It is out of such lies that most of the so-called knowledge of humanity flows. What begins as poetry ends as fact, and is embalmed in the history books. One recalls the gaudy days of 1914-1918."

One need not recall the gaudy days of 2001-2005. They're our days, our bathtub hoax, and we're all soaking in 'em up to our gills, willfully so. Those polls showing the president down below 35 percent in approval suggest that people are "waking up." It's nothing of the sort. There could be a mild-to-spectacular terrorist attack tomorrow. His ratings would shoot up faster than a heroin addict in the Bowery (who, all told, is more honest and defensible than the majority of our congressmen and the quasi totality of the current administration). Bush is very likely praying for an attack (to that same Old Testament god that vindictively loves to answer bloody-minded prayers, to make things interesting). It's the only thing that lent him legitimacy in 2001. He overdrew. A second mortgage of borrowed legitimacy is the only thing that can help him crawl to his finish line in 2008. He should be so lucky, and the rest of us, of course, so damn unlucky. Then again, it's self-deceiving to imagine that if there were to be an election tomorrow and he was the warmongers' choice, he'd lose. He wouldn’t lose. He'd find a way to win. His presidency has been all about putting the political fight above all else, even and especially at the expense of the lives of ordinary Americans here and not-so ordinary Americans in Iraq. The strategy didn't fail him. Bush is our bathtub hoax, and we've yet to see a correction.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Of Grief, Unreason and Thanks

McWorld's hegemony is all America all the time: A starlet blows her nose in Hollywood, a teenybopper instinctively reaches for a Kleenex box in Jakarta. Paris Hilton adjusts her bra or Britney Spears births another whitebread pop clone and cultural stock exchanges from Thule to Bombay react acrobatically. A president clears his throat in the Rose Garden; everyone from here to Pluto takes cover, for good reason, from the expected expectorations that pass for foreign policy before finding more appropriate destinations in the nearest spittoon. “Thomas Jefferson once said that ‘every man has two countries—his own and France,’” John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge tell us in The Right Nation (Penguin Press, 2004). “Today every man has two countries—his own and America.”

Except, that is, on Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays that, unlike anything else American, elicits nothing but indifference elsewhere. Today was just another day in every part of the world but ours.

I don't mean to diminish Thanksgiving. It's a wonderful holiday and an excellent launch into the Christmas season despite the commercial gluttony that launches with it. But it's also a silent Thanksgiving the world over: The world is giving thanks that on one day a year at least, what happens in the United States isn't an all-consuming black hole that presumes to suck in all that matters unto itself. In the rest of the world, Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that unfolds as if the United States didn't exist. Or as close to that as it ever could. Here's a brief look at life-as-usual in a few time zones unregulated by turkey and the Dallas Cowboys.

France is declaring war on rap. One hundred and forty three conservative French congressmen and 40 right-thinking senators want the French justice ministry to chase after seven rap groups they accuse of rapping hate and racism in those French suburbs that have been rapping bonfires for the last few weeks. That's an oddly Republican response though. Can't do much about the ship heading for an iceberg, so shoot the pianoplayer. It's as if Lynne Cheney and Tipper Gore had been vacationing in St. Tropez lately, together, with 183 lawmakers. Paris and the Washington Beltway: les cages aux folles. Britain is worried about the coldest winter in living memory, with blizzards heading for London and Manchester as I write. The Gulf Stream may not be lapping at Britain's west coast as warmly as it once did, now that global warming is dipping its toes into the Atlantic's currrents. In Chile, Pinochet has been charged again (this time for the disappearance of dissidents in the mid-1970s), though Henry Kissinger is probably trying to get Pinochet beattified as a 90th birthday present (the old "general" celebrates it on Friday). No Thanksgiving in Pakistan of course, where the Kashmir quake victims who filled a few good minutes of CNN's airtime have been forgotten even in Pakistan proper, to read that country's own papers. The death toll as of early November: 87,000, or roughly one and a half times the number of U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. Grief, shock, reason: the relativism of it all is itself a shock of grief and unreason.

