The American Love Affair with the Automobile

There is no getting around it.  We Americans love our autos.  In California you are what you drive, or so it seemed to me when I first moved there.  I still drive a 1998 Honda Civic that has over 175,000 miles showing on the odometer.  I really don’t care to drive something fancy.  I like the reliability of Honda, thank you very much.  But when I first moved to Southern California in 2000, one of my friends said that I should consider driving something much cooler and sexier than a Honda Civic.  She really meant it.  So you see, friends, driving means a lot to us in America.  We would just as soon drive around the corner as walk.  And since we spend so much time in our cars, we like to look good driving.

A late 1990s model compact car won’t earn any head-turning quotient points.

Here’s an interesting article to read about the American love affair with the automobile from CBS Sunday Morning.  I did not realize that FDR deserves more credit than President Dwight Eisenhower when it comes to our interstate system.  FDR had the vision and Eisenhower put it all in place by the mid-1950s.  We’ve never looked back since, that is, unless we are looking back in our rear view mirrors on the open road.

I’ve driven across the southern United States at least twenty times in the last twelve years.  When I first moved to California in February 2000, I drove from New Hampshire.  No big deal.  I stopped at mom and dad’s place in Birmingham, Alabama after picking up Interstate 20 in South Carolina.  Interstate 20 connects directly to Interstate 10 in western Texas and you take it all the way to California.  The other route is Interstate 40, the freeway that follows the old Route 66.  If you ever go to America and have the time, take the open road.  You’ll meet a lot of people, see a lot of land, and enjoy some great sunsets.

What’s the biggest problem with the American love for the automobile?

A Night to Remember: 60th Anniversary of Fulbright and Meeting Royalty

On Friday, May 25, I took a few train stops over to the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo.  As one of just a few Fulbright professors to Japan, I was invited as a guest of the Japan-US Educational Commission that oversees the Fulbright international exchange program.  2012 marks the 60th anniversary of this esteemed program. I did not know that my evening would be a lifetime memory.  More on that later.

The Fulbright Program has been a major part of my cultural identity since the mid-1980s when I set out on a year’s stay to the Federal Republic of Germany.  (If you know nothing or very little about the program, please check out JUSEC.)  I had never even heard of the program until I had a meeting with the director of off-campus housing at Clemson University in South Carolina.  He wore two coordinator hats: one for housing and one for the Fulbright program.  As we talked about my off-campus housing options, he mentioned if I ever thought about applying for a Fulbright.  I asked, “What’s a Fulbright?”  Well I think I’m quite up on the program now. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on “Fulbright Scholars as Cultural Mediators,” so I’d say that I’ve come a long way since my Clemson Tiger days.  Which leads me back to Friday night.

As the guests walked into the Peacock Room of the Imperial Hotel, I looked to my left and saw a stage for the large contingent of media in attendance.  I thought to myself, they sure do love the Fulbright Program here in Japan.  But alas, there was more to the media’s interest.  I heard an announcement in Japanese and then saw people form two lines in waiting.  This was not a crowd lined up to do a Soul Train dance number.  An English-speaking attendee turned to me and solved the mystery: the emperor and empress were on their way.  Of course, that meant that we were about to see Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.  I was ripe with anticipation.  We waited a few more minutes.  We were told no pictures but I noted a few stealthy iPhones at hand.  And then the doors were slowly opened to reveal the royal couple.  We applauded as they made their way very royal-like (to be expected) between the two lines of gleeful admirers.  Whatever you think about royalty and imperial government, I wasn’t thinking such lofty thoughts.  Here I am a political science and international relations major and all I could feel were goosebumps.  I recalled my first visit to Japan in 1993 when, as a participant in a Japanese government program called International Youth Village, we got to attend a reception featuring Prince and Princess Akishino.  (I later found out that Prince Akishino is a Beatles fan.  His hairdo is at times a bit Beatles-like.)

I realize that our celebration of 60 years of Fulbright was truly a night to remember.  I am so thankful to have a Fulbright grant to teach undergraduate students at Sophia University in Tokyo.  As part of the festivities, I also met Ambassador John Roos and shared my recent experiences giving embassy-sponsored talks on “The Lady Gaga Effect.” He actually put me on the spot and asked, “What is the Lady Gaga effect?”  I told him, “You should know.  Weren’t you are her Tokyo concert?” (We both were, but on separate nights.)

