On November 14, 2009, the world as we know it almost ended. Forget the Mayan calendar, ignore a worldwide outbreak of a deadly flu virus, and don’t for a minute think about biblical prophecy and Armageddon. What happened on that fateful day makes pale any event imagined or ever foreseen. Truly, it was a day of infamy, for the president of the United States bowed when greeting the Emperor of Japan.
If you detect a note of sarcasm, you are correct.
That small courtesy produced a category 5 tempest in a teapot. But then, who could possibly be surprised at the Right’s latest excuse for faux-rage? Anyone old enough to remember Saturday Night Live, and Gilda Radner’s character, Emily Litella will recall her pithy observation, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
Truly, Emily was wise.
As usual, there are deeper principles at play. It’s all about perception, and how we perceive the meaning of events is at the end of the day truly in the eyes of the beholder. Perceptions aren’t objective. They aren’t black and white. Perception is a domain in a land of many shades of gray, and perceptions demonstrate the range of incredible differences in people. In this case it demonstrates how people define their individual notion of weakness and strength, and what has become evident to me in this discussion is that real strength and the appearance of courage are very often unrelated.
Anyone who admires Gandhi or Yoda or Jean Luc Picard, or any other soft-spoken person, real or fictional who carries a big stick, can appreciate the strength of humility and the wisdom of granting respect to others, no matter how different those others be. Bluster is the language of fools, cowards and bullies. Courtesy and respect is the language of those who are confident, and those who have nothing to prove because they know they have to prove nothing. For those who are strong enough to demonstrate an unassuming nature, courtesy is a byproduct of strength.
There are those who say an American President should bow to no one. Sure, that sounds fine and patriotic on the surface, especially to those who are ignorant by choice or experience with the cultures of others. If one had no concept of Japan and the customs of that country, and if one were unaware of the deified status of the Emperor, and if one were insecure in their own strength and authority, then of course one could understand such a provincial and myopic outlook. Ignorance is forgivable. But that’s obviously not the case with the players that are making the loudest noises about this deferential greeting. At least, I hope an elected official would be somewhat aware of Japanese culture.
However, the ensuing hysteria came from wealthy, educated and literate American public officials and commentators. An awful lot of folks got truly wound up about this one. So it begs the question, do these folks have something to hide? Are they hiding their own insecurities about the United States in a blanket of bluster? Perhaps they think their outrage can disguise the elephants that have taken up residence in their living rooms. Perhaps they’re afraid that their own, personal fears will show if they don’t wail in protest. Perhaps they protest a bit too much and in doing so, have inadvertently shown their hand in the global poker game of politics.
For some time now I’ve mourned the loss of America the Brave. It was hard to not despair at the rush to buy weapons when President Obama was elected as our president. It’s hard to stomach the right wing constantly stoking the fires of fear and insecurity and using the tragic act of a handful of insane hyper vandals to do so. 9/11 has become a much, much larger tragedy than the collapse of buildings and the loss of thousands of innocents, and that’s saying a lot. It saddens me to see a good deal of this great nation’s citizenry reduced to a quaking, shivering mass of nervous, heavily armed scaredy cats.
In this, I can only hope that Americans can someday reclaim their courage and recognize that there are dangerous people in the world. I pray that someday Americans come to realize that there are far more people in this world who are sane and loving and kind. But until we as Americans can accept risk as a part of life, be it a risk from “terrorists” or the risk of crossing a busy intersection, then we will continue to live in fear. The fear mongers will flourish, blood and treasure will be wasted, and decency and courtesy to other cultures will continue to be suspect.
Truly, I miss the land of the brave. I miss the America that can applaud the strength of a leader, an America that understands strength and therefore, can demonstrate a generous spirit of courtesy and do so without fear.
Kurt Niece is a teacher, writer, artist and author. His latest work, "The Breath of Rapture" is a satirical novel about the perils of religious fundamentalism.