Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Manchurian Candidate" This Ain't

I find this business about a Russian spy ring operating in New Jersey and New York hard to fathom. It sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel - the Russian government, after giving them extensive training, plants a network of clandestine operatives in the U.S., with the objective that they work their way into the corridors of power and report back to Moscow with useful intelligence. Except, these particular operatives did nothing to infiltrate the corridors of power. They didn't apply for government jobs, because the Russian government felt it would be too risky and their cover stories wouldn't stand up to the scrutiny obtaining a security clearance would require. Nor do they appear to have sought work in espionage-worthy areas of the private sector such as the defense, computer, or satellite industries. Rather, they just set themselves up as typical suburban white-collar professionals and sought to rub elbows with important people:
American officials said they believed that most of the accused spies had been born in Russia and had been given sophisticated training before resettling in the United States, posing as married couples. They connected with various Americans of influence or knowledge, including a "prominent New York-based financier" described as a political fund-raiser with personal ties to a cabinet official, a former high-ranking national security official, and a nuclear weapons expert.
No word yet on whether they sought contacts with people within six degrees of Kevin Bacon. But what was the ultimate point of all this schmoozing with the important and semi-important among America's political and financial elite and semi-elite? Why, to pass what they learned from knowing them back to Moscow. The odd thing is that none of that information - at least as it's being reported - strikes me as sensitive, difficult to obtain by perfectly straightforward means, or even particularly valuable from an intelligence point of view. The impact of U.S. fiscal policy on prospects for the global gold market? Scuttlebutt on Congressional politics and C.I.A. leadership? American policy towards Iran? REALLY? You're telling me that none of those are things that could have been learned by an open-eared Russian consulate official, or even a Moscow-based intelligence analyst with bilingual ability, some resourcefulness, an internet connection, and a few well-honed Google searches?

It's obviously early to speculate, but I think Daniel Drezner's hunch that there must be more to this than the FBI and DOJ are letting on must be true. Otherwise I can't think of a reason why the Russian government would bother to keep maintaining these people, or the U.S. government would bother to arrest them.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Stupidity Of Hidebound Conservatism, FIFA Edition

If there's one thing that the 2010 World Cup has become known for, it is, shall we say, "controversial" refereeing decisions. In the group stage, there were several iffy red cards handed out, not to mention the goal that for unknown reasons wasn't a goal. Now that the elimination round has commenced, the refs have upped the ante, counting goals that shouldn't count and not counting ones that should. It's an ongoing and embarrassing display of officiating incompetence from an organization that claims to be the global arbiter of the sport, and unsurprisingly fans aren't happy and demand for the use of instant replay and other technological solutions has increased.

FIFA head/dinosaur-in-chief Sepp Blatter has responded to the controversy in the time-honored manner of sclerotic European bureaucracies from Portugal to Poland, waiving off objections like so many a disallowed goal. Egregious ineptitude in enforcing the rules of the game? "Part of the human nature of our sport", according to Blatter. Seeing a tightly contested match decided by a blown call? Merely spice for post-game analysis as something fans will "love to debate".

These sorts of arguments are patently absurd. It's not necessarily the referee's fault if he can't enforce the rules correctly - there are twenty-two players and a lot of field to cover, and only one of him (which is part of the problem). But given that technology that would allow him to do his job better is readily available and could be implemented tomorrow, one cannot help but conclude that FIFA is an organization that is not only utterly incompetent in its stated mission (enforcing the rules of the game fairly), but unapologetically and even defiantly so. Would we accept this logic in any other walk of life? Should we tell pilots they're not allowed to use radar to help them safely land their planes, since human error is part of the nature of aviation? Should we tell brain surgeons they shouldn't use precision, laser-guided instruments in performing their operations since human error is part of medicine? (On second thought, that might not be a bad idea if Blatter were the patient - we'd give him a chance to live out his philosophy in another arena of life, and as somebody who's already functionally brain-dead he wouldn't stand to lose much).