Photo of Harriet Fulbright at 60th Anniversary

I also spent time with someone I’ve know for twenty years, Harriet Mayor Fulbright, a true champion of her husband J. William Fulbright’s vision for the program.  Harriet has worked tirelessly on behalf of the senator and his commitment to mutual understanding between individuals from all nations.  I reminded Harriet of my foot-in-mouth experience when I called her shortly after Senator Fulbright’s passing at age 89 in 1995.  I called their Washington residence, thinking that an assistant would answer and I could just give my condolences.  To my surprise, Harriet took the call directly.  I told her how sorry I was and offered to say a few words about what the Fulbright program has meant to me at the senator’s upcoming state funeral at Washington’s National Cathedral.  She, in all her gracious dignity, didn’t miss a beat.  She said, “Nancy, that is so kind of you to offer.  President Clinton is giving the eulogy.”  Indeed he did, and that was the first and only time I met an American president at the reception that followed.

Here is the picture from Fulbright’s state funeral at which Bill Clinton, and not Nancy Snow, gave the eulogy.

Now back to our gathering at the Imperial Hotel.

Toward the end of the gathering and long after the emperor and empress had left, an embassy friend said, “Do you realize that you get to experience things here in Japan that many Japanese may never experience?”  I do realize my privileges.  And with privilege comes a duty to serve.  I hope that I can fulfill my goal of being a positive representative for the United States in Japan and both a teacher and learner with my Japanese students.

P.S.  I was able to tell Empress Michiko that I’m a Fulbright professor at Sophia University.  I’m sure she won’t forget that!

Tokyo Murder: The Death of Nicola Furlong

First, let me state the obvious: Japan is safe, remarkably safe, for foreigners and visitors alike.  We all  are quite aware of natural disasters in Japan, but rates of crime and domestic violence are very low for this country of 127 million.  Tokyo is no exception.  Our feelings of safety may cloud our judgment about interactions.  When one feels safe, you might think nothing of joining a new acquaintance for dinner or a drink.  If you have a friend with you, even if it’s two women, you might feel even safer.  Safety in numbers, remember.  The U.S. Department of State Travel website says this about crime in Japan:

The general crime rate in Japan is well below the U.S. national average. Crimes against U.S. citizens in Japan usually involve personal disputes, theft, or vandalism. Violent crime is rare but does exist. Sexual assaults do not happen often but do occur, and females may be randomly targeted.

Japan’s safety and polite population hold international appeal for visitors when choosing Japan as a short-term tourist destination or for a lengthier study abroad experience.  It is an expensive destination, but the nation brand of Japan as safe and comfortable for foreigners is why we are here.  So this is why when there is a horrific crime, especially involving an attractive, vivacious young woman from outside Japan, the world takes notice.  We also know that race, age, gender and physical attractiveness play into how quickly mysterious deaths go global.  White women, young women, or pretty women get the most coverage.  It is not right or fair but the reality.

In the early morning hours of Thursday, May 24, a young Irish exchange student named Nicola Furlong lost her life at Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo.  The hotel website pitches its amenities:

The Keio Plaza Hotel is the ideal location to explore the delights of the city of Tokyo. Only minutes away from the most popular shopping and entertainment spots, our luxury hotel provides stunning views over central Tokyo.  A cozy bed, a good meal, friendly faces…. these are just some of the comforts that you seek after stepping inside the hotel door.

Nicola was not staying at Keio Plaza Hotel as a paying guest.  She and an unnamed Irish female friend from Dublin City University met two young American men after a Nicki Minaj concert.  The two women were exchange students at a university located about an hour train ride outside of Tokyo.  It’s not clear how soon after the concert the women met the two Americans, but the chance meeting with the men ended with the asphyxiation death of Nicola in one of the American’s hotel room.  The two Americans are identified as an unnamed 19-year-old musician and international Krumping dancer James “Kingtight” Blackston, age 23. (In a sad irony, you can see Blackston in a 2009 video called “Dancing Against Violence Bonn.”)  The two are now in the custody of Tokyo police.  They are not being held for Nicola’s alleged murder but rather for illegal touching of Nicola’s friend in a taxi en route to the hotel, which was captured on surveillance tape inside the taxi.   Quite another assembly–not of dancers and musicians–but rather diplomats and investigators, is now involved in this criminal case, including the U.S. State Department, U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Irish Embassy in Tokyo, and local police authorities.

