Thursday, February 25, 2010

Patriotism, Nationalism, and the Olympics

I teach English in Japan, and when I ask students what's up these days, the answer is inevitably "the Olympics." Japanese are particularly entranced with their female figure skaters, as Mao Asada and Miki Ando are the only Japanese competitors thought to have a chance to win a gold in any prestigious event. As would people in any country, most Japanese say they want Japanese athletes to win. When they say that, I ask them: why?

Duh, responds the reader. But I think it's a good idea to occasionally give serious thought to questions that we'd normally consider too obvious to bother answering. Why should I care whether Athlete A from my country defeats Athlete B from another country, when until two days ago, I had never heard of either of them? Personally, I don't, though I know I'm unusual.

Of course, I know the answer: "I identify with my country. My country is my 'team', and I want it to win. I like to know that my country is better than other countries, because I then feel as though I'm better." Well, okay, people wouldn't say the last part. But it's definitely true. Many will say they want their country's team to win because "I'm patriotic." Now, is this a good thing?

In some cases, certainly. Patriotism can bind people together, help them come together in the face of attack or tragedy. It can be a legitimate feeling of pride when one's country has done something admirable. Used for positive purposes, it can enable a country to do what it perhaps otherwise could not. But used negatively, it morphs into nationalism, the use of national pride for political purposes. It fosters and encourages a 'we are better than them' feeling, tapping into the human need for recognition, validation, and social standing.

Sad to say, throughout history patriotism has been used for far more negative than positive purposes. There are few better examples of this than in the recent history of the country in which I currently reside. The Japanese of the early 20th century were ceaselessly told by their leaders that they were special, led by an emperor considered a living god, superior to any other country, and thus divinely destined to rule others, starting with Asia. That didn't quite work out, and nationalism got such a bad name here that even saying that one is patriotic is something one doesn't do too loudly.

This has never been a problem in the U.S., a country in which it is a felony for a politician to speak for 15 minutes or more without mentioning that "the U.S. is the greatest country on Earth." (Okay, that's not true. But it seems like it.) Quick quiz: what was the last time Americans' patriotism was used by the government as a political tool for a major policy objective? If you didn't say 'the Iraq War', then you weren't thinking very hard. The Bush government repeatedly invoked patriotism in support of the war to remove the terrible danger that Saddam posed to America, and routinely questioned the patriotism of anyone who questioned or opposed this objective. Not that this was unusual; if there has ever been a war in which patriotism was not invoked, I'm not aware of it. I don't mean to suggest that patriotism is bad because it is used to support wars, any more than I think fire is bad because it burns down buildings. Both have positive uses. At the same time, both have to be watched carefully, lest they spin out of control. Neither should be used recklessly, or just for the sake of enjoyment.

A reasonable observation at this point would be, "Dude, it's just the Olympics. Lighten up." It's true that I'm not worried that we're going to suddenly invade Canada. But at this time, when most root for athletes for no more reason than their national origin, it seems like a propitious time to make and consider such comments. Our country seems almost addicted to patriotism. You see the flag not only at political rallies, but in supermarkets, TV commercials, car dealerships, and dozens of other places where its relevance is questionable. Why? Because it causes the desired effect. Just like it did for the Iraq War. (I supported that war, but not out of patriotism, or U.S. interests, but because Saddam was a clear threat to his neighbors and a danger to regional stability. Americans, however, wouldn't have supported the war for those reasons. So, Bush waved the flag, and Americans responded like Pavlov's dogs.)

A majority of Americans now think that the Iraq war was a bad idea. I would feel better if they had a better sense of what it was that led them there in the first place. It wasn't the Olympics. But that kind of thing is the first step along what is clearly a very slippery slope.

Friday, February 12, 2010

An Ideal Democracy

What would the perfect democracy be like?

It seems to me that to understand more clearly what's wrong with something, it is useful to consider what could be right. Imagine, for a few moments, a democracy in which every citizen took his or her civic obligations very seriously. I don't mean just that they vote, of course.

It starts with staying well-informed. Everyone would read the newspaper enough to know about all the issues that affect us all. Everyone would know not just about the economy and the employment situation, but also about prison conditions, the military, domestic abuse, foreign aid, and all of the dozens of issues that affect us as individuals and as a country. We certainly wouldn't agree on all these topics, but we would know the important factors in understanding them. We wouldn't neglect an issue just because it didn't personally affect us.