I follow several other sports that employ technology to help the officials do their jobs (ice hockey, football, basketball, etc.). While stoppages in the game in order for the referees to review a close play are sometimes annoying, I don't think they've ruined the game, and I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone I know who does. Most fans want to see the outcome decided fairly, by the actions of the players, and if we have to wait a few minutes while the referees go to the tape to make sure that happens, so be it. Blatter and his fellow do-nothings may wish to continue living in the Stone Age, but most soccer fans do not. Conservatism - whether in a serious sphere like politics or religion, or in the realm of a trivial entertainment like sports - should be about seeing that necessary changes to traditional structures are undertaken slowly and carefully, not about clinging to outdated ideas for the sake of tradition, no matter how stupid the advancement of knowledge reveals them to be. But for Blatter and far too many people like him, the latter is exactly what conservatism is. For FIFA, a World Cup final decided on a missed call to change things. But what about for our governments, our schools, our institutions of knowledge and research?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

From The Dept. Of Easier Said Than Done

I suppose it's a good sign that the leaders of the G20 have agreed they need to reduce their governments' debt loads - almost every G20 economy is running dangerously high deficits, especially considering the oncoming demographic crunch facing many of them. The problem is that politicians saying they need to reduce the amount of government spending is like you or I saying we need to exercise more, eat fewer potato chips, or quit smoking - no matter how obvious it is that it needs to be done, and no matter how loudly it's proclaimed that it will be done, there remains a smart gambler's chance that it won't happen. In a welfare state democracy, politicians get votes by passing out goodies (expensive goodies) to the constituencies that vote for them, and they lose votes by depriving said constituencies of the goodies they've come to expect. Politicians may dance around the issue, telling voters that government largesse can be paid for by higher taxes on someone else - the rich, corporations, etc. - or that spending can be lowered by eliminating "waste, fraud, and abuse", but when it comes down to it, running a large modern welfare state costs a lot, more than voters in most countries are evidently willing to pay in taxes. The answer to this point to the conundrum of how to buy votes without violating voters' price thresholds has been to buy them on credit, but as anyone who's ever maxed out a credit card can tell you, deficit spending has its limits. I really do hope that the governments of the industrialized world get their acts together and reduce their spending in the near future, when it will be less painful to do so - but were I the aforementioned smart gambler, I'd bet against it happening until every single one of those governments was in the situation Greece is in now.

(Like A) Heatwave!

With Japan now firmly mired in its first real heat wave of the summer, I have once again been reminded of one of the strangest customs we humans have - dress codes. I've spent all weekend wearing as little as possible, but tomorrow when school resumes I'm off in a shirt, tie, and slacks, despite what's bound to be high heat and humidity, sure to be soaked in sweat by the time I make it to my desk, and with no A/C in the staffroom, unlikely to cool down for awhile. Without a preconceived cultural conception of what constitutes "appropriate dress", any sane person would wear shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals to school.

If alien anthropologists descended on Earth to observe our species, no doubt this is only one of many human customs they'd find odd. But given that it's the one that makes work a miserable place to be for 3+ months of the year, it's one of the ones I most dislike.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Curious Logic, That

People have a habit of attempting to turn anything and everything that happens in the world into "evidence" of the truth of their preferred ideology, but even given that it's hard to see how right-wing Italian politician Roberto Calderoli can fault immigrants for the dismal World Cup performance of the Azzurri, given that, near as I can tell, the Italian roster has nary an ethnic non-Italian on it. The logic seems particularly strained given that the similarly underperforming French, whose roster includes players from the country's large Arab and black African immigrant populations in addition to white Frenchmen, have also caused a spate of national hand-wringing over the questions of immigration and cultural assimilation with their ignominious exit from the tournament. If a team composed of 100% born-and-bred Italians crashes out of the World Cup, it's the fault of immigrants because too many of them are playing in Italian youth leagues and the supply of talented young Italian players is as a result being choked off (never mind that playing against better competition growing up would presumably make developing native players better, not worse, but whatever). And if a multi-ethnic French team crashes out, it's the fault of immigrants because the players are "hooligans" who, in the words of French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, "only know the morals of the mafia". In other words, if a highly rated European side plays like crap, no matter what it's the fault of non-Europeans.

