Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Honor and Responsibility

It never stops amazing me how this country regards honor and honesty. What a stark contrast our system is to the Far East. When a company here is heading for bankruptcy the CEO and chief executives quickly cash in, give themselves huge bonuses and then let ordinary investors and the company’s workers suffer. Only occasionally are they made responsible when the fraud is too obvious and would backfire politically, such as in the case of Enron. Even in that sad saga there was a movement to protect Kenneth Lay’s criminally amassed fortune after his death, so that his heirs wouldn’t suffer. The Bible talks about people being punished to the third and fourth generation for someone’s grave sins, but our fundamentalists seem to have forgotten that part, although in other issues they seem to take the book at face value.

Japan presents a completely opposite philosophy and way of life. Honor is to be preserved at any cost, even if it means committing a hara-kiri (seppuku), a ritual painful suicide by disembowelment. When Japan’s real estate values collapsed in the 1990s, together with the stock market, many people no longer could afford the high mortgages they had taken during what seemed like an unstoppable economic rise. Rather than following what our country would have done in that situation, Japanese banks realized that foreclosures would have meant shame and loss of face to the borrower and decided, at least in many cases, to absorb the loss.

Here it is customary never to take blame for failure. Whether a company, an arts organization or just an individual, we seem to have a need for finger pointing and finding a scapegoat. Just think of the disastrous handling of hurricane Katrina’s aftermath: nobody admitted to be at fault and the head of FEMA, who was forced to resign following a public outcry, was soon given another important position. In China where toxic chemical, benzene, accidentally was spilled into a river near Harbin and millions of people went without water for many days, the official whose responsibility was to oversee environmental issues ended up taking his own life, in spite of the government wanting to blame the country’s biggest oil company for the accident. Honor is highly respected in that country, too, in spite of the communist system which usually breeds corruption, and one of the most severe punishments, short of a long prison sentence or death penalty, is a public admission of wrongdoing and thus casting shame on the individual.

Wouldn’t it be great if the president took the responsibility of all the mayhem following the invasion of Iraq, even though it is obvious the plans were concocted by others in his administration? We rightfully accuse Hitler of WWII and the Holocaust, and yet his role was probably to be a figurehead and get people into a frenzy with his oratory skills. He wouldn’t have been intelligent enough to have developed a detailed plan to systematically murder millions of Jews and other unwanted in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. Stalin, on the other hand, distrusted even his closest people, and the mass murders in the Soviet Union were his planning, although with the help of other shameless madmen. Same is probably true with Mao in China, who of all the dictators had the most countrymen killed. How would we view Hitler today if England and the Soviet Union had to surrender and Nazi Germany would have emerged victorious? After all, our country had a strange love affair with him; a lot of people admired him as modern day Ceasar, as evident on the New York Times’ coverage of the opening of the Berlin Olympics. A wave of anti-Semitism had spread over the U.S. and very few would have had the courage to have brought up the fate of Europe’s Jews. We only joined the war after the Japanese bombed our naval base in Pearl Harbor, and Germany declared war against us four days later. In France, which was divided into the Occupied Territory and Vichy France, we had rushed to send an ambassador to the latter, thus seemingly giving our blessing to Germany’s actions.

Closer to home, many arts organizations here are presently fighting for their lives, with increased expenses and decreased audiences. Multi-million dollar deficits are more the norm than an exception. Of course, the people in charge have to take responsibility, which most do honorably, resigning and giving others a chance to improve matters. However, there are cases where a person holds on, in spite of pleas and clear handwriting on the wall. These are the art world’s 'little hitlers' who insist on staying in power even when their world is collapsing. After all, Berlin was but a pile of rubble before the F├╝hrer and his mistress ended their lives in a bunker.