In Iraq of course it's never quite Thanksgiving. No surprise fly-by turkeys this year, no quick-hit posturing (our Lord and Savior commander-in-zilch is himself almost cooked through in the polls: his last two trips abroad were turkeys; a third to Iraq would’ve had him on a silver platter to ridicule). Three more soldiers killed today, four yesterday, four in the three days before that, nine on November 9 (for a total of 76 so far this month; have we said happy holidays lately?), though you wouldn't know it from the usual news reports. The Pentagon is brilliantly adept at dribbling out news of the dead in calibrated snuffs, so as to diminish as much as possible the impact of big-batch casualty numbers on the media’s barometer of outrage. The magic number seems to be five. If the death of five or more GIs is announced simultaneously, it makes the front pages. If five or deaths occur on the same day but the news releases are spread out over two or three days, you won’t hear of it. The proof: who has heard of those nine GIs getting killed last Saturday? The military tallies its dead immediately. It knows who, when, where and how its men die with the precision of nanotechnology. But it also knows how to lull and deceive. Last Saturday's nine dead, with the seven hours' difference, would have made every Sunday paper, above the fold, across the top, in bold letters. Instead: silence. The numbers dribbled out slowly, day after day. The military knew what it was doing. It was snuffing grief with calculated unreason.

It isn't all bleak. I was scrolling through the foreign press, completely at random. I dialed up the Daily Star, Lebanon's English-language paper (and a very good one), clicked on a couple of the usual stories of Lebanese political theater ("Everybody Loves Raymond" meets "Apocalypse Now"), when I came across a curious story about a young Lebanese movie-maker, Phillip Aractingi, who's been living in France. He went back to Lebanon with $800,000 from an Arab venture to make a movie, a musical, that "tells the tale of Kamal who returns to Beirut after 15 years of exile to reunite his old dance group, tackle his demons and conquer the traditional dabkeh dance scene with a new modern electro-dabkeh. They tour the length and breadth of the nation in a brightly painted old public transportation bus - representing both the past and reconstruction - tackling all their personal issues along the way." Readers of this blog have a right to care less. Why should I care? Because the coincidence, on Thanksgiving, is enough to confirm at least some sense that even seven time zones away, the day may have some refracted meaning: Phillip Aractingi (along with Paul Obeiji) was one of my two best friends in Jesuit school in Beirut, at the Petit College, those many wonderful years ago before the war, before our exiles, before we knew that we'd spend the rest of our lives between grief and nostalgia for a place and a time we'll never know again no matter how much we try. And no matter how thankful we are, in the end, for the places that have taken us in. I lost touch with Philippe years ago. These days of blogs and webs and coincidental sightings in internet haystacks, it seems inconceivable that we could not meet again. Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Another Downing Street Memo

Somewhere between “Why I’m Paying for My Daughter’s Boob Job” and “I Used to Be a Desperate Bulimic,” Britain’s Daily Mirror managed to report on a five-page memo leaked from Tony Blair’s office that claims Blair dissuaded Bush from bombing the headquarters of Al-Jazeera last year. Bush and Blair in fact met at the White House on April 16, 2004 to talk over Iraq. Blair’s office kept a transcript of the conversation. Someone from the prime minister’s office passed it on to a member of parliament. Whether the member of parliament passed it on to the Mirror is unclear, though the claim isn’t: Bush wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar, Blair, who might have suggested the same about a much wider campaign now in its third year, told him it wouldn’t be a good idea.

The White House, which has cornered the market on the outlandish and inconceivable in the last five years, yesterday called the claim “outlandish” and “inconceivable.” Logic is on its side. A bombing in Qatar, a U.S. vassal state of the first rank, would make no sense, least of all a bombing that directly targets a news organization already suspected of having been targeted by the U.S. military. But logic isn’t Bush’s guiding principle as much as his gut, knots and all. Still: While Bush may very well have joked with Blair that he’d like Al-Jazeera wiped off the map (and who in this administration hasn’t seriously fantasized about having all media but Fox and the Washington times wiped off the map?) this sounds too much like Ronald Reagan’s stupid, and stupidly recorded, joke on August 11, 1984, about signing “legislation that will outlaw Russia forever; we begin bombing in five minutes.” (Reagan was prepping for his weekly radio address.)

Then again, there’s the impulse to cover up: Britain’s attorney general has gagged the Daily Mirror and other papers in Britain from further reporting on the memo, and of course Tony Blair will never reveal its contents or the context of Bush’s remarks, joking or otherwise. Downing Street has a new memo to suppress.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dick Cheney's Thanksgiving

From last night's Letterman monologue: “Today the terror alert was raised to cranberry. And of course everybody loves turkey, and you have the turkey, and a lot of people will bake the turkey, a lot of people will broil the turkey, a lot of people will pan-fry the turkey, a lot of people will deep-fry the turkey, but not everybody likes to cook turkey. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney plans to have the CIA torture his.”

