Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The right and cultural sensitivity

Admittedly, the right long ago abandoned any semblance of a workable foreign policy in favor of brash, aggressive, aggrieved nationalism. But their recent freakout over President Obama bowing to the Japanese Emperor is pretty lame, even for them. The major problem seems to be that they think that such a bow is somehow a sign of submission, but this isn't really the case among Japanese. Indeed, it couldn't be. The Japanese Emperor and the U.S. President are of roughly equal rank--they're both heads of state--and in Japan, a bow is a sign of respect that is shared among equals. From my understanding, in fact, Japanese have different bows for different settings, levels of formality, and disparities of rank, though I'm hardly well-versed enough to explain them all.

One could chalk this up to ignorance, but I do think that the right needs to understand the importance of cultural sensitivity in a way they simply do not now. Indeed, many on the right would snigger at such an assertion and complain about political correctness, but this sidesteps the issue. Political correctness involves using language to make it more difficult to discuss and fix social problems, and its use by (usually well-intentioned) left-leaning academics was memorably exploded by David Foster Wallace in Authority and American Usage. But there's a difference between calling the disabled "differently abled" and calling black folks African-American rather than, well, any number of things. The latter is showing respect to the wishes of a community, and the former is condescension in order to make the speaker feel better about him- or herself.

Bowing to the head of state in a country where that is a tradition is an example of respect--of, dare I say, cultural sensitivity. Refusing to do so would be something of an insult, and those who would condemn Obama for something like this are, as always, coming at these issues from a place of extreme nervousness and insecurity rather than strength. Respecting other people and other cultures doesn't diminish America, though refusing to do so would, for it would make us look arrogant and petulant. It doesn't diminish America in any way for the President and the Emperor of Japan to exchange bows. But I suppose it doesn't diminish Washington Times editors for making a silly political point out of it, as they already occupy the bottom of the barrel, as it were.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.