Nov 21, 2008

Book Rant: Samuel Huntington is Wrong

Given that I'm taking the U.S. Foreign Service Exam in February, I've been devouring political science books for the past two months. Recently, I held my nose and picked up The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington. I read Huntington's original article in Foreign Affairs back in university, and found him to be a deplorable xenophobe. Nevertheless, he is widely quoted, refuted, and talked about, so reading what he had to say was important for my autodiactic endeavors.

To sum up Huntington's argument: The principal divisions in the world are now among so-called "civilizations." Huntinton names seven major ones- Western, Latin American, Orthodox, Islamic, Hindu, Chinese, and Japanese. He also identifies separate African and Buddhist civilizations, but does not regard them as of major importance. These divisions, says Huntington, will define the chief source of conflicts after the Cold War. The violence and competition of the future will mainly come from competition between Western, Chinese, and Islamic civilizations.

Back when I was a student of political science, I found his divisions to be curious and unecessary. Now that I've lived for over two years in another "civilization," I find his divisions to be not only odd, but actually destructive. Civilizations do not have clear-cut borders, there are divisions within civilizations, and culture is more changeable than he imagines.

To be fair, Huntington does have a point when he says that culture matters. Culture is important, and must be taken into account to an extent. However, Huntington seems to think that culture is both immutable and overpowers all other concerns. Japan in particular, I think, offers a nice refutation of Huntington's views.

A bit over one hundred fifty years ago, the spot at which I'm now sitting was a rural patch in a closed, feudal state. The U.S. and Europe had factories, industry, democracy, liberal economic systems, railroads and steam engines in the 1860s. Japan didn't. Japan had rice fields, swords, and a system of medieval patronage wherein the Shogunate hoped to keep the social order frozen in time. Had Samuel Huntington been around then, he would have written off Japan with the same sort of dismissal that he gave to Africa and Latin America.

Then, that whole culture was scrapped. The Meiji Restoration is really, really mind blowing when you think about it. The whole medieval system was scrapped, the entire country was industrialized, and the whole culture was overhauled. Of course, there were members of the samurai class who resisted, but the modernizers carried the day. The modernizers of the Meiji Restoration didn't want Japan to be a backwater, didn't want it to be controlled the way China was being controlled, and wanted to create a globally competitive nation. And they did, much to the peril of China and Korea. As awful as some of the things that Imperial Japan did, it is worth emphasizing that modernizers within Japanese society determined that economic prosperity, national security, and global competitiveness were more important than conservative notions of cultural identity.

This all happened again at the end of WWII. This time, the emperor system revealed itself to be an inefficient, dangerous, and unsuccessful model in the twentieth century. From what I've read, it seems that the American forces were extremely surprised with how little resistance and hostility they encountered when they came in and began the process of democratizing Japan. The reason for this was that modernizers within the society saw clearly that the prevailing cultural system had failed. Cultural systems, like economic systems, have to be accountable to their populations. They have to retain legitimacy, otherwise you get things like the Meiji Restoration and postwar Japan. Culture is not the unchangeable and implacable roadblock to global accord that Huntington imagines. It is something that can be altered, destroyed, upgraded and improved by determined liberals.

There will always be conservatives like Huntington who cling to antiquated notions of culture and declare them to be a fundamental truth. But, the fact of the matter is that Western society now is radically different from Western society even fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Now, gay people can be happily married in countries like Canada and Spain. China is no longer really communist. Here in Japan, the generation gap is gaping. Huntington's notions do not stand up to the dynamism of the world today, where economic and technological trends chip away at old notions.

Some years ago, I read an interview with Marjane Satrapi in Salon. At the end of the interview she said something to the reporter that I thought nicely summed up their interaction and conversation. Speaking of the Iranian regime and the Bush administration she said that "The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same."

Satrapi's comment, while a little on the pithy side, accurately illustrates how liberal-minded, modern-minded and internationally people can relate to each other, especially when governments do not foster a mood of international cooperation or accord. Her insights are especially interesting given that she's from Iran.

Anyway, I'm glad I got Huntington out of the way. There's only so much of his doomsaying and xenophobia I could take. I'm reading Thomas Friedman now, and he's sort of obnoxious in the other direction, what with incessantly declaring how flat the world is and all. But, he's a nice antidote to Huntington's backward-looking cultural myopia.

Nov 13, 2008

xkcd: Font of Geographical Profundity

I completely identify with this. Even more so because I live in "The East" yet I'm from the American west coast (which of course is east of here).

I also read somewhere that in Japan "the West" traditionally meant China.

Nov 12, 2008


I've been most successful as a teacher when I've stopped teaching. I know that sounds like some stereotypically "Zen" thing to say or whatnot, but it's true.

People don't learn English (or any language) to do grammar drills or rote practices. Those things are, at best, a necessary burden. At worst such blunt, direct means serve as dangerous demotivators. Language is communication. It is one human talking to another. It is not grammar or vocabulary. Grammar and vocabulary are tools that humans make use of in order to make communication better and more specific. They are means to a universal end.

One of the best ways to teach new language items is to expose students to the meaning and feeling behind them, to show them that there is life and verve in words and structure. I've started telling students that "grammar has feeling," and they tend to look at me oddly, but it's true. Consider the examples-

"Having done that task, I will do my homework."


