Green Tea Among Snow-Covered Mountains

Twenty years ago, I lived in a small town in the mountains of central Japan, where, through a nationally-administered educational program called JET, I was employed teaching English in the local middle school. I was in my mid-20s, and off on a great exotic adventure – a romantic one too, as through some luck and ingenuity I had managed to find a way to bring with me a certain young lady of whom I was quite fond. It was not only my first time living in a foreign land, but, as a child of the Great American Suburbs, also my first time living in the countryside anywhere. It was, as small towns tend to be, the sort of place where not only does everybody know everybody, but everybody is vaguely related to everybody as well – there were a handful of local surnames that I’d guess between them hung on about three-quarters of the people there. The local barber had, in his younger days, been a sailor on a a cargo ship and had come home with a Filipina wife, but other than her, my young lady and I were the only non-Japanese there. As one can imagine, we made quite an impression on the place, as it did also on us.

Japanese schools work differently from American schools in a few important ways. Among them is that in America, students shuttle around between classrooms all day, while in Japan, students stay at the same desk while, every class period, different teachers come in for each of their various classes. This is why there are no lockers in Japanese schools – students there simply keep everything at the desk at which they sit all day, every day. It is also why the common American phenomenon of a teacher taking over a certain classroom as their own personal fiefdom and storing all of their stuff in its desk never happens in Japan. Because of this, teachers in Japan spend a lot more time at their desks in the staff room, which is where they come between classes and during periods in which they have nothing scheduled, to grade papers, plan lessons, or relax a bit.

My own desk in the staff room was nose-to-nose with that of Yukari-san, the school’s office lady. Office lady (OL for short) is a job that doesn’t exist in America, or even in the West as a whole, but is a fixture of Asian business settings. It is, in truth, a job that the egalitarian feminist sentiments of the modern West would not permit to exist here. The function of OLs is simply to make the office comfortable and comforting. Yes, they often do some minor functional tasks like making copies or shuttling papers from one office to the next. But the main things that they do during their workdays are to make tea (oh, the endless cups of tea consumed in Japanese offices!), to ensure that the electric hot water kettles that office workers use for instant ramen consumed at their desks are full, to offer cookies and snacks to those too busy even for ramen, to greet guests, to be pleasant, to look nice. Most of them are attractive young women who are expected to, and do, quit after a few years when they get married. Most, in corporate settings, wear smart-looking uniforms – universally featuring skirts, not pants – and pretty but businesslike high heels. They make offices – in which Japanese workers spend far more time than their American counterparts – a more warm and welcoming place.

Yukari-san was not in her 20s, and though she had obviously been quite pretty in her younger days, age and care had faded her looks. She wore no uniform, but came to work in the nicest clothes that her modest circumstances would allow. Hers was not the “Pretty Young Thing” approach to making the office a brighter place, but a motherly one. Quite literally, in fact, as two of her three daughters were students at the middle school (the third and oldest had just moved on to high school, which, as is common in the countryside, was farther off and shared by two or three nearby towns). She had been a widow about ten years, her husband having been killed in a wintertime wreck on one of the twisty, narrow roads that led out to the highway. She had never graduated high school, had no marketable skills, and after the accident had been left with three young children and enough money from savings and life insurance to get by for perhaps a few months.

In a small place like that, word gets around fast. The town, as a whole, made up its mind to do something to help her. Meetings were held at town hall. The mayor got involved. It was decided that a job would be found for her, marketable skills or not. Budgets were adjusted, and a modest sum per year was come up with. The Board of Education was consulted; suddenly there was an opening for an OL at the middle school, and only one candidate was ever considered for it.

In the West, the answer would have been to send Yukari-san to the welfare office, and to hurl her into the void of those who become lifetime wards of the system. She would be left to shuffle through the dehumanizing bureaucracy of the welfare state, filling out forms in dreary government offices, and then to return home to sit on the couch in front of a television set, getting fat on EBT-provided, high fructose corn syrup-laden junk foods, until diabetes or hypertension took her to an early grave. Or perhaps, as has become so common in America, someone would clue her in on how to get an easy prescription for opioid painkillers, and they would slowly consume her until, inevitably – by choice or by accident – the inevitable happened. But that is not how small-town Japan works. They find a way to take care of their own, and not just by giving them free processed junk food and a shabby Section 8 apartment. They came up with a way for Yukari-san to continue to be a useful member of the community, to have a purpose in life, to have a reason to get off the couch, to have pride in every bit of money that she was paid.

