Friday, August 2, 2013

The real problem with Asō's gaffe

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers' Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Bertolt Brecht, "Die Lösung" (1953)
Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Asō Tarō kicked off the second leg of the second Abe government with a fine contribution to the hall of fame of gaffes committed by Japanese politicians.

Speaking at a symposium hosted by the right-wing Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, Asō spoke about how the Abe government should approach constitution revision. He said:
Now if you say "let’s do it quietly," you need to look back at the Weimar Constitution, whose amendment went unnoticed. It was changed before most people realized it had happened. We need to learn from this. I have absolutely no intention of rejecting democracy. But I don’t want to see us make these decisions in the midst of an uproar. 
(That's from a translation by Peter Durfee; the full text of his remarks can be found here.)
The resulting international uproar — usually presented under headlines like "Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso comes under fire for Nazi remarks" — has resulted in Asō's coming under pressure to resign from opposition parties, and under pressure from the prime minister (jp) to retract his remarks. He has retracted, but has said he will not resign.

However, in my reading of his remarks, Asō's interpretation of how the Weimar constitution was revised may have been the least offensive aspect of his speech. What's offensive about Asō's speech is the arrogant disdain for the messy reality of democracy, the lament of every would-be utopian in history eager to ram the square peg of humanity into their round hole of choice. Asō repeatedly bemoans the "boisterousness," "tumultuousness,"and "uproariousness" present in public discussion of constitution revision. He seems to say, Why can't the people see that we know what's best for them? Can't they see that the facts demand revision? I read this less as a blueprint for revision than as a whine about how it's all the fault of the public and the mass media for how little success Japan's revisionist right has had when it comes to building a consensus in favor of their vision of the constitution.

Why shouldn't the debate be boisterous? Why shouldn't there be uproarious and fierce opposition when the debate is about the document that serves as the nation's moral center — especially when the LDP's draft makes no secret of its plans to change the values enshrined in the constitution?  Why shouldn't Japanese defenders of the constitution feel just as strongly about defending a document — a document that, whatever its origins, has become an important pillar of postwar Japanese society — as the revisionists feel about changing it? Who are Abe, Asō, and company to decide whether a debate is being conducted appropriately or not?

At its best, liberal democracy is "boisterous" and "uproarious," because if the people have the freedom to speak their minds, there is bound to be a tumult. Politicians seeking order, politeness, and decorum can find some fine examples in Japan's immediate neighborhood.

In the final analysis, I don't think Asō was longing for an end to democracy or outlining a secret plan for constitutional revision. Rather, he has once again revealed a fundamental fact about his and Abe's worldview: they have no problem stating their love for democracy as an abstract idea, a value to be promoted in East Asia and a rhetorical cudgel with which to bludgeon China, but they have little love for democracy as it is actually practiced in Japan.


Ἀντισθένης said...

Epitaph on a Tyrant
by W. H. Auden

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Anonymous said...

In one news report about Aso's remarks, a professor of history, said that contrary to Aso's mistaken idea, the Nazi takeover was done in an extremely violent manner. Aso never heard of the deliberate setting of the Reichstag fire and blaming of a Dutch radical, I have to assume. Another difference today from the 1930's is that thanks to the internet, the news can flow instantaneously to all corners of the earth. In those days, there were far fewer international reporters and most nations were colonies and incapable of reporting on events in their country.

Anonymous said...

Tobias Harris welcome back. With Shinzo Abe's strong showing in the upper house elections and his continued popularity despite his poor performance in the past, I am curious about your views of Abe's chances of passage of a constitutional revision which would rescind Article 9? Seems to me that except for his right wing backers, there is no more enthusiasm for constitutional revision this time than last time he tried. Considering how long Japan has lived under the "pacifist" constitution and the continuous discussion of it over the past decade and the emergence of several groups opposed to constitutional revision, it would seem to me that Abe's chances are not much greater than last time.

Tobias Samuel Harris said...

I don't think Abe will succeed in revising the constitution, for reasons that I discussed here:

Anonymous said...

"Aso never heard of the deliberate setting of the Reichstag fire and blaming of a Dutch radical"

It's the consensus of historians today that the Nazis did not set the Reichstag on fire.
Though it's also true that the Bush administration didn't orchestrate 9/11.