"I'll do my homework when I'm done."

Tell me: which one sounds like something voiced by a normal schoolkid, and which one sounds like a precocious little poindexter said it? There really is a lot of feeling conveyed grammar, and it's cool to see when students realize that.

To say that I've taught best when I've stopped teaching, then, is to say that I know that I impart the emotional character and feeling of language best on students when they see me as an approachable fellow human rather who happens to be knowledgeable about a particular subject (English) rather than as a teacher. I've been least successful when I've tried to use my supposed authority to pound and drill language into other people's heads. When I've been the most honest with students, the most friendly, and the most genuine, I've also been the most successful as a source of English.

Funny, that.

Nov 5, 2008

Upon the Occasion of the Election of Barack Obama

(Every so often I just want to use really flowery language. Today was one of those days.)

I woke up this morning, the morning of November 5th, crawled off of my futon, and began to check election results. The polls hadn't closed yet, and the various news sites were just flurries of speculation and unreliable exit polls. As I write this now, MSNBC has called Pennsylvania for Obama, and the New York Times, though not willing to make the same definite pronouncement, shows Obama in the lead in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. This election is over, and Obama has won.

My students, throughout the election, have had all manner of questions for me about it. Almost all of them know that I majored in Political Science, and when asked directly about my political beliefs I am honest with them. There are two questions that they've asked me at the start of conversations: Whom I support (Obama) and why do I support him. The answer to that second question is a bit more complicated. (I always try to turn the conversation around and ask them about the Japanese government as well. Most often, students lead in with a laugh about how the new PM, Taro Aso, is a huge otaku.)

Why do I support Obama? Why am I filled with glee and buzz as I'm reloading news sites in the other tabs on my browsers? I want the answer to be something more substantive and well thought-out than "because he's a Democrat." I am a Democrat, and a liberal one at that. But, I want my opinions to come from reason and discernment rather than an emotional sense of partisanship.

Why do I support Obama? One of the biggest reasons, is seeing how positively my students talk about him. I've seen several Japanese people smile and speak approvingly of the Democratic candidate, and what he represents about the U.S. One of Obama's greatest strengths (and perhaps a huge stumbling block to his presidency) is that he is a symbol as well as a man. This will undoubtably lead to a certain amount of disappointment from people who see him as the Second Coming, but this rare asset is also something that can help us (that is, the U.S.A.) in our dealings abroad.

Obama, as a symbol and an icon, shows two things to an international audience like my students. First, he is an obvious break with George W. Bush. The world at large has not been impressed with the current president, and Bush has done obvious harm with regards to our reputation and image in other countries. It is profoundly important that other countries like us. Even admire us. We are a military superpower, the biggest economy in the world, a mitigator of international disputes, holder of the most important currency on earth, and all-around superpower. With all of that ability and responsiblity comes a whole host of unique problems. We are also used as a scapegoat by ideological elites in less-well off countries, employed as a symbol by ideologues (like Hugo Chavez) who want to define themselves against us, and an obvious target for those who would seek to violently restructure civilization, such as Bin Laden and others like him.

To perform these responsibilities and combat these challenges we need legitimacy. Not only do the leaders of other countries have to agree with out official policies, but peoples in other places need to be comfortable with, say, American troops stationed within their borders and American diplomats and aide workers working on solutions to local problems. If we do not have support from the populace, if American troops, aide workers, etc., are seen as objects worthy of protest (protest which can potentially become violent) rather than as part of a solution, then our tasks abroad become much, much more difficult. George W. Bush has eroded that essential legitimacy, and Barack Obama, I hope, can restore it.

I have high hopes for Obama because people such as my students know that he is a profoundly different man than the current president. Not only in terms of his party and his race, but also in temperment and character. At one time I would have dismissed such things as emotional and unimportant, I would have only cared how a politican voted and decided on certain issues. Now, though, I can see how Obama's bearing has already benefited us a little in terms of burnishing our image. Hopefully, that trend will continue.

The second major way that the U.S. can benefit from Obama as a symbol is that he shows how a civilization can transform itself. Much has already been said about how the elction of Obama is the culmination of years of work regarding race relations in America. This is true, though racism and racial divisions will not vanish with his presidency. I do think, though, that it is extremely wonderful to see that a democratic, industrialized, economically liberal country can indeed actively move past divisions that were once seen as immobile and immutable.

Yesterday I was talking with a Japanese coworker of mine about Japanese attitudes towards Chinese. My coworker, who has traveled abroad extensively and lived in China as a child, mentioned that she feels odd when students say things that spring from obvious prejudice. She even went so far as to say that she herself even feels the pull of that prejudice, a whole array of social emotions that pulled her away from her better reason and nature. Obama, though, shows that one of the gifts of modernity is that it can help us pull away from ugly old tribalisms, and that divisions such as the one my coworker described need not be permanent. Through Obama the U.S. can show the world that such liberalization is possible and desirable.

I know that Obama's presidency will be as flawed as any other, and that his halo will undoubtably dim when his administration ends in (hopefully) eight years. However, right now, just for a moment, I'm delighting in a moment in history where a man who has become symbol of liberalism has acheived the presidency of the most powerful country on earth. The New York Times has called Pennsylvania for Obama. Ohio and Florida are still blue. Slate has just called the election. The world at large, I think, is looking on appreciatively.