For Yukari-san, the job was perfect. She wasn’t well-educated, but she could make tea and snacks and photocopies and she could keep electric kettles full. The position allowed her to keep an eye on her daughters – the elementary school and the middle school were separated only by their shared baseball field, which meant that she would be near them all the way from when they began kindergarten to when they were teenagers headed off to high school. The pay was not lavish, but for getting by in a small town it was adequate, and since the staff in Japanese schools eat the same meals that students do, a few meals a week for both herself and her daughters were had at no charge. And most important of all, she could hold her head high with self-respect and say that she earned her keep.

Was that really quite true? Was the service she provided worth what the town was paying her in cold economic terms? Most certainly not. But despite the protestations of Ayn Rand, not all societal good is measurable that way. Was it cruel to make her work for her money instead of simply handing it to her and asking for nothing in return? Bleeding hearts would insist that it was, but it never seemed that Yukari-san felt that way. She didn’t feel demeaned – either by feminist sensibilities telling her that the job was beneath her or by a sense of entitlement telling her that she was owed something for nothing. She was only grateful that her community had found a way to take care of her, and she was equally grateful that she could contribute something back to it.

And as for me, I was simply happy to have a hot cup of green tea waiting for me whenever I came back from teaching a class. To this day, I can’t drink any without thinking of Yukari-san. The memories – of looking out at snow-covered mountains beyond the school windows while warming my hands over a steaming cup – are faded, but surrounded by a glow of distant happiness. By helping to create them, Yukari-san added something of value to my life that I feel even all these years later, in ways that are beyond the capability of economists to quantify.

And, though she was never a teacher, she did manage to provide me with a lesson in how a community can best take care of its needy.

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Dump Capitalism

The time has come for traditionalists and reactionaries of every stripe to break up with capitalism.

I chose the term “break up with” carefully, because what it implies is an emotional separation. This is precisely what is needed, because, especially for those of us who came to traditionalism and reaction from conservatism or libertarianism, there is a strong residual emotional attachment to capitalism. Even the word itself is evocative. Those of us old enough to remember the Cold War remember when it was “Capitalism vs. Communism”; in which the word “capitalism” stood in for the concept of all manner of liberties: freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of commerce, and freedom to not be dragged away in the middle of the night by secret police, tried in secret courts, and left to rot forever in secret prisons. We remember when it stood for faith in God, for yeoman republican virtues, for tradition, for Mom and apple pie. It was crude and inaccurate to lump those concepts together under the umbrella of that one word (just as it is to do so with the word “democracy” now), but anyone who came of age between the late 1940s and the late 1980s has had the association forever implanted upon their consciousness.

Yet times have changed. The Cold War is long over, and alliances have shifted. As they have, it has become possible to recognize that the mythos of capitalism being an acceptable stand-in for these ideas was always at best a bad analogy, and at worst it was a lie that served the selfish purposes of those who never truly believed in any of the ideals with which they gladly claimed association.

This becomes more undeniable every day, and yet, when someone speaks critically of capitalism, we still instinctively cringe. There is past baggage that is difficult to ignore – mental images of Khruschev or Castro shouting from a balcony; of greasy-haired hippies or of balaclava-wearing Occupy protesters smashing windows. Certainly, there’s a lot to recoil from in those images. And yet, we must overcome instinctive emotionality if we are to analyze the present situation rationally (And this, of course, is critical, for if there is one thing that reactionaries cannot afford to indulge in now, it is self-deception).

I’ve long said that the road to reaction starts with conceding some points to the left (because without doing so, one cannot move past mainstream conservatism, which papers over deep contradictions in its ideology with massive amounts of self-deception). So let us now concede that there are some points regarding capitalism about which the left was correct all along.

