One hesitates to harp on platitudes at such an awful moment for the people of northern Japan, when so many thousands of people have been killed in the deadly earthquake/tsunami, when we all watch in horror as trucks, fishing smacks and even houses float away and the people in the area are threatened by nuclear reactor meltdown and radiation sickness. However, the human being is a narrative-seeking creature and we seek to reframe and reframe events even before they’ve finished eventing. So I will comment a bit on the comments, even as my heart thinks of Japan and its pain.
There are many issues here to wring hands over, one of the most high profile of which is the future of nuclear power. The disaster will likely set back the acceptance of this kind of energy creation all over the world, even though that would mean a continued reliance on fossil fuels that are not only contributing to global warming but also have their own safety issues and numerous catastrophes. Oil rig explosions and coal mine collapses don’t threaten thousands of people with thyroid cancer all at once, but cumulatively you could say that their effect is more insidious and more deadly. Last weekend, Slate offered a smart assessment of what might happen if we turn our backs on nuclear power. Unfortunately, the author wasn’t prudent enough to wait a few days to see whether some reactors in Japan might actually prang before assessing the situation. By the next day, his comments were already covered in cobwebs as the Fukushima Daiichi plant started leaking radiation. One reactor saw three backup cooling systems fail and its rods become dangerously exposed. By Wednesday, the U.S. government was telling Americans to stay 50 miles away from the plant.
There are lots of enthusiasts saying that with prudent policy (and the foresight not to build nuclear reactors on fault lines) then nuclear power still offers us the best way out of this hot house orchid environment we’re creating. But you’d also have to argue that it requires the right kind of oversight and regulation and the full confidence of people in a strong government. So for that reason, I’m still skeptical. Sure, levees work against floods, but as the people of New Orleans would tell you, they’re only as good as the bureaucracies that keep them up to date. Tight-fistedness over the expense for a decent levee system and jurisdiction arguments over emergency response led to the New Orleans catastrophe. Meanwhile, we could hardly trust a free market to take care of safety. In 2010, corporate cost cutting, arrogance and a past contempt for safety regulations at BP offered the backdrop for the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Twenty-one concrete stabilizers are great. Six are cheaper. That ought to be a sobering thought to free-market fundamentalists. Yet nothing sobers people drunk on ideology. Not even a plate of crow.
Japan’s government has also become the news. Supposedly, the island is run by a techocrats, not politicians. Who knew? Of course, you should have known, America, because you have 47,000 troops there and have helped run the place, at least militarily, since 1945. Though we didn’t exactly colonize Japan, the American influence on political life there is hard to ignore. America’s legacy, the article says, is a defanged political class in Japan, which has been led instead by integrated business and bureaucracy. As those sectors wane, no powerful political leadership apparatus has been built in their stead. The New York Times article is fascinating for bringing this up, but it also raises troubling political science questions about what leadership means. What the article seems to tacitly ask for is a grandstanding politician in Japan to mug in front of the cameras to tell people they are going to be all right. But I wonder to what extent that kind of leadership is the invention of the media, especially a cult-of-personality media like the kind we have here in the West. If I were in northern Japan right now, I’d want knowledgeable local leaders telling me the truth, dispensing facts and potassium iodide tablets and not lying to me about the real nuclear threat. The article also posits that Japan might benefit from a strong opposition party making political hay out of the catastrophe to offer accountability. But the Japanese, because of their cultural bias against (and, oddly, their subjugation by) a two-party country, don’t really have or want two strong parties of their own.
It reminds me again of Katrina. There are people who are still angry that that horrible turn of events in the weather was politicized. (Would Democrats have blamed Noah for the flood?) But if you have ever worked for the government, you know that the tragedy in the gulf was indeed a government failure–a small government failure, that is. You might see a power vacuum in Japan. But was it worse than the one we saw in New Orleans, where citizens in the richest country on earth were left dying in a parking lot for the whole world to see on CNN?
I wanted to send money to Japan, of course, but my favored organization, Doctors Without Borders, was not earmarking for the catastrophe. I wondered why and Slate again offered me some idea: Japan is too rich. The money earmarked for the tsunami might not be used. But it would be restricted and not redeployed, which means it sits in Japan and does nothing. And then if Turkey was ravaged by an earthquake next week, well … tough titty for Turkey.
I might anyway, just because I feel helpless and hurt for this country, which I visited last year and loved. Helplessness is probably part of the reason we tell stories and overanalyze. Just one of the ways we cope.