Welcome to Osaka

ferriswheel.gifThe touchdown at Osaka airport by night is rather enchanting: there is even a lit up ferris wheel visible from the air. Enter the customs area at the airport, however, and the mood is somewhat less magical. Behind the row of customs officers processing visitors is a massive yellow sign, perhaps more than 30 metres across, with the words: “Strict inspections are being carried out for the prevention of terrorism.” Every visitor to Japan is not only photographed, but also fingerprinted, one index finger from each hand.  

Japan is not the first country to go down this path. The American decision to introduce fingerprinting of visitors led the esteemed Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to turn down an NYU teaching invitiation in 2004 because he refused to submit to the procedure, seeing in it very menacing overtones. As Agamben wrote in Le Monde at the time of finger and retina prints and other such procedures, “by applying these techniques and these devices invented for the dangerous classes to a citizen, or rather to a human being as such, states … have made the person the ideal suspect, to the point that it’s humanity itself that has become the dangerous class.”Agamben pointed out that what begins at the border could find its way into other areas of political life within the state: “the bio-political tattooing the United States imposes now to enter its territory could well be the precursor to what we will be asked to accept later as the normal identity registration of a good citizen in the state’s gears and mechanisms. That’s why we must oppose it.”

The Japanese are, of course, following the American lead: as the Bush administration has entertained ever more intense suspicions of outsiders under the guise of its war on terror, it has given new animus to the xenophobic side of Japanese culture in its wake. I find the Osaka airport experience objectionable, and not only for the reason so well articulated by Agamben: travel to another country should not have to feel like a booking at a police station. As a visitor, I should not have to face a rebuttable presumption that I am up to no good. It is a remarkable achievement in the EU that European citizens are able to travel freely from one country to the next with minimal to no oversight. But the EU model is starting to look less like a glimpse of the future and more like a global exception.

It would be easier to accept the entry procedure to Japan, perhaps, if one had reason to believe that it will meet its stated objective of preventing terrorism. But as with Jeet Heer in a previous post, I have trouble taking what Japan says on terrorism seriously. I see the procedure as feeding a kind of indeterminate suspicion of the world, with little behind it in the form  of coherent policy. Anti-terrorist rhetoric is now used the world over by states to strengthen their control and oversight, and Japan is playing its own version of this game.

What terrorists in particular does Japan hope to detect – and against what sources of intelligence? Recall that the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways in 1995 – the most serious terrorist attack in Japanese history – was conceived of by graduates of Japan’s elite universities; the cult flourished under the plain light of day because most of its practitioners were, to all appearances, ordinary Japanese – the sort of people who would pass through airport security stalls without raising eyebrows. And then there is the question of what will happen to the photographic and fingerprinting information on visitors now being assembled. In a country that has managed to lose at least 10 million pension records from its own citizens, one is now simply forced to hope, as the price of a visit, that one’s personal fingerprinting and photographic information will remain secure in the hands of the Japanese state.

Japan is now hoping to improve its poor international ranking of inbound tourism – somewhere in the order of 35th place, way behind other G8 members and most other Asian countries.  The tone for visitors begins at its entry gates, where first impressions are made.  

Jeannie Schulz’s further comments on her husband’s biography

Lucy Van Pelt as therapist.

Jeannie Schulz, widow of the creator of Peanuts, offers some further thoughts on David Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts. Earlier postings on the subject can be found here, here, and here.

Jeannie Schulz’s comments:

There is an issue that Michaelis brings up a number of times in the Schulz biography which has completely baffled me in that he seems to take an accusatory tone that Sparky didn’t get therapy for his “problems”. I am not sure how it is attributed, but the statement is that Sparky didn’t go to therapy because he was afraid it would alter his creativity (or words to that effect). Sparky did, in fact, go to two different therapists at two different times. But that is not the point I want to make.

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National Review and Terrorism

Victims of the church bombing.

