Saturday, September 30, 2006

If You're Reading This, You Are Probably A Teenaged Girl

Well, not exactly. But according to an interesting marketing tool created by Microsoft adCenter Labs (which we discovered through this diary on Language Log, but which you can access directly by clicking here), people who search for the World Wide Webers URL have a 52 percent likelihood of being female. What's more, the largest single age group conducting such a search are those under 18--fully 26.15 percent, as compared to their prevalence in the general population, which is just 9.80 percent.

The results from adCenter Labs' Demographic Prediction page are based on one month's worth of searches on MSN Search. They can also give you predictions based on query words or phrases. For example, according to a Language Log probe, people querying the phrase "Manolo Blahnik" came up 79 percent female, which at least makes sense stereotype-wise.

But the World Wide Webers result certainly gives me pause--unless large numbers of junior-high girls have been abandoning their interest in Lindsay Lohan and taking up I. F. Stone instead.

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Who Lost Iraq?

As Spencer Ackerman notes in The New Republic, the right is preparing to launch a "stabbed-in-the-back" meme with which to blame liberals and Democrats for the inevitable crack-up of the Bush adventure in Iraq.

"Somehow," Ackerman observes, "conservatives have come to believe that the main impediment to America's battlefield fortunes exists not in Iraq, but in Cambridge, Berkeley, and the Upper West Side." Of course, they "have come to believe" this not because of any facts that suggest this to be true but because they have to believe it in order to go on believing that conservatives can do no wrong. (As Upton Sinclair wrote decades ago, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.")

I want to ask conservatives who are blaming liberals for the loss in Iraq the same question I wondered about back in the seventies when they blamed liberals for the loss in Vietnam: Exactly how have liberals impeded the war effort?

Have Democrats in Congress ever once withheld funding from Bush's Pentagon or refused any request for support for the troops? Was it liberals who urged Rumsfeld not to plan for the post-war occupation? Was it liberals who insisted on sending too few troops and on forcing early retirement on generals who publicly disagreed with that strategy?

Has the Bush administration ever been dissuaded from any step it wanted to take in Iraq by anti-war demonstrators, critics in the media, or protests by liberal activists? Has Bush himself--who continually boasts about the fact that he ignores polls--ever changed his Iraq policy under pressure from public opinion? If so, exactly when and how?

Or are the conservatives preparing to claim that the morale and determination of our forces have been undermined by the stateside debate over Iraq? If so, do they understand that this is a serious slander on our men and women in uniform? Are they claiming that soldiers in Iraq are saying, "Gee, I see on CNN that Nancy Pelosi disagrees with President Bush's policy on Iraq. I guess I won't go out on patrol today . . . or if I do, I won't put up much of a fight when the enemy appears"? If this is what conservatives think is happening, I'd like to hear them say so.

The truth is that conservatives--who love to spout off about "personal responsibility" when it comes to other people's mistakes--are simply looking for a way to foist responsibility for their fiasco of a war on someone else. Face facts: Bush and the conservatives got their way in Iraq, riding roughshod over (admittedly feeble) opposition and even violating the laws and the Constitution in order to do so. Now that the depths of their fuck-up are becoming inescapably obvious, they are preparing to blame . . . us!?

It would be hilarious if it weren't so tragic.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Tokyo Is New York Squared

As a lifelong New Yorker, I really never expected to visit a city that made me feel like a hick. But that is how Tokyo is making me feel.

For one thing, there is the sheer size and glamour of Tokyo's business district. New York City has a couple of neighborhoods and specifically a handful of streets that feel like world-class commercial centers, comparable, say, to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. They include Fifth Avenue between 42nd Street and 59th Street; Madison Avenue in the fifties, sixties, and seventies; 57th Street between Lexington Avenue and Broadway, and a couple of others.

By contrast, Tokyo seems to have a dozen Fifth Avenues--broad streets lined with huge upscale stores (from Prada and Coach to Burberry and Takashimaya, each significantly more impressive than their New York counterparts) as well as dazzling, ultra-modern fifty-story glass office towers, neon "spectaculars" advertising brands from around the world, and hundreds of restaurants crowded with dapper businessmen, stylish young women, hip couples in sunglasses and dyed hair, etc. etc.

Then there is the technical and esthetic quality of the infrastructure. Naturally not everything in Tokyo is beautiful or modern; here and there you encounter a squalid block strewn with litter and inhabited by a homeless man in rags. But the physical quality of the buildings and artifacts you'll encounter on the average street is extremely impressive.

Signs on the street corners and in the railway and airport terminals boast crisp, clear, multicolored LCD displays of a resolution and legibility far exceeding anything I've seen in the US. Elevators, hallways, and lobbies of ordinary hotels and office buildings are cleaner, fresher, and more handsomely appointed than those in New York's luxury buildings.

