Theory Teacher's Blog

Japan, the World, and the Question of What To Do

I have to admit something. I am completely overwhelmed by all the events of the past couple months: the democratic protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, the subsequent conflict in Libya, the attempt by Wisconsin’s governor to remove the collective bargaining rights of public employees, the attempt by Michigan’s governor to give himself emergency powers against unions, massive cuts to public education (especially public universities) across the country, the proposal in Congress to eliminate funding for public broadcasting (no more Sesame Street?), another proposal to make it illegal for private insurance to be used for abortions, still another proposal by a legislator in Missouri to bring back child labor… and of course the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Because some of these events have received a lot of attention from the mainstream media and others haven’t, and because so many of them are connected to each other in surprising ways, I have felt some obligation to write and to try to make sense of these things. And because the mainstream media so often misrepresents what it talks about,  I have in the past usually been compelled to respond critically to the media’s misrepresentations. The way such events are mediated become, for me, occasions for the usefulness of theory.

But lately, I find myself avoiding the news. It makes me sad, angry, and frustrated. Though I know the TV and radio news is usually a bit incorrect (and sometimes even really wrong), I can’t bring myself to do the hard work to respond to it. And please believe me, I’ve started numerous blog posts about all of the above topics, but I quickly become afraid of my own ignorance, and my writing never gets very far. The responsibility to be correct, in the context of so many incorrect statements, has felt too heavy. And I don’t want to watch and read the horrible stuff I’d have to watch and read in order to write something good. Anyway, I want to return to the subject of my writer’s block in a moment, but before I do, I want to overcome it for a brief moment and say something about how to help Japan.

I guess the reason why I’m overcoming my writer’s block on this subject is simple. I lived in Tokyo for two years (1997-1999), and am still in touch with a few of the friends I made during that time. I took a group of students there a couple years ago (2009) and blogged a lot about it [here]; I have a Japanese exchange student in my class right now; my school has a program there every fall; and a former student whose honors thesis I advised is working there now. I’ve thankfully heard from all of my friends and my former student since the earthquake, and they are all fine. And probably because of my history there and my connections, a few people in the United States have asked me what they should do. More specifically, they have asked what organization might be the best to donate to? And I forwarded their question on to my Japanese friends and got some answers. It is more difficult question than it might seem, and I’ve blogged before on the difficulty of the question of aid with regards to Haiti’s earthquake last year [here] and [here], aid to Kenya [here], and aid to Ethiopia [here]. So, for the past week, I’ve tried to think of a good answer, but my writer’s block and other things keep getting in the way — my own ego too, perhaps… my hesitation is maybe just silly.

To get right to the point, there is a simple answer and a complex answer. The simple answer is this. I was advised by my Japanese friends to donate to Japan’s Red Cross [here] or a special fund set up by Japanese banks [here]. This is what the Japanese television is saying, apparently. One of my friends in Japan alerted me to the fact that there are some bogus websites out there, so be careful — for example, see [here] about a bogus website pretending to be Japan’s Red Cross. However, the Japanese Red Cross’s English website also suggests that foreigners check to see if their own national Red Cross is supporting Japan’s endeavors. And the American Red Cross announced that it is [here]. (Note, the different Red Crosses are independent of each other, not just one big organization.)

There are a number of reasons why the relationship between organizations matters. First, sometimes large multinational organizations act as if they know everything, try to take over when they arrive in a foreign country, and just get in the way or are insensitive to local issues. It’s actually more efficient to make use of already existing institutions that have been there, so it’s better if the American Red Cross simply gives some money to the Japanese Red Cross than if it descends upon the country en masse. Second, multinational organizations and the American Red Cross have been criticized in the past for making use of a natural disaster to re-engineer a smaller country’s economy and political structure, which is why I am sometimes suspicious of them (as I wrote about at length in my blogs about Haiti’s earthquake), but in this case, Japan is obviously not a small country, and it has one of the best national infrastructures on the planet, so it seems the relationship between Japan’s Red Cross and America’s is reasonable. Third, the most challenging aspect of disaster relief is supply chains — how to get stuff like water, food, and blankets from one place to another. And this is always a problem, but especially a problem in the case of a tsunami like this one which has destroyed many of the means of transportation. Hence, too many organizations on the ground will get in each other’s way unless there is some coordination. The national government is almost always able to respond more quickly and more effectively than private charities for this reason. And considering the challenge of supply chains, it should be obviously stupid for us to send truckloads of stuff or even truckloads of people to Japan at this time. How would it get there? Doesn’t it make more sense to trust the Japanese organizations to handle this?

So, the best way to help Japan is by donating to organizations that will support Japan’s own organizations with money, not with stuff. That’s the simple answer. But there is a more complex answer too, and this more complex answer has something to do with why I was afraid to write about this, why I avoided watching the media’s representations, and the very strange psychology of international aid. The American media’s response has been frustratingly stupid and even offensive to some Japanese people. The news stories are often unclear about the specifics of location and time (looping the same image over and over without identifying which city it’s from). Annoyingly, it emphasizes how America is helping rather than how Japan is helping itself. It will even make racist generalizations about the Japanese character; words I’ve heard a lot are stoic and traditional; I’ve even heard the word tribal; none of these adjectives make the least bit of sense to me. At the same time, the danger at the nuclear power plant has prompted endless debate about the safety of nuclear power and what America needs to do to help Japan, as if TEPCO (Japan’s energy company) and the Japanese government haven’t already been planning for this kind of thing for years. There is almost no discussion of the important role of Japan’s Self Defense Force, which has one of the largest budgets of any military in the world. Since Japan’s Constitution, written after World War II with significant input from the United States, prohibited Japan from having a traditional military that could invade other countries, its SDF was often used as a disaster-response force. (This of course changed somewhat recently after George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi found a legal loophole so as to let Japan participate in the “war on terror”, especially in Afghanistan.) In sum, the history of Japan’s political relationship to the rest of the world is often absent from the characterizations (including the fact that Japan has been for years one of the largest givers of aid to other countries, as I had to chance to witness first hand when I was there in 2009 — see my blog post about that [here].)