The first is that capitalism is inherently amoral. Not immoral, mind you, but amoral. And why wouldn’t it be? The purpose of capitalism is, fundamentally, to generate profits, not to propagate moral teachings. It is in acceptance of this fact that we may distinguish the difference between the proper reaction to capitalism of traditionalists vs. that of the left. The left is angry at capitalism for not being moralistic. They expect it to be, they are bitterly disappointed when it is not, and they loudly insist that it either become so (only in support of their particular morality, of course) or be destroyed and replaced by an economic system that is. This is insensible. Why would a reasonable person be angry at something for it being what it was designed to be and doing what it was designed to do, instead of being and doing some other thing? Is it reasonable for me to be angry at my toaster because I can’t browse the internet on it, or at my cat because it doesn’t fly? Of course not – these do what they are supposed to do, and I should expect them to do those things instead of other things. Shall I react by insisting that someone create an internet-capable toaster, or by trying to strap wings to my cat? How unreasonable that would be; how stubborn in refusal to accept the nature of things!

Yet this all implies understanding of what capitalist enterprises are, not trust in them. I am not angry at a shark because it swims in the ocean and bites things. That’s just what sharks do. If I am swimming in the ocean and a shark bites me, there is no point in being angry at the shark; it’s not being evil, it’s just being a shark. But it is for precisely this reason that I do not trust sharks, nor wish to swim too near them. I do not demonize them, but neither do I lionize them. They may have their place in the world and in the natural order of things, but I am under an obligation to myself to reasonably assess where their proper place is, and isn’t.

What, then, is the moral center of the marketplace? It has none. Here we must acknowledge that there are some (a very few, really) business that do have a genuine moral or ideological center, for better or worse – mostly Hollywood, some (but by no means all) players in the tech industry, and the odd hobby shop or purveyor of chicken sandwiches here are there. But these are rare exceptions. The essentially-universal rule that they are the exception to is this: That the only real principles of capitalist enterprises are their own self-preservation and self-perpetuation. Other than that, they will voice support for, donate relatively small amounts of money to, and make some token gestures (such as accepting a moderate number of Affirmative Action hires into noncritical positions) in the name of whatever cause will ingratiate them with the Establishment. The only time they will take a heartfelt moral stand on anything is when there is an element of self-preservation or self-perpetuation to it – that is what they believe in.

Evidence of this abounds. Let us take the aforementioned capitalist relationship to Communism. Early in the history of the Soviet Union, American capitalists gladly supported the new Bolshevik government any way they could. This was a rational business decision. Russia had been an agricultural backwater before 1917, and the Soviets embarked upon a crash modernization and industrialization program which provided an enormous market for American-built machines to help make that happen. Thus, American businesses gladly conducted commerce with the new Soviet government. The murders of millions of innocent peasants whose only crime was being in the way of “progress”, the destruction of churches and monasteries, the brutal repressions of dissidents – none of this mattered a bit to the American capitalists. The Soviets represented a market, and that was all that was important. It was only in the wake of World War II, when the Soviets had 1) conquered huge swaths of territory, including half of Europe, and denied it to the capitalists as a market, 2) developed atomic weaponry, 3) become obviously expansionistic, and 4) industrialized on their own to the point where they no longer really needed to depend on foreign-built equipment, that capitalists finally began to publicly fret about the horrible, repressive nature of godless Communism. And yet even that was only temporary. The Soviet Union collapsed, of course, yet China remains a Communist country to this day, and one of the most repressive governments in the world. But starting with Nixon’s visit, and really intensifying around the end of the Cold War, China’s status as an existential threat to western capitalists receded, while simultaneously, its potential as as enormous and lucrative market came to the fore. As this happened, capitalist concern for religious freedom and other human rights in China simply seemed to evaporate. If pressed, they may admit that yes, it’s a darn shame, but not anything worth more than a second in which to shrug and say: “That’s life”.

If one good example is temporal, another is geographical. Internet companies, notoriously, give in to the demands of the governments of places in which they do business incessantly (so long as these do not conflict with the demands of the governments of the countries in which they are headquartered). If Pakistan demands censorship or surveillance in support of Islamist theocracy, they get it. If China demands censorship or surveillance in support of Communism, they get it. If Western nations demand censorship or surveillance in support of some or another Politically Correct egalitarian utopian cause, they get it. There is sustained pushback only when the risk is minimal and is outweighed by some public relations benefits.

There is an important lesson in this for both left and right. If the Establishment was, say, virulently anti-homosexual (not in the “look the other way” Victorian sense, but in the Saudi Arabian sense), we would see televised public burnings at the stake of homosexuals that were sponsored by Pepsi, Geico, and Southwest Airlines. Instead, the Establishment is virulently pro-homosexual, so we see “Gay Pride” parades sponsored by the same entities.

