A recent trip to the United States — after a three-year absence — showed me how far the country and its people have deteriorated in a short period of time. Americans are bankrupt. They are bankrupt at every possible level: spiritually, morally, educationally. The country’s economy has deteriorated to the level of a Philippines or a Thailand (and I mean no disrespect to the Philippines or Thailand — I love those places).
Human-to-human communication in the United States has also faltered greatly. People who would rank as the vilest of trolls on any Internet chat room are now on the air as TV and radio hosts, spewing forth hatred and even barefaced lies. These talking heads do this, of course, to make money, but the effect it has on the average listener is nothing short of devastating. It is devastating to a population not educated to think analytically; it is devastating to a people who — above all — need to open up communication with each other, not close it.
Intelligent discussion on American TV and radio has now taken a back seat to a sort of childish one-upmanship. It’s no longer a question of who can thrust and parry their opponent into a corner through the use of beautiful English phrasing and logic; it’s now a question of who can belittle the other with snappy (but rude) one-liners. This has affected the mainstream population in its daily affairs, in that the ordinary people come to believe that this is the way to win an argument. Substance and logic all take a back seat to name-calling.
The worst culprits are the talk radio show hosts. Average America doesn’t know what is involved in becoming a talk show host, but trust me, just about all of these people are no more or less intelligent than you or I. Of course, they keep up on current events better than you or I could: It’s their job. While we are putting in a good eight or ten hours of work each day, these guys are brushing up on current affairs. As a result, it is very difficult to challenge and defeat them in an on-air discussion — especially when they have control of what goes on air. So to call up a talk show host and try to argue a point and win is akin to pushing water up a hill: It can’t be done. I know. I worked as a talk show host for many years.
By the way, another part of the job of being an on-air talent is to keep yourself looking good and in decent physical shape. Guys like Rush Limbaugh are grossly overweight because they are, and have been, abusing drugs or alcohol. There are many examples to prove my point. John Belushi is an easy example that comes to mind.
Thus, in modern America, talk show radio and TV is not about debating the issues of the day. It is a forum for a megalomaniac to make himself or herself look better to an audience that doesn’t know any better, and to belittle opponents in front of other people. This never happens in Japan. It doesn’t happen because the structure of the Japanese language does not lend itself well to interruption when someone is speaking, and also because the Japanese are polite. But I suspect that it never happens in any other country excepting the United States.
This childish behavior is especially damaging to the psyche of the American male — although women seem to be affected by it also (witness so-called “soccer moms”). It seems that winning is everything. Whatever happened to the saying, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game”? I know that this phrase does not apply to today’s American male. The verbal one-upmanship is insidious as it begins to creep into other areas of the American psyche. It becomes contagious and is damaging to civil discourse and civil behavior all around.
Infantile machismo is a definitive trait of today’s American. During my recent visit I witnessed a TV commercial for some sports car. The sales point of the commercial boiled down to this: If you buy this car, then that tells your friends, u2018I’m just a little better than you are.’ How childish American men have become. What kind of man needs to show off his car, and to feel superior to his friends?
Imagine a guy with an average vocabulary and no gift for repartee. What does he do when he has been belittled in public for no real reason? He probably holds it in, until one day when he raises his fists.
In Japan, I have never seen a sports game — especially so-called “pick-up games” — break down into fisticuffs. Have I seen this in America? Have you folks in America seen this? Yes, far too many times (do I even need to ask?). The last time I witnessed it was in California, when a so-called friendly basketball game turned into a hockey game and a bunch of guys started punching it out over some foul. You would have thought their lives depended on the outcome of that game. It was embarrassing. I was out on the court to get some exercise. I didn’t care if we won or lost. I certainly wasn’t interested in getting hurt, or injured, or hit. I walked off.
Americans today have become some of the most childish, self-centered adults I have ever seen.
A recent trip to Crawford, to visit Camp Casey before it really got into full swing, allowed me to see for myself another slice of American life. I had brought my video camera and eight hours of tape. I was going to make a documentary to try to explain to the Japanese public what was going on there in Texas. (Japanese news will rarely show anything critical of a foreign government — especially the government of the United States). I wanted to capture the sights and sounds; the atmosphere of a real American-style anti-war demonstration. I had really hoped that I could make a documentary that would show the Japanese just what the average American is thinking.
When I came back to Japan, I transferred the video tapes to the editing machine and I watched in increasing despair. I’m sure I can get the average Japanese to understand what Americans are all about and what they are thinking. I’m sure that if I ever do finish this documentary (and I’m wondering now if I want to), the Japanese will understand more than they want to understand about America. They will watch it and think: “Americans have gone completely nuts.” I would have to agree.
Cindy Sheehan and her movement are quite understandable. Cindy seems like a level-headed woman with plenty of common sense. It’s the others who have jumped on the bandwagon who seem crazy. Not all of them, of course, but it did seem a bit like a circus full of freaks. And those freaks were fully represented on both sides of the fence.
Even worse than (some of) the anti-war group were the pro-war people — they seemed like they were really crazy. (I only saw six at most — even though the next day’s newspaper reported 250.) I talked to one woman who claimed to have “just arrived from Baghdad.” She was lying. I could pick that out in a second of talking to her. Her English level was that of someone who had been in the United States for ten years. Yet there she was, claiming to have “just arrived.” (Well, okay, I suppose everything is relative, especially in a country where it is now acceptable to out-and-out lie to get what you want.)
There was another guy playing a guitar — or trying to — and singing, “How many ghosts did you make today? Aiding and abetting the enemy, how many ghosts did you make today?” (Bet you a donut he hasn’t a clue as to the meaning of the word u2018abetting’). I suppose a few off-key choruses of this song wouldn’t have been so bad, but this guy went on to play straight for at least six hours in the blazing sun without a break. Perhaps that would explain his behavior — he’s suffering from cooking his brain in the hot sun for too long.
