Japan from the inside out

Stale cigars

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 10, 2011

AUTHOR and columnist Mark Steyn is well known for having brought to public attention global demographic trends and their implications for the future.

People who achieve greater prominence after becoming identified with A Big Idea, however, often fall into the trap of shaking their moneymaker at anything that passes by, no matter how remote or nonexistent the connection. That seems to be the source of the problem with Mr. Steyn’s 5 April column in the National Review on the relative absence of post-earthquake/tsunami looting in Japan. The title of the piece as it appears on his website is Earthquake Demographics, and no, I have no idea what that pairing of words is supposed to mean either.

Mr. Steyn is also well known for a sense of humor that can be devastating when used in the appropriate context. This was not an appropriate context.

‘Why is there no looting in Japan?” wondered a headline in the Daily Telegraph. So did a lot of other folks. Various answers were posited:
The Japanese are a highly civilized people — which would have been news to the 22 British watchkeepers on the island of Tarawa who were tied to trees, beheaded, set alight, and tossed in a pit less than 70 years ago.

Rather than making a point about the Japanese national character, that passage works better to demonstrate the aptness of the Henri Amiel aphorism that cleverness is serviceable for everything, but sufficient for nothing. This Pavlovian flick of the wrist was serviceable for quickly distracting the reader from a positive explanation for the lack of looting and getting down to the real business of the article: promoting the author’s idée fixe.

As a serious observation, however, it was sufficient for nothing. Are we also to consider the Germans uncivilized (or, to be fair to the original wording, less than “highly civilized”)? A few more flicks of the wrist at the keyboard or in the card catalog of a library would be both serviceable and sufficient for finding examples of similar behavior from people in every country.

For example, is this the sort of thing British lads learned on the playing fields of Eton?

The deadline for his National Review piece prevented Mr. Steyn from reading an article that describes what everyone else would consider highly civilized behavior. The headline is, “Millions of ‘lost’ cash found in tsunami-hit coastal areas”. By millions, they mean yen, which translates into several hundred thousand dollars:

Rescue workers and Japanese citizens have handed over millions of ‘lost’ cash to police, which they have found while carrying out their tasks in the mud-covered coastal areas in northeastern regions of the country that were devastated following the March 11 earthquake-cum-tsunami.

Not only would most people consider this behavior highly civilized, they would also find it exceptional — unless Americans have moved to a higher evolutionary plane since I left, and it’s now possible for someone to leave a bag unattended on a seat in a bus station waiting area while making a lavatory stop.

It is in Japan.

After that, we’re treated to a megadose of Mr. Steyn’s trademark of marbling a serious argument with wisecracks:

Most analysts overlooked the most obvious factor: Looting is a young man’s game, and the Japanese are too old. They’re the oldest society on earth. They have a world-record life expectancy — nearly 87 for women. A quarter of the population is over 65 — and an ever growing chunk is way over. In 1963, Japan had 153 centenarians; by 2010, it had 40,399; by 2020, the figure is projected to be just under 130,000. This isn’t a demographic one would expect to see hurling their walkers through the Radio Shack window and staggering out under a brand new karaoke machine only to keel over from a massive stroke before they’ve made it through the first eight bars of “I Will Survive.” Any looting in Japan’s future is likely to come from rogue platoons of the “Yurina” — the well-named robot developed a year or two back by Japan Logic Machine to help out at the old folks’ home: Yurina can change your diaper and then carry you over to the tub for an assisted bath. But I would imagine we’re only a half decade away from advanced-model Yurinas that can unionize, negotiate unsustainable retirement packages, and rampage through state legislatures menacing non-humanoid politicians opposed to collective bargaining.

Well, perhaps that’s more a case of the wisecracks being marbled with a serious argument, assuming the cracking is all that wise and the argument has anything to do with looting after an earthquake. It isn’t often one sees so many contrived laff lines dragooned into service to disguise the lack of a point other than advertising the author’s brand.

And that brings us to the real point: the entire premise of the piece is goofy. It would be unfair to call Mr. Steyn an armchair intellectual — he did travel to Iraq, armed, when few civilians would have done so — but I suspect he hasn’t been in the presence of serious looting if he thinks it’s a young man’s game.