Like all conservative publications, National Review likes to fulminate against terrorism. Terrorism is a serious problem, of course, but I have trouble taking what they say on this matter seriously. Here’s why:

1. On September 15, 1963 a bomb went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing 4 black girls and injuring many more children. (Those killed were Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair; McNair had been a classmate of the young Condoleezza Rice).  The bomb was set by members of the Klu Klux Klan, as part of a wave of terror designed to intimidate the civil rights movement. Here is how National Review commented on the bombing in the October 1, 1963 issue of their biweekly Bulletin: “The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away form the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.”

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Holiday production


It’s traditional at this time of year for bloggers throughout the world to warn their readers of anticipated slow-downs in their rates of posting, as they head off to spend time with family and friends instead of continuing to produce the content that their audiences have come to expect, and in so many cases, to actually depend on. When you think of it, it’s sad that so many people have to suffer during this otherwise joyful season because of the self-centredness of a comparative few. Sad, but also a little outrageous. What do they assume their readers will do? Wait patiently? Do they really think that people will just sit there staring at the same two-week-old post and not say something? What kind of selfish buggers are they, anyway?

[cough] Sorry.

What I came here to say was that unlike every other blog on the planet, we here at sans everything will guarantee [Please rephrase; we can’t commit to this without liability risk. Thx. – legal dpt] will do everything in our power to ensure that our postings continue throughout the holiday season at the same high frequency as during the rest of the year. We have already informed our families that we won’t be seeing them until January at the earliest, and we pledge to continue sitting at our keyboards diligently creating content so that none of you, our dear readers, will lack for thought-provoking posts to ruminate on during the holidays, as you spend time with your own families and friends, drinking eggnog, eating roast turkey, and telling ribald stories of your summer holidays in Istanbul. Yeah, that’s right. Having fun, while we slave away at less than minimum wage, our eyes slowly weakening in the dim and flickering glare of our monitors, our fingers turning into palsied claws, our teeth loosening from lack of vitamin C, the ship’s cat looking at us with more interest, hunger, and — God help us — confidence with every passing day.

Happy holidays, you selfish #%#*&^… [Rewrite w new ending, more upbeat. – ed].

Philip Roth’s Ghost Stories

Philip Roth.

Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean you can’t believe in ghosts. Philip Roth is a stone-cold atheist and is perhaps the most sternly materialist of all the great writers. Not only does Roth not believe in God, his novels are so steadfastly focused on the physical, bodily dimensions of human life (sex and disease) as to be completely free of the sort of residual religiosity that writers like John Updike or Cynthia Ozick possess, with their muted echoes of liturgical music and flickering spiritual hopes. Roth’s whole attitude towards religion is curtly summed up by this description of the anonymous hero of the 2006 novel Everyman: “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness – the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.”

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Goldberg’s “Fascism” and the Real Thing

Jonah Goldberg’s gall is greatly to be admired. A contributing editor at National Review, Goldberg will soon issue forth a book entitled Liberal Fascism. Early peeks show that the dust jacket contains this clever apercu: “The quintessential liberal fascist isn’t an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade-school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.” Chapter titles include: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of Liberal Fascism, Franklin Roosevelt’s Fascist New Deal, Brave New Village: Hillary Clinton and the Meaning of Liberal Fascism.

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Wisdom from the Rabbi

The rabbi Yeshua bar Yosef  was a master of the aphorism. Like many ancient sages, he wrote nothing down but strove to concentrate his wisdom into pithy, shocking, memorable sayings, often only a sentence long, at other times a very short story. Also called Masih Isa ibn Maryan, the rabbi deserves to be better known than he is. His sayings are collected in a little book entitled The Logia of Yeshua (translated by Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia). Here are a few excerpts: 

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Jeannie Schulz on her husband’s biography

Above: the cartoonist and his creation

David Michaelis’ biography of Charles “Sparky” Schulz has been something of an obsession with this blog: it’s a big book and a challenging one, given the way it mixes facts (or apparent facts) with interpretation. Jeannie Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, has sent along some comments she has on the Michaelis book (comments that will also appear on the Cartoon Brew site). Anyone interested in the subject should read Jeannie Schulz’s comments very carefully. They are extremely thoughtful and show a very close and attentive reading of the Michaelis biography, bringing to bear not just her 26 years of marriage to Schulz but also her unparalleled knowledge of his life prior to marriage (as an heir, Jeannie has done exemplary service in preserving her husband’s legacy, keeping both his work and memory alive). To my mind, they represent the most serious critique the Michaelis biography has yet received.

