Growing up we moved about ten times to a variety of states and I never attended any school more than two years. Each move meant a different set of friends, a different school, a different church, and not simply a different natural climate but a different human climate. The lesson I learned in the moves from Arizona, to Texas, to Kansas, to New Mexico, and Oklahoma, is that, though in relatively close proximity, each social setting was unique and worked on who I was very differently (for good and bad). As I would discover in working in a variety of jobs as a young adult, cultural differences function at a micro-level, so that working in the oil fields, as a radio announcer, or in sales, involved a very different set of values and behaviors. In selling price markers across the State of Kansas and radio advertising in Missouri and Arkansas, I recognized businesses generate an atmosphere. The toxic sort – I especially remember a chicken packing plant in Arkansas and a grocery store in northern Kansas – create a culture of fear. Ushered into the owner’s office at the chicken packing plant, I immediately understood who was generating the poison I had felt entering the plant from everyone I met. “Figured they would send me one of you long haired hippies. Now you sit down there and take note of everything I say,” he said. I was clearly not fully human in his estimate. When he saw I was not writing down his every word and had no intention of doing so, this Scrooge demanded that his own meek and fearful Bob Cratchit take dictation. (My petty revenge, since I was writing the advertising, was to discard these notes and compose a “Chicken Man” ad.) I am not sure what traits make for a successful chicken packer – his must have been the largest plant in northern Arkansas – so this seemingly despicable human was a chicken packing success. To thrive in such a culture, however, may not be an indicator of a highly developed human. In moving to Japan, I realized the degree to which my small-scale experience could be extrapolated.
The first-time visitor to Japan, though he will immediately notice the cultural difference, may not understand the human cost required in being Japanese. Maybe the easiest way to gauge this is to recognize those who are made to pay (those who pay through suicide, with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, offer only silent testimony). The phenomenon of hikikomori (those who isolate themselves from society) has become significant enough (estimates are between five hundred thousand to a million or more) that services have sprung up in which parents can rent a big sister to coax the young men (usually men) out of their room. In a National Geographic article and documentary, the men report on the psychological stress from bullying, the pressure to succeed, or simply the cruel and intense nature of living in Japanese society, which has sent them into years and even decades shut up in their room. The group-oriented focus of Japanese society, the emphasis on shame and honor, indulgent Japanese mothers, and the near total absence of fathers in the home, might all be sighted as contributing factors. As they interviewed the young men, it was clear that sensitivity had worked against them in making adjustments to Japanese society, which raises the question as to whether functioning successfully in this particular society makes for a better human being. Or to reverse the question and perspective (as the group oriented, cooperative, safe, culture of Japan, also exposed the underside of my own culture), what cost is extracted by any particular culture?
As I was thinking about this, I was also reading the story of the Jamaican writer, Marlon James who, when the other children started bullying him – calling him a sissy, also retreated into reading comics and fiction. At eighteen, he joined a Pentecostal Church and tried exorcism to get rid of homoerotic thoughts. The exorcism, in his description, seemed to have the opposite of the intended effect as he grew comfortable with his sexual orientation and uncomfortable with his church and Jamaican culture. Instead of adjusting to both (Jamaican culture and church), he found success and acceptance as a writer and professor of writing in the United States. Had he “successfully” adjusted to Jamaica, Marlon James would probably be a very different person than the “successful” writer. He expresses no regret in leaving and does not miss Jamaica, as he says he clearly remembers why he left. The resonance he feels in New York – the capacity to thrive – and the stifling nature of Jamaican culture made him aware of what remaining would have cost him.
Until you have crossed the boundaries of a micro or macro culture and felt the dissonance, it may be hard to imagine what price your culture, your circumstance, your “people,” have extracted from your humanity. Those cast off by their culture feel the cost, but may harshly (mis)judge themselves (through the only lens provided), confusing tenderness, sensitivity, or humaneness for weakness. Those counted most successful (the well-adjusted), ironically, may pay the heaviest cost in terms of their humanity with the least awareness (zero?) of the price they have paid. Those shaped by their culture, most unwittingly and least painfully, are necessarily least resistant to the twisting culture induces.