I have.

When Martin Luther King was killed and rioting erupted in several cities in the United States, I was nearing the end of my first year of pretending to study as an undergraduate at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The impact of the event was amplified for me because Baltimore is my hometown, though my family had moved away a few years before that. Watching a riot in a distant city on television is one thing, but it’s quite another to watch it as it’s happening in the place where one grew up, while armed National Guard troops patrol in jeeps.

Being of a particularly stupid age, one of my black friends and I decided we would stroll through the East Baltimore ghetto to see for ourselves what was happening. We thought our presence together would be visible evidence to some very unhappy people that it was still possible for folks of different complexions to get along. (It was potentially more stupid for him than it was for me, as we learned that given a choice, people will threaten traitors with violence before they threaten enemies, but that’s another story.)

While walking down one street and discovering the reason tear gas got its name, we saw people streaming out of a small supermarket with all the groceries they and their clothes could carry. Just as one woman, old enough to be our grandmother, passed us going in the opposite direction, the bottom of her paper shopping bag collapsed. About two weeks’ worth of potatoes fell to the sidewalk and rolled in several directions. We stopped to help her pick them up and redistribute them among her other bags. In retrospect, that was an odd thing to have done, but it seemed natural to us at the time. Besides, our generation was among those taught that helping old ladies across the street was proper behavior.

“You aren’t going to tell the police about this, are you?”

After we assured her that we wouldn’t, she smiled, thanked us, and went on her way.

Old people will loot when the opportunity presents itself. It’s just that their judgment is more mature about prioritizing what to snatch while the snatching is good.

Perhaps it is ungenerous to be too critical — after all, when someone’s knowledge of Japan is derived what they’ve read or seen in the Anglosphere media, they won’t know much of anything about the country. Wisecracks aside, however, Mr. Steyn surely understands there are young families with children even in Japan.

His understanding might have been enhanced had he watched NHK-TV the Sunday after the column appeared on his website. The network broadcast a program about the people of the area coping with the effects of the disaster. One segment showed a married couple in their mid-30s on their daughter’s 10th birthday. They spent the day wading through the wreckage and muck looking for her body, which was still missing after a month. They had already found the body of her seven-year-old brother a week before that.

Pitching their walkers through a window to haul off a karaoke machine was not part of the birthday celebration.

There is a persistent urban legend about the American comedian Groucho Marx. After his success on stage and in Hollywood, he began a third career as the host of a radio and television quiz show called You Bet Your Life. It was a quiz program in only the most perfunctory sense, however. The real idea was to provide Marx, celebrated for his quick wit and ad-libs, a vehicle to say whatever popped into his head.

The story goes that one of his contestants was a woman with nine children. When Marx asked her why she had such a large brood, she answered that she loved her husband very much. He is supposed to have blurted, “I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.”

Marx insisted in several interviews that the incident never happened, but the story lives on, in part because it sounds like something he might have said on the spur of the moment. That’s too bad, because in addition to being funny, it also contains some excellent advice.

I’m sure Mark Steyn loves what his discussion of demographics has done for his career. Now it’s time he realized how foolish that stogie looks when it’s permanently stuck in his mouth.

Speaking of cigars and demographics, here’s an idea from a manufacturer of the former about how to improve the latter.

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5 Responses to “Stale cigars”

  1. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    irritated by, denying, negating, and neglecting, what is unthinkable, and think on, doing nothing. blindness, darkness.

  2. yankdownunder said

    AUTHOR and columnist Mark Steyn

    should be

    AUTHOR, columnist and racist Mark Steyn

    I googled some of his other articles
    on Japan. He likes to use this Tarawa
    story when talking about Japan’s “filthy war”. He says that the atomic bombs dropped by America saved millions of lives, Japanese, American and other asians.

    The allies committed many atrocities before,during and after WW2. I really
    don’t think you can say one country. was worse than the other.

  3. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Y: Sometimes I wonder why many people do not reach there.

  4. […] Mark Steyn’s comments/joke? about Japan’s tsunami response do seem inappropriate. […]

  5. […] Mark Steyn’s comments/joke? about Japan’s tsunami response do seem inappropriate. […]

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