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    I miss Margaret Thatcher

    Posted by Sean at 07:12, November 20th, 2009

    Virginia Postrel writes that hyperventilating over Newsweek‘s Sarah Palin cover is pointless and more than a little hypocritical:

    I am generally bored by the hysteria, pro and con, that surrounds Sarah Palin. As a bona fide coastal elitist intellectual snob, I can’t see voting for her. But neither do I share the visceral hatred for her or her fans. (Megan McArdle dubs it Palinoia.) I consider her intelligent but ignorant and unworldly. I even liked her convention speech.

    That said, the flap over the Newsweek cover shot is as ridiculous as it is predictable. I’ve read enough comment threads over the years to know that conservatives regularly make a point of proudly declaring that their female icons are good looking compared to the old hags on the other side. When did they suddenly adopt politically correct second-wave feminist attitudes toward female beauty, even in the public sphere? 

    Like it or not, Sarah Palin’s good looks are a big part of her superwoman appeal: governor, earth mother, and sportswoman, with a pretty face and a great body despite all those pregnancies. Besides, I seem to recall some widely circulated topless beach shots of the current commander-in-chief. (Not to mention Condi Rice strutting in those great black boots.) There’s no double standard, except for the one that says if you have bad legs, we don’t want to see you in shorts.

    I don’t think the right has been complaining that the photo emphasizes her prettiness as much as that it presents her in a fluffy extracurricular-activities context and seems to have been chosen to undercut her as an emerging hard-policy force. It’s hard to imagine Newsweek using one of President Obama’s beach shots as a cover image the week his latest memoir is released. On the flip side, the famous photo of Condoleezza Rice actually emphasized her image as a power player with an serious edge. So while Virginia’s general point that both male and female politicians are sized up for looks is well taken, I’m not sure her examples are all parallel.

    Be that as it may, she’s right that Palin’s claque can’t expect to have it both ways. It’s fine if they want to swoon over her casual, man-pleasing, heartland femininity as a fresh alternative to the uptight-harpy lawyer persona that (the line of thinking goes) has overrun womanhood in the big, bad liberal cities. But then they’re hardly in a position to get all screechy when a major magazine fails to picture her in hard-nosed, dark-suit-and-pearls debate mode.


    Brother, it don’t matter/Sister, don’t worry

    Posted by Sean at 13:48, July 30th, 2009

    This writer is exercised over the Euro-cutesying of vampires, especially in fiction aimed at young girls (via Instapundit):

    At least Anne Rice’s vampires were still primarily bloodsuckers. The first sign that something was awry came with the introduction of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A prime example of the brooding, crying-on-the-inside, leather-jacketed emo boy of the ’90s (see also: Dylan McKay, Beverly Hills, 90210; James Hurley, Twin Peaks), Angel was a vampire who had a soul. He fell in love with Buffy, teared up a lot, and believed in random acts of kindness. Angel, in short, sucked. Or, rather, he didn’t suck, which was the problem. When he did suck, he took limited amounts of blood from consenting human women, or sucked blood against his will, or sucked rat blood.

    Rat blood.

    Think about it. Faced with the impact of his diet on humans, Angel accepts a yucky, cruelty-free substitute, then endlessly lectures other vampires about their moral failings because they don’t do the same. He’s not a vampire—he’s a vegan.

    I’m not nearly the Buffy fan a lot of my friends were, and David Boreanaz is a bit on the non-hairy side for me, but I have to say I think that’s unfair to the Angel character, at least at first. After all, he didn’t just randomly “have” a soul: it was restored to him by Gypsies as part of a curse after he’d practiced typical-vampire predation for hundreds of years. The message that being a good person is worth straining to overcome your most evil instincts and not giving into every craving never struck me as a namby-pamby one, despite the soft-focus teen-romance setting. And besides, there were plenty of other repellantly predatory vampires populating the series to convey to viewers that Angel was not the norm. Whether Grady Hendrix is right about the other stories mentioned, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised.


    どう日本は変わるのか

    Posted by Sean at 13:44, July 14th, 2009

    The tsuyu rainy season is ending and high summer beginning in Japan, and Atsushi as always has sent me a few pictures of seasonal flowers to keep me attuned to the changes. We used to go see them together when I was in Tokyo. This is a lotus from Sankeien Park in Yokohama (which is near the setting of the opening scene of Ringu, for those who know it.)

    lotus from atsushi

    Now that we’ve established an image of tranquility, we can move on to the restiveness at hand.

