Dialogue from Kafka On The Shore

It took another hour to find someone willing to take him as far as Fujigawa. The trucker was a beefy man in his mid-forties, with arms like logs and a jutting belly, who was hauling fresh fish in a refrigerated truck.

“I hope you don’t mind the fish smell,” the driver said.

“Fish are one of Nakata’s favorites,” Nakata replied.

The driver laughed. “You’re a strange one, aren’t you.”

“People tell me that sometimes.”

“I happen to like the strange ones,” the driver said. “People who look normal and live a normal life–they’re the ones you have to watch out for.”

“Is that so?”

“Believe me, that’s how it goes. In my opinion, anyway.”

“Nakata doesn’t have many opinions. Though I do like eel.”

“Well, that’s an opinion. That you like eel.”

“Eel is an opinion?”

“Sure, saying you like eel’s an opinion.”

Thus the two of them drove to Fujigawa. The driver said his name was Hagita.

“So, Mr. Nakata, what do you think about the way the world’s going?” he asked.

“I’m very sorry, I’m not bright, so I have no idea at all about that,” Nakata said.

“Having your own opinion and not being very bright are two different things.”

“But Mr. Hagita, not being very bright means you can’t think about things.”

“But you did say you like eel.”

“Yes, eel is one of Nakata’s favorites.”

“That’s a connection, see?”

“Um.”

“Do you like chicken and egg over rice?”

“Yes, that’s one of Nakata’s favorites too.”

“Well, there’s a connection there, too,” Hagita said. “You build up relationships like that one after another and before you know it you have meaning. The more connections, the deeper the meaning. Doesn’t matter if it’s eel, or rice bowls, or grilled fish, whatever. Get it?”

“No, I still don’t understand. Does food make connections between things?”

“Not just food. Streetcars, the emperor, whatever.”

“But I don’t ride streetcars.”

“That’s fine. Look–what I’m getting at is no matter who or what you’re dealing with, people build up meaning between themselves and the things around them. The important thing is whether this comes about naturally or not. Being bright has nothing to do with it. What matters is that you see things with your own eyes.”

“You’re very bright, Mr. Hagita.”

Hagita let out a loud laugh. “It isn’t a question of intelligence. I’m not all that bright, I just have my own way of thinking. That’s why people get disgusted with me. They accuse me of always bringing up things that are better left alone. If you try to use your head to think about things, people don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

“Nakata still doesn’t understand, but are you saying that there’s a link between liking eel and liking chicken and egg over rice?”

“You could put it that way, I suppose. There’s always going to be a connection between you, Mr. Nakata, and the things you deal with. Just like there’s a connection between eel and rice bowls. And as the web of these connections spreads out, a relationship between you, Mr. Nakata, and capitalists and the proletariat naturally develops.”

“Pro-le-what?”

“The proletariat,” Mr. Hagita said, taking his hands off the steering wheel and making a wide gesture. To Nakata they looked as massive as baseball gloves. “The people who work hard, who earn their bread through the sweat of their brow, those are the proletariat. On the other hand you’ve got your guys who sit on their duffs, not lifting a finger, giving orders to other people and getting a hundred times my salary. Those are your capitalists.”

“I don’t know about people who are capitalists. I’m poor, and I don’t know anybody great like that. The greatest person I know is the Governor of Tokyo. Is the Governor a capitalist?”

“Yeah, I suppose. Governors are more likely to be capitalists’ lapdogs, though.”

“The Governor is a dog?” Nakata remembered the huge black dog who took him to Johnnie Walker’s house, and that ominous figure and the Governor overlapped in his mind.

“The world’s swarming with those kind of dogs. Pawns of the capitalists.”

“Pawns?”

“Like paws, with an ‘n’.”

“Are there any capitalist cats?” Nakata asked.

Hagita burst out laughing. “Boy, you are different, Mr. Nakata! But I like your style. Capitalist cats! That’s a good one. A very unique opinion you have there.”

“Mr. Hagita?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m poor and received a sub city every month from the Governor. Was this the wrong thing to do?”

“How much do you get every month?”

Nakata told him the amount.

Hagita shook his head disgustedly. “Pretty damn hard to get by on so little.”

“That’s not true, because Nakata doesn’t use much money. Besides the sub city, I get money by helping people find their lost cats.”

“No kidding? A professional cat-finder?” Hagita said, impressed. “You’re an amazing guy, I have to say.”

