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Sunday, May 23, 2010

COUNTERPOINT

What's a rogue gusher when you never had a cherry tree anyway?


Fingerpointing, dear reader, has been elevated to an art. Halliburton is pointing the finger at BP. Transocean is also pointing the finger at BP. And BP, not to be outdone, is pointing fingers at both Halliburton and Transocean.

In the meantime, enough oil is flowing into the Gulf of Mexico to fill 20,000 10-gallon hats a day, threatening the environment and thousands of livelihoods across an immense area from Texas to Florida and beyond.

Billions of dollars are at stake in what may become the worst ecological disaster in the history of the United States, caused by an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20; and none of the three main players in this disaster wants to be left holding the wrench. They'd blame it on the bossa nova if Hugo Chavez were from Brazil and not Venezuela.

On May 11, the chief executives of the three companies testified at a Congressional hearing of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington, and, I tell you, I have never in my life seen a more flawless performance of the Texas Two-step. Give "The Three Chiefs of the Oil Slick" a bit of mariachi accompaniment, and Broadway here we come!

U.S. President Barack Obama has stated that the American people are not to blame — and that's a relief, because these days they're blamed for just about everything that goes wrong in the world. I am now waiting for rightwing American news commentator Rush Limbaugh to blame Osama bin Laden, who, hailing from Saudi Arabia, would like nothing more than to see the U.S. at the mercy of the Middle East instead of vice versa; and for Sarah Palin to blame the gay community for the spill. After all, everyone knows it was gays who coined the phrase, "Drill, baby, drill."

The "Washington Blame Game" started right there, with George Washington himself, who, as a young man, allegedly took his spanking new hatchet to one of his father's cherry trees. When the old man asked his president-to-be son who did in his tree, it has come down to us that the boy said, "Father, I cannot tell a lie. I did."

Legend has it, too, that Washington Snr. was so stunned by his son's honesty that he forgave him for his hatchet job. But, believe me, there's not a twig of truth to the whole story, all of which, nonetheless, played its fictional part in establishing an early precedent in the new nation's capital: Take the blame for things that didn't happen and deny everything else.

The master of this approach to policy was President Ronald Reagan, who, in the mid-1980s, made it as clear as day that he couldn't remember if he had authorized the proceeds from Iranian arms sales to go to the Contras in Nicaragua. This has come to be known as the Alzheimer's Defense, whereby the individual forgets whether they are responsible for what other people claim they were responsible for. I'm sure that's as clear to you as it was to me a moment ago when I wrote it.

However, it's not only Americans who employ this quasi-medical manoeuvre.

"Waldheimer's Disease" is so called in honor of Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian politician whose memory utterly failed him when he tried to recollect his questionable actions on the Eastern Front in World War II as a squad leader in the Wehrmacht. Two generations of Japanese politicians, along with millions of ordinary Japanese citizens, have similarly suffered from chronic Waldheimer's.

Of course the Japanese are past masters at the politics of nasuritsukeru, or laying the blame on others. Oh, they apologize and they bow; then they bow and apologize again. But, really, no one takes this sort of thing seriously. The apologists . . . uh, I mean, apologizers . . . just stand up straight again and continue to do the very same things they were doing before. It highlights Japanese politicians' philosophy in action: "The absence of change we can believe in."

Then there is the famous "Nakasone 'Nasuritsukeru' Manoeuvre," named after former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who, during interrogations into corruption and insider trading surrounding the Recruit company in 1988-'89, repeatedly claimed, "Kioku ni gozaimasen" ("I do not recall"). The prime minister had a particularly cordial relationship with President Reagan, to the extent that the two leaders were referred to as "Ron-Yasu." Both men entered into not so much a marriage of convenience as "a memory loss of convenience."

The crux of all of this lies in one's understanding of the meaning of the word "responsibility." We have seen how Western politicians and chief executives follow the responsible course of "deny everything." Well, the Japanese don't deny responsibility for indiscretions, failures, or sins of commission. No — they simply spread it around . . . to everyone who was, might have been or is later anywhere near the scene of an indiscretion, failure or wrongdoing. It's like those festivals where people pick up mud and fling it onto anybody nearby.

So, my advice to you, if you want to avoid having to take responsibility in Japan for someone else's mistakes, is: Leave the scene as quickly as you can and make sure to forget that you were ever there in the first place.

This "spreading the mud" started in earnest after the war, thanks to the Emperor not being obliged to take full responsibility for its loss. Instead, all Japanese people alive at the time were made to feel that it was their own fault — which they sincerely did by bowing a few times and promptly forgetting about the whole thing.

I've seen this at close range, too. When my children were attending a Japanese high school, one of the players on the basketball team committed an impropriety. Not only was that hapless lobber made to shave his head in penance, but all of his teammates — innocent of anything save passing a ball to the culprit — were forced to shave their head as well, in what is known as taking rentai sekinin. That means taking "collective responsibility," and once they all demonstrated their tonsorial solidarity, their hair grew back and all was forgiven and duly forgotten.

Mind you, this works in an obverse way as well. When someone accomplishes something significant in Japan, they are expected to deny personal responsibility for the achievement and thank everyone they have ever known for making it possible. So, if a company employee invents a new device, for instance, they immediately credit it to every other company employee, throwing in their kindergarten teacher and a semi-sadistic junior high school baseball coach for good measure. The company, which may stand to make a fortune from the device, will then reward the inventor with an extra month's salary. And, as an added bonus, the company may pat them on the back, saying for all to hear, "Good Japanese."

As for the Gulf of Mexico and "The Three Chiefs of the Oil Slick," I am sure that, once the rigs of war are sorted and the profits start to bubble up again, they will join hands, smile generously, and do a lively Texas Two-step straight out the doors of the nation's courtrooms.

The losers will be the poor people whose lives depend on the sea, and Mother Nature. But, dear reader, the cherry tree never existed, and neither did the oil gushing into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico . . . and don't you forget it.



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