Monday, March 21, 2011

Thoughts about comfort and leaders . . .

Our leaders have so many opportunities to not meet our expectations. And it seems to me that the most remembered presidential failures and successes are the ones that, in the grand scheme of things, matter least.

President Bush reading "The Pet Goat"
We Americans all remember President Bush’s decision to keep reading “The Pet Goat” with an elementary class after being informed of the September 11 attacks, and to fly over the wake of destruction left by Hurricane Katrina, instead of wading into it. Those actions, I think it's fair to say, did not bring great comfort to the American People.

But President Bush also walked out alone into the center of a packed Yankee stadium shortly after the September 11th attacks, which was a terrific message to all of us that the American spirit was undaunted. I don't know about you, but I thought it was very brave of our president.

Our American culture is big on ceremony that masks itself as non-ceremonial action. In times of trouble, we expect our leaders to swing into action, throw balls, get down to the business of leading us through whatever Eve of Destruction we've landed in toward whatever brighter days lies ahead.

We expect leaders to go to whatever part of the country is in trouble and take a good look around. And we take great comfort from our president swinging into Head Cheerleader Mode, giving speeches about how, sure, times are tough, but the tough have gotten going, the American Spirit is undimmed and indomitable, and we, the American People, are going to get through this together.

In my lifetime, America has never had to deal with as destructive and desperate a situation as the current one in Japan. The country's death toll is likely to exceed 18,000; radiation has reached the food chain; the World Bank estimates $235 billion in damages. 

To put  these numbers in perspective:
Though estimates vary, Hurricane Katrina caused $81.2 billion in damages in 2005, according to a widely cited study by the National Hurricane Center. Last year, the costs of natural disasters soared to a worldwide total of $109 billion, three times the total in 2009, according to the United Nations. In 2010, the Haiti quake cost $8 billion, floods in Pakistan $9.5 billion and an 8.8-magnitude quake in Chile $30 billion.
The Japanese people have received high praise for their resiliency amidst this mega-crisis; the government, high praise for the effectiveness of its nuclear disaster plan. But its hard to imagine a more comforting action for the Japanese people than that made last week by Emperor Akihito. And it wasn't brave; it wasn't decisive; and there was nothing "can-do" about it.

To put Emperor Akihito's position into perspective, until 1945, the Japanese Emporer was considered a god, but World War II put an end to that way of thinking. Now, according to the Japanese Constitution, Emperor Akihito is a "symbol of the state and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power."

Last Wednesday, this symbol spoke publicly to his people about his country's crisis, something he has never done in his entire twenty year reign.

The Guardian reported the news this way:

When the emperor of Japan addresses his nation, you know there is a crisis. On 15 August 1945, a week after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hirohito's radio address announcing the surrender of Japan was broadcast across the country. Until last week, however, no event in the country's history was considered traumatic enough for his son, Akihito, to perform a similar task. 
Emporer Akihito (AP photo)
All that changed last Wednesday when the consequences of Japan's biggest-ever recorded earthquake spurred the 77-year-old emperor into action with a televised call for concerted national action. For those old enough to remember Hirohito's Gyokuon-hoso ("Jewel Voice Broadcast"), it was a stark reminder of the gravity of Japan's situation. And in contrast to Hirohito's address, which had been couched in language familiar only to the well-educated and notable for a confusing lack of detail about the surrender itself, Akihito was clear in his message of hope. 
Emperor Akihito spoke simply for about five minutes, saying, among other things:
"I truly hope the victims of the disaster never give up hope, take care of themselves, and live strong for tomorrow. Also, I want all citizens of Japan to remember everyone who has been affected by the devastation, not only today but for a long time afterwards -- and help with the recovery" 
"Currently, the entire nation is putting forth its best effort to save all suffering people. However, under the severe cold weather, evacuees are having a very difficult time because they lack food, water, and energy sources. Also, I am deeply concerned that the current nuclear plant situation is critical. I truly hope that with so many people working together to help, the situation will not worsen." 
"I am deeply impressed to see people who have survived, and are suffering from the biggest disaster, encourage themselves to live for tomorrow. This is so courageous."
Emperor Akihito's words perhaps sound a tad uninspiring to us. There's no cheerleading, energizing, loin-girding rhetoric.

We are such a casual, noisy people -- and long may we remain so. A quiet, heart-felt, five minute speech from a "symbol of the state and the unity of the people" might not bring us much comfort in the face of disaster.

But we are not the Japanese. And, given this rather glaring distinction, this one particularly noisy and casual American found something tremendously moving -- and comforting -- in Emperor Akihito's speech.

1 comment:

  1. I find it moving, is the photo of President Obama where he appears to be examining the oil embedded in the Gulf Coast sand after the explosion last year. With the way everything is happening right now, I can't help wonder what the captain of the Titanic might have said before the ship's final plunge. Something short of a cheer...