I find all these efforts to make the performance of a sports team into a cultural bellwether overblown and absurd. From my vantage point, the French disappointed for the same reasons many talented-but-disappointing sports teams do - they had poor team chemistry, and a flaky, overmatched coach who was widely disliked by his players. As for the Italians, after winning it all in 2006 they made the same mistake that many championship teams do, succumbing to nostalgia and trying to recreate lost glory by bringing back an aging, declining nucleus of players for another go-around rather than seeking to replenish their roster with younger talent. They were one of the oldest teams in the tournament and looked it against younger, livelier sides like Slovakia, whose 3-2 victory at their expense knocked the Italians out of the tournament. Presumably in 2014 both France and Italy will be back, the French with a new coach and the Italians with a younger, more dynamic group of players, and if they both progress deep into the tournament as they usually do this year's poor showings will be forgotten. No doubt at that point people like Alain Finkielkraut and Roberto Calderoli will find some other way to complain that immigrants are ruining their societies.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Democrats' Conflicting Priorities

The Senate's failure to extend long-term jobless benefits is a potential political double whammy for Democrats - by trying to pass it, they gave Republicans yet one more hammer with which to beat them on the increasingly germane issue of deficit spending, and by failing to do so they've fed the narrative that they're a bunch of bickering incompetents who can't stop grandstanding and backbiting long enough to solve the country's economic problems despite historically large majorities in both houses of Congress. I'm not sure the latter criticism is fair, but I have little sympathy for them - when you sell yourselves as the party of bigger government, and promise voters that bigger government will help solve their problems, you're going to get blamed on those occasions when it fails to do.

Spending on things like employment benefits does ease the suffering of ordinary people during hard times, but it won't end a recession. You need sound economic fundamentals for that. And much of the rest of the Democrats' agenda - e.g. cap and trade - is going to harm economic fundamentals, at least in the short term. Perhaps climate change is enough of a threat that the tradeoff is worth it. I don't know. But the fact is that many of the Democrats' policy priorities are very likely to prolong the economic slump, dent job growth and keep the long-term unemployed, well, unemployed. Given that we can't afford to extend unemployment benefits indefinitely, papering over that problem by giving them money was never going to fly forever. And lo and behold, it hasn't.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Meet The New Boss

It's hardly surprising that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been fired as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by President Obama - you can't badmouth your bosses on the record and expect it not to have consequences when it comes to light. But it does reveal a troublesome disconnect between civilian and military leadership on the question of Afghanistan, as well as once again expose one of the inherent strategic flaws of country's command structure.

About certain subjects, counterinsurgency strategy among them, military leaders are likely to be far more knowledgable than any President, no matter how intelligent or immersed in the issues he may be. Presidents generally acknowledge this by deferring to the stratetgic prerogatives of the military commanders they appoint, but when military leadership loses faith in the competence of its civilian overseers, as it did with Donald Rumsfeld and co. during Bush's Presidency, or apparently has with Obama over the past several months, things can get problematic. People like McChrystal, trained to think about problems like Afghanistan from a military perspective, are likely to have minimal awareness, concern, or patience for the political aspects of the issue, but a President (particularly one in his first term, with midterm elections that look to be rocky ones for his party looming) has little choice but to think about them. Hence they're unlikely to consider the limitations that political vulnerability places on a President's strategic choices legitimate, and when they feel that the President is sacrificing the opportunity for military success in order to improve his or his party's political prospects, they're likely to mouth off about it, at least privately. I happen to think Afghanistan is a hopeless, or at least very daunting, case as a nation-building project - but the difficulty of the task only makes McChrystal venting his frustration at feeling like he's undertaking it with one hand tied behind his back even more understandable, if inexcusable.

Here's hoping General David Petraeus can improve the situation. He's obviously got some political skills and has plenty of experience resolving conflict, and most observers agree he did an excellent job overseeing U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. If anyone's up to the challenge of making something positive out of the mess in Afghanistan it's him.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Comic Book Movie Stranglehold

I went to see Iron Man 2 last week, and while I enjoyed it, I can't help but agree with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's contention that it and movies like it are sucking up a distressing amount of creative oxygen in Hollywood these days. Summer blockbusters have always drawn in talented actors, writers, and directors, of course, be they good movies like Iron Man, Star Wars, and Batman Begins, entertaining but forgettable efforts like Men In Black, the X-Men franchise, or the initial Harry Potter films, or genuine dreck like the recent Clash of the Titans. But by virtue of their box office reliability and inherent amenability to sequelization, comic book movies present a special problem. If a director like Christopher Nolan or Jon Favreau, or a performer like Christian Bale or Robert Downey Jr., makes a one-off foray into blockbuster filmmaking, it's one thing - just one entry in a filmography that has plenty of space to subsequently grow in other directions. However, if they're committed to an entire franchise, which successful superhero movies tend to spawn, it's something completely different. If there's going to be a Batman sequel every few years, that's one fewer Memento or Insomnia that Nolan has time to make in that time frame. If Downey Jr. is busy with Iron Man 3 or its spinoff The Avengers, he's going to have less time for daring comic roles like the one he played in Tropic Thunder or fascinating dramatic ones like his turn in Zodiac. If Guillermo del Toro is making Hellboy 2, he's not making the next Pan's Labyrinth. And so on.