    For those who haven’t noticed, electoral politics in Japan are in the middle of a shake-up. The LDP got spanked hard in the Tokyo Metro Assembly election a weekend ago, and Prime Minister Taro Aso is finally calling the snap election people have been trying to press on him.

    They decided the election will be officially announced on Aug. 18.

    The prime minister, who wanted to dissolve the lower house this week, held discussions with senior officials of the ruling bloc to that end.

    However, the prime minister apparently was not able to push back strong demands from many ruling bloc members opposing an early dissolution.

    At a government-ruling bloc meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office later, Aso apologized for the poor coalition result in Sunday’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election and expressed his wish to have important bills passed through the Diet.

    “I’m very sorry [about the result of the metropolitan election],” he said. “I want important bills, such as the bill to revise the Organ Transplant Law and the bill for implementing North Korea-related cargo inspections [to be passed by the Diet].”

    The prime minister said he would dissolve the lower house once he saw how the deliberations over these bills would go after the Democratic Party of Japan presented a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet.

    Naoto Kan, who’s been back as acting leader of the DPJ, is trying to play Sunday’s results up as not only disaffection with the LDP/Shin-Komeito but also newfound confidence in the DPJ:

    In the election Sunday, Minshuto added 20 seats to bring its total to 54 in the 127-seat assembly.

    The LDP lost 10 seats and ended up with 38, the lowest since the party was formed and only tied in the 1965 election. New Komeito took 23 for the coalition’s combined total that fell short of the majority.

    Minshuto’s victory also snapped the LDP’s 40-year streak of being the largest party in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly.

    “It’s a result of higher trust in Minshuto, beyond the Tokyo administration,” Naoto Kan, Minshuto’s acting president, said on an NHK TV program Sunday night.

    Maybe. The Japanese are certainly unhappy with much of the status quo, and they may see the DPJ (called in these articles by a transliteration of its Japanese name, 民主党 [minshutou]: “democratic party”) as genuinely having a better policy platform. I’m not really sure it goes quite that deep, though. That’s not because Japanese are especially ignorant about “the issues”; rather it’s because they accurately understand their system as one that requires equilibrium. The LDP just hasn’t had enough pushback, and with the post-Koizumi parade of milquetoast administrations, it itself no longer represents a force in the Diet that effectively pushes back against the bureaucrats. And the ever-accruing list of scandals—related to political contributions, bid-rigging, and consumer products—gives citizens much less reason to believe that tolerating wheeling and dealing as usual is worth it in exchange for stability.

    That said, it’s disingenuous to talk about Diet elections as if they were United States congressional elections. The LDP and DPJ have differences in their declared policy platforms, sure, but the legislature and cabinet are limited in their ability to put them into practice. That’s not because the bureaucrats “actually run everything,” as is sometimes reductively claimed (I’ve possibly said so myself). It’s because the Diet is just one competing power center among several, which do include the unelected officials in the federal ministries. It’s helpful to keep that in mind when reading things like the last sentence below, from a Mainichi editorial:

    Through the uncommon practice of making a pre-announcement of the House of Representatives’ dissolution, Aso probably wanted to claim his authority to dissolve the Lower House, with the aim of silencing calls within the LDP for him to step down. Surprisingly, however, such calls have not been tempered. Within the party, some are pressuring the prime minister to step down prior to the dissolution of the Lower House, while others who are not going as far as calling for the prime minister to be replaced are proposing a “separation of LDP president and prime minister.” Under this plan, the LDP president would be replaced so that the party can embark on the next general election with a new frontman, who can then be nominated for prime minister after the election if the ruling bloc wins.

    It feels inappropriate for the prime minister — the very person who initiated the dissolution of the Lower House in order to directly ask the public if they support him — to be replaced right after the election. The public has become distrustful of the irresponsibility of a party that has repeatedly replaced its leaders, as if changing its facade could somehow fool the public. Party members convinced that the election cannot be won with Aso at the top of the party would more easily earn the understanding and acceptance of the public if they withdrew from the LDP and formed a new party.

    The opposition bloc including the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) submitted a non-confidence motion against the Cabinet to the Lower House and a censure motion against the prime minister to the Upper House on Monday. For all practical purposes, the long election race has already begun. A benefit of having the general election in late August is the fact that voters will have the time to scrutinize the policies proposed by different parties.

    The various political parties should hasten to compose and announce their manifestos. Prime Minister Aso and the ruling bloc, who have continued to evade voters’ choices, must avoid any tricks and fight this election fair and square with their policies. Hopefully, opposition parties will come up with concrete manifestos that detail what kind of changes we can hope to see in Japan with a change in government.

