1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
  2. white souse, n.1: A blog for literature, politics, science, and the occasional cocktail.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jouez-l'encore, Hirohito

Those who still derive amusement from examples of history repeating itself will be delighted by a story published today in Le Monde under the heading "Opération kamikaze à Casablanca et nouvelles arrestations." You do not even have to read the story. The headline alone, with its combination of French, Japanese, and classic Hollywood elements, evokes a certain sentimentality, proving that history is rather like a food processor: surely, its mechanical action is repetitive, but you can never predict what unassimilated lumps its churnings will toss up as the multitudinous ingredients are puréed.

Isn't it fascinating that "suicide bomber" is rendered here in French with "kamikaze"? Of course, the English expression is as new as the French adoption from Japanese. Suicide, already a disturbing act against oneself, is combined with an external, devastating attack on others. This surrendering to the negativity of self-destruction by means of a positive assault on the environment that produced it might be considered postmodern. "I recognize my subject position abstractly, but I reject it, and further, I seek to destroy the enforcers of subject positions themselves." There were martyrs in the past who sacrificed themselves for a higher cause, but weren't they somehow different? The word "martyr" literally means witness, and it was the positive fact of the victim's individual, witnessing identity that lent significance, gravitas even, to his or her death, the positive result of which is the martyr's inscription into history. Perhaps we can respect this. A suicide bombing, however, seems an extreme self-abnegation. The perpetrators, in their willingness to be erased from history, commit not only physical violence against us, but even more inexcusably, they offend our reverence for the priority of the individual. It is, after all, on behalf of individual rights and freedoms that the West always claims to fight. From this perspective, anyone who makes such a pointless sacrifice, who becomes the anonymous instrument of others, must perforce be evil.

But this is where French wisdom shows itself. The word "kamikaze", meaning "divine wind", actually preserves the dignity of the erstwhile "bomber". Many of our ideas about the limits of human malice derive from World War II, and the kamikaze, the insane agent of a relentless and unfathomable Asian enemy, is one of the most profound. The niggling cultural differences that seem an almost aesthetic concern today remain at the heart of human fear. If we certainly recognize in one another a common humanity, what do we make of fellow humans who do things we would never consider, who go farther than we would? Is our fear for our own destruction at the hands of such enemies or for the more terrifying possibility that "we" are not so unlike "them"? The original divine wind was the one that sent the Monguls packing after repeated attempts to invade Japan. This grace, almost exclusive to Japan in the era of the Khans, may explain the feeling that famously developed among Japanese that they are an exceptional people, unconquered and (as a result) unmixed. This divine election also meant they felt destined to lead the other nations of Asia (they were already trying to conquer Korea in the 16th century). But a nationalistic superiority complex is not just a peculiarity of imperial island nations. Our own adventures in the Middle East, if they really are predicated on a democracy-building program, reflect an American superiority complex just as devastating as Japan's. The idea of a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere is surely no more farcical than a Coalition of the Willing. And however cruel was Japan's imperial embrace in practice, you can hardly fault their motives: against an overbearing and exploitative West, Japan intended to rise up and loose the shackles Europe had placed on the nations of Asia. When you actually believe your way of life is the best one there is, how can you morally prevent others from enjoying it? Why wouldn't you force them to conform to it, for their own good? And thus you had the incongruous image of Javanese women practicing karate at dawn. And, ultimately, fighter pilots who were willing to die, not just on behalf of an emperor they never met, but however tenuously, for the greater good of humanity.

Except we won that one. And so today the greater good of humanity seems to mean the greater good of the United States and its allies. We were an isolationist nation before World War II. Did we achieve victory then only to adopt the aspirations of our enemies? We are again confronted by an enemy who exposes to us our own dark side. They consider themselves the favored of God, their very bodies the instrument of a divine wind. That wind is not the product of an esoteric evil but the necessity of a conviction that would spread its benevolence to all of humanity. What divine wind is at our backs, driving us? If there isn't one, by what right do we storm across the world and what claim can we possibly have on its sympathy? By relegating suicide bombers, the kamikaze of today, to the amorphous realm of evil, we fail to understand that their mission is quite similar to our own. The difference lies in the means to carry it out. The French surely have little nostalgia for their own colonial adventures, though we have it on their behalf for all those Casablancas that somebody else controlled, where somebody else did the dirty work, while we pretended to be everybody's heroes. In the future, we may have a nostalgia of a different sort: for a time when we could more easily draw moral boundaries, when we at least had the luxury of knowing where our enemy lived before he moved closer to home.

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