And as everyone knows, the bullet trains are amazingly fast, comfortable, and almost entirely silent. I took one for an hour-and-a-half journey between Tokyo and Nagoya, covering 238 miles. The same trip would take at least three hours in a conventional American train--and the train wouldn't be staffed by conductors and waitresses in impeccable uniforms who bow when they enter and exit your car.

Finally, there is a quality of sophistication and graciousness, at least on the surface of Japanese life, that is hard to define but unmistakable. The constant bowing, thank-yous, and minor acts of deference are part of it. So is the persistent, subtle blending of world cultures into the Japanese substratum, evidenced not just in the ubiquity of brands and pop culture images from America and the rest of the West or the widespread use of English but in the relatively thoughtful understanding of American social, political, and economic issues on the part of my Japanese counterparts. They know much more about my background than I do about theirs, which makes me, comparatively speaking, a barbarian.

I've been in Tokyo all of three days and I am living the life of a privileged tourist and business person, which means that all my observations are inevitably shallow, one-sided, and probably naive. Like every culture, that of Japan has its tawdry, vicious elements, some of which we've even heard about in the West--the racial prejudice, the misogyny, the nihilism of some youth and the mindless wage slavery endured by some salarymen.

But any American who visits Tokyo for even a few days should come away cured of the widespread assumption that the United States represents the highest current point on the evolutionary scale of capitalist society.

New York is a beautiful, dynamic city; I love it, and it will probably always be my home. But Tokyo is New York squared.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

You Go, Bill

If you're a liberal or a Democrat discouraged and depressed by the failure of our representatives in Washington to speak out strongly on behalf of our values--or even in defense of themselves--please visit Think Progress and watch the clip of Bill Clinton making mincemeat out of the right-wing bias of Chris Wallace on Fox News using nothing but facts, vigorously presented. You'll want to jump up and cheer him on. God knows the man has his faults, but in this interview he's a model of positive partisanship--fair-minded, honest, tough and unyielding.

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Deciphering Japanese Goo

It's 2:57 a.m. here in Tokyo, and I'm jet-lagged and can't sleep--despite having had just five hours of shut-eye in my last 32. This is a hastily-arranged trip with one of my book-author clients to do some research on a project that is nearing completion. It's also my first visit to Japan, the land of (some of) my ancestors.

I am sitting near the window of my 23rd floor hotel room with its panoramic view of downtown Tokyo. Most of the giant multicolored neon signs bearing company logos that were lighting up the night when I got into bed a few hours ago have now been dimmed. Some of the names are familiar--Toshiba, Kirin, Canon, Sapporo--but many are not: Maquia, Fujiya, and something called Goo. An Internet search tells me that Maquia makes traditional Japanese beauty products and that Fujiya is a hotel chain, but I'll be darned if I can figure out what Goo is.*

*On further analysis: Google locates a Japanese page for Goo, which turns out to be some kind of Internet portal owned by NTT, the Japanese telecom company. On request, the Google software manfully tries to translate the Goo website into English, coming up with a page full of baffling pseudo-English: New! The imported living thing brings, adverse effect outside supposition . . . Healthy mah-jongg. Rental older sister drama. Transparent mouthpiece . . . Sport: (While promptly reporting) As for the result of 1st at bat of (Ichiro)?

Actually, I bet I understand the last item. It should probably read: Sports News Up to the Minute: Ichiro's First At-Bat of Tonight's Game.

During my six days here I will try to grab opportunities to post when I can. A few quick impressions to start with:
  • Narita Airport is very quiet, even when jammed with travelers. (I was there for two hours yesterday afternoon, waiting for my author's flight from Boston to arrive.) I think the effect is created by thoughtful architecture and design (plenty of sound-muffling fabrics on walls and floors) as well as by the quiet demeanors of the Japanese people. I watched one smiling young Japanese woman marching around the baggage claim area holding up a sign bearing the name of a Thai traveler she had been dispatched to meet. The first several times she passed me by, I thought she was completely silent. Finally I noticed that she was actually calling out the name of the person she was looking for--but so quietly that it would almost pass as a whisper among Americans.
  • I had my first "real" Japanese meal last night (as opposed to the American versions I've eaten in New York and elsewhere)--a simple bento box dinner in my room at the hotel before I crashed for the night. It was remarkably delicious for some reason I can't explain. Of course it could just be that I was tired and quite hungry, which always makes food taste better. But over the next few days I will try to figure out what is different about Japanese food in Tokyo as compared to the US and if I can define it I will.
  • English language is everywhere here (though not on the Goo website, obviously). Many billboards and signs are in English, and lots of television broadcasting is in English--and not just on the networks (like CNN) provided in the hotel for the benefit of business travelers. Flipping around the stations I came across the Discovery Channel and watched a little of a show about Leonardo da Vinci. It was in English with no subtitles. But the ads and promos during the commercial breaks were all in Japanese, which shows that the network is broadcasting for local viewers.
  • One of the promos on the Discovery Channel (I saw it three times in just half an hour) was for an upcoming documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Shots of devastated landscapes in Louisiana and Mississippi, crowds of Black people languishing amid garbage on New Orleans sidewalks and begging for water, food, and medicine. We hear a voice-over by an American rescue worker (in English of course): "As soon as we arrived we realized it was like coming into a Third World country . . . " followed by the Japanese announcer pitching the documentary (accompanied by Japanese characters on the screen giving the time and date of the broadcast). How depressing to glimpse a bit of the image of Bush's America as the outside world is seeing it.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Even-Handed" Pundits Float Serenely Above Reality

