Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus

I think we’re doing the wrong thing. Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus said the Romans. "Sometimes even good Homer nods off." The Japanese have a similar saying I like even better: Saru mo ki kara ochiru. "Even monkeys fall from trees." Even the best of us make mistakes, and I’m worried now this is one of those times when good people do bad things.

Like having at Barbara Lee, for example. Barbara Lee is my representative in Congress and this week she was the only member of Congress to vote no to the approval of $40 billion along with broad authority for George Bush to take military action in response to terrorism. It now seems to be raining bullets around Barbara Lee, and she deserves better. She’s not telling us terrorism is not worth fighting; she’s simply saying throwing billions into the military is the wrong approach. Even close friends of mine are criticizing her for "not getting behind the president in this hour of need," and I think we’re all going a little mad.

I spend my days in academia, a world politicians and other ‘doers’ routinely sneer at because academics can so easily lose themselves in endless discussion. Looking at all sides of an issue slows you way down, and when quick action is called for academics can be dangerous. But the art of life has to include knowing when to act and when to stop and think, and I believe the current sabre-rattling by the American Military-Industrial Complex, George Dubya, prop., is the wrong call. Now is not a time for action, it seems to me, but for deep reflection and discussion. For recognition that there has been too little thought, that Americans in particular are too uninformed about what led up to the terrorist attacks on September 11 to take sensible action.

Look at the complexity involved. We are steeped in Christian tradition, so we don’t call IRA terrorists or the people who kill doctors at abortion clinics, "Christian terrorists," but we do call Atta and his band "Islamic terrorists." On the other hand, those who make this point and try to compare it to calling Timothy McVeigh a "Christian terrorist" miss the point that McVeigh wasn’t acting in the name of Christ and that there is a tradition of martyrdom in Islam which provides some with a context for suicide. How do we sort out these overlapping truths and not surrender to bigotry?

It is tempting to tie terrorism to religious zealotry. We see the damage done by Islamic jihad, by the abortion clinic bombers, by the Jewish fundamentalist claims to land in Israel, by idiots like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. In that last example, fortunately, tragedy has recently turned to farce, and the two bozos are eating crow over their little chat on television about how God is angry at being "poked in the eye" by gays and lesbians, the ACLU, and the American Supreme Court, and about how our support of secularism convinced God to allow the terrorists in instead of protecting us from them. I have wished for going on three decades now that somebody would shut these guys up. But in the end I realize the right response is not silencing, but supplementing. There is the voice of Cynthia Tucker, for example, of the Atlanta Constitution, who describes these their comments as "lunatic ravings" and a "sick perversion of Christian values." Finally! I say. Some recognition by the mainstream that not every "Christian" is a Christian. And although some Christians have stolen Jesus and some Muslims have misread the Koran, religion can lift us up as well as dash us on the rocks.

It's not religion; it's the absence of thought that's the problem here. Some time ago I got into a discussion with one of my students at my university in Japan. Fascinated with the kamikaze pilot mentality, he offered the view that if he had lived "in those times" he would have thought "as those people" did. I asked him who "those people" were. He answered, simply, "the people who lived in those years." "You mean like General Tojo?" I asked. "Yes," he said. "Why General Tojo and not Chiune Sugihara?" I asked him. "Sugihara? Who’s that?"

The part of me that is Japanese smarts at moments like that. Sugihara was the Japanese consul to Kaunas, Lithuania in 1940 who cabled the Foreign Office in Tokyo asking permission to grant travel visas to Jews storming the consulate in an attempt to escape the Nazis. The Foreign Ministry refused, of course, but Chiune and his wife Yukiko sat down sat down and wrote out some 3000 visas by hand and left behind the official stamp permitting others to continue after they had to leave. "Why do you suppose you are so quick to think of General Tojo and not Chiune Sugihara when you think of ‘those’ people in ‘those days,’" I asked this kid. He didn't even understand my question.

In 1972 I met some drunken officials of the Japanese Ministry of Education at a bar in a mountain village in Kyushu, far away from the Tokyo Office. "Why don’t Japanese young people know about Nanking or the bombing of Singapore?" I asked him. Today, I would have added "and the pressing into sexual service of young girls from Korea and elsewhere and the medical experimentation on prisoners of war." "Because in Japan," one of them answered, "we value harmony above all, and we are afraid if our young people learn of these things they will lose respect for their elders and there will be chaos."

I was sobered by the response. It had never occurred to me that such a rational response was possible. Never mind that I disagree strongly with their conclusions. I recognize it as a rational, if misguided, course of action. And ultimately counter-productive. The consequences of this lack of discourse are spilling over into Japanese-Korean and Japanese-Chinese relations today, and will continue to prevent Asian unity where unity could do so much good. It took time to reach the conclusion that what was wrong with the ministry official's conclusion was that it shut down thought instead of encouraging it, that it assumed the few could manage thought for the many. In other words, that it was profoundly anti-democratic. Never mind that it insults the intelligence of the kids, sees them as nothing more than blank slates. Never mind that many of them will set this knowledge in stone and not unlearn it later.

What’s going on in the United States at the moment is much more heartening. We have no Ministry of Education to slow down the educative process. We do have a penchant for black and white thinking, though, the modern tendency to reduce complexity to cant and witty-sounding soundbites. "This is your morning wake-up call, Saddam" the T-shirts said during the Gulf War, showing pictures of bombs dropping over Baghdad. My niece came home from high school upset by the dilemma she was in. On the one hand, she was furious over the T-shirts. "The bombs are not falling on Saddam," she said. "They’re falling on innocent Iraqis!" At the same time, the students were marching out of school in protest over the war not because they understood what it was about but because they were in Berkeley, and in Berkeley "people protest war!" She had not been mind-handled into government-approved thought; she was dealing with complexity and dilemma. If only her experience were more broadly evident.

