Saturday, September 26, 2015

Thirteen More Months

So House Speaker John Boehner is retiring. Mr. Boehner made this surprise announcement in what the New York Times described as “an emotional meeting.” Actually, emotional meetings are the only kind the famously tearful Boehner has been having lately. Lucky for him he has a penis, because a female Speaker who cried that much would have been ousted years ago for being too soft.

The other news of last week was that Scott Walker suspended his presidential campaign. “Suspended” is politician bullshit for quit. I’m not sure why candidates nowadays say suspended instead of quit, but it has become the standard verbiage.

Walker, one of the least likable of the GOP candidates, had the support of less than one half of one percent of Republican voters. As Stephen Colbert pointed out, the other 15 GOP presidential contenders will now have to fight over his former supporters. All two of them. Anyway, with Walker out, somebody else is apparently going to have to carry on the struggle to build a wall against Canadian immigrants.

Walker’s biggest claim to fame was not his ferocious anti-Canadianness, but his relentless battle against unions, a battle that made him a hero of right-wing Republicans. And why shouldn’t he go after the unions? What have the unions ever done for us?

(Well, they fought tirelessly to bring about the 40-hour work week, with weekends off and obligatory overtime pay – all things that the conservatives of the day were against.)

Okay, but besides that, what have they ever done for us?

(Come to think of it, they fought for the 8-hour work day, unemployment insurance, paid vacations. Also, retirement benefits.)

Yeah, but besides those things what have they ever done for us???

(Occupational safety standards, paid time off for illness, an end to child labor.)

But besides giving us the weekend, the 8-hour day, the 40-hour week, overtime pay, health benefits, paid vacations, unemployment compensation, safety standards, retirement benefits, and laws against child labor, what else have the unions done for us? NOTHING!*

It’s no wonder Scott Walker is so well loved by people like the Koch brothers.

Here’s a thought provoker: What if the final election were between Scott Walker and Donald Trump? Who would you vote for – the dishonest, mean spirited political operator or the flamboyant, shallow-minded egomaniac? I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but I’d have to go with Trump. A Trump presidency would immediately face us with the insanely impossible and unethical task of trying to “repatriate” 11 million undocumented immigrants, so that’s a negative. Also, Trump seems to want to rewrite the Fourteenth Amendment to keep people from being born into U.S. citizenship.

Admittedly these are downsides, but compared to the horror of a Scott Walker presidency, I would take them. And besides, it would almost be worth it to have a Trump presidency**, just for the fun of seeing him try to “deal” with Congress.

Then there are the others: Ben Carson, for example - the religious fundamentalist who apparently thinks Christianity is the only religion a president should have. A Carson presidency would make it easier for ISIS to convince the Muslim world that America is anti-Islam. We aren’t, of course, but there are plenty of American conservatives who beg to differ – like that strange audience member who addressed Donald Trump on this issue earlier this month.

I am still inclined to think Jeb is going to wind up with the nomination. His strongest challenger is, I believe, Marco Rubio. I first saw Rubio campaign some years ago here in Florida, and I was impressed. Not for his policy positions which ranged from the dishonest to the absurdly pro-corporate, but for his public speaking skills. Unlike Jeb, or Hillary, for that matter, Rubio is good on the stump. He is the kind of smooth operator who can get people to believe things that are clearly untrue, and make them like him at the same time.

But I believe Jeb will probably get the GOP nod (though I am less completely sold on this prospect than I once was). If Jeb is the candidate, that would rule out fellow Floridian Rubio as a running mate, unless Jeb were to do what Cheney did in 2000 and pretend he was actually from another state.

One aspect of Jeb’s lame campaigning style is his weakness in public speaking generally. I attended a speech he gave back in 2007 when he was nearing the end of his governorship here. At Q and A time, I asked him if he didn’t owe an apology to those Floridians whose right to vote he had stripped away during the 2000 election. He responded first with a joke, and then with a regurgitation of insultingly obfuscating double-talk that led me to walk out on him as he spoke – the kind of rude gesture from which I ordinarily refrain. He did not, by the way, apologize to those his administration had wronged.

And then there is this: Jeb recently said with reference to African-Americans that, “Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting – that says you can achieve earned success.”

“And so,” he might have added, “I hope African-Americans everywhere will feel uplifted by my labeling them a bunch of lazy goof-offs who vote Democratic because they like standing around waiting for free stuff.”

The presidential race has been heating up lately, but it will be over in just about 13 months. Thirteen more months. That’s so depressing. What will I do to amuse myself when it’s over?

(Thanks to the Roper Center of the University of Connecticut for this image.)


*Humble apologies to Monty Python for this theft.

