Motoyuki Shibata, noted translator of American literature and a University of Tokyo professor, emailed me, “I don’t know how much longer we can stay calm. Since the nuclear plants are down and we are not going to have the amount of electricity necessary for the way of life we have been used to, we need to figure out a drastically new way of living and that’s easier said than done.”
A drastically new way, Shibata wrote, not a tweak here and there, so besides this real enough fear of radiation, there is also the long term challenge of living with less energy, but there is hardly anyone anywhere who is ready to power down. Most dismiss the concept outright. We’re conditioned to want more, not less. Confusing technology with fuel, knowledge with gas, they believe science will find a way to accommodate us all. Surely someone will come up with a car powered by wheezes, sneezes, farts and recycled wet dreams, etc.
This modern world is a mirage. It is a bleep and aberration in mankind’s history. With all of its gadgetry and convenience, our contemporary setting has only been enabled by an incredibly cheap source of energy, petroleum, but oil supply has peaked, so Bush steered us towards ethanol. To convert food into fuel, corn into beaucoup mileage, was supposed to be the answer, all those starving to death be damned! Like Bush, Obama touts nuclear energy while fighting oil wars. Without juice, this show’s over. If there’s black gold under your land, gentlemen, the U.S. will be the first to offer advices and inhumanitarian assistance, its cruise missiles ablazing.
Twenty nine percent of Japan’s electricity comes from nuclear power. As with so many calamities of the last century or so, energy is at the heart of it. The United States’ oil embargo against Japan precipitated war between these nations. Eighty percent of Japanese oil import had come from America, then the world’s leading oil exporter. Then came Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed over 200,000 Japanese within four months, with many more dying from cancer later. These traumas spawned, among other nightmares, an imaginary dinosaur wading in from the sea to destroy Japanese cities, yet after World War II, an occupied Japan was nudged towards nuclear power by the United States. The only country to suffer from nuclear bombs then became the world’s second leading generator of nuclear energy, after only the U.S. At the Fukushima Power Plant, all six of the distressed reactors were designed by General Electrics. As oil dwindles, nuclear power was supposed to pick up some of the slack, but as is becoming clear, yet again, there are inherent risks.
Newspapers worldwide have remarked on the stoicism, dignity, discipline and civility of the ordinary Japanese in response to their overlapping tragedies. It would be reasonable to conclude that these traits will allow Japan to cope and move forward better than most societies. When cities and infrastructures are destroyed, it’s the human capital, above all, that will rebuild them, but national traits are always difficult to discuss. They are all relative, many people will insist. A society can function any which way it wants to, appropriate to its culture and environment. To imply that there’s a better way in any arena is to be intolerant, chauvinistic or racist.
Two days ago, many American newspapers featured on their front pages a photo of a Chinese mob jostling with each other to buy iodized salt, which they thought would protect them from nuclear radiation. One couldn’t help but contrast this chaotic scene with Japanese lining up orderly for hours outside supermarkets and gas stations. Without passing too many value judgments, it is fair to speculate if China would fare as well during a crisis similar to what’s happening in Japan?
During the Lunar New Year celebration of 2010, Japan sent to Vietnam a chrysanthemum. Within minutes of its display in Hanoi, the tree was completely denuded, plucked of all its flowers by a mob. This appalling display of every man for himself, I just want my own flower and to hell with the lovely sight, provoked severe commentary from a few Vietnamese intellectuals. “Like a pack of monkeys,” someone even concluded.
The most forthright racial or ethnic judgments are often blurted within one’s own community, but we can all benefit from more candor and courage in discussing group traits, however, as long as they are not made with genocidal malice. I will say that the Vietnamese have little respect for public order. They don’t stand in lines or stop at red lights. Soon as they step out of their front doors, they litter, even in hallways outside their apartments. Yet in war, a true crisis, Vietnamese can work together so efficiently and with such self sacrifice that they have often been compared by foreigners to ants. This is not exactly a compliment, as is made clear by this passage from French novelist Jean Lartéguy, “This frenzied activity by sexless insects seemed directed from a distance, as if, somewhere in this colony, some huge queen was to be found, a sort of monstrous central brain which served as the collective consciousness of these ants.” Fearful of being overrun, perhaps, many Europeans have attributed sexlessness to the most populous race. No sex, yet so many children!
Back to the Chinese: the sense of public order, or civility, if you will, increases as one travels from mainland China to Hong Kong, to Taiwan, to Singapore. The same Chinese gene, but they comport themselves quite differently in these diverse places, so culture is not racially encoded. People can certainly be taught how to behave better, or be allowed or encouraged to act much worse than even monkeys.
And where is America in regard to all this? Where is she heading? On television, political pundits routinely insult and cut each other off. American teens strut around with T-shirts decorated with knives, guns, hand grenades and skulls. Web comments to Youtube videos and news stories seethe with racial hatred. (The election of our first black president, even one who does nothing for blacks whatsoever, or any other poor folks, for that matter, has provoked a frightful racial backlash. This, sadly, will turn out to be Obama’s most enduring legacy.) Caged fighting is being staged everywhere, in small towns, on military bases, even by churches. It’s all in jest, you say, it’s just goofy fun, which is what Rush Limbaugh considered Abu Ghraib, by the way. We are a fun and goofy people, if a tad violent.
As America attacks yet another oil-producing country, as she hijacks Libya’s revolution, many Americans are transfixed by March Madness. When Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, we were also staring at a bouncing ball for hours on end. Until the televisions go black, I suppose, most of us will pretend that nothing outside our doors has really changed. Belief in the trumpeted recovery means a yearning for life circa 2007, before the crash. As this ebbs and ebbs, we’ll find out what we’re really made of.
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, and the recently published novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.