Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Who’s the Kamikaze? Schadenfreude and the American empire

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Back in October 2008, a few colleagues and I were having conversation with Johan Galtung about the 2008 election. Johan was talking about the election and he was rather dismissive of its importance. Many of us were animated in our discussion and we were speculating about what the outcome would be. I remember directing a response to him about how crucial some issue or another would be and why it mattered who won in November. His response to me was, as I have learned, Galtungian. He said if McCain wins, it will only hasten the decline of the American Empire. If I believed that there were real stakes in the election, that only represented my American naivete through my faith in elections. We then had a long discussion about the word empire and how it contrasted with hegemony and which was a better description of global politics. Just for the record, I am a hegemony guy and think that American empire is a mis-specified idea.

Flash to today’s Sunday conversation, in which we see Lamar Alexander taking several shots at Japan through only slightly indirect imagery on This Week. First he compares the health bill to a car that can’t be recalled. Then he comes right out and says that the Democrats are playing a kind of kamikaze politics right now, where they will destroy themselves by pushing through reconciliation. This idea turns out to be relatively well distributed  in the public sphere. I have found it in a few places here and here.

What a great example of how a literary device can be developed and then used opportunistically to take advantage of emerging circumstances.  Now that Toyota is in trouble, it is useful for many to pile on and take shots not only at Toyota itself, but also to invoke the most fearsome image of the Japanese as the enemy they can muster–the kamikaze pilot. No one will soon accuse Alexander of being the Senator from Toyota. By drawing on this kind of opportunistic imagery, Alexander surely scored points. If you can’t profitably paint Obama as Hitler, why not Hirohito?

The problem is that it is not possible to get symbolic power in one’s images for free. The reason that this image works so well is that some Americans are still quite ambivalent about Japanese success and many are all too happy to see the Japanese fail. The ambivalence comes the ferocity and racial overtones of the war with Japan, combined with the remarkably peaceful relations with Japan after WWII and the cultural synergies that have developed in that period that makes Americans quite happy to work for an Asian car company.

I have a suspicion that WWII imagery is becoming ever more popular. I also assume that this is more characteristic of Republicans than of Democrats, even though  both sides love the subject. WWII is a crucial event for Americans because this is the moment when the U.S. attains its unquestioned dominance of the West. Any imagery that invokes this rise to greatness feels great to anxious Americans and is a political winner. As I said above, symbols are not free, and a political winner always brings with it a political loser. Public opinion in Japan about the Toyota recall is not positive, but primarily with respect to the actions of the American government, not those of the world’s giant automaker.  The more American lawmakers pile on, the more frayed our relations with the Japanese become.

Why does this matter? Insofar as Galtung is right in describing an American empire, the power behind the orb can be found in the vanquished parties of WWII, namely Germany and Japan. American leverage in the postwar period relied on its dominance of its two primary rivals in the contest. Germany became the flashpoint for WWIII on several occasions and Japan was not only because it was occupied and to some non-trivial extent, reconfigured in the American image. Dominating the major economies of Europe and Asia as well as North America has been rather useful for the U.S. in promoting the American way of life.

What many may not have noticed is that the major earthquake of the past year year may not have been in either Haiti or Chile, but rather in Japanese politics, where the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan that ruled for 54 years was finally thrown from power. If you do the math, you see that the 54 years almost corresponds with the end of American occupation. The LDP may be spun by some critics of Yankee hegemony as the soft occupation that followed the hard, and issues like the military base on Okinawa cement this image. Japan is in play right now in a way that it has not been for generations and one suspects that Senator Alexander is not thinking this through.

If density of conversation is any indicator, we have reason to worry about the end of the American Century as David Ignatius reports today (see also the recent Foreign Affairs and the LA Times) But, if the Pax Americana does fall, my bet is that it will begin when the Japanese lose their faith in us. The Japanese patience with what is surely well understood as hegemony when applied to their affairs has been remarkable. The relationship between the countries is one of the great models of conflict resolution in history.  So was Galtung right? Are we headed for the fall of the American empire or whatever other label we would attach to this period of American empowerment? Senator Alexander should hope that the answer is not blowin’ in the divine wind.

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