It has been very interesting to see talents like Nolan, Downey, Favreau, del Toro, Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, etc. put their stamp on the superhero movie genre, just as it was interesting to watch the likes of Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson do it twenty years ago. But the imprint of that stamp gets fainter and fainter with each application without a return to the inkpad, and that's essentially what Iron Man 2 (and The Dark Knight, X-Men 2, Hellboy 2, Spider Man 2, etc.) are. Because of this diminishing returns effect, the creators feel pressure to constantly up the ante, with each subsequent outing in the franchise featuring bigger action sequences, better special effects, more and cooler villains, etc. Eventually, things get to the point where the sequels become more reminiscent of the absurd, bloated cartoonishness of the Joel Schumacher-George Clooney Batman period than the taut, well-imagined, and character-driven films that began the franchise re-boots. This happened with Spider Man 3, it happened in my opinion with The Dark Knight, and in Iron Man 2, there are signs aplenty that it's starting to happen with that franchise as well, despite the movie's charms.

Perhaps Raimi, by bailing on the Spider Man franchise after the third installment to go back to making the kind of clever horror and fantasy films on which he made his name, will set a good precedent for other creative types currently absorbed by the superhero craze. Or perhaps too many of these movies being released every year will lead the public to tire of them, and the fad for them will pass, clearing space for other films to be made. As someone who enjoys the efforts of talented people in genres other than the comic book adaptation, I think either would be a fairly welcome development.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Future Of Soccer In America

As I blogged a few days ago, I am a recent convert to real soccer fandom. This gives me, as someone who didn't grow up playing or watching it, but has come to genuinely enjoy doing both as an adult, what I suppose is a somewhat unique take on the ongoing debate about the game's future in America.

If you take the media's word for it, Americans are divided into two camps on the question of soccer -anti-soccer nativists and pro-soccer xenophiles. The nativists are the people who complain that soccer is boring, that nothing happens, that it's too low-scoring and that too much of the action consists of kicking the ball back and forth in the midfield. They insist that it will never take off in America because American sports, with their higher scoring and greater highlight potential, are more suited to American cultural sensibilities. If they're childish, they'll say that soccer sucks and that people who enjoy it are dorks. They may insist that soccer fans are trying to "ram the game down Americans' throats". Often, there is an overlap between disdain for soccer and political and cultural conservatism, though not always - anti-soccer sentiment can be found even among otherwise true-blue cosmopolitan liberal elite types. The xenophiles, conversely, are disproportionately represented among left-leaning demographics (the young, urbanites, immigrants), and supposedly embrace soccer for the same reasons they embrace salsa dancing, sushi, and yoga - it's hip, it's cool, it's multicultural. Though they are still somewhat uncommon, their numbers are growing, and they insist to anyone who will listen that soccer is the sport of the future, and that if Americans don't love it the way the rest of the world does it's because they don't yet understand it.

I find myself somewhere in the no man's land between these two camps. Until I lived abroad and was exposed to the game as played on its highest level, I was not much of a fan, and I do think that there is some merit to the American skeptic's charge that soccer is too unimaginative and low-scoring - played conservatively by technically-lacking sides whose best chance for a result is to go into a defensive shell and play for a draw (and maybe a 1-0 victory if they're lucky enough to score on a counterattack), soccer can be very tedious. Unfortunately, such tactics are distressingly common even on the game's highest level - for every Brazil or Barcelona, who move the ball around fluidly and attack with verve and imagination, there's a team like Italy or Arsenal who methodically grinds out results with suffocating (and suffocatingly dull) defense. On the other hand, I find charges that the game is slow and lacks action absurd coming from people who enthusiastically embrace baseball, a sport in which a single game can easily last four hours, only a few minutes of which are actual game action, the rest consisting of minute-long intervals of players stretching, adjusting their equipment, knocking dirt off their spikes, and scratching themselves. If I hadn't grown up with baseball and learned to appreciate the game's slow rhythms as part of its charm from a young age, I suspect I'd find it excruciatingly dull, just as many people from outside the baseball-playing world do when exposed to it as adults. It's pretty clear that cultural conditioning matters a great deal in what we find compelling in athletic competition.