Here's another example of why we left-wing blogofascists roll our eyes at most attempts by media pundits to be "even-handed" and "judicious." In the Washington Post, legal columnist Andrew Cohen writes about why the term "judicial activism" is fundamentally meaningless, serves entirely as a political cudgel, and ought to be retired. Which is fine, except that he frames the issue this way:
Another month, another kerfluffle over the phrase "judicial activism." Instead of accepting reality and conceding that it is a silly, pointless phrase not worthy of being defined or refined, the right and the left and the center this week find themselves fighting again over . . . nothing. These bozos would be better off (and so would we) if they just contemplated their navels for a few hours every day instead of endlessly fighting over this issue. "Judicial activism" means so many different things to so many different people that it means nothing at all. People just need to get over it.
In other words, rightwing activists create a totally bogus concept; rightwing politicians use it for decades to provide phony intellectual cover for attacks on judges who they consider excessively zealous in protecting the rights of women, racial minorities, consumers, and people in general; and in response, Andrew Cohen proclaims from Mount Olympus that both the right and the left are "bozos" for fighting over a "silly, pointless phrase."

This kind of "evenhandedness" basically amounts to scolding both the schoolyard bully and his victims--the bully for beating up the other kids, and the victims for violently attacking the bully's fists with their chins.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Life Is Dangerous, Or So We Believe

In most ways, the lives of middle-class Americans have improved enormously over the past thirty years. But not in every way. For a variety of reasons, mostly cultural, kids have a lot less freedom of movement in their daily lives than they once did, which I think is a shame.

When I was 11 and 12 years old, New York City hosted the 1964-65 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows in Queens, just a few hundred yards from Shea Stadium. I vividly remember several times when I traveled to the fair on my own by subway--a trip that took over an hour and required several changes of trains, since we lived in Brooklyn--and spent all day there, just checking in with my parents once or twice to let them know I was okay.

I've long assumed that what I did then was very unusual and was permitted only because I was somewhat neglected as a child. But yesterday during the Mets game I heard this (paraphrased) exchange between two of the broadcasters:
Gary Cohen: You can now register online to buy Mets playoff tickets. That's a lot better than the old system that required people to line up for twenty-four hours of more for tickets. I remember back in 1969 when I was 11 years old I camped out overnight at Shea to get playoff seats.

Ron Darling: Can you imagine letting an 11-year-old camp out at Shea today?

Gary Cohen: Not in a million years.

Ron Darling: I used to hitchhike to high school.

Gary Cohen: Wow. Times have changed.
I guess I wasn't the only "neglected" kid back then.

Crime rates have gone up since the 1960s (they peaked in the early 90s and have now fallen back to mid-70s levels). But I'm not convinced that the shift in parental attitudes is mainly a rational response to a more dangerous world. I think periodic waves of hysterical television coverage of rare but sensational crimes (like child abduction by strangers) play a major role as well. The success of the Bush administration in inculcating an atmosphere of paranoia about terrorism has been built on several decades during which the media softened us up, creating a permanent public atmosphere of nagging, non-specific anxiety about life in general.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Poor Tom Friedman, Baffled By Bush

Tom Friedman in Friday's New York Times:
Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld told us we are in the fight of our lives against a new Islamic fascism, and let's have an unprecedented wartime tax cut and shrink our armed forces. They told us we are in the fight of our lives against a new Islamic fascism, but let's send just enough troops to topple Saddam--and never control Iraq's borders, its ammo dumps or its looters. They told us we are in the fight of our lives against a new Islamic fascism, but rather than bring Democrats and Republicans together in a national unity war coalition, let's use the war as a wedge issue to embarrass Democrats, frighten voters and win elections. They told us we are in the fight of our lives against a new Islamic fascism--which is financed by our own oil purchases--but let's not do one serious thing about ending our oil addiction.

