Crossing the T
In the 19th century an expansionary West encountered several types of civilizations. In the mad scramble for Africa, Europeans subjugated a whole continent. Elsewhere, in their desire to despoil the riches of Cathay, Europe divided the southern Chinese seaboard among themselves. In the first decades of the 20th century Europe appeared to reign supreme over a world of subjugated peoples. Indian, African, Malay, Middle Eastern and North Asian. But that superficial picture concealed a world of differences.
One type of reaction to Europe was embodied in the British cartoon which showed a cannibal king dressed in a top hat and a morning coat in a sedan chair to meet a British envoy. It was obvious from the cartoon that the tribal King's efforts at dignity were ironically transformed, in British eyes, to a kind of comical pathos. But on the other side of the world the Japanese, similarly humiliated by the appearance of technologically advanced iron ships on their coast, took a different approach. During the Meiji Era, Japan embarked on the arduous task of stealing the fire from Europe. They sent bright young men in large numbers overseas to learn the best and most advanced technologies of Europe. By 1905 the Japanese had not only evened the score but were in a position to give Imperial Russia a drubbing a Tsushima she would never forget.
Peter Hunt describes what it is like to visit the museum ship Mikasa today. The Japanese equivalent of HMS Victory. Although a ship it is also a memorial to the Admiral who fought it to victory and changed the conception of his country to the world. It was on the Mikasa that Admiral Heihachiro Togo made the turn ("Togo's turn") which "capped the T" and allowed him to annihilate the Russian fleet. In that manuever, about one in seven of Mikasa's men were killed or wounded. But if the Japanese Admiral alone deserved the victory, it is undeniable that Horatio Nelson was with him in spirit on the bridge. Togo had consciously made Nelson his hero. And as he closed the Russian squadron he hoisted a signal taken nearly word-for-word from Nelson's signal at Trafalgar. "The fate of the Empire depends upon this event. Let every man do his utmost." You wouldn't expect Nelson hero-worship of a man who had watched his country humiliated by the British. As Hunt writes:
As a lad Togo had served in the shore batteries at Kagoshima in 1862 when the British Royal Navy had shelled the town and shown up the dying Shogunate as the weak and antiquated power it was. Learning from this humiliation, under the Meji Restoration and the modernization of Japan, Togo had become a prime example of the new paradigm: “imitate and overtake.” Whilst the Japanese Army was modelled first on the French army, then on the Prussian, the Japanese Navy held a true course in the wake of the Royal Navy
But for Togo success was the best revenge. Perhaps in his mind he believed the day would come when Nelson's own navy would raise a salute in honor to his own. And he would attain to it, not by pleading, but the power of his own deeds. This is the fundamental message of Bill Cosby's speaking tours, as described by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic. "This is how we lost to the white man", he says, by forgetting how to win.
He began with the story of a black girl who’d risen to become valedictorian of his old high school, despite having been abandoned by her father. “She spoke to the graduating class and her speech started like this,” Cosby said. “‘I was 5 years old. It was Saturday and I stood looking out the window, waiting for him.’ She never said what helped turn her around. She never mentioned her mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother.”
“Understand me,” Cosby said, his face contorted and clenched like a fist. “Men? Men? Men! Where are you, men?”
Over and over again Cosby hammers on the point that the only way out of historical injustice -- which surely does exist -- is to learn the lessons of defeat. It's not enough to adopt the trappings of success; to wear the morning coat and finery of the cannibal king. The trick is to steal the fire; to imbibe the formula for victory. Not to rely on goodwill of the "enlightened" as a ticket out of misery but to seize success with both hands.
As Cosby sees it, the antidote to racism is not rallies, protests, or pleas, but strong families and communities. Instead of focusing on some abstract notion of equality, he argues, blacks need to cleanse their culture, embrace personal responsibility, and reclaim the traditions that fortified them in the past. ...
Last summer, I watched Cosby give a moving commencement speech to a group of Connecticut inmates who’d just received their GEDs. Before the speech, at eight in the morning, Cosby quizzed correctional officials on the conditions and characteristics of their inmate population. I wished, then, that my 7-year-old son could have seen Cosby there, to take in the same basic message that I endeavor to serve him every day—that manhood means more than virility and strut, that it calls for discipline and dutiful stewardship. That the ultimate fate of black people lies in their own hands, not in the hands of their antagonists. That as an African American, he has a duty to his family, his community, and his ancestors.
This line of argument is of course an oversimplification. Coates writes:
If Cosby’s call-outs simply ended at that—a personal and communal creed—there’d be little to oppose. But Cosby often pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of American citizens for their rights. He chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal-justice system, despite solid evidence that the criminal-justice system needs reform. His historical amnesia—his assertion that many of the problems that pervade black America are of a recent vintage—is simply wrong, as is his contention that today’s young African Americans are somehow weaker, that they’ve dropped the ball. And for all its positive energy, his language of uplift has its limitations. After the Million Man March, black men embraced a sense of hope and promise. We were supposed to return to our communities and families inspired by a new feeling of responsibility. Yet here we are again, almost 15 years later, with seemingly little tangible change. I’d take my son to see Bill Cosby, to hear his message, to revel in its promise and optimism. But afterward, he and I would have a very long talk.
But it would also have been an oversimplification to expect that Japan's embrace of technology should have won Japanese instant equality with Europeans. Until the 1960s, the image of Japanese would be of the buck-toothed, bespectacled subhuman who was bowing and scraping when he wasn't slipping a knife into your back. It remained for Sony, Toyota and Nikon to prove that Made in Japan could mean better than anything anywhere. Yet the issue remains: what is the best starting point in the quest to undo historical inequality. Is it in talking the talk or in walking the walk? And while Cosby's approach may be an oversimplification, I think he is fundamentally right. Today both India and China are proving, for the second time in history that it is better to attain equality than to demand it. It make take a while before the Left wing intelligensia so common in the Third World picks up this fundamental lesson. But the lesson was there even in Togo's day.
"In 1906, Tōgō was made a Member of the British Order of Merit by King Edward VII. On his death in 1934 at the age of 86, he was accorded a state funeral. The navies of Great Britain, United States, Netherlands, France, Italy and China all sent ships to a naval parade in his honor in Tokyo Bay."
All Japan mourned.
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