Viewed through this lens, soccer's role as a (excuse the pun) political/cultural football in the American debate makes a lot more sense. Though enough American kids play soccer that there's an entire sociopolitical category named after their parents, it's not a sport with any connection to the American sense of self-identity. It's not the "national pasttime" the way baseball is, and its best young players aren't feted in the media as "All-Americans" the way those in basketball and football are. Such as it is associated with any sort of cultural identity in American discourse, that identity tends to be either a.)Latin American, or b.)European. For the Cro-Magnon right, there's no two groups more antithetical to "the real America" than immigrants and socialists, who happen to come, in this group's imagination, from, respectively, Latin America and Europe. Rejecting soccer is thus a handy shorthand gesture for any sort of cultural influence from these areas of the globe. It is hard to express with sufficient force my contempt for this kind of attitude. It's one thing to just not particularly care for the sport, but when somebody like Glenn Beck says, without even taking into consideration the merits or flaws of the game itself, that he hates the World Cup just because the rest of the world loves it, he's essentially declaring himself an ignorant, narrow-minded boor and proud of it. On the other hand, liberals who lionize soccer for its multicultural cache and egalitarianism are pretty thoroughly deluded, ignoring as they do the fact the game's European fans can express some pretty unenlightened cultural attitudes at times, and that the economic structure of the game in Europe much more closely resembles the haves-and-have-nots setup of MLB than the more socialistic models of the NFL, NBA, and NHL.

My take? To the extent that there is there is one - the fragmentation of the entertainment world and the ever-proliferating number of sports options dilute the meaning of the term - soccer is a good candidate for the title of "sport of the future", though not for the reasons its advocates often cite. I think it will continue to gain in popularity in the United States, though primarily because of demographic and technological trends rather than ideological appeal. First, the demographic groups that tend to like soccer (immigrants, Latinos, college-educated hipsters, etc.) are increasingly large slices of the American population, whereas those that don't (older people and cultural irredentists who conceive of American identity as primarily white, Christian, and suburban or rural) are increasingly small slices. Second, the arrival of the internet and satellite TV means that Americans (who, after all, only want to watch the best of anything), can now much more easily follow elite foreign teams and leagues, rather than settling for a second-rate product like Major League Soccer. The globalization of sports means more than Kobe Bryant jerseys on the streets of Beijing, regular-season NFL games in London, and droves of foreigners arriving to play in the MLB, NBA, and NHL - it also means people in New York waking up in Saturday morning and heading to their local English-style pub to catch the matchup of the week in the English Premier League. I agree with Daniel Drezner's contention that soccer won't really take off until the U.S. fields a team that genuinely contend for the title of the world's best, and with Matt Yglesias' point that growth in the sport's popularity is unlikely to come at the expense of one of the current major American sports. But it will come.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

As They Should

President Obama has vowed to make BP pay for the gulf oil spill, and three cheers for that. Given that ample evidence is accumulating that the company cut numerous corners in regards to safety while drilling the Deep Water Horizon well, they need to pay dearly for their recklessness. Furthermore, if the libertarian argument that the force of the free market will drive companies to consider safety and environmental impact in their activities is to hold true, the real cost of failing to do so when engaging in a risky activity like deep-sea offshore drilling must be reflected in the marketplace. BP deserves no mercy whatsoever, even if this crisis bankrupts it. Let it off the hook, and the next company that's running late and over budget on a potentially environmentally risky project might decide saving time and money is worth the risk of a major catastrophe.

I hope my liberal friends will remember this the next time they're tempted to accuse us libertarians of being nothing but shills for the interests of big business.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cursed With Riches?