The entire scene, from the anti-war group to the pro-war group to George W. Bush taking a helicopter to avoid those groups to visit a little league game, seemed like a Lewis Carroll story. And I was standing there watching Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen (played by George) and the rest of them scurrying about their business but actually going nowhere.
On top of all that, throw in the local TV news reporters with their perfect teeth, slicked-back blonde hair and make-up caked on thick to cover their wrinkles, who think they are all hot stuff because they report for some local in-the-sticks TV station, and you have a real life horror-show on the Comedy Channel.
But the real-life horrors in today’s America don’t end there. Today’s American is poor, both monetarily and in common sense. In many ways, these two are related. The Japanese save money. Americans don’t. Of course it is common sense to save money. The Japanese save for all the right reasons, but they also save money for special reasons. It’s those special, just-in-case reasons for which the Japanese would always have a nest egg saved.
When I went to the United States this time, I visited a good friend. I’d consider him one of my best friends. I am glad I could visit his place because then I could truly see for myself just how far America has gone downhill. Even though he had little, he was gracious enough to let me stay with him. I was thankful for this as, without his help, I had no way to get around and knew no one else who could help me to do so. But within two minutes of entering his abode, I could see just how poor Middle America has become.
My friend had no money — none. He asked me for twenty dollars for gas. I gave him a hundred. He was happy. I was greatly disappointed, for many reasons. First off, I’m sorry America, but $100 is not that much money to most of the Western world (or China, or Japan). I was disappointed that he would ask me for money. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame him. He has lived all his life in America; he was brought up there. He has been taught that this is now acceptable behavior. But I remember a time when it wasn’t. It is unheard of in Japan (and, I suspect, in all Asian societies).
In Japan, a guest is a guest. A guest in your home — especially one from far away — is to be treated with reverence. It would be completely unthinkable to ask a guest for money (although it is also common sense, in Japan, for the guest to offer to pay — an offer which will certainly be refused).
I know it used to be this way in America. In Japan, honor and respect are much more valuable than money. If you had a guest come to stay in your house in Japan and you had no money, you would borrow money — you would do something — in order to treat your guest with the utmost respect. It is absolutely unheard of to ask a guest for money.
It reminds me of that Chevy Chase movie Vegas Vacation where he and his family visit his wife’s broke family and the brother-in-law says to Chevy, “Would you like a cold one?”
Chevy answers, “Sure!”
To which the brother-in-law replies, “Me too. Got any money?”
That was a joke in a movie released in 1997. It’s not a joke any more in today’s America.
From what I’ve seen, the average 30-year-old college-educated guy in America today is getting paid less than I was paid in 1975 as a part-time commission salesman at Sears Roebuck department store. I have friends who tell me that they are getting six or eight dollars an hour right now. At 40 hours a week, that works out to about $320, less taxes. In 1975 I was getting paid over $1,000 per month after taxes — and those were 1975 dollars. I’m no economist, but it sure comes as no surprise that today’s young American has no money left to save after receiving this paltry income.
When my friend took me around, driving through the city and out to Camp Casey, we stopped at a gasoline stand. Of course I volunteered to pay. He was complaining about the sudden rise in the price of gasoline. Here was where I witnessed just another small item that made me sure that America is headed for third world status, if it is not already there. He was complaining about gasoline at $3 a gallon. I hear that in Atlanta, after Hurricane Katrina, it hit $6 a gallon.
I shook my head and thought, When are these crazy people going to wake up? Apparently it’s good that the USA invaded Iraq to secure oil. Japan has no natural resources. America does. America even has its own oil. Guess what? About seven years ago, the price for a liter of gasoline in Japan was 100 yen (3.78 liters per gallon). The price today is about 125 yen per liter. That means today’s price for a gallon of gasoline in Japan, a nation that produces no oil, is about $4.58 — an increase of 25% over the last seven years. Now, it doesn’t take much of a math whiz to figure out that if the prices at the pumps in America — a nation that produces oil — have doubled in the last few years, there’s something strange going on. How is it possible that Japan’s gasoline prices have just barely inched up over these past few years, at about 3% per year, while USA prices have doubled or more?
Is it just the Iraq war? Or is it the decline of the dollar? Probably a bit of both, but you can definitely be sure of one thing, it is the US government taking advantage of you — regardless of whether you are a Democrat or Republican. And the average American still cheers on the federal monster.
After filling up, we headed back onto the freeway. I looked at the scenery and had a feeling of déjà vu. I thought to myself, Hey! I’ve seen this before. Now where did I see it? Then it came back to me: The road leading to Crawford looked an awful lot like the road leading from Phuket International Airport towards Patong Beach — a nice place, but definitely not a road leading through a world power.
Every once in a while we would pass through some small town — the buildings decayed and shuttered, a shadow of what it once was. And besides the rundown buildings and the empty streets, there was the filth. It was everywhere — everything seemed broken down. Public restrooms reeked as if they’d never been cleaned. Every once in a while I would see a solitary homeless figure — dazed and disheveled — walking by the side of the road. It looked just like some third world nation. You’d never see such poverty in Japan. But that’s today’s United States.
Americans are always boasting about how they are the richest and the freest, etc., etc. But from the eyes of this American son, America’s twilight has fallen. It is getting dark. I cannot see any way out of the disaster you folks are headed for. The problems are too numerous, the needed debate unheard, and the psyche already destroyed.
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has the distinction of being fired from every FM radio station in Tokyo — one of them three times. His first book, Schizophrenic in Japan, is now on sale.