My point here is not that the mainstream American media is doing a poor job innocently. Rather my point is that it is not innocent at all — that there is a strange self-serving psychology motivating the way it represents Japan and all other countries. There is a wonderful analysis of the contradictory and protean history of American representations of Japan by the cultural theorist Masao Miyoshi in his introduction to the book Japan in the World. My personal experience in Japan agrees with Miyoshi, and I first became aware of this kind of thing back in 1997 when my American friends would send me stories from the New York Times and Newsweek that were presumably about Japanese society, but were bizarrely untrue. In 1997 and 1998, it was obvious what motivated the American media’s symbolic denigration of Japanese society — the United States’s president Bill Clinton was in the middle of renegotiating a trade relationship and was hoping to open up Japan’s financial sector to American banks. That was over a decade ago; what motivates the American media now is something I don’t understand. Maybe it’s just habit.

A second issue is something that we are almost not supposed to talk about out loud. One of my students wrote a great paper about this for my class a couple years ago, so I’m relying on her research. All aid organizations such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, etc., know that they function best when they are proactive and prepared and when they perform preventative measures. Waiting for an emotionally distraught public to send money after disaster has struck will do no good at all. But it never occurs to the public to support institutions (both governmental and non-governmental) and to engage in preventative measures that are efficient and that work. The public’s emotions are only mobilized reactively not proactively, and this is a huge problem that everyone in the “relief” business is well aware of. Hence, usually, a relief organization will save the money they raise during any given disaster for the next disaster that hasn’t happened yet. In other words, the money you gave to non-governmental organizations during Hait’s earthquake or Pakistan’s flood might now be used for Japan’s tsunami, and the money you give now for Japan’s tsunami might be used for some future disaster somewhere else in the world. This makes good sense, and non-governmental organizations have long figured out how to use the irrational and generally ignorant emotionalism of the general public to good effect. To raise money, organizations hype the personal connection between the giver and the receiver, no matter how inefficient or ineffective that personal connection might actually be in practice.

But — and this is a big but — the risk is that such hype and sentiments might symbolically and psychologically undermine the institutions that are actually more effective (e.g., the national governments), since when people expect such a personal connection, they come to expect the wrong things from their investment and distrust the organizations that actually are most effective. It puts the government and the non-governmental organization in the habit of managing public emotions, and television becomes a necessary tool for this management, and sometimes it becomes difficult to find the right set of symbols to appeal to the public’s emotions (as was the case during Pakistan’s flood, which received relatively less support, as many aid workers lamented)… and thus… all the misrepresentations of other cultures proliferate.

Possibly I’m wrong about all this. I have been avoiding most media about this topic, precisely because it makes me so upset, and so my sense of the media and the reality on the ground is by no means thorough…. And so… thus… hence… therefore… my writer’s block about so many issues.

So now back to my writer’s block. A friend recently reminded me of something the philosopher Jacques Derrida said in an interview done for a documentary about him (entitled Derrida.) Here’s what he said:

Derrida says that when he is half asleep he will have a moment of panic and second-guess himself. Thus, in a classic deconstructive move, Derrida reverses how we usually think of things. We usually think of the panic about writing happening when we are very conscious — perhaps even overly conscious — not when we are unconscious. But Derrida suggests it is our unconscious that is the more vigilant.

But I’m not so sure Derrida is right. Most people (since most people don’t have Derrida’s ability to write book after book after book) feel that anxiety before they write, not after they write. Most people feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and the challenge of making sense, which is why they feel unable to say things unless they are empowered by some larger movement. (Whether that movement is sensible or not is another story.) When Derrida says he is compelled to write by some feeling of necessity or some force outside himself, this is an unusual mystification on his part of the complex social relations that empower him — specifically the relation he and everone else have to certain kinds of information and the affective conditions that give us a feeling we have a right to speak even when we are largely ignorant of the facts.

In a funny way, democracy as a form of government depends upon an incredibly ignorant public believing they have a right to speak about everything. And this is important. What frightens me most about the overload of information and recent crises around the world is that it might cause us (or maybe just me) to want to hide. The question of what to do is too big a question.

Thomas Jefferson once suggested that democracy required an informed public, and it is common to think of fascist dictatorial regimes, in contrast, as controlling and limiting access to information (Orwell’s famous book 1984, for instance, but also the actions of Libya and Egypt’s governments.) But there is also the possibility that too much information might stymie the public. In other words, perhaps too much information and a constant feeling that we are in the middle of a crisis is the new postmodern form of fascism that causes people either to stammer and yell or to hide and retreat rather than come together and reasonably discuss. (And this is, by the way, one of the insights of the philosopher Agamben’s recent books, State of Exception.) Maybe writing is a form of exceptionalism — we must temporarily become the exception when we write. What a strange idea!!!

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March 20, 2011 - Posted by | international aid

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