Does the discovery of vast, previously unknown mineral deposits in its territory count as good news for Afghanistan, or bad? While the article discusses the country's potential as a "mining superpower", and even says that it could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" due to its rich deposits of the increasingly expensive and in-demand metal, if there's one thing we've learned from the post-colonial histories of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, it's that for a country already contending with violence, tribal tensions, and a corrupt, ineffectual central government of questionable sovereignty, adding valuable natural resources to the mix rarely improves the situation. Afghanistan is already in arguably worse shape than any other country on the planet, with numerous factions already battling each other to the death even with nothing but territory, ideology, and tribal grievance to fight over. Throw in mineral riches as a potential accelerant for the flames and, well - it doesn't bode well when you look at the precedent set by Iraq. Or Nigeria. Or Sierra Leone. Or Indonesia. It's a bit early to make predictions, of course, but it wouldn't surprise me if in the end, it doesn't turn out that Afghanistan would have been better off had the primary resources for which it is known remained carpets, camels, and heroin, with the valuable stuff left in the ground until society had a chance to stabilize a bit more.

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup Fever - A Casualty Report

Four years ago, when I was living in South Korea during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I wrote an email to my friends and family describing the experience of being part of a huge crowd gathered at Seoul City Hall Plaza to watch the home side's opening match on a massive screen on the side of a nearby building which had been commandeered to publicly show the game. As clearly as I can recall it (it was a very memorable experience), there is a marked difference in my attitude toward the current tournament and the attitude toward the 2006 edition I expressed in the email. I wrote that the experience of being part of a passionate World Cup crowd had turned me into a fan of the World Cup as an event, the mix of ardent fandom, patriotism, and collective emotional experience being an intoxicating (and volatile) cocktail, but that I still "didn't get" the sport itself.

I get it now. This year, I find myself not only excited by the buzz created by the World Cup, but also by the chance to watch some of the world's most brilliant players strut their stuff for their national teams. Three years of playing pickup and team soccer alongside friends who have the game in their blood - Englishmen, Scots, and South Africans among my fellow expatriate English teachers mostly, but a smattering of Germans and Frenchmen as well - have converted me into a full fan of the sport itself. Playing in real games, with players who know what they're doing, has given me a greater appreciation of a brilliant midfield possession game, a perfect form tackle, and a beautifully placed cross into the box than I used to have, and - most surprising to me of all - I no longer consider a scoreless draw by definition a boring contest. Though there are poorly contested matches, soccer well played presents as much excitement as hockey (my preferred "goal" sport as an American), even if balls more rarely end up in the net than pucks do, and a lot of the joy of watching it comes from seeing a play develop as the ball is advanced down the pitch, with the thrill provided by the possibility of a shot on goal (more likely to result in a goal than in hockey) being produced rather than only coming with an actual shot. This was something that only came once I'd acquired some firsthand familiarity (and only a little, at that!) with how the game is played.

I am psyched to see how the likes of Messi, Rooney, Kaka, and all the rest perform in this tournament. I'm excited about the U.S. team, and rooting hard for Japan, Korea, England, and whichever of the tournament's underdogs emerges from the group stage as well. And I'm going to watch as many of the games as I can manage, and block out time on July 11th to watch the final. I've become a full-fledged fan of the game, if still a relative neophyte in it (something about which my English friends will no doubt continue to needle me). I still love my "American" sports as much as the next guy. But there's always room for one more fantastic game in a true sports fan's schedule, and soccer, I've more and more realized, is a fantastic game.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

More Good News For People Who Love Bad News

Revised estimates peg the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico each day at twice the amount that was previously thought. On the bright side, at least there will be lots of jobs available in the beach cleanup sector of the economy for the next several years.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The World Disney-fied, Japanese Style

I just returned from my first visit to DisneySea, one of the two Disney theme parks in Japan, and the experience was a very interesting one. Unlike many American kids, I didn't grow up with Disney - my childhood coincided with the decade-long creative fallow period that marked the 80's for the company's animation studio, so its movies were never a fixture in our home library, and I've only once visited one of its U.S. theme parks, Disney World in Florida, and that as a high school student. So I didn't come into the experience with a lot of sentimental baggage or preconceived notions. What struck me about the experience was just how good Disney is at what it does as a company - creating a safer, more sanitary, and more colorful and entertaining version of the world on a miniature scale, and temporarily transporting its customers to it - even in a totally different cultural context. A lot of western companies have failed to penetrate the Japanese market, but in my opinion the primary reason for this is not that the Japanese are excessively nationalistic or protectionist in their economic attitudes, as was often claimed during the "Japan Takes Over The World" hysteria of the 1980's. Rather, it's that they didn't know how to give Japanese consumers the products they want. Disney, which has succeeded spectacularly well in Japan, was one of the exceptions, and to this day it'd be a good case study for anyone interested in doing business in the country.