I have such a sad feeling about the death of Ms. Furlong.  She was just 21 and due to return to her home country of Ireland in a few weeks.  News media reports say that she and her schoolmate were so inebriated that they could barely walk on their own.  How they got into that condition is not clear.  Were they drugged?  If they had become drunk on their own before meeting the two men, it would be an unwise move that left them vulnerable to becoming crime victims, but being publicly drunk is not a crime in itself.  They might have been plied with very strong drinks.  We will get a much fuller picture in the days and weeks ahead.

I predict that this case will be an international media sensation like the Amanda Knox case in Italy.  The cases aren’t similar in facts, but they do involve foreigners in popular host countries.  Japan in general and Tokyo in particular want foreigners to keep coming–at least to visit or study here–and a crime with this international reach will cause some to question Japan’s reputation for safety.  It’s safe here, but the stillness of one late May morning in Tokyo was forever changed for Nicola Furlong and her family and friends in Ireland.  May justice be served in this case and may Nicola Furlong rest in peace.

Japan Rising

 

Japan Rising

The most recent Gallup rating shows that a slight majority of Americans believes that Japan is “the most important US partner in the Asian region.”  Is this improvement tied to post-3/11 “Gratitude Relations” between Japan and the world? I think so.  Out of the worst calamity and disaster since WWII, Japan has improved its soft power image through domestic unification and global gratitude.

How might the Noda government tap into this US-Japan goodwill?

President Obama’s “American Century” speech

Read this excerpt from President Barack Obama’s commencement address to the Air Force Academy on Wednesday, May 23. 

Does it sound like American Exceptionalism? Do you agree that the U.S. is still the world’s leader or is this just election year cheerleading to potential voters?  What American values are emphasized? Henry Luce, founding publisher of Time magazine, referred to the last century as the American Century.  A recent poll shows that only a third (33%) of the American people think that the country is moving in the right direction.

Around the world, the United States is leading once more.  From Europe to Asia, our alliances are stronger than ever.  Our ties with the Americas are deeper.  We’re setting the agenda in the region that will shape our long-term security and prosperity like no other — the Asia Pacific.

We’re leading on global security — reducing our nuclear arsenal with Russia, even as we maintain a strong nuclear deterrent; mobilizing dozens of nations to secure nuclear materials so they never fall into the hands of terrorists; rallying the world to put the strongest sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea, which cannot be allowed to threaten the world with nuclear weapons.

We are leading economically — forging trade pacts to create new markets for our goods; boosting our exports, stamped with three proud words — Made in America.  We’re expanding exchanges and collaborations in areas that people often admire most about America — our innovation, our science, our technology.

We’re leading on behalf of human dignity and on behalf of freedom — standing with the people of the Middle East and North Africa as they seek their rights; preventing a massacre in Libya with an international mission in which the United States — and our Air Force — led from the front.  We’re leading global efforts against hunger and disease.  And we’ve shown our compassion, as so many airmen did in delivering relief to our neighbors in Haiti when they were in need and to our Japanese allies after the earthquake and tsunami.

Because of this progress, around the world there is a new feeling about America.  I see it everywhere I go, from London and Prague, to Tokyo and Seoul, to Rio and Jakarta.  There’s a new confidence in our leadership.  And when people around the world are asked, which country do you most admire, one nation comes out on top — the United States of America.

Of course, the world stage is not a popularity contest.  As a nation, we have vital interests, and we will do what is necessary always to defend this country we love — even if it’s unpopular.  But make no mistake, how we’re viewed in the world has consequences — for our national security and for your lives.

See, when other countries and people see us as partners, they’re more willing to work with us.  It’s why more countries joined us in Afghanistan and Libya.  It’s why nations like Australia are welcoming our forces who stand side by side with allies and partners in the South Pacific.  It’s why Uganda and its African neighbors have welcomed our trainers to help defeat a brutal army that slaughters its citizens.

I think of the Japanese man in the disaster zone who, upon seeing our airmen delivering relief, said, “I never imagined they could help us so much.”  I think of the Libyans who protected our airman when he ejected over their town, because they knew America was there to protect them.  And in a region where we’ve seen burning of American flags, I think of all the Libyans who were waving American flags.