And the inevitable: “President Bush is back from his Asian trip, did you see the footage of him in China? He had a press conference and then he went to leave the press conference and he walked to a door and the door was locked, he couldn’t get out of the door, and he just stood there. Talk about not having an exit strategy.”

Lebanese Irony Day

Today in history: Besides Earl Grey tea’s namesake becoming prime British minister in 1830, besides a more able ancestor of Geraldo’s opening Tutankhamun’s grave in 1922, besides FDR managing to find the right door to leave after a meeting with Chiang Kai-Check in Cairo in 1943, besides the JFK assassination in 1963 and the Beatles’ White Album’s release five years later (an assassination link Oliver Stone obviously missed), besides the first downing of a B-52 in Vietnam in 1972 and its transmigration, sixteen years later, into the first B-2 stealth bomber, unveiled on this day in 1988 in Palmdale, California, besides marking Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, in 1990, after a reign spanning six centuries and single-handedly reviving Britain’s steel industry, besides Ted Kopppel’s retirement after a reign almost as long as the Establishment’s Dr. Phil, and besides the date also marking the assassination, in Beirut, of the Lebanese President Renee Moawad in 1989, a Syrian-triggered hit that, unlike its more recent copycat wiping out Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, did nothing to move the world out of its lethargy regarding all things Lebanese, or move Syria out of Lebanon—besides all this, today also marks that great and ongoing irony of Lebanese history known, since 1943, as Lebanon’s Independence Day. To wit, our picture of that pitiful Lebanese flag glimpsed a few years ago atop the ruins of the Castle of the Sea, one of those Crusaders’ left-overs, in Saida.

Justice Deficit

It is beginning to dawn on a few members of Congress, three years too late, that they, too, were deceived into endorsing the Iraqi crusade, although the deception was self-inflicted. It was no mystery even in 2003 that the Bush administration was a kitchen-cabinet full of half-baked chefs glazing facts, cooking books, icing doubters and boiling dissenters alive. Yet Congress chose to swallow the administration's words like some factoid from Mount Sinai: Thou Shalt Not Question.[...] The most revolting aspect of Friday evening's display in Congress was both parties' wrangle over saving face or piling on the white-man's-burden chauvinism. [Read the complete Tuesday column in today's Daytona Beach news-Journal...]

Monday, November 21, 2005

Voltaire Speaks

Today is Voltaire’s birthday. He’s too famous for obvious quotes, not famous enough for lesser known ones, from his most intimate letters. Here are a few. (A few more may follow later.)  Forgive the lousy hurried translations.

“God does well what he does, but I dare take the liberty to ask him for a little more sunshine.” (“Dieu fait bien ce qu'il fait; mais j'oserai prendre la liberté de lui demander un peu plus de soleil.”) Letter to the Duchesse de Saxe-Gotha, March 13, 1754.

“It’s no happy fate for anyone who uses his pen to serve the public.” (“Le sort de quiconque sert le public de sa plume n'est pas heureux.”) Letter to the Comte d’Argental, March 3, 1754.

“I didn’t expect that one had to travel four hundred leagues from Paris to discover true graciousness.”  (“... je ne m'attendais pas qu'il fallut aller a quatre cents lieues de Paris pour trouver la veritable politesse.”) Letter to Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis, January 19, 1741. [V. would come to rue his words, regarding Maupertuis]

“Our French folk in general are merely big children, but as well, it’s what I always return to. The small number of thinking beings is excellent here, and pleads forgiveness for the rest.” (“Nos Français en général ne sont que de grands enfants, mais aussi, c'est a quoi je reviens toujours. Le petit nombre des êtres pensants est excellent chez nous, et demande grace pour le reste.”) Letter to Frederick II of Prussia, August 29, 1742.

“Brussels is bad news country.” (“Bruxelles est le pays des mauvaises nouvelles.”) To the Marquis d’Argenson, September 10, 1742.

“This best of all possible worlds still has a few years yet to suffer.” (“Ce meilleur des mondes possibles a encore quelques années a souffrir.”) Letter to the Duchess of Saxe-Gotha, January 28, 1758.

“There’s nothing good but liberty.” (“Il n'y a de bon que la liberté.”) Letter to d’Alambert (one of the primary authors of the Encyclopédie) March 7, 1758.