While there is quite a bit of water in the park layout, despite its name DisneySea is not a marine park, with performing aquatic animals and the like. Rather, it's a straight theme-park built around venues combining shopping, dining, and entertainment and a few flagship amusement park-type rides and attractions, like the neighboring DisneyLand. Its main connection to the sea is a thematic one - it is divided into several different areas, most of which aim to recreate famous waterfront areas from around the world, and several of the rides and other attractions are water-themed. Enter the park and you're in a convincingly recreated portion of Venice, complete with gondolas, weather-beaten Mediterranean-style buildings, and a replica of the Rialto Bridge. Turn left and you're in the New York Port District, circa 1900. Go past there and you're in a re-created Cape Cod fishing town featuring a minitarure New England-style lighthouse and a restaurant selling American food. And so on.

The genius in the park's design lies in the way each of these areas is designed to appeal to the escapist fantasies of Japanese consumers. As a crowded, frequently climactically unpleasant country with a ferocious national work ethic that dictates long hours at school or at the office, Japan can be a psychologically exhausting place to live. As such, foreign environments and lifestyles which are perceived as free of the stressors of typical Japanese daily life hold a great deal of appeal to many of the people here. The American freedom to sprawl out and take up as much space as you like anywhere you want and the leisurely cafe culture of the Mediterranean may only be partially real, as anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in the U.S. or Europe could tell you, but that doesn't diminish the attractiveness of the fantasy for the Japanese, or their willingness to pay to indulge in it. DisneySea hits this market sweet spot exactly.

The real Venice? Beautiful, yes, but also overcrowded, overpriced, and surprisingly decrepit, with pickpockets, rip-off artists, and the fetid smell of stagnant water rising from the canals all everpresent annoyances which diminish its romance. Also, it's far away. New York? Exciting, cosmopolitan, full of neon lights and cultural star-power, but also dirty, dangerous, and frightfully expensive. Cape Cod? Remote, very unlikely to have any sort of tourist infrastructure or staffing catering to Japanese clientele, and thus presenting an intimidating language barrier. Also, you try getting decent sushi there. The Arabian Coast? Are you kidding? A Japanese tourist would make a fine target for a terrorist kidnapping there. For the price of a twenty minute train ride from downtown Tokyo and a one-day entry pass, DisneySea offers to transport visitors to all of these places, at least in their imaginations. And they don't have to deal with foreign money, confront the frightening prospect of interacting with shopkeepers, customs officials, hotel clerks, taxi drivers, and the like in a foreign language, or place themselves too far from the comforts of home to go there. When it's over, you can get back on the train and go right home to your own bed. It's exotic foreign travel, scrubbed of all the dangers, annoyances, and expense that make real exotic foreign travel something of a mixed experience even to those, like me, who live for it. Mix in a couple of well-designed thrill rides and other attractions, and you have all the ingredients for a very enjoyable daytrip for your typical overworked Tokyo office drone. The Disney experience in Japan really is a brilliantly conceived and marketed product, and if you could sell laundry detergent or vacuum cleaners or what-have-you with a strategy that similarly managed to appeal to the worldly curiosity of Japanese consumers without pushing them too far outside their linguistic and cultural comfort zones, I suspect you could make money doing so.

Looking back on my previous visit to DisneyWorld, I'm struck by the thought that it offers a similar appeal to American visitors, although one calibrated somewhat differently so as to appeal to the cultural ideals and fantasies of Americans. We are often cited by foreigners (both positively and negatively) as an idealistic people, with a child-like enthusiasm and energy, and a similarly child-like love for straightforward (or simplistic, depending on your point of view) moral reasoning. DisneyWorld prevents a sort of idealized snow globe version of the world as we Americans like to imagine it - full of clear-cut heroes and villains, with the former triumphing in the end, bright, clean, egalitarian, and safe. I'd like to visit EuroDisney someday to see how the company tailors its brand of entertainment for Europeans.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Obama And The Oil Spill, Bush And Katrina