JS notes on the BIO


I wanted to get back to this blog when I could with a few more observations on Michaelis’ book.

Part of David Michaelis working thesis in the book appears to rest on the theory that Sparky suffered from his mother’s coldness and lack of attention.

Michaelis portrays Sparky’s mother, Dena, as a typically cold Norwegian and hypothesizes, from this and from an interview comment that as kids they were not invited into the Schulz’s house, that Dena was distant and unfriendly.

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Mises and the “Merit” of Fascism

You can’t trust everything you read in a Batman comic book. Ron Paul, the engaging libertarian-minded candidate in the Republican presidential nomination race, told an interviewer that his favorite comic book character is “Berlin Batman,” an alternative world superhero who, as Julian Sanchez notes, rescues “the manuscript of Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action from the Nazis.” The assumption of the story seems to be that  Mises is some sort of unambiguous champion of freedom. The reality is a little different.

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The Biographer as Enemy

In earlier posts, I suggested that biography is akin to fiction writing, both activities involving the taking of stray facts and hints about a life to make a narrative. But there is another sense in which biography is diametrically opposed to literature. Poets and novelists take the raw material of life and transform it into literature. Biographers take literary texts and, in a gesture of reverse-alchemy, turn them into evidence about life. If biography is, in some fundamental and inescapable way, anti-art, then it’s easier to understand why so many biographers seem to have a grudge against their subjects, an unstated animus that leads many non-fiction writers to find fault with creative artists. Good examples of this tendency are Lawrence Thompson’s biography of Robert Frost and Michael Shelden’s life of Graham Greene. As William H. Pritchard once noted, you can glean a great deal of Thompson’s attitude towards Frost just by looking at the index, which has entries like “Anti-intellectual,” “Baffler-teaser-deceiver,” “Brute,” “Charlatan,” “Cowardice,” “Depression, moods of,” “Enemies,” “Hate,” “Insanity,” “Pretender,” “Puritan,” “Rage,” “Retaliations, Poetic,” “Self-Centeredness,” “Spoiled Child,” and in a fine final flourish, “Vindictive.” As for Shelden, in his biography he raises that possibility that Graham Greene was the guilty party behind an unsolved murder of the 1930s.

In Philip Roth’s new novel Exit Ghost, Nathan Zuckerman ponders a proposed defamatory biography of his mentor E.I. Lonoff. This leads to some waspish ruminations on the relationship between biography and creative writing: “An astonishing thing it is, too, that one’s prowess and achievement, such as they have been, should find their consummation in the retribution of biographical inquisition. The man in control of the words, the man making up the stories all his life, winds up, after death, remembered, if at all, for a story made up about him, his covert brand of baseness discovered and described with uncompromising candor, clarity, self-certainty, with grave concern for the most delicate issues of morality, and with no small measure of delight.” But of course biographies are an inescapable part of our documentary-obsessed aged. Shortly before writing Exit Ghost, Roth made arraignments to allow a literary biography of his own life to be written by his longtime friend Ross Miller.

Post Script: Any discussion of Roth and biography should mention Alan Lelchuk’s 2003 novel Ziff: A Life in which a character very similiar to Lelchuk tries to write a biography of chararacter equally reminiscent of Roth. Of course since Roth has in the past portrayed a Lelchuk-inspired figure, we’re deep in a hall of mirrors or in the mouth of a self-consuming serpent. There was also an earlier Roth novel, The Counterlife if I’m not mistaken, where Nathan Zuckerman was confronted by the possibility of someone writing his biography. And Roth’s 1988 memoir The Facts includes a critique of the author’s retelling of his supposed true story written by his imaginary alter ego Zuckerman. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Zuckerman’s first appearance was in the novel My Life As a Man (1974) , where he was created as a near-likeness by the equally fictional Peter Tarnopol. A prospective biographer of Roth will have to deal with the fact that he’s already blurred and multiplied his own life story by frequent and involuted re-tellings. Good writers have many lives inside them; Roth has one life that’s taken so many forms as to feel like a crowd.