“Actually, I’m able to talk with cats,” Nakata said. “I can understand what they say. That helps me locate the missing ones.”

Hagita nodded. “I wouldn’t put it past you.”

“But not long ago I found out I couldn’t talk with cats anymore. I wonder why.”

“Things change every day, Mr. Nakata. With each new dawn it’s not the same world as the day before. And you’re not the same person you were, either. You get what I’m saying?”

“Yes.”

“Connections change too. Who’s the capitalist, who’s the proletarian. Who’s on the right, who’s on the left. The information revolution, stock options, floating assets, occupational restructuring, multinational corporations–what’s good, what’s bad. Boundaries between things are disappearing all the time. Maybe that’s why you can’t speak to cats anymore.”

“The difference between right and left Nakata understands. This is right, and this is left. Correct?”

“You got it,” Hagita agreed. “That’s all you need to know.”

The last thing they did together was have a meal in a rest area restaurant. Hagita ordered two orders of eel, and when Nakata insisted on paying, to thank him for the ride, the driver shook his head emphatically.

“No way,” he said. “I’d never let you use the pittance they give you for a subsidy to feed me.”

“Much obliged, then. Thank you for such a treat,” Nakata said, happy to accept his kindness.

The North Korea problem isn’t solved

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un just met and signed a deal committing North Korea to nuclear disarmament. Yay! Problem solved!

Except that there’s a long historical precedent of North Korea signing deals just like this one, only to immediately go back on them. Here’s a timeline for some relevant historical context.

1985: North Korea signs Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
1992: North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program! (#1)
1993: North Korea is found to be cheating on its commitments under the NPT
1994: In exchange for US assistance in production of proliferation-free nuclear power plants, North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program! (#2)
1998: North Korea is suspected of having an underground nuclear facility
1998: North Korea launches missile tests over Japan
1999: North Korea signs historic agreement to end missile tests, in exchange for a partial lifting of economic sanctions by the US.
2000: North Korea signs historic agreement to reunify Korea! Nobel Peace Prize is awarded
2002-2003: North Korea admits to having a secret nuclear weapons program, and withdraws from the NPT
2004: North Korea allows an unofficial US delegation to visit its nuclear facilities to display a working nuclear weapon
2005: In exchange for economic and energy assistance, North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program and denuclearize! (#3)
2006: North Korea fires seven ballistic missiles and conducts an underground nuclear test
2006: North Korea declares support for denuclearization of Korean peninsula
2006: North Korea again supports denuclearization of Korean peninsula
2007: In exchange for energy aid from the US, North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program! (#4)
2007: N&S Korea sign agreement on reunification
2009: North Korea issues a statement outlining a plan to weaponize newly separated plutonium
2010: North Korea threatens war with South Korea
2010: North Korea again announces commitment to denuclearize
2011: North Korea announces plan to halt nuclear and missile tests
2012: North Korea announces halt to nuclear program
2013: North Korea announces intentions to conduct more nuclear tests
2014: North Korea test fires 30 short-range rockets, as well as two medium missiles into the Sea of Japan
2015: North Korea offers to halt nuclear tests
2016: North Korea announces that it has detonated a hydrogen bomb
2016: North Korea again announces support for denuclearization
2017: North Korea conducts its sixth nuclear test
2018: Kim Jong Un announces that North Korea will mass produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for deployment
2018: In exchange for the cancellation of US-South Korea military exercises, North Korea, once again, commits to “work toward complete denuclearization on the Korean peninsula”

Maybe this time is really, truly different. But our priors should be informed by history, and history tell us that it’s almost certainly not.

A shameful history

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead moral error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had that luxury.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me

I’ve had a bit of a revolution in my thinking recently. This revolution has consisted of becoming properly acquainted with the horror that is American history.

I am not the type of writer that can inspire emotion with the type of eloquence in the above quote. But it feels atrocious to me that the true nature of American history, which should be appreciated by every American, is not taught in schools, or is taught in a softened and white-washed form. I would like to share a few facts about the history of my country that I wish I had known earlier.