We would vote based on this knowledge. We would, directly and through the media, demand thoughtful answers from the candidates on these questions, not just feel-good sound bites. We would know the candidates' stands on issues not only important to us, but important to the country. A candidate who evaded hard questions would not be seen as someone serious enough about his responsibilities to be elected. We would remember a candidate's past promises, and vote out someone who had not made a good-faith effort to fulfill them. We would not vote for a candidate who attacked his opponent's character, or made charges based on anything other than the opponent's record or statements. Insinuations and misleading statements would be recognized as the equivalent of lies, and punished by the voters accordingly.

We would vote based not just on how the candidates' proposed policies would affect us as individuals, but on how they would affect all of us. We might be ideological, but we would not be dogmatic. Liberals would respect the crucial role played by the free market in a free society, and introduce market principles in government where appropriate; conservatives would understand that sometimes governments must do what the free market isn't equipped to do. We all would encourage our representatives to negotiate to make laws that represent the interests of all of society, not to stand firm on ideology and reject any agreement not perfectly to one side's liking.

The media would consider themselves to have a sacred responsibility: to provide us with information designed to give us the best insight possible into the country and world around us. The more serious the issue, the more coverage there would be. Politicians and bureaucrats would be held to account, asked tough questions to which complete answers would be expected; a politician who evaded a question would be reminded that he hadn't answered the question. If a politician said something factually incorrect, the media would note this as a matter of course. Reporters would avoid being on friendly terms with members of the government, knowing this could interfere with their objectivity as journalists.

It would be well understood that money can be a corrupting influence in politics, so steps would be taken to prevent this. Public money would be allocated to pay for every political campaign, from President to city council member. The money would be given on the condition that it not be used for television advertising; the Web is more than sufficient to spread the politician's message to those who want to hear it. Private and corporate donations, while not being illegal, would be frowned on due to the potential for corruption, and those who took such donations would not be elected for that reason.

A politician would not be judged positively for acquiring federal money for local projects, as this would be recognized as thinly veiled support for a candidate's re-election at the taxpayers' expense. It would be understood that projects that benefit a particular city or region should be paid for by taxes collected as locally as possible, in the interest of not spending taxpayer money on projects that most taxpayers don't want their taxes to pay for. Voters would recognize that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and politicians would be praised for their fiscal prudence. A constitutional amendment would be passed requiring a 3/4 supermajority to allow deficit spending. Voters would approve of surpluses to pay for future projects, or to finance extra spending in the event of a recession, so deficit spending wouldn't be necessary.

Most importantly, we would recognize that our duty as voters was to reward politicians whose main efforts were directed at making a better country and a better world, as that would be of substantial benefit not only to us, but to our descendants. Statesmanship would be rewarded at the polls. It would be considered shameful for a politician to advocate putting off dealing with important problems for the next generation to deal with, even if that required an increase in taxes or a decrease in spending. Voters would support politicians who took a long-term view.

Will this ideal democracy ever come to pass? Almost certainly not. People are not like this. People, not politicians, though politicians are people too, subject to the same weaknesses and frailties. We don't pay attention to the newspapers. We want to spend less and get more, to have others pay for what we benefit from. We don't vote, or do so for superficial reasons. We are swayed by inspiring speeches rather than records of good governance. We allow ourselves to be influenced by campaign commercials that we should know are misleading at best. We sometimes don't punish our politicians for reprehensible behavior, for violating the public trust.

Above all, we don't have a high regard for politicians; we regard them as hypocrites and power-grubbers at best, and crooks at worst. In most cases, this view is well justified. But who's to blame? We are the ones who elected them, after all. They represent us, in more ways than one. They are we, writ large. There are dozens of problems with politics, but it starts here. Until a great majority of us recognize this, nothing will change.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Avoiding the Argument

As an English teacher in Japan, I hear about a lot of things that sound odd to Western ears. Most of them I've become used to, but I still get a new one now and then. A few weeks ago, a student told me that his wife gets angry when he puts salt on his food, which surprised me greatly. Apparently, the reason is that she feels that salting is an indication that the food is unsatisfactory, and therefore an insult to her. I found this ridiculous; I'd have thought that everyone separates how well something is cooked from one's taste in saltiness. Excessive salt is a problem; insufficient salt clearly is not. It's elementary. Did many Japanese feel like this?

Determined to find out, I conducted one of my (extremely scientifically invalid) surveys, asking fifty students the same question and getting their answers. Here is the explanation I gave, and the questions:

There is a (Japanese) couple in their mid-thirties, no kids, both work. He works more than she does; part of their division of labor is that she cooks. When she serves him food and he salts it, she gets angry. She says it means he thinks her cooking is poor; he says it's just that his taste is different from hers. She does not accept this explanation.