“… this stormy day we call life.” (“... cette journee orageuse qu'on appelle la vie.”) Letter to the Marquise du Deffand, March 3, 1754. Similar to “… this other hell we call earth” (“...cet autre enfer qu'on appelle la terre”), written the same month, about the only time in his life when Voltaire was genuinely depressed, even suicidal—a period of several years in the 1750s from which he’d emerge, resplendent, with Candide in 1757.

“Censorship spares the crows and wounds the doves.” (“La censure épargne les corbeaux, et blesse les colombes.”) Actually, a citation of Juvenal, the Roman poet, whom Voltaire cites in a letter on March 26, 1754, in Latin: dat veniam corvis, vexat censura colombas.

“Strange frenzy, that of certain gentlemen who absolutely want us to be miserable. I don’t appreciate a charlatan who wants to convince me that I’m sick to sell me his drugs. Keep your drugs my friend and leave my health me, but why do you cuss me out because I tell you that I’m fine and that I don’t want your orviétan?” [Orviétan was a snake oil invented by a charlatan from Orvieto, fashionable in the 17th century;] ("C’est une étrange rage, que celle de quelques messieurs qui veulent absolument que nous soyons misérables. Je n'aime point un charlatan qui veut me faire croire que je suis malade pour me vendre ses pillules. Garde ta drogue mon ami et laisse-moi ma santé mais pourquoi me dis-tu des injures parce que je me porte bien et que je ne veux point de ton orviétan?”) From a letter to W.J. Gravesande, August 1, 1741.

“A man is always right when he assumes blame with a woman.” (“Un homme a toujours raison quand il se donne le tort avec une femme.”) July 21, 1740.

“Lies scurry, truth crawls.” (“La calomnie va vite et la verite va lentement.”) Letter to Malesherbes, February 24, 1754.

Happy 311th

Today is Voltaire's birthday. He'll be speaking, exclusively on this blog, after 6 p.m. tonight (midnight Ferney Standard Time). Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Japan Bashing's Mirror, II

[This is the second part of a two-part post, following on yesterday's.]

Japan-bashing has a long history here, but it is part of a larger tradition of foreigner-bashing, one of those great paradoxes of a nation founded and built by immigrants, who, pigment for pigment, keep it more vibrant than its “natives” to this day (and I don’t mean Indians). The Japanese just get their periodic share at more telling moments. As I noted yesterday: When the United States’ economic fortunes seem threatened by another nation’s (or group of nations), the bashing begins. Japan has been, and will continue to be, a favored target until the European Union, China and India eke out a place at the basher’s banquet. That, I think, is the more accurate meaning of the “Clash of Civilizations” Samuel Huntington feared in 1993, and sold, on the wrong assumptions, to a grasping Bush administration in 2001.

But, again, Japan: What wasn’t noted yesterday, in the context of the James MacGregor story about TR working out a compromise to keep Japanese students in California de-segregated from the rest by reducing overall Japanese immigration, was what happened eighteen years later: The Immigration Act of 1924, sponsored by the unfailingly revolting Henry Cabot Lodge. So TR’s compromise turned into a door-opening to a slam in the face of a certain type of immigration. The act closed the doors to immigration from Japan, East Asia and Asian-Indians. (Latin American immigration was not restricted. These days the likes of Bill Owens, the Colorado governor, and his anti-immigration hordes are looking to apply the 1924 Act in Spanish.) A generation later, there was the obvious, which has become something of a cliché of repression: The mass relocation and imprisoning in concentration camps of 120,000 Japanese, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, mostly on Indian reservations to boot (without compensation to Indians, of course), and with the Supreme Court’s euphemism-ridden little blessing: “Regardless of the true nature of the assembly and relocation centers—and we deem it unjustifiable to call them concentration camps with all the ugly connotations that term implies—we are dealing specifically with nothing but an exclusion order.” Far be it for ugly reality to offend the sensibilities of our judges, in this case the often estimable Justice Black, writing in the inestimable style of a Sam Alito (about whose style I’ll be writing later this week. Hint: Alito would have written a perfect concurrence to Black’s opinion).

But that was then, as those who love to “move on” like to say. The now is more polite, if less honest, as Saturday’s Times story about Japan’s best-selling xenophobia-ridden comics showed. The high-society Japan-bashing is at any rate, part of a tradition of its own. (Again, I should note that what’s being bashed isn’t in and of itself defensible; it isn’t. But my focus is on the messenger, whose walls are made of a particularly brittle sort of glass.)