**Not really.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Japan's Longest Day

When I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2009 I was touched by the words and images with which it recalled the tragedy of the atomic bombing. After all, who wouldn’t be?

Beyond this, I was impressed with its emphasis on a hope for peace. Despite the Memorial's horrifying account of death and suffering, it offers no suggestion that one country (ours) was to blame for the civilian deaths. Whether this reflects Japanese courtesy and indirectness or an intentional decision to focus on universal principles, I don’t know, but for me it added to the exhibit's emotional power. 

There are other opinions. Susan Southard, in a recent New York Times story on “Nagasaki, the Forgotten City,” cites survivors of the Nagasaki bombing who deeply resent the slaughter brought about by America’s second atomic bomb, insisting that it did not help end the war. Both bombings are, to say the least, controversial, but in the case of the Nagasaki bombing, there is good evidence that it did not contribute to the Japanese decision to surrender. Actually, a decision to surrender had been reached by the key figures in the Japanese government before the Nagasaki bombing, but they were unable to go public with it at the time. Before they could formalize their acceptance of the Allies' demands, they had to neutralize certain recalcitrant elements in the military who were determined to fight on, unconcerned that one Japanese city after another might be pulverized into atom ash.

The struggle between the no-surrender fanatics and the civilian government pushed Japan perilously close to suicidal chaos as a 1965 study revealed. This study by a group of Japanese scholars, published under the title Japan’s Longest Day, describes the virtual kidnapping of Emperor Hirohito by militant die-hards and their attempts to block the civilian government’s plan to ensure their nation’s survival by seeking peace. According to this account, “Japan’s final struggle was not against the enemy but against herself…” Because, in August of 1945, “The still vigorous Imperial Army would admit neither defeat nor surrender—and it continued to insist that it, and it alone, knew what was best for the country.”

It might be said that the hero of the day was General Korechika Anami, the War Minister. Anami personally believed that Japan should fight fanatically on, even in the face of disaster, but, once Emperor Hirohito had decided on surrender, Anami demurred out of devotion to him.

The Emperor made a recording of his surrender announcement on August 14 that was to be broadcast to the entire Japanese population at noon on the following day. All Japanese were instructed to listen to the Emperor’s speech, though they were not told what he would say.

Once the Emperor’s speech was on vinyl, members of the imperial staff carefully hid the recording in the palace, knowing that fanatic die-hards from the military would want to seize it and keep it from the airwaves. 

The most relentlessly aggressive of these die-hards was Major Kenji Hatanaka. Knowing that the Emperor had made a prerecorded speech, he plotted to seize control of both the Emperor and the recording. He believed that Emperor Hirohito could be convinced to reverse his decision and support the no-surrender faction, at which point the army would commit itself to the final struggle.

Major Hatanaka believed that the Emperor had agreed to peace only because he had been surrounded by cowardly civilian leaders who had talked him into it. If Hirohito were to reverse himself, he thought, everything would be different. Japan would fight on. The destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were of little concern to Major Hatanaka, except as evidence of the evil of Japan’s enemies. As Hatanaka’s accomplice, Lieutenant Colonel Jiro Shiizaki declared, “Heaven will reward our loyalty to our Emperor and our country. We are convinced of that.”

In 1967 Japan’s Longest Day was made into a film, a remarkable piece of work that portrays the August 14-15 struggle in vivid and historically accurate detail.* As it makes clear, there were some leaders in Tokyo to whom the atomic bombings were irrelevant. They believed not only that the Japanese military should fight on, but that Japanese civilians should pitch in as well, using whatever tools or weapons they could lay their hands on to resist the inevitable American invasion.

At first the conspirators’ plot  unfolded as planned. Shortly after midnight on August 14, Hatanaka and Shiizaki gained control of the Imperial Guard, whose duty was to protect the Emperor. Since the Commander of the Guards refused to cooperate, they shot him, and, when an aide rushed to the Commander’s defense, Shiizaki decapitated him with his officer’s sword.

The conspirators put the Emperor under what amounted to house arrest and then dispatched the Imperial Guards to ransack the innermost chambers of the palace in search of the surrender recording.

In the meantime, the Yokohama Guards joined the uprising and marched into Tokyo in search of the Prime Minister with the aim of killing him. When they arrived at his official residence, they set up machine guns and began blasting away at the building. Finally, realizing he had gone to his private residence, they headed off to track him down. Not finding him at home, they burned it to the ground. The Prime Minister managed to escape before they arrived, but only by the skin of his teeth.

Then, in an airfield just outside Tokyo, a Navy Captain launched a flight of kamikazes against American forces, vowing that the Navy would fight on even if the Army surrendered. He wrote a cable that included the words, “Japan is sacred and indestructible. If we unite for action, we will destroy the enemy. Of that there can be no doubt whatsoever.”

