A great deal of commentary and comments has been generated which compares the horrendous situation in Japan to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Observers note that while New Orleans residents—and even police officers—took disaster’s opportunity to loot businesses and homes, the Japanese survivors of the 9.0 earthquake and the resultant tsunami have absolutely abstained from such behavior. People who know far more about Japan than I have concluded that the absence of such behavior is due to Japan’s singular, nearly undiluted culture—a thousand-year long tradition in which honor is the only thing one has and the loss of which is the greatest loss imaginable.
This makes sense. After all, most material things that are lost can be accrued again relatively quickly while one is still living. Lost honor, however, is very tough to regain and is, sometimes, gone forever.
Some of the comments have bordered on the racialist—that the Japanese don’t loot because it’s not in their racial make-up and that others—namely blacks—do so because it is part of our racial make-up. Leaving aside the insult, I think the difference goes deeper than that, even deeper than the concept of lost honor. There’s something that the Japanese understand which all too many black and other Americans used to understand but now do not: that what one does in public and how one treats his/her neighbor(s) affects not only the individuals involved but also the entire community. This concept applies to local communities and to the larger community; the nation. Not understanding that is the downside of individualism. (Of course, honor-shame cultures have their downsides as well; Japan has a very high rate of suicide.)
I submit that Katrina’s New Orleans was a manifestation of a people—namely black people—who have voluntarily given up their honor and their sense of shame. They have abandoned themselves.
Black Americans—specifically, the descendants of American slavery--are the most American of Americans; I said this before and I’m certainly not the first to make this observation. Unlike all other immigrants to America, our ancestors were forcibly cut off from all of the totems of their various West African tribes: names, languages, family structures, belief systems. These things have buoyed all other ethnic groups—including recent African immigrants—in their sojourn to this country and all of them had the choice to hold onto the elements of their cultures that fit into the American ideal and discard those which were incompatible. American slaves were granted no such luxury. Our ancestors were emptied of their identities and re-created in the image of what America had for them. And, up until roughly fifty years ago, much of that image was molded by oppression and scorn.
However, most black Americans held on tightly to the universal totems of personal and communal honor: love of God, family, love of community, industriousness, self-reliance--all of which also flow and follow from America’s founding document. (That America strayed away from those principles with respect to black Americans isn’t the point, that those principles even existed is. And, with those concrete principles in hand, black Americans were able to point to them and say to other Americans, “live up to your—to our-- principles.”)
We may stem from Africa, but we are not of Africa—not even me. Our character and (sub)culture are wholly American and, largely, our American ancestors fashioned these for themselves--appropriating most of the good things which America had to offer and which largely insulated them from the bad. That is the inheritance which all too many of us have repudiated.
What we saw in New Orleans after Katrina was a microcosm of the character disintegration of this most American of Americans. It wasn’t born of DNA nor of the historical effects of slavery; it was born of the wholesale abandonment of a character tried and refined by fire and of the principles which held black Americans together in prior times of adversity.
If mother and father don’t love child enough to at least try to create the most tried and true environment for the nurturing of that child, it follows that neither mother, nor father, nor child will love and respect neighbors or community. We declined en masse the prescriptions and proscriptions of God regarding the family and allowed government to usurp the place of the head of the family--the husband/father/leader/protector. We abandoned the identity which our forebears shaped for us and put chaos in its place. And when disaster strikes, it’s every man and woman for self. Multiply that times a few million.
In short, the average Japanese person loves his (Japanese) neighbor and does not covet that which belongs to that neighbor. It’s part of their culture—their belief system. And they’ve held to that system without Judaism or Christianity being a significant part of their society. They know who they are and from whence they’ve come.
When are we going to remember who we are?