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.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Nation of Hypocrites

There is a serious problem with violence in America. How do I know this? Not because of random shootings at shopping malls and university campuses. At the moment, I live in Japan, a land of barely contained aggression if ever there were one. But incidents of violence, except against oneself, are extremely rare here. OK, the mayor of Nagasaki (Nagasaki!) was assassinated by a yakuza member recently, but what an aberration. Can you imagine someone putting a hit out on "Mike" Bloomberg? And yet the Japanese love violence. If you can wade through all the cutesy Hello Kitty/Pokemon crap, you'll find in the popular culture here an absolute obsession with all forms of destruction and mutilation. With the lack of Judeo-Christian morals (and I didn't say those were good things!), hardly anything is considered taboo, at least for personal, private consumption. I found a very nice pornography emporium recently that I stumbled into because it looked like a Walmart (and was basically on the top floor of its Japanese equivalent). Oops, well, I'm here so I might as well do some "research".

Later, a Japanese friend, after more drinks than necessary--and this guy, a nuclear chemist or something, went to the MIT of Japan--told me he finds The Simpsons, his only source of English practice, too violent. "What?" I blurted in my inebriation. Well, of course it's violent, that's what's funny about it... Hmm... Actually, it's the Itchy and Scratchy toon-within-a-toon that he finds most disturbing. "But, Taku," I explained, "it's not funny because it's violent, it's funny because it's a parody of all those other violent cartoons from, you know, the '50s. We're not laughing because Itchy repeatedly beheads and dismembers Scratchy in increasingly gruesome and inappropriate ways. We're laughing at the irony..." So that's about where the conversation stalled. Am I naive enough to believe that the general viewer of The Simpsons operates at such a high intellectual level? Do I operate at such a high intellectual level? When I pointed out to my friend the aforementioned violence of Japanese popular culture, he said, yes, it's there, but we don't think violence is funny.

Slavoj Zizek wrote about the Abu Ghraib photos that they were not evidence of the chain of command gone horribly wrong. He suggested that, in fact, they were a normal product of American culture, that if you'd shown them to people out of context, they might have thought them some sort of experimental theater. Consider the hazing rituals of the military and college fraternities, the popularity of violent sports, and, finally, Itchy and Scratchy. Remember that, in the photos, the soldiers are smiling. That's what was most shocking of all--not only were these young brats defiling the sacred name of America, they were having a good time, too! We should remember, while we're chuckling with exasperation at Itchy and Scratchy or shaking our heads with shame at Abu Ghraib, that they're of a piece, that the lampooning of Tom and Jerry can take divergent forms, isn't always just lampooning, and that the original article is suspiciously close to less deracinated forms of popular entertainment, e.g. blackface performance and lynching.

That's all a long, perhaps facile introduction to what will be a very short point. Recently, members of Congress and potential Presidential candidates have been falling all over themselves to denounce the continuation of the Iraq War. Even the Republicans have joined in on the race to out-dove the next guy. But the reasons for this sudden shift in sentiment have nothing to do with the morality, shall we say, of the war. The politicians are angry because we didn't find weapons of mass destruction; because the country didn't stabilize immediately after we liberated it; and because it's costing us too much in money, lives, and "political capital." The problem is America only likes to fight wars we can win, and we're not winning this one. That's no fun! And that's the ultimate sin of the Bush administration. I doubt the anti-war rallying cries, really anti-Bush rallying cries (like cursing out the quarterback of your favorite sports franchise), would be so vociferous if Iraq were today a stable, liberal, oil-exporting democracy. The fact that this Hail Mary scenario was even attempted and believed possible to begin with points up the delusions of victory with which Americans are obsessed, contrary evidence and sober commentary notwithstanding. So the war itself is OK, really, but not winning it is not OK. All those politicians who rubber-stamped it back in '02, only to recant now? They're not hypocrites? They only thought we were actually going to war for a good reason? Or, barring that, that at least we could win it pretty easily? Garrison Keillor was eloquent on this topic in a recent New York Times editorial: shame on them.

A person of conviction would have had to maintain a consistent stance against the war from the beginning, not because it would be too difficult to win, but because it is wrong to fight wars. In America, though, this is a rather unpopular position. You won't hear any politicians stating their objection to the Iraq situation in this way. They will only tell you that the administration deceived us (into doing something that is wrong no matter what the circumstances?) and is now mishandling things (which someone else can surely handle better?). Let me repeat more affirmatively: war is always wrong. You can't say we went to war for the wrong reasons without presupposing that right reasons exist. "What about World War II?" you might say. Good point. But that very popular war was a resounding victory for the United States, to the extent that it forms the terminus a quo of much contemporary folklore, from apple pie to the X-men. Our victory then may be the reason we continue to love a good war, and the violence, and the fun of winning it. To bring things back to Japan, it is much different here. Their loss haunts them, and it is a loss we cannot begin to imagine--thousands upon thousands dead, all their cities destroyed, their nation subjugated, their emperor embarrassed. Not so funny! There was even a fistfight in the Diet when it was proposed that the Japanese defense forces be upgraded to full ministry status (sadly, this has now occurred). We Americans may not have Japanese decorum, but our politicians would never do that (want to see McCain and Kerry go a few rounds?). And not surprisingly, most Japanese are anti-war as a matter of principle, not of contingency. As difficult as it usually is to get an opinion out of them, many are also quite upfront that they don't like George W. Bush. Many Americans don't either. But in the upcoming Presidential election, we'll probably vote for someone who argues not that war is morally wrong, even if we generally say this privately, but that the Bushies have deprived us of what we Stars and Stripes-worshipping, violence-crazed Yanks love best: victory.

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