With the Emperor in the conspirators’ hands and his recorded speech somewhere under their noses (though they were having trouble finding it), it seemed that the no-surrender faction would have its way. But there was a hitch. War Minister Korechika Anami, having told the Emperor he would support the peace resolution, refused to join the conspiracy. This was a crushing blow, since his prestige was crucial to the entire scheme. Without his support, the army would not rise up. 

Major Hatanaka had dispatched Anami’s brother-in-law to plead with the War Minister to get on board with the plot, but Anami adamantly refused. Instead, he downed cup after cup of sake throughout the night, until, in the early morning hours of August 15, still sober despite the sake, and with an air of solemn dignity he committed seppuku with a dagger to his gut. He left behind two sheets of heavy Japanese paper, on one of which was a short poem honoring the Emperor, and on the other this: “For my supreme crime, I beg forgiveness through the act of death.”

                     War Minister Korechika Anami

Anami is played in the film by the great Toshiro Mifune, who brings dramatic intensity to this scene.

Toshiro Mifune in a Poster for "Japan's Longest Day"

Though Major Hatanaka’s men had searched all night for the Emperor’s prerecorded surrender announcement, they had failed to find it. When it became clear that the Army was not going to rise up despite the conspirators’ control of the Imperial Palace and the Emperor, Hatanaka proceeded to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation’s main station with the aim of sending out a message to the people of Japan, telling them to “refuse to accept the surrender that had been forced on them by the traitors around the Emperor…”

At the station, announcer Morio Tateno refused to allow Hatanaka to make his broadcast, even after the latter drew his pistol and pointed it menacingly at Tateno’s forehead.

    From The Longest Day - Hatanaka at the Studio

Ultimately, as the studio was taken over by troops loyal to the Emperor, Hatanaka gave up trying to broadcast his message. He and Shiizaki then went outside, mounted a motorcycle and a horse, respectively, and began riding through Tokyo tossing out leaflets encouraging citizens to refuse to surrender and to rise up against the traitors. They then returned to the gate of the Imperial Palace and, on the grounds outside, each committed suicide with a gunshot to the head. Shortly thereafter, at noon on August 15, the Emperor’s prerecorded message was broadcast to the public. This was the first time ordinary Japanese citizens had heard their Emperor’s voice, and virtually all of them did hear it, given that they had been instructed beforehand to pay careful attention. So ended Japan’s Longest Day.

     Listening to Emperor Hirohito, August 15, 1945

Clearly, the actions of Hatanaka and the other conspirators were unaffected by the Nagasaki bombing, and in that regard it can be said to have been entirely unnecessary. Of course, Americans could not have been aware of the struggle that was going on between the militarists and the civilians in the Japanese government. And from the American public’s point of view, the Japanese started the war and they got everything they deserved - an understandable sentiment given the hostile spirit of wartime, but one that does not stand up well after a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

                            The Park


*A final note: a remake of The Longest Day has just come out in Japan, just in time for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. The new film is titled The Emperor in August. I look forward to seeing it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Iran on Seven Hundred Thousand Tomans a Day

Brother Li Wei and I just returned from a one-week visit to Iran. You can’t learn a whole lot about a country from such a short visit, but, as a sort of mini-ethnography, I thought I would post some pictures here that say something about that wonderfully interesting country.

First, the Azadi Tower or Freedom Tower. It was designed during the Shah’s reign by an architect of the Baha’i faith, which, as I’ll explain further below, is now persecuted by the Iranian government. The tower is a kind of symbol of Tehran as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.

We were escorted around the cities of Tehran and Shiraz by two English-speaking guides, both female, and both very nice and knowledgeable – Pouran and Malihe.

                               Li Wei and Pouran


Iranian money is a little confusing. The rial is the basic unit, and one dollar is equal to about 32,000 rials. So, we were actually millionaires once we changed money.

               One million rials = about thirty dollars
However, when people talk prices, they talk in terms of tomans, one toman equaling 10 rials. This sometimes threw us and we wound up giving waiters the equivalent of one dollar to pay for a ten dollar meal. Everyone was very understanding, and, even when we erred the other way, giving ten times too much in payment, we were politely and honestly corrected.

One of our favorite things to do was wander through the bazaars looking at all the cool stuff for sale.


                             Blackberries, Cherries, etc.

                             Water Pipes



                                    Rifle Cases

When a shop is inherited, a picture of the deceased founder, generally the current owner’s father, is typically displayed. In the background, on the shelf behind this gentleman, is a picture of his deceased father.

The Iranians during our visit were intensely interested in the ongoing nuclear negotiations. We saw lots of TV screens with scenes from the Vienna talks.