Capping off four years as The Atlantic’s Asia correspondent in September 1986, James Fallows wrote a piece in the magazine called “The Japanese Are Different from You and Me.” (I could not find a Web version.) It was engrossing, and puzzling: for such a seemingly progressive nation as Japan, Fallows was portraying it as enthusiastically racist, misogynist, xenophobic, even pedophilic: “Women,” Fallows wrote of those phonebook-thick comics men like to read in the subways, “are being accosted, surprised, tied up, beaten, knifed, tortured, and in general given a hard time. Many who are so treated are meant to be very young—the overall impression is as if the Brooke Shields of five years ago had been America’s exclusive female sexual icon, with no interference from Bo Derek or other full-grown specimens. One advertising man, who has been here for ten years and makes his living by understanding the Japanese psyche, says that everything suddenly fell into place for him when he thought of a half-conscious, low-grade pedophilia as the underlying social motif.”

Any look at television programming during “sweeps” months in the United States, in November, February and May, would yield the same conclusion: low-grade pedophilia is the underlying motif of every other news-magazine story, Lifetime special and drama plotline. Any look at television any time of year, virtually any time of day or night, suggests that violence, veiled porn, sadism and their prime-time family-filtered innuendoes are standard fare on dramas, sitcoms, talk shows and what’s left of television news.

Racism was the other underlying motif in Japan, “the ethnic—well, racial—exclusion on which the society is built. I hesitated to say ‘racial’ or ‘racist,’ because the terms are so loaded and irritating to the Japanese. I can understand why they are annoyed. In their dealings with the West the Japanese have traditionally seen themselves as the objects of racial discrimination—the little yellow men looked down on by the great white fathers. A new book by the historian John W. Downer called, War Without Mercy, provides hair-raising illustrations of the racism with which both Japanese and Japanese-Americans were viewed during the war. For instance, Ernie Pyle explained to the readers of his famous battlefront column that the difference between the Germans and the Japanese was that Germans ‘were still people.’”

Or, for instance, what J. Saunders Redding, writing in the November 1942 American Mercury, in an article called “A Negro Looks at this War,” had noted: “I did not like the constant reference to the Japs as ‘yellow bastards,’ ‘yellow bellies,’ and ‘yellow monkeys,’ as if color had something to do with treachery, as if color were the issue and the thing we are fighting rather than oppression, slavery, and a way of life hateful and nauseating. These and other things I do not like, yet I believe in war.”

Or, for further and most updated instance, what recent veterans of the war in Iraq are reporting of their interaction with local “ragheads,” as The Times’ Bob Herbert related in a May 2 column this year: What Ernie Pyle said of Germans, American soldiers are not quite saying of Iraqi Arabs, whose image is closer to the way the Japanese looked to Redding’s comrades half a century ago: Referring to a soldier called Aidan Delgado, “a 23-year-old religion major at New College of Florida” who spoke Arabic (he’d spent eight years in Egypt, where his father had been posted), who fought in Iraq and got a conscientious objector honorable discharge in January, Herbert wrote: “[Delgado] wasn't happy when, even before his unit left the states, a top officer made wisecracks about the soldiers heading off to Iraq to kill some ragheads and burn some turbans. ‘He laughed,’ Mr. Delgado said, ‘and everybody in the unit laughed with him.’ The officer's comment was a harbinger of the gratuitous violence that, according to Mr. Delgado, is routinely inflicted by American soldiers on ordinary Iraqis. He said: ‘Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They’d keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people’s heads.’ He said he had confronted guys who were his friends about this practice. ‘I said to them: ‘What the hell are you doing? Like, what does this accomplish?’ And they responded just completely openly. They said: ‘Look, I hate being in Iraq. I hate being stuck here. And I hate being surrounded by hajis.’’ ‘Haji’ is the troops’ term of choice for an Iraqi. It’s used the way ‘gook’ or ‘Charlie’ was used in Vietnam. Mr. Delgado said he had witnessed incidents in which an Army sergeant lashed a group of children with a steel Humvee antenna, and a Marine corporal planted a vicious kick in the chest of a kid about 6 years old. There were many occasions, he said, when soldiers or marines would yell and curse and point their guns at Iraqis who had done nothing wrong.”

Those are the men, those are the attitudes, those are the presumptions projecting and (allegedly protecting) American freedom. Arabs, of course, are not like you and me. Then again, you never know how these guys will insinuate themselves in your life, in your subdivisions, in (is nowhere safe?) your blogosphere. Altogether now: let’s go back and read that Times story, and see if it holds up as a front-page surprise—as opposed to, say, the continuing anthology of a mirror we choose to look at so rarely.