Pundits on both sides of the aisle have been spilling a lot of ink debating the question of whether the gulf oil spill is "Obama's Katrina" - Karl Rove excoriating the slow response of federal bureaucracies to the disaster here, Maureen Dowd criticizing Obama's lack of visible distress over the matter there. So is it? The answer, I think, is yes, but only in the sense that both events A.)reveal the limits of government power, and B.)shed a similarly unflattering light on the political culture of today's America. We've come to two equally distressing points in our national discourse. Firstly, it's clear that a large number of us no longer believe in accidents or acts of God - many people seem convinced that the government should be able to prevent or solve any problem, no matter how severe or unforseeable it might be, and that if it is overwhelmed by events, it can only be due to malfeasance or incompetence. The President, as the personification of government, therefore takes all the blame, regardless of whether it is reasonable or not. Secondly, things have gotten to the point that any catastrophe that occurs on their opponents' watch is for rabid partisans an opportunity to score political points first and a national tragedy second - irrespective of the fact that culpability for these sorts of disasters, such as it exists, can be spread around in good measure.

People need to accept that there is a limited amount the government can do to prevent or respond to some crises. Bush could have appointed the world's foremost expert on hurricane relief efforts as head of FEMA before Katrina, and it wouldn't have prevented the storm from devastating New Orleans. When one of the most powerful hurricanes on record makes landfall directly on a city of half a million people that is situated mostly below sea level, severe destruction and loss of life is pretty much a certainty no matter what the President does. This is particularly the case when the levees designed to protect the city haven't been maintained properly due to the corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence of local officials, large numbers of people refuse to evacuate in advance of the storm, and relief efforts are hampered by the actions of opportunistic criminals in its aftermath. Bush could have and should have appointed a more competent and experienced person than the infamous Mike Brown to head FEMA, and he certainly could have handled the P.R. aspect of his response better, but even with the best relief plan imaginable in place the storm would have still killed hundreds of people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Similarly, I don't see how Obama could have prevented the Deep Water Horizon explosion. Offshore drilling is already a heavily regulated activity, so it's not like there's a law he could have pushed for short of an outright ban on it that would have prevented the disaster. And while it's true that enforcing existing regulations is part of the executive branch's portfolio, and that the Minerals Management Service appears to have been rather lax in doing so in the case of BP's offshore drilling operations, it's hardly fair to hold Obama responsible for that. He's one man, and can't be expected to be aware of every decision made by every bureaucrat in every one of the dozens of Federal agencies under his purview, even if he is nominally the boss. The idea that he should be able to DO SOMETHING now that the spill has happened is similarly misguided. He's not a petroleum engineer and he knows next to nothing about deep water drilling. Other than emoting for T.V. cameras or raising his voice with the petroleum industry, there's not much he can do now, but that doesn't stop those who've bought into what Julian Sanchez dubbed "the Care Bear Stare model of American politics" from holding his inability to make things better against him.

Despite all this, Republicans are predictably taking every opportunity they can to beat Obama up over the oil spill, just as Democrats took every oppotunity they could to fault Bush for the Katrina disaster. Some of the criticisms in both cases are fair. Others are not. But while neglecting the question of what can be done in favor of who can be blamed may be a good strategy to win the next election - voters have a natural tendency to chuck out the party in charge when things go badly, regardless of whether they're actually responsible - it's not remotely good for the country. A disaster like this calls for a concerted, coordinated effort to mitigate its impact until the problem can be solved. There will be plenty of time for recriminations later.

The National Review had about the right take on the question of whether this is Obama's Katrina - it is, but that doesn't mean what people think it means. If we've really come to the point that we expect the President to protect us from heartbreak, every President is going to be a failure in the public's eyes.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Have I Always Misunderstood The Meaning Of The Phrase "Technical Expert"?

Why is the government asking Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron for his insight on the oil spill? Are they asking for advice on how to jazz up those streaming images of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, or just hoping the whole can be plugged with CGI and special effects?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

R.I.P. Dennis Hopper

I was surprised to hear that he was 74; he seemed younger than that to me, and definitely a bit on the young side to go. I wouldn't say he was consistently one of our best actors, but he was consistently one of our most interesting - he was among the most memorable and compelling things about good movies like Hoosiers and Speed, but even in bad ones like Waterworld he was worth watching. There aren't too many among Hollywood's younger generation willing to embrace eccentricity the way he was - Johnny Depp is the only one who comes readily to mind. It saddens me to know that in the future there will be no more great, surprising Dennis Hopper performances to be discovered.