We actually heard about the agreement on Tuesday while strolling through a bazaar in Shiraz. A carpet shop bazaari called out to us to tell us an agreement had been reached as he displayed news of the agreement on his tablet.

Carpet seller telling us about the nuclear agreement. Shiraz bazaar, July 14, 2015.

Obama was popular with almost all the Iranians we spoke to. Some even praised him extravagantly – “I love him!”

Some Iranians also like George W. Bush.  I know.

Here’s a magazine cover:

There are an awful lot of beautiful mosques and historical palaces in Iran. Here are just a couple of the many we visited.

                                Vakil Mosque, Shiraz.

                             Golestan Palace, Tehran

                  Golestan Palace, Decorative Art.

And there are countless interesting and beautiful treasures from Iran’s past on display in various museums. Here are a couple of the many we saw.

                  Artifact from Something or Other BCE

                       Gold and Lapis Lazuli Necklace

We were told that Jews and Christians can worship freely in Iran. Two different people told us that over 100 Iranian Jews died fighting for their country in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. This war, by the way, is still deeply felt in Iran. Along the city streets and highways, we saw literally hundreds of pictures of martyrs who died fighting in that war.

Here is a service in a synagogue in Shiraz that I happened upon one Friday morning: 


         Dome of an Armenian Church, Shiraz:

The Baha’i faith is not tolerated under the current religiously conservative regime (though it was under the also undemocratic Shah). One young woman explained this to us thus: According to the mullahs, Judaism and Christianity were imperfect religions leading ultimately to the perfection of Islam. But Baha’i claims to go beyond Islam to a higher perfection, and the mullahs won’t accept this. They believe that Islam can’t be improved on and no Muslim should leave Islam. This has resulted in persecution and death to many Baha’i followers, including some of the friends of the lady who explained this to us. She adamantly disapproves of the mullahs’ persecution of this religion. In fact, practically everyone we spoke to dislikes the undemocratic heavy-handedness of the mullah-dominated government.

If we had spent time with those Iranians who are more conservative about their religion and less educated generally, I'm sure we would have encountered more support for the mullahs.

At any rate, almost every single person we spoke to had nothing but positive things to say about American culture and the American people – though not always the American government. The Iranian government, on the other hand, is not so US-friendly, prominently posting anti-American images in places of high visibility.

Here is a billboard in front of the old U.S. Embassy in Tehran:

A highway billboard near Persepolis:

On the lighter side, Iran continues to produce some of the world’s best films. I can’t vouch for this comedy, “Guinness,” since I didn’t see it, but it is popular now.

Of course, the really great Iranian films are not goofy comedies, but the products of such brilliant directors as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, to name a few.

Women are obligated to cover heads, arms and bodies under the Islamic government. Some of them are quite good at revealing their prettiness, despite these strictures.

The women we asked told us that they would not wear hijabs or scarves if the government did not require them to do so, but certainly many of the more conservative women of Iran, particularly in rural areas, would do so even without the law.

Men, facing only a few restrictions (no shorts allowed, for example), tend to dress more casually. A lot of them wear T-shirts.

                                      T-shirt for sale:

Near Shiraz, in southern Iran, lie the ruins of ancient Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid empire which was founded by Cyrus the Great. Persepolis was later conquered by Alexander the Great. The ruins here are magnificent, and include countless impressive sculptures.

Persian Soldier on the Left, Mede on the Right

Also interesting is the graffiti left by travelers from days past, including some by newspaperman Henry Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone” fame).

On our last night in Iran, we happened upon a café in which an indie band was playing some good music.

Some pictures on the wall of the cafe:

Then, getting back to our hotel, we found that an engagement party was in full swing. With typical Iranian hospitality, the hosts insisted that we join in, even though we were complete strangers to them.

                           Dance Fever!

                     Pictures of Adorable Kids by Li Wei

     The bride-to-be’s father gave a car to the groom-to-be.

During the ceremony, the husband of the bride’s older sister (with the mic in the picture below) made a speech in which he joked that he never got a car from his father-in-law! Then the father-in-law announced that he too would be getting a gift of a car.

Let me conclude with some random pictures.



                             Boy and His Mom

                            Persian Cool

   Hotel Staff in Shiraz. Wonderfully Polite and Helpful, All.

What can I say? Our governments continue to criticize each other (we crushed Iran’s democracy in 1953 on behalf of western oil interests; the Iranian government supports ruthless dictators like Bashar al Assad, etc.), but in spite of this, there is an abundance of good will toward Americans on the part of the Iranian people. We were very lucky to benefit from this sentiment, and Brother Li Wei and I would like to say "Thanks" to all the people of this great country who showed us kindness during our visit.

(Also, thanks to Norma Lee Nichols-Mahdavi of Iran Custom Travel who helped us arrange our visit!)