1. Is her attitude reasonable?

2. Should he stop using salt?

3. Sometimes she puts the food on the table and heads back to the kitchen to get something. He quickly grabs the salt, salts his food, and puts it back before she returns. Is it okay for him to do this?

From my point of view, these are easy questions: her attitude is highly unreasonable, he shouldn't stop, and he shouldn't sneak the salt, but rather, use it openly. I suspect that most Westerners would agree. I got, however, some unexpected responses from my Japanese students.

I wanted to ask students about this at first mainly to find out how many people agreed with her, but the more significant responses came out with the second question. Here are the results:


Yes: 7 (4 female, 3 male)
Somewhat: 3 (3 female, 0 male)
No: 40 (23 female, 17 male)

Should he stop?

Yes: 23 (9 female, 14 male)
No: 27 (21 female, 6 male)

Is sneaking the salt okay?

Yes: 28 (no gender breakdown)
No: 22

While it seems that being angry at salt use isn't that common, it does exist; the wife's attitude was vigorously defended by a few of those who answered 'yes'. They felt that the kitchen is the woman's domain, and her decrees should be followed. One lady insisted that even if his taste is different, he should try to adjust it; he would eventually get used to the lack of salt, and enjoy the food just as much. Asked why he should have to, she gave a few reasons, such as the idea that it would show respect for her efforts in the kitchen. One response I got a lot, especially from women, to the 'is she reasonable' question was, "no, she isn't reasonable, but I can understand her feelings."

What surprised me about the second question was not the results, but the gender breakdown, which as you can see is sharp. 70% of women said he should go ahead and continue, while 70% of men said he should stop. Of the 23 women who said the wife was unreasonable, 21 said he should continue using the salt, which makes sense to me: you follow reasonable requests, and you don't follow unreasonable ones. But of the 17 men who said the wife was unreasonable, only 6 said he should continue using salt. In almost every case, the reason given was to avoid a conflict. Very typical was a man around 50 who immediately dismissed the wife as unreasonable, said the husband should stop using the salt 'to keep the peace in the family,' and when questioned about sneaking the salt, laughed and said 'good idea!'.

By Western standards, giving in to such an unreasonable request would be widely considered a bad idea. It's bad in principle to agree to unreasonable demands, it represents an unhealthy degree of control by one partner over another, and it only puts a Band-Aid over a problem that needs to be dealt with. A discussion needs to be had. But Japanese are very conflict-averse, almost reflexively so. Not that they never have it, of course, especially between spouses. But though not everything needs to be a knock-down drag-out fight, many Japanese react as though any argument means just that. Some of the men didn't care that much about using salt, so would give in quickly. But in my case, even if I were indifferent to using salt, I would resist the demand on principle and initiate a discussion. What I found about many Japanese–not all, but probably upwards of half–was that they simply don't consider the notion that the problem can be solved with a discussion. They would argue their point, they would maybe get angry, but it wouldn't occur to them to explore the dynamic of the situation in order to solve it. Why does she get angry, when most people wouldn't? Is she sensitive about her cooking? Has he given her reason to be? Has he appreciated it enough, perhaps made a few unintentional slights? They wouldn't ask these questions. When I say 'discussion', what they hear is 'argument'.

But, most interestingly: why the men and not the women? Even the students weren't sure, though there was a general consensus that the most recent generation of Japanese men aren't as confident and sure of their place as men of previous generations. Tellingly, one of the few men who said he should continue using the salt was my oldest student, a 75-year-old man who was a company executive, a very traditional guy. He said the wife should make the food to the husband's specifications, and if it isn't, he should use the salt and tell her why. He's not an arrogant guy; he just has a strong idea of how things should be. Anyway, for whatever reason, Japanese women appear to be much more willing than men to have an argument. Most of my students were interested, but not terribly surprised, by this.

As for the third question, the student whose problem this was (who was quite interested to have me take the survey and give him the results) said he was surprised at the result, that he'd have thought that 90% would say it was okay. Most who said it was liked it as a way to avoid the argument/discussion, and for him to get what he wanted (most of the men gave this answer). Most who opposed it said that he should simply use it openly, so in a way, it was another way of asking the second question.

As for my student, he hasn't used the salt recently, contenting himself to sneak it in when possible. When I asked him why he didn't bring it up with her, he quoted a Japanese expression, 'kotonakare-shugi'. It doesn't seem to have an exact English equivalent; it comes across best as 'leaving well enough alone' or 'not making things worse'. Personally, I think that it's not dealing with these things that makes them worse. But, of course, that's what cultural differences are all about.