Again, they are sharks. They do what it is the nature of sharks to do. The amoral nature of capitalism, other than in the areas of self-preservation or self-perpetuation, is a feature of its system, not a bug.

It is here that a great inherent danger to traditionalists in the drive of capitalism towards self-preservation and self-perpetuation is revealed, because once we move beyond obsolete Cold War-era rhetoric, we can clearly see that the interests of capitalism do not really conform to those of traditionalism. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the area of the rise of consumerism. Consumerism is toxic to faith and tradition, yet it is the lifeblood of capitalism. Let us be clear here – consumerism is not simply the acquisition of the necessities of life, nor even of a few simple harmless luxuries, in the marketplace. Instead, it is the placement of the marketplace not only at the center of public life, but at the center of personal life as well. It is gross overemphasis on the pleasure and status brought by the acquisition of goods. This is a fall into the sin of abandoning chastity, in the sense that the Medievals understood that word. Their understanding of it, which is different from our own, could be best defined as “excessive attachment to worldly pleasures”, of which sex was just one (an important one to be sure, but only one nonetheless). Putting worldly pleasures at the center of life leaves little room for other things, things that are more important and, in the end, more fulfilling – things like faith, family, community, friendship, study, self-improvement, charity, and genuine love. This leads, inevitably, to the loss of these things, or their replacement by shoddy substitutes (e.g. paternalistic big government in place of family, work in place of community, Facebook in place of friends, casual sex in place of genuine love). Consumerism has been a prime contributor to all of this; it has even co-opted the tribal instinct – people now engage in vicious, extended personal attacks on each other based on their tribal loyalties to the corporations whose products they consume: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Playstation, Xbox, AT&T, Verizon, Toyota, and Ford are all tribes to which one may belong, and which one may gain a sense of self-worth by defending from heathens, infidels, and other outsiders.

And the danger exists not only in the form of a deeply unhealthy overemphasis on the desire to buy, but in an equally unhealthy overemphasis on paid work, which represents the means with which to buy. Yes, providing a living for oneself and one’s family is a necessary thing, and doing so instead of expecting others to pay one’s way has a definite honor to it. But sitting in a cubicle and moldering away from 8 to 5 to be able to afford to acquire meaningless possessions that you don’t really need is no healthy society’s idea of the apotheosis of what it means to be a man, and even less of what it means to be a woman. The emptiness of defining oneself, or even measuring personal “success” in life, by one’s “career” is simply horrifying, and every traditionalist or reactionary should be able to discern that at the most casual glance. Yes, a few paid jobs – bold entrepreneur, erudite professor, hard-hitting journalist – may indeed have some element of self-realization or fulfillment to them. But, as women have begun to discover now that reality has collided with the feminist dream, the truth is this: most work sucks. It may be necessary, it may need to be done, it may even give some direction to those who, left to themselves, would not be imaginative enough to have any. But it still sucks. And it is most certainly is not something that should be the measure of a person’s worth or the center of their lives. In more sensible societies, the centers of life are faith, family, and community, with work (and sorry, that’s really all that your “career” is) grudgingly accepted as something necessary to maintaining what is truly important. Capitalism places these priorities exactly backwards, and does so for its own narrow benefit.

If this phenomenon is bad in the West, it is even worse in places like Japan and South Korea. The unsung villain in the demographic collapse of these places is the stealth destruction of the family. I say “stealth destruction” because it is not expressed in high rates of divorce or bastardy, as it is in the West. Instead, men (it is still largely men) are expected to make their workplaces into their ersatz families, and to devote their lives to their employers. Between work itself and constant, effectively mandatory socialization with bosses and coworkers, it’s not unusual at all for men in these places to leave their houses at 7AM and come home at 10 or 11PM, five nights a week. This leaves their wives to effectively be single mothers, and their children to effectively be raised by single mothers. Many there are reaching the entirely rational conclusion that in such an environment, having a family (and especially a large family) is simply not a proposition that can stand up to an objective cost/benefit analysis. For men, the math is especially bad – why have a family who you’ll barely ever see? Children who will effectively view you as a stranger? So they don’t bother, and the family is destroyed, and the nation slowly dies, to meet the needs of a society with the marketplace at its center. Has it made these countries rich? Unquestionably. But at what cost, both for society and the individual?

Throughout the world: How many innocent children have been aborted – sacrificed, in a very real sense, at the altar of Moloch – by women who did it because having a child would “hurt their career”?