Donald Rumsfeld demonizes war critics as "morally confused." But it is the "moral confusion" at the heart of the Bush policy--a confusion between its important ends and insufficient means--that has hobbled us from the start. It truly, truly baffles me why a president who bet so much of his legacy on this project never gave it his best shot and tolerated so much incompetence. He summoned us to D-Day and gave us the moral equivalent of the invasion of Panama.
Poor Tom. He's been abused so long--and accepted it so abjectly--and struggled so hard to maintain his belief in the people doing the abusing--that now he is sincerely unable to understand the realities that are staring him in the face.

Tom Friedman is like an abused wife who has finally caught on to the fact that she is abused, and is angry about it--but somehow can't quite bring herself to acknowledge the full reality of what has happened and whose fault it is. So she finds herself saying things like:
He told me he was going to stop beating me, and then he came home drunk and kicked me down the stairs again. He told me he was going to stop gambling, and then he cashed his paycheck and mine and went off to Atlantic City for the weekend with the money and didn't come home until he'd blown it all. He told me he was going to be faithful, and then he brought his girlfriend home and had sex with her in our bedroom.

It truly, truly baffles me why a man who wants so badly to do the right thing keeps making these kinds of mistakes.
The rest of us aren't baffled. From day one, the war in Iraq was a Karl Rove special, launched not for any idealistic geopolitical purpose but as a political gambit to enable the feckless Bush to be seen as a "war president."

Rove and Bush got their war, and it helped them win a couple of elections. Unfortunately, the long-term consequences of the war aren't proving as easy to manage as they assumed.

As for all that talk about "the fight of our lives" and the "new Islamic fascism," it means about as much as the abusive husband's oh-so-sincere excuses and promises. The rest of us find the hot air easy to ignore or even laugh at. But then, we were never head-over-heels in love with the guy.

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A Word From Izzy (Part 3)

We liberals love to bitch about how lily-livered the press has become and how willing to be spun by the Republican noise machine. But was there ever a golden age of reportorial independence and courage? If there was, I.F. Stone didn't witness it. Here he is, writing in November, 1955--but the only thing that has changed in the past 51 years is that you can now buy Rolling Stone on newstands a block from the Kremlin.

The main obstacle to the creation of a well-informed public is its own indifference. In every country with a free press, thoughtful papers which conscientiously try to cover the news lag behind the circulation of those which peddle sex and sensationalism. This is as true in Paris and London as in New York; and if Moscow ever permits a free privately-owned press, Izvestia and Pravda will fall far behind any paper which prints the latest on that commissar's love nest.

The second obstacle is that most papers are owned by men who are not newspapermen themselves; publishing is a business, not a Jeffersonian passion, and the main object is as much advertising revenue as possible. Thus it happens that between the attitude of the publishers and that of the public, most papers in this country print little news. And this, except for local coverage, is mostly canned, syndicated, and quick-frozen.

The third obstacle is that this has always been and is now more than ever a conformist country; Main Street and Babbitt--and de Tocqueville long before Sinclair Lewis--held a faithful mirror to our true nature. It doesn't take much deviation from Rotary Club norms in the average American community to get oneself set down as queer, radical, and unreliable.

Against this background, it is easy to see why the average Washington correspondent is content to write what he is spoon-fed by the government's press officers. Especially since the press is largely Republican and this is a Republican Administration, there is little market for "exposing" the government. Why dig up a story which the desk back home will spike?
Order your copy of The Best of I. F. Stone from the good people at Public Affairs here.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

We're Americans

Wow, Atrios has said it just right. Here's a version that a candidate might use on the stump or in a debate:
Defenders of the current administration say we should use torture because our enemies are so evil, so determined, so dangerous. Are they more evil, more determined, and more dangerous than the Nazis or the Communists were? We're Americans. We don't use torture--not because of who our enemies are, but because of who we are.
Is that or is that not an applause line?

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

When Language Degenerates Into Purrs and Growls

The frequently brilliant Matthew Yglesias comments here about how the term "Islamofascists" both reflects and perpetuates a laughable degree of historical ignorance and disregard for logic. Actually it's even worse than he thinks. On NPR on Friday, Brian Lehrer hosted an installment of his "What Have We Learned Since 9/11" series, and when the topic of "Islamofascism" came up, I heard a caller say (paraphrasing):

I don't know why we're so worried about what the terrorists think about the words we use. I'm sure that back in the 1930s the Germans and Italians didn't like it when we called them Fascists. But if that's how people behave, that's what we have to call them.

And to my dismay, neither Brian Lehrer nor either of his two guests--experts on the history of the Middle East--corrected the caller. Evidently there is a portion of the population that doesn't realize that words like "Fascist," "Nazi," and "Communist" are not generalized insults invented by Americans but are actual names of political movements. (I wonder if George W. Bush is among them.)

Am I deceiving myself, as aging curmudgeons so often do, or was there actually a time, not so long ago, when people generally assumed that political terms have meanings rather than simply being used the way cats use purrs and dogs use growls, to express vague feelings of affection or anger?

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