    There’s certainly more up for grabs than there would have been twenty years ago, and I have no doubt that DPJ legislators would (will) come into power expecting to be able to make substantive changes. But as with the Obama administration here in the U.S., it’s easier to embrace the idea of change than to put it into practice when the constraints of reality have to be factored in. Even Koizumi, who had the ideal balance of insider networks within the LDP and maverick cachet among fed-up voters, had to compromise again and again on reforms. The snap election promises the most entertaining campaign season since 2005, but it remains to be seen how the throw-the-bums-out energy might translate into long-term systemic shifts.


    My need

    Posted by Sean at 10:46, July 4th, 2009

    Happy Fourth, everyone.

    Ever since Michael Jackson died—don’t make a face, I have a very specific purpose in bringing him up one last time, and explicating it won’t take long—I’ve been listening to Janet. It was unconscious on my part, and when I did realize that I was playing Control for the tenth time, it brought me up short. (I may have posted about it on Facebook, actually.) Why would Michael’s death put me on a Janet jag? He made plenty of good music himself after all.

    But here’s the thing: Michael weenied out on his own life, and Janet didn’t. Here‘s the way she describes what happened after her second album:

    Following the release of Dream Street, Jackson decided to separate her business affairs from her family. She later commented, “I remember trying to tell my father I no longer wanted him to manage me. It would have been easier to have Mother tell him for me, but that was something I had to do for myself.” Jackson also stated, “I just wanted to get out of the house, get out from under my father, which was one of the most difficult things that I had to do, telling him that I didn’t want to work with him again.” A&M Records executive John McClain hired producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to work with Jackson. Within six weeks, Jackson, Jam and Lewis crafted Jackson’s third studio album, Control. Jackson recalled that during the recording of the album, she was threatened by a group of men outside of her hotel in Minneapolis. She stated that “[t]he danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street … Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That’s how songs like ‘Nasty’ and ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately’ were born, out of a sense of self-defense.”

    Michael never did anything like that. He rebelled in compulsive bursts that flared up and died like meteor showers. He retreated into childish fantasies. He wanted to stay protected by other people. He didn’t test himself, in any purposeful and sustained way, to see whether he was better off without his minders.

    Now, yes, Janet is one of the most ridiculously rich and powerful celebrities on the planet. Her version of “autonomy” involves bodyguards, an army of personal assistants, and a house that probably has a better security system than most presidential palaces. And she entrusts herself to ace collaborators. (This is not post-Rick Teena Marie, alone at the controls making her singular visions into reality.)

    But collaborators, even collaborators of superior talents, are peers. When it mattered, Janet decided that she was a grown-up and didn’t need to be daddied anymore. And she didn’t take the easy out of getting Mom to tell him. I love her for that.

    Anyone who’s getting worried that I’ve decided Janet Jackson is just like Thomas Paine can relax. That’s not my point. The Founding Fathers thought and acted on a much, much higher plane, obviously. They made our current way of life possible; Janet did not. But for most of us, it’s within family and work that we have the opportunities to stand up or submit. (The way Washington’s developing, we may soon be getting a chance to do so at the federal-government level again, too, but that’s a topic for other posts.) What matters is whether you capitalize on them. For all the understandable talk about Michael this week, when I’ve wanted to listen to something that buoyed me, I’ve preferred “Control” or “Escapade” or “Enjoy.” Getting out into the world, testing your strengths, learning how to take care of yourself and use what gifts you have to enhance life for others—that’s America. Janet’s made quite a few missteps over the last decade or so, but you never hear speculation that she’s screwing up because she can’t get out from under her “handlers.” Her failings are as much her own as her long suits. And bully for her. If I’m going to be asked to countenance pop-star self-pity, I’ll take “There’s nothing more depressing than having everything and still feeling sad” over “Have you seen my childhood?” any day. Especially today.


    松風荘

    Posted by Sean at 11:49, June 29th, 2009

    My hometown newspaper has a blogger who’s writing about dealing with being laid off in the current economy, and she recommends that people who need to scrimp on travel and entertainment go to the Japanese House and Garden at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. I second that, for those from the Lehigh Valley who haven’t gone. If memory serves, the sightlines are pretty much uninterrupted to the horizon, which actually makes it very unlike modern Japan. (In Tokyo, even when you’re at the Inner Pond at the Meiji Shrine, you can look up and see buildings way off; in the rest of Japan, it’s usually electric-cable pylons hemming you in.) But it’s beautifully kept up. I wanted to take Atsushi there when I brought him home to meet my parents five years ago, but we never had the time. His taste of Japan PA-style was restricted to the “Japanese” steak house in the South Mall, which he fortunately found amusing.