It is enough to make a traditional say: If less conspicuous material wealth, less consumerism, less “stuff” in our lives to define who we are both by its acquisition and its possession – if this is the price of a society in which faith, family, and community have regained their proper place at the center of both the personal and public lives of men and women, then so be it!

So, then, what are traditionalists and reactionaries to do? Turn towards Marx, Mao, and Occupy protesters? Nothing of the sort. The proper thing to do is to make a distinction that should have been made ages ago. Much of the problem has to do with the fact that “capitalism” is a word that encompasses so many things that it lacks a usably precise meaning, and this is almost certainly due in part to some intentional obfuscation. To lump the hardworking, blue-collar family man who is trying to make a small business work in with corrupt Wall Street crony capitalists and slick Hollywood marketers is nonsense, but is politically useful for the crony capitalists and their enablers. If they are all one, then an attack on one is an attack on all, and what sort of terrible commie looter would wish to attack our hardworking small businessman? The answer to this muddle is to disaggregate what should logically be disaggregated. Totalism, which is the belief that only the extreme positions are valid, and that a thing must either be celebrated or banned, is a fallacy of Puritanism, either in its religious or leftist/secular humanist guises. For traditionalists and other non-Puritans, a place in between untrammeled corporatist consumerist capitalism and Marx is indeed possible. We can admit of the possibility that one can support the right of free commerce, especially for the humble independent tradesman or small businessman, while still not supporting the right of megacorporations and corrupt bankers to run roughshod over the rest of society, including – especially – by eroding the proper values of a decent society and replacing them with new ones that are conducive to their own narrow interests.

And the right of free commerce really isn’t the same as consumerist, corporatist capitalism. Consider: we have the latter now, but no longer effectively have the former. If a bureaucratic state of infinite reach can tell every baker, florist, and hobby shop owner who they must and cannot do business with, who they must and cannot hire, what they must and cannot compensate their employees with, what they must and cannot accept as payment for services rendered, along with thousands of other regulations covering every minute detail of how their businesses must and cannot be run, then who is really running those businesses? Is it their owners, or are all the decisions of real consequence made by distant, impersonal government functionaries? And if that is the case, then surely, the right of free commerce exists in name only. Lest we forget, large corporations often support these kinds of regulations, for precisely the reasons that: 1) they can absorb the costs of these regulatory burdens far more easily than can small businesses, which gives them an even greater competitive advantage over small competitors than they already had, 2) they are far less likely to have any moral concerns about complying with these dictates, and 3) their wealth and influence means that they can often get exemptions from regulations they find excessively burdensome. Thus is the right of free commerce actually subverted by the crony capitalist.

If we can thus admit that there is a proper bifurcation between the right of free commerce and consumerist, corporatist capitalism; if we can say that the marketplace deserves, and indeed must have, a place in a society, but that the proper place for it is not at a society’s center; if we can agree that merchant values, when applied to and limited to their proper spheres, can bring prosperity, and yet should not and cannot be the controlling values of a decent society; when we transcend Cold War nostalgia and the self-serving deceptions of those who are no true allies of tradition, then it becomes clear that one of the defining characteristics of the traditionalist and reactionary right (and what may be one of the defining points that sets it apart from mainstream conservatism) must be a proper distrust for and skepticism of those forces of cronyism, corruption, consumerism, and corporatism that we may refer to simply as: capitalism.

And so I urge traditionalists: Stand up for the right of free commerce, but dump capitalism!

Another Reason Republicans Are Losers

The recent passing of Baroness Thatcher brought to light another aspect of the Republican Party’s spectacular self-destruction when, a couple of days ago, a British acquaintance asked me if American politics had as strong an element of social class in it as British politics has.

I replied that it does, but the American version is different from the British. In Britain, the political dividing line runs more or less along the lines of the upper class vs. the proles. In America, the Democrat/Republican split has long been broadly expressible as the top and bottom together vs. the middle. The Democrats have, in the post-WWII era (and certainly in the post-Vietnam era) been the party of the social, cultural, educational, and economic elites banded together with the low end of the working class and the entirety of the welfare class; while the Republicans have, in that same time frame, been the party of middle class respectability.

Hey Republicans – guess what happens when you allow your corporatist cronies in big business to destroy the country’s middle class in order to maximize profits and stock prices?