As a professor at Temple University in Japan, the most “important” Japanese person I ever met – president of the University, Japanese Diet member, Harvard graduate, a man of great wealth, was without question the most degraded. After he accosted a female professor and propositioned her for sex the professors, innocent souls that we were, attempted to form a union. The union president (if that was what she was – as we were never organized) was threatened by Japanese gangsters on a train platform and immediately left the country in fear of her life. The history of Temple in Japan (started by a con man who ran off with student tuition), the history of the Liberal Democratic Party’s working with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia), the history of moneyed elites in Japan, would help explain this micro culture. The macro culture in which inhumanity has its rewards and costs, had clearly shaped the man. The pinnacles of success, the chicken men and women of the world, may be those who, blind to the values they have absorbed, sacrifice sympathy, compassion, and all that make life worth living. While the micro culture of a company, school, or business, can be shaped around a more benevolent or benign personality, I presume that this sort of oasis must be resistant to the macro cultures they inhabit.
I did not realize the ease with which one can be unconsciously absorbed into a corporate identity until I encountered it elsewhere – the corporate “we” in Japan (watashitachi wa). “We Japanese” was a constant refrain which explained every action, every attitude, and captured the ethnocentrism found in nihonjinron (the notion of Japanese uniqueness propagated by cultural elites). “We Japanese have a unique language, which gives us unique brains, which can be connected to our unique islands. This means that Japanese bodies are unique – longer intestines, refined hearing and affinity with nature, and abhorrence of violence due to a gramnivorous diet. Japanese cannot eat Western beef due to their longer intestine and this explains why we are like the peaceful long intestine animals – the deer and sheep.” (A Japanese friend, explained, as I was chomping away at a piece of meat that this was precisely why Americans are so violent.) The tendency of non-Japanese was to take great umbrage at this ethnocentrism, as if this diatribe of uniqueness was the most unique and strange thing ever invented. Every tenet of nihonjinron, however, is a development of ideas borrowed from Western ethnocentric studies. Japanese nationalism is the mirror image, studied, imitated, and adapted (often with an inverse system of values – Japan at the top), from the West.
Every culture must create a blindness to its degrading effects, such that the values and ethos of a place, like Japan or the United States, require a transcultural capacity so as to resist. The manufactured consent of “we” – once glimpsed can be seen to be destructively pervasive. One simple example is the office of President of the United States. When Americans (perhaps, half-consciously) identify with the corporate “we,” the mythos of the office of Washington and Lincoln – inclusive of honesty, bravery, and divine providence – must be included in this identity. Isn’t this office a marker of the humanitarian heights of the culture? If thriving in a culture is to be equated with success in being human, we would expect to find a unique humaneness and intelligence in the President. Isn’t this precisely why some claim, including the man himself, that our President is the most intelligent, the greatest of leaders (biblical in proportion), and the cleverest of deal makers? If not this president, then some president, or perhaps the corporate office, is representative of the light upon a hill.
The problem, at least in Noam Chomsky’s estimate, is that the office holders, without exception in the post-war period, given the criteria of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, are all guilty of capital crimes. All the post war presidents would be hung, according to Chomsky, if tried according to the Nuremberg standard. Genocide, holocaust, mass murder, of course, all go under a different name and are not even recognizable as such when “we” do it. Hearing a defense of various U.S. policies in rural churches (in Sunday school no less) under the refrain of “we,” I had to ask which “we” was being referenced. Do “we” Christians want to kill, exclude, segregate and if it is “we” then aren’t at least some of those “we” want to do this to “we” Christians. Where this “we” goes unquestioned I presume Christian identity serves national identity.
The ethos of Christian institutions blind to their cultural
surroundings, whether schools, churches, or businesses, may be indistinguishable
from the chicken packing plant, though prayer is commonly invoked, the name of
Jesus proclaimed, and the name of the place designates it as Christian. The “successful”
head of these institutions, may be indistinguishable from any CEO, any
president, or any Chicken Man, because a degraded form of humanity – the
culturally well-adjusted – are identified with success. On the other hand, it
would be clear sacrilege if the president of Temple University or Japanese xenophobes
would foist their ideas, justify their crimes, or promote their racism in the
name of Jesus. So maybe the most
hopeless degradation of humanity is the Christian leader who would exploit and
abuse in the name of success, so as to profane the name of Christ.
 My ongoing conversation with Jason as to our consistent discovery of “sickos in charge” led to the title and provoked this meditation.