    The Japanese name of the facility, BTW, means something on the order of “pine-wind villa.” The first two characters are read, in other contexts, as matsukaze. It’s the name of one of the most famous Noh classics.


    “At the intersection of imagination and desire”

    Posted by Sean at 17:57, June 28th, 2009

    I asked Virginia Postrel last week whether there would be anything at Deep Glamour about Farrah Fawcett, since she seemed like an ideal subject for Virginia and her colleagues. She responded that there was certainly room for comment and graciously offered to post something if I sent it along. So I did. It’s up here. There’s also an interesting piece about Michael Jackson. (No, I don’t think it’s hypocritical to complain that Jackson’s death has taken over the media and then link to a post about him; a blog about glamour is, it seems to me, exactly the place at-length examinations of celebrity appeal should live.)


    How high

    Posted by Sean at 10:26, June 27th, 2009

    You do realize, don’t you, that we could have to go through this at least three more times?

    Michael may have been the absolute biggest of the ’80s-defining stars whom vast swaths of Americans watched on TV, listened to on Walkman headphones, idolized to the point of dementia, and followed through subsequent ups and downs before gradually deciding that maybe the weirdness was a little too much. But he wasn’t the only one. There are also Prince, Whitney, and Madge.

    I’m the least worried about Madonna, and I don’t say that just because I’m a rabid (not to say demented) fan. It’s just that Madonna is one of those terrifying control freaks whom you figure will drop dead from a stress-induced coronary at thirty-five but who actually end up soldiering on well into their nineties, shriveled and cantankerous. I fully expect Madonna to spend her eighty-fifth birthday kicking off a concert tour, emerging dramatically on stage from a floodlit, mirror-tiled giant bedpan while “Live to Tell” thunders from the sound system. Singing “Open Your Heart” while pole-dancing around her IV stand. Rasping “Vogue” while flinging herself in lewdly angular, spread-eagled poses over her walker, dressed in nothing but a micro-mini hospital gown (as interpreted by Anna Molinari in winter-white raw silk) over a pair of Depends customized with black lace. Performing “Like a Virgin” in a bra made of defibrillator pads. Giving a mid-show shout-out to her grandkids, Lourdes’s and Rocco’s children, who by that point will be halfway through Yale and very deep into therapy. As long as she stays away from horses, Madonna is the kind of person who will outlive most of the people who knew her when. She’ll greet the Grim Reaper’s arrival by shoving him flat on his back and barking, “I SAID YOU NEED TO GIVE ME FIFTEEN MORE MINUTES TO FINISH THIS SET OF CRUNCHES, JERKFACE!” Madonna will get a big media send-off, but I’m betting she’ll have lived a full life by then, so at least commentators will keep a lid on all this disingenuous soul-searching.

    But I’m not so sure about the others. Prince strikes me as a wild card, and (like Jackson, though in less disturbing ways) he’s always been considered a weirdo. And Whitney hasn’t exactly been keeping herself in the best of health. So if one of them goes in a fashion that’s deemed untimely, you just know what we’re in for. Katie Couric will get Mariah on the phone to coo about how Whitney’s hits “touched so many, many people’s hearts and lives,” when in reality she probably spent every night of her twenties ramming pins into a Whitney voodoo doll. Jam and Lewis will tell CBS that their respect for Prince is boundless–“just boundless…we can’t put it into words…a real genius”–when they’ve actually been thinking, for the last quarter-century, Fire us because of the weather? We told you we’d bounce back!

    It’s that kind of thing that’s been driving me nuts. The wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson in and of itself doesn’t reflect all that well on us or our media, but it’s understandable. It is 2009. You can go online and read about meatier stuff if that’s what matters to you. I know that cap and trade is more important. The Iranian uprising is more important. North Korea is more important. There’s a lot going on that’s more important than the death of a pop star. But Jackson was hugely influential, and his death has spurred a lot of people to reflect on the cultural era he dominated. Fine.

    It’s just, the decision to do all Michael all the time for the next few days has run up against our hyper-fast news cycle: the only way to act as if you were always delivering a putatively “new” angle on him is to keep finding another star to say that he was “special” and “gifted” and that he “didn’t have support.” We know already. We’ve known for years. We knew before Cher and Britney and Celine and Jay Z said so. Can’t they busy themselves with their own trawling for media notoriety and not hustle in on Michael Jackson’s this one last time?