Japan-Bashing's Mirror

“On his return from Panama, [Theodore] Roosevelt had to take hold of a more prickly situation. The San Francisco Board of Education, under pressure to stem the flow of Japanese immigrants to California, had passed in 1906 an order that segregated all oriental students in the city’s public schools. Labeling the segregation order a ‘wicked absurdity,’ the President tried to bring pressure to bear on the westerners, only to find himself stymied by the constraints of federalism. As Japanese indignation and Californian defiance mounted, TR turned on the charm instead. The mayor of San Francisco and seven school board members accepted his invitation to come to the White House, and in a series of meetings […] Roosevelt and the local officials reached an understanding. San Francisco repealed the segregation order, and the President undertook to persuade the Japanese to limit their migration to America.”
—From The Workshop of Democracy, by James MacGregor Burns (Knopf, 1985).

Periodically in our periodicals, but especially when Japan is riding high or threatening to roar back to economic power, the impulse to find something disquieting about Japanese culture takes over. This would probably be true of any nation that threatened American hegemony. Not many have other than Japan over the last couple of generation, although the frothy European-bashing of late suggests that the United States is beginning to feel the heat from the European Union.

But Japan: After a period of considerable economic slumber the Japanese economy is showing glimmers of life again, so it seemed timely for the New York Times today to front-page a story about Japan’s racist best-sellers: “A young Japanese woman in the comic book ‘Hating the Korean Wave’ exclaims, ‘It’s not an exaggeration to say that Japan built the South Korea of today!’ In another passage the book states that ‘there is nothing at all in Korean culture to be proud of.’ In another comic book, ‘Introduction to China,’ which portrays the Chinese as a depraved people obsessed with cannibalism, a woman of Japanese origin says: ‘Take the China of today, its principles, thought, literature, art, science, institutions. There’s nothing attractive.’” Normitsu Onishi, a good reporter, specifies: “The two comic books, portraying Chinese and Koreans as base peoples and advocating confrontation with them, have become runaway best sellers in Japan in the last four months. In their graphic and unflattering drawings of Japan's fellow Asians and in the unapologetic, often offensive contents of their speech bubbles, the books reveal some of the sentiments underlying Japan's worsening relations with the rest of Asia.”

The key words jump at you like those overcaffeinated characters in Japanese animation: “base,” “advocating confrontation,” “graphic and unflattering,” “unapologetic,” “offensive,” “Japan’s worsening relations,” and most pointedly of all: “runaway best sellers.” In other words Japan is one hell of a racist, superior, xenophobic, aggressive country. The reader is told this on the assumption that he is, of course—as we know all New York Times readers are—refined, elevated (but not superior), cosmopolitan and correct enough to be incensed. I don’t mean to defend the Japanese when they display their racist proclivities and revel in their homogeneity. But the comparative subtext of the Times article is inescapable: We are meant to take pride in the fact that we in America, at least, are better than that. Besides the fact that this pride-taking is itself a form of chauvinism no more and no less obvious than Japan’s (except more “refined,” because more subtle, and therefore in this context more sly, more dishonest), the pride simply doesn’t stack up against our own best-sellers over the years, beginning with tomorrow’s.

There’s the obviously triumphalist title: Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, at No. 3, in which he argues again for globalism as the American-inspired faith to which the world had better convert, or else. Alternative ways need not bother Friedman’s perspective, because what wastes Freidman’s time wastes America’s. At No. 2 and No. 10, two more books on the founders (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s and David McCullough’s), who have become grist for our equivalent of the “Lives of the Saints.” Lacking leadership worth the name, we look backward, a natural enough impulse, but the attention is becoming obsessive, making gods of these men even as their biographers ride the fashion of making gods seem so fallibly human. The No. 1 bestseller make the point: Jimmy Carter’s “Our Endangered Values,” where he argues against that political bestseller of the last five years—the infusion of fundamentalism in public life, which is really the flip-side of the chauvinism by divine right that has us unapologetically running around the globe advocating confrontation and inspiring hatred in return. At No. 35 is George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate, summing up the consequence of the America-first approach through the prism of the Iraq war. And if we don’t have books that overtly spew rank racism and xenophobia on the best-seller list (we’re too “elevated” for that), we have talk radio and Fox News’ parodies of American principle.

[More on the subject of Japan-bashing and our elevated best-sellers tomorrow.]