I’m so much less comfortable with my own liberal politics these days. So much more frustrated at my own inability to grasp the complexity. Should Barbara Lee have shown support for Bush in this time? I think not. Should we stop using the term "Islamic terrorists" out of a sense of political correctness? I’m not sure. Should we spend billions on munitions to hunt down bin Laden? I’m afraid not doing so would encourage terrorism and demoralize Americans. I also fear that doing so is likely to increase terrorism. Should I buy a flag and hang it from my second-story window? I’d hate to think I could be adding to the war-frenzy, but I’m closer than I was before 9/11 to at least going out and buying one.

$40 billion for war powers? How much for planes? How much for the teaching of Arabic? Or Farsi or Dari or Pashtu? If we do study the Middle East and their languages and cultures more closely, will it help us to stop shooting Indian Sikhs in Arizona because the terrorists this time came from an ethnic group which happens to come from the same hemisphere the Indian-Americans came from? Would respect for diversity trickle down to the thugs anyway?

And who does the greater harm here, the morons who lash out at women in headdresses and men in beards or the boys at the top with the guns and the Realpolitik? Is it true that the wars in Iraq and Vietnam were justified on economic grounds? That it is OK for the power structure to speak of liberty and mean profits? That Americans would riot in the streets if gas prices and unemployment figures got too high? Do we have to beggar the Afghanis not already beggared by the Soviets and by their Taliban "saviors" to save face and to "send messages?" Is it really naïve to make moral arguments in the international arena?

America is doing itself proud at the moment. The shoestore owner who went out into the street with sneakers for the women running north away from the scene of mayhem in high heels. The people who run to the bloodbanks trying to give blood faster than the machines can receive it. The suppliers of clean socks for the rescue workers. The heroism of hundreds of police and firefighters. The recognition of these people by Americans who had previously stopped seeing blue-collared people. The announcement by Bush’s press secretary that we should go to our "churches, synagogues and mosques" and the Imam and the Rabbi walking down the aisle together at the service at National Cathedral in Washington and the announcement by California’s Governor Davis that California was proud to be made up of Americans "from the Mission (San Francisco’s Latin district) to the Middle East." These are the reasons, I think, I wish I could find a flag to wave.

We’re supposed to go back to business as usual. I don’t think so. I think we need to stop business as usual and talk. I think the government is limited to tunnel-visionaries and the media seems to think we can’t handle complexity. We need to talk around both of these estates, the government and the media, and up the exchange of views. Americans amuse the world with their Monica Lewinsky scandals, but more than a few people outside the United States have expressed admiration for the American practice of letting it all hang out. Right now it needs to all hang out. There is no other approach to complexity but richer and deeper discussion. Let it all out now; we’ll distill it later.

If we are to avoid hasty military solutions, we have to get to the questions, kids in school and the rest of us in the workplace and around the dinner table. All the questions, rude and uncivil as well as profound. Is there something wrong with women in headdresses? Is moral and cultural relativism a good idea? Is Henry Kissinger really a war criminal? Does our support of Israel make us responsible for the terrorist attacks? Can I be pro-Jewish and anti-Israel? Can I be uncomfortable with belly dancers and women in veils and respect the Arab world? Can I absorb the paradox that America is responsible for driving people to suicide but that it’s the terrorists and not America responsible for the attacks? Is there a difference between the 12-year olds in Pakistan who believe it was the Jews who attacked the Twin Towers and are trying to blame it on bin Laden and the 30, 40, or 50-year olds in the United States who believe Barbara Lee is a traitor? Does the fact that Iraqis and Libyans and others have been terrorized by American bombs mean we too are terrorists? Is there logic in the claim that you are only a terrorist if you don’t have a state? Is saying pacification to mean destruction of a village and collateral damage to mean the death of innocent bystanders a form of brain-washing or simply a creative use of language necessary for a wise and just government to drum up support?

What do you think? Is it divisive? Do we need to rally behind the president and show solidarity? I think the opposite is true. I think democracy works when we show solidarity in our support for the democratic process and practically nowhere else, and when we recognize democracy cannot work when we let the media tell us what our opinions are. And when the idea we can fight terrorism with guns—or any other idea—is taken on faith.

All democratic governments come up with things like a "war powers act" that enables them to cut civil liberties in times of crisis, and few would argue such means are never necessary. But each time they are called into force, a democracy, if it is going to remain a democracy, needs to supplement such moves with increased vigilance and discussion. Bring out the guns if you’re going to, but bring out the people who believe the emperor has no clothes as well.

There are good reasons and bad for waving the flag. Some people are waving it because they want to show we’re tough. Others because they want to proclaim we’re superior. I’m out of step with those flagwavers. I don’t believe America is necessarily a better place to live. I don’t think we’re right more often than the rest of the world. I don’t even think we have more liberty. I have my own reasons for wishing I could find a flag to display. It's because I think America, when it thinks about it, does a pretty good job with complexity and paradox, dissidence and confusion, and the delicate balance of reason and passion. When America is thinking, it is a marvelous place to be. Not because it is the home of the brave and the land of the free. But because it is such a good home to democracy.

September 19. 2001