Today, we can say with confidence and pride the United States is stronger and safer and more respected in the world, because even as we’ve done the work of ending these wars, we’ve laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership.  And now, cadets, we have to build it.  We have to build on it.  You have to build on it.

Let’s start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned or that America is in decline.  We’ve heard that talk before.  During the Great Depression, when millions were unemployed and some believed that other economic models offered a better way, there were those who predicted the end of American capitalism.  Guess what, they were wrong.  We fought our way back.  We created the largest middle class in history and the most prosperous economy the world has ever known.

After Pearl Harbor some said, the United States has been reduced to a third-rate power.  Well, we rallied.  We flew over The Hump and took island after island.  We stormed the beaches and liberated nations.  And we emerged from that war as the strongest power on the face of the Earth.

After Vietnam and the energy crisis of the 1970s, some said America had passed its high point.  But the very next decade, because of our fidelity to the values we stand for, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and liberty prevailed over the tyranny of the Cold War.

As recently as the 1980s with the rise of Japan and the Asian tigers, there were those who said we had lost our economic edge.  But we retooled.  We invested in new technologies.  We launched an Information Revolution that changed the world.

After all this, you would think folks understand a basic truth — never bet against the United States of America.   And one of the reasons is that the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs.  It’s one of the many examples of why America is exceptional.  It’s why I firmly believe that if we rise to this moment in history, if we meet our responsibilities, then — just like the 20th century — the 21st century will be another great American Century.  That’s the future I see.  That’s the future you can build.

I see an American Century because we have the resilience to make it through these tough economic times.  We’re going to put America back to work by investing in the things that keep us competitive — education and high-tech manufacturing, science and innovation.  We’ll pay down our deficits, reform our tax code and keep reducing our dependence on foreign oil.  We need to get on with nation-building here at home.  And I know we can, because we’re still the largest, most dynamic, most innovative economy in the world.  And no matter what challenges we may face, we wouldn’t trade places with any other nation on Earth.

I see an American Century because you are part of the finest, most capable military the world has ever known.  No other nation even comes close.  Yes, as today’s wars end, our military — and our Air Force — will be leaner.  But as Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow us to make the mistakes of the past.  We still face very serious threats.  As we’ve seen in recent weeks, with al Qaeda in Yemen, there are still terrorists who seek to kill our citizens.  So we need you to be ready for the full range of threats.  From the conventional to the unconventional, from nations seeking weapons of mass destruction to the cell of terrorists planning the next attack, from the old danger of piracy to the new threat of cyber, we must be vigilant.

And so, guided by our new defense strategy, we’ll keep our military — and our Air Force — fast and flexible and versatile. We will maintain our military superiority in all areas — air, land, sea, space and cyber.  And we will keep faith with our forces and our military families.

And as our newest veterans rejoin civilian life, we will never stop working to give them the benefits and opportunities that they have earned — because our veterans have the skills to help us rebuild America, and we have to serve them as well as they have served us.

I see an American Century because we have the strongest alliances of any nation.  From Europe to Asia, our alliances are the foundation of global security.  In Libya, all 28 NATO allies played a role and we were joined by partners in the air from Sweden to the Gulf states.  In Afghanistan, we’re in a coalition of 50 allies and partners.  Today, Air Force personnel are serving in 135 nations — partnering, training, building their capacity.  This is how peace and security will be upheld in the 21st century — more nations bearing the costs and responsibilities of leadership.  And that’s good for America.  It’s good for the world.  And we’re at the hub of it, making it happen.

I see an American Century because no other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs, and no other nation can play the role that we play in global affairs.  That includes shaping the global institutions of the 20th century to meet the challenges of the 21st.  As President, I’ve made it clear the United States does not fear the rise of peaceful, responsible emerging powers — we welcome them.  Because when more nations step up and contribute to peace and security, that doesn’t undermine American power, it enhances it.

And when other people in other countries see that we’re rooting for their success, it builds trust and partnerships that can advance our interests for generations.  It makes it easier to meet common challenges, from preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to combating climate change.  And so we seek an international order where the rights and responsibilities of all nations and peoples are upheld, and where counties thrive by meeting their obligations and they face consequences when they don’t.