Legal Racism

Naturalization and whiteness

  • From the very beginning of our country’s history, Congress explicitly stated that only white immigrants could become citizens.
  • This stayed in place for over 100 years. In 1922 (Ozawa v. US), a Japanese-American man who had lived in the United States for 20 years was ruled ineligible for naturalization by the US Supreme Court.
  • From the decision: “In all of the naturalization acts from 1790 to 1906 the privilege of naturalization was confined to white persons.” This was used to conclude that Japanese could not be naturalized.
  • In both this case and a subsequent case (US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923), the US Supreme Court specifically ruled that Japanese and Indian people do not count as white, and thus are racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship.
  • Bhagat Singh argued for his status as a white person by pointing to his Brahmin status. He argued that his people were originally the conquerers of the indigenous population of India, thus giving them an equal claim to whiteness.
  • Arguments from Bhagat Singh’s lawyers: Singh had a revulsion to marrying Indian women from the “lower races,” and had expressed a “disdain for inferiors” that characterized him as white.
    • “The high-caste Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the Negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint.”
  • The court decided against the whiteness of high-caste Indians, because “while the invaders seem to have met with more success in the effort to preserve their racial purity, intermarriages did occur producing an intermingling of the two and destroying to a greater or less degree the purity of the “Aryan” blood.”
  • An irony: the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886 with the famous quote…

    “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

    … At this time, only whites had naturalization rights, and the Chinese Exclusion Act had restricted all Chinese immigration to the country four years before.

Oriental exclusion

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, banning Chinese immigration for ten years.
  • In 1892 it was extended for another ten years, with the additions that that all Chinese residents must carry permits, that they could not serve as witnesses in court, and that they weren’t allowed bail.
  • In 1902, it was again renewed, this time with no ending date.
  • In 1913, California prohibited Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning property. Other states followed suit.
  • In 1922, the Cable Act ruled that if an American woman married an Asian, she would lose her citizenship.
  • In 1924, the Oriental Exclusion Act prohibited most immigration from Asia, including foreign-born wives and children of American citizens of Chinese ancestry.
  • In 1929, the National Origins Formula completely barred Asian immigration.
  • In 1952, all federal anti-Asian exclusion laws are finally nullified by the Walter-McCarran Act, allowing for the naturalization of all Asians.

Interracial marriage

  • Laws banning interracial marriage (i.e. marriage between whites and non-whites) were enforced in many states up until 1967… a mere fifty years ago.
  • At least three constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage were introduced in Congress.
  • Quote from a speech given before Congress by a Georgian governor in 1912:
    • No brutality, no infamy, no degradation in all the years of southern slavery, possessed such villainous character and such atrocious qualities as the provision of the laws of Illinois, Massachusetts, and other states which allow the marriage of the negro, Jack Johnson, to a woman of Caucasian strain. [applause]. Gentleman, I offer this resolution … that the States of the Union may have an opportunity to ratify it. …

      Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant to the very principles of Saxon government. It is subversive of social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania.

      … Let us uproot and exterminate now this debasing, ultra-demoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy.

  • Anti-miscegenation laws were deemed constitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1883. The argument was that both races were treated equally, “because whites and blacks were punished in equal measure for breaking the law against interracial marriage and interracial sex.”
  • Idaho banned interracial marriage and sex between black and white people in 1921, even though the state’s population was 99.8% non-black.
  • In 1967, the Supreme Court finally ruled these laws (that were enforced in 17 Southern states – all the former slave states) unconstitutional.
  • It took South Carolina until 1998 and Alabama until 2000 to actually remove the ban on interracial marriage from their Constitutions.
    • In the respective referendums, 38% of voters in South Carolina and 41% of voters in Alabama voted to keep the ban in place.

Racism now

  • A 2018 study found that Republican-appointed judges sentence blacks to 3 more months than similar non-blacks. This is 65% of the baseline racial sentence gap.
    • “These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.”
  • A 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46% think interracial marriage should be illegal, and 14 percent replied “not sure.”
  • A 2007 Gallup poll found that 17% of Americans explicitly disapprove of interracial marriage.
  • Black job applicants without criminal records have the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.
  • If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.

 

There is so much more, and I haven’t even touched the brutality of the branch of US law dedicated to stripping Native Americans of their homes and their lives. Taking into account this disturbing legacy of white supremacy, one wonders how a slogan like “Make America Great Again” could be anything but a dog-whistle for the type of bigotry and hatred that has always been our nation’s past. It also casts the notion of American pride in an ominous light. The only attitude I can summon up thinking about the realities of our country’s past is shame. Is “proud to be an American” a sentiment borne of ignorance, or something more sinister?

 

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine…

Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me