    No, of course, they can’t. It doesn’t work that way. He was epochally successful and powerful in the industry, and no matter what everyone else really thought of him, everyone else looks more important by appearing to have something meaningful to say about him. And if any of his fellow early-MTV luminaries go under similar circumstances, we’ll be sitting through the same thing.


    They eat off of you

    Posted by Sean at 19:04, June 25th, 2009

    Wow. Michael Jackson, too? That poor man. After Off the Wall, nearly every great song he made seemed to paranoid or angry. I don’t say that as a criticism—the impulse to turn paranoia and anger into vigorous, combative art is very human and affirmative. It’s probably much better than sitting around and burning up inside. But he always seemed much more haunted and needy than even other out-there celebrities. This is very sad, but it’s nice to think he’s beyond all that now.

    Added later: I think it’s an error to go as far as Andrew Sullivan does here:

    He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age – and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

    But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell.

    I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours’ and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.

    Well, that depends on whom Sullivan’s including in the “us” that owns what’s “ours.” There are plenty of Americans who wouldn’t be celebrities if you paid us and who find reality TV, for example, creepy. There’s no denying that Jackson was surrounded by people who wanted to use him as a gravy train and that, with his childhood, he would have had a lot of lessons to learn from scratch if he’d decided he wanted to become a conventionally happy adult in his twenties.

    At the same time, let’s remember that he was an individual with choices and free moral agency like the rest of us. Every day in America, there are people who escape abusive families, leave careers that are making them loads of money but crushing them spiritually, and ditch users to find themselves some real friends. Not for a moment do I want to underestimate how hard that would have been for Michael Jackson post-Thriller. But it demeans him to treat him as someone who was only acted upon and never acting. He had thirty years to get acclimated to adulthood; this is not a child star who burned out and ODed at eighteen. Most of us wouldn’t want to live like Elizabeth Taylor or Patty Duke, but despite their ongoing problems, they made the effort to carve out identities for themselves and not spin out into never-ending, uncontrolled loopiness.


    Very hazardous duties

    Posted by Sean at 14:08, June 25th, 2009

    How sad to read that Farrah Fawcett (after all these years, I nearly typed “Farrah Fawcett-Majors” on autopilot from boyhood memory) has died. Charlie’s Angels may have had the dumbest mystery scripts imaginable, but the actresses themselves were very good at embodying a very American type of beauty–alert, inquisitive, and, when necessary, mouthy. Sure, they jiggled. They were always on the move, doing something: chasing bad guys, fleeing bad guys after getting caught searching their offices, liberating abducted heiresses from bad guys, performing incognito as water-skiers (or showgirls or rollerskaters or figure skaters) to infiltrate organizations of bad guys. Not all of those happened during Fawcett’s one season, but while she was on the show, she was the athletic point person. It’s nice to know that both her career and her romantic difficulties after that point were resolved, and she seems to have died surrounded by loved ones.

    Added later: Rondi remembers aspiring to Farrah hair.


    シャワークリーンスーツ

    Posted by Sean at 11:38, June 21st, 2009

    The Mainichi reports on new suits that are amenable to wear through the torturing heat and humidity of summer through much of Japan:

    Konaka Co., a pioneer of suits that can be washed at home, released its 100 percent wool “Shower Clean Suits” (priced from 35,000 yen) in February 2008. Just pouring warm water on the suits can wash off most sweat and dirt. The suits, made using specially processed fabric, also don’t need to be ironed.

    Konaka sold more than 60,000 Shower Clean Suits last fiscal year. The company is planning to expand the Shower Clean Suit lineup and aims to sell 150,000 of them this year, including women’s styles.

    Department store chain Takashimaya also got into the home-washable suit market with the March release of its “Vert line” suits (priced at 71,400 yen), jointly developed with leading apparel maker Onward Kashiyama Co. According to Takashimaya, the suits are made of a “high-quality and durable” weave of specially processed wool and polyester.

    Polyester? EWWWWWWW!

    The piece states that Aoki Inc., which has a huge Today’s Man-ish chain of Main Street outlets, and Aoyama Trading are also introducing washable suits. Of course, the real question is whether the fabric drapes well so that guys look all authoritative and studly in them, but the Mainichi doesn’t address it. Of course, on the company’s website, the demo version looks fine on the hanger, but it’s hard to tell whether it has that same oddness of sheen and hand that seems to plague, say, wrinkle-free cottons.