I see an American Century because more and more people are reaching toward the freedoms and values that we share.  No other nation has sacrificed more — in treasure, in the lives of our sons and daughters — so that these freedoms could take root and flourish around the world.  And no other nation has made the advancement of human rights and dignity so central to its foreign policy.  And that’s because it’s central to who we are, as Americans.  It’s also in our self-interest, because democracies become our closest allies and partners.

Sure, there will always be some governments that try to resist the tide of democracy, who claim theirs is a better way.  But around the world, people know the difference between us.  We welcome freedom —- to speak, to assemble, to worship, to choose your leaders.  They don’t.  We welcome the chance to compete for jobs and markets freely and fairly.  They don’t.  When fundamental human rights are threatened around the world, we stand up and speak out.  And they don’t.

We know that the sovereignty of nations cannot strangle the liberty of individuals.  And so we stand with the student in the street who demands a life of dignity and opportunity.  We stand with women everywhere who deserve the same rights as men.  We stand with the activists unbowed in their prison cells, and the leaders in parliament who’s moving her country towards democracy. We stand with the dissident who seeks the freedom to say what he pleases, and the entrepreneur who wants to start a business without paying a bribe, and all those who strive for justice and dignity.  For they know, as we do, that history is on the side of freedom.

And finally, I see an American Century because of the character of our country — the spirit that has always made us exceptional.  That simple yet revolutionary idea — there at our founding and in our hearts ever since — that we have it in our power to make the world anew, to make the future what we will.  It is that fundamental faith — that American optimism — which says no challenge is too great, no mission is too hard.  It’s the spirit that guides your class:  “Never falter, never fail.”

That is the essence of America, and there’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world.  It’s what’s inspired the oppressed in every corner of the world to demand the same freedoms for themselves.  It’s what’s inspired generations to come to our shores, renewing us with their energy and their hopes.  And that includes a fellow cadet, a cadet graduating today, who grew up in Venezuela, got on a plane with a one-way ticket to America, and today is closer to his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot — Edward Camacho.  Edward said what we all know to be true:  “I’m convinced that America is the land of opportunity.”

You’re right, Edward.  That is who we are.  That’s the America we love.  Always young, always looking ahead to that light of a new day on the horizon.  And, cadets, as I look into your eyes — as you join that Long Blue Line — I know you will carry us even farther, and even higher.  And with your proud service, I’m absolutely confident that the United States of America will meet the tests of our time.  We will remain the land of opportunity.  And we will stay strong as the greatest force for freedom and human dignity that the world has ever known.

May God bless you.  May God bless the Class of 2012.  And may God bless the United States of America.

America: Leave It to Love It

America: Leave It to Love It

This is a terrific alternative commencement speech by John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus.  He didn’t really give it to any particular college or university.  It’s what he would have said, if asked.  I completely agree with Feffer that American college is more about socialization than education, but I would add that socialization is education, as long as one is sober.  He is describing some worst case scenarios here.  But his basic message is what I share: If you love America, leave it.  It’s a direct contrast to the 60s mantra, “America: Love It or Leave It.”

Given the challenges that lie outside the gates of this academic Garden of Eden, it might seem a bit rude for me to add yet another burden to your shoulders on your special day. But as Americans, and I’m focusing my remarks on American citizens graduating from college, we have an even greater debt to pay. You have grown up in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the history of the world. You are also citizens of a country that has run roughshod over international law in its many wars, subversions of democracy, and contempt for international institutions. We have benefitted at the expense of others – their resources, their low-paid labor – and most of us simply continue to rack up this debt.

What can you do to discharge this obligation? One important action step is: get out of town. Go and live in a very different community. Become fluent in another language and another culture. Learn humility. “Love it or leave it,” Middle America told the Vietnam War protestors back in the 1960s. Let me turn that sentiment around: love it and leave it. To save America, we must all learn how to act as global citizens.

What is your reaction to this commencement speech?  A commencement speech in America is a right of passage from young adulthood into professional life.  What might a Japanese commencement speech emphasize to a young graduating class?  What would you want to hear?

Optimist or Pessimist: Which Are You?

I grew up with two parents who were products of the American Depression.  My father Victor Snow was raised in a rural part of Alabama, not too far from where the University of Alabama is located in Tuscaloosa.  His mother and father divorced when he was still young. Dad grew up with one older and one younger sister and his mother, my paternal grandmother, Sarah Snow.  My dad’s family didn’t have much wealth