Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Somewhat Lame Farce About Modern Totalitarianism

When I was in high school, my favorite books in translation were the novels and short story collections of Heinrich Böll, including Billiards at Half-Past Nine and Children Are Civilians Too (My favorite book in English, for those interested in my adolescent loves, was Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar).

In Children Are Civilians Too I found particularly memorable a very brief short story called "My Sad Face." It is about a man living in an unidentified decayed dictatorship who is picked up by police for not having a smile on his face, as required by law.

Little was I to know that the story I found so moving was, according Professor William J. Schwarz, writing in the Saturday Review of March 1970, "a somewhat lame farce about modern totalitarianism."

It seems we live in the lamest of times:
UK man arrested for not smiling during Olympics

A man from Britain with Parkinson's disease was arrested while watching the Olympic cycling road race because he "failed to smile or look like he was enjoying himself."

Mark Worsfold, a martial arts trainer and former soldier, said that he was thrown to the floor and handcuffed just as cyclists passed by, Gulf News reported.

His worried wife Nicola only found out he was being held after she reported him missing when he did not turn up for their daughter's ninth birthday party.

The 54-year-old had his fingerprints, DNA and mugshot taken before being questioned about why he did not appear to be enjoying the event on July 28.

Police said Worsfold, who was held for over five hours, was arrested because of "his manner, his state of dress and his proximity to the course."

A spokesman added that the arrest was necessary to avoid a breach of the peace because he was standing near a group of protesters.

But Worsfold, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2010, said that one of the symptoms of the disease is muscle rigidity, which can cause his face to become expressionless and mask-like.

Worsfold, who had stopped to watch the men’s road race in Leatherhead, Surrey, after holding a Taekwondo demonstration nearby, said officers told him he was being arrested and taken to Reigate police station because he was not smiling.

"I was sitting minding my own business," he told a local newspaper.

"Before I knew anything the police grabbed me off this seven-foot wall, threw me to the floor and cuffed me so all I saw of the cycle race was between the feet of people from the pavement. It could have been done better. I was arrested for not smiling. I have Parkinson's," he said.

What does this have to do with this blessed land, or indeed the East Asian entire region?

Since the end of the most horrible of wars, it has been the habit of European countries and the United States to justify criticisms of government policies and practices of this region based on a presumed and pre-supposed moral superiority of their nations. It is the basis of criticism of retention of the death penalty (the EU) or just about everything (the United States).

However, since the outbreak of the War on Terror and the rise of the surveillance democracy (with the United Kingdom leading the way), the moral superiority of EuroAmerica is no longer tenable. Indeed, government (Anwar Awlaki) and mob/mass media (Bill Maher, the Dixie Chicks) attacks on individuals for expressing the wrong thoughts or having wrong attitudes are now commonplace; guaranteed freedoms are ignored with impunity (Guantanamo Bay); and basic human decency abandoned (Abu Ghraib). Privacy of communication and person have essentially vanished.

Given the self-inflicted wounding of what was indeed "better" about EuroAmerica, it should not be surprising that the government of this blessed land and other governments in the region should push back: "Who are you to criticize us, you who kill your own citizens living abroad through missile strikes, then proudly issue press releases about it?"

As a consequence, it should not be surprising that EuroAmerican cautions and admonitions about the sex slaves of the Imperial Army, visits to Yasukuni by Cabinet officials, impositions of the death penalty, arrests without due process of law and dolphin slaughter in worthless coastal burgs increasingly fall on not just deaf, but defensive ears.

With the moral high ground eroded to a nub, EuroAmerica's influence is crushed. What remains is only quiet suggestions through diplomatic channels of taking action based not a universal human rights or basic human dignity but purely out of self-interest.

Some may argue that in reality, self-interest was all that ever mattered -- that no action was ever taken out of pressures to conform with the norms of EuroAmerica. Those who hold to this tenet clearly have never watched Japanese television or read Japanese news. The views of non-Japanese bozos (as expressed on television programs, both serious and not) and the image of Japan in the world media has been the subject of intense interest. The example of other countries, particularly those in EuroAmerica, have been the guides and the drive behind the activities of non-profit organizations.

Interest is still being expressed in EuroAmerican ideas. However, is more out of momentum -- the repetition of a particular formula because it has worked in the past -- rather than out of a search for norms. To an ever greater extent, social mores are growing out of indigenous perceptions of injustice and inequality. EuroAmerica is more and more often a source of procedural hints rather than full programs or aspirations.

Some again may argue that this process has been on going for decades. I am not disputing this position. However, the process has accelerated since 2001, whilst the EuroAmerican governments, entrapped in their obsessive quests for security, have become less free.

So as EuroAmerican admonitions are met increasingly with "Got it. Whatever" -- ascribing the East Asian self-confidence to increased economic might is at best half the story. Indeed, in this blessed land, with its twenty-five years of recession and a plummeting percentage of total world GDP, confidence arising out of economic prowess is rather laughable -- though the crisis in EuroAmerica since the 2008 global economic collapse does stimulate more than a bit of schadenfreude.

The other side of the coin is the decline of freedom, of the right to have a sad face on a happy day.


TheStrawMan said...

Ironically, Given it's status as a haven for political/religious/ethnic activists and refugees of all stripes Britain does seem, every once in a while, to shock us with it's brutal and draconian policing. I remember that poor Brazilian guy who was wrestled to the ground and shot in the head for the crime of wearing a backpack in the aftermath of the London suicide bombings...

As for your larger point, while it may hold true in the specific case of Japan, I'm not sure it applies as well to the rest of East Asia. Countries such as China and Malaysia (and their apologists) have been trotting out the cultural relativist "Asian Values" argument to excuse autocratic and undemocratic behavior for at least since the early 1990s...

Ἀντισθένης said...

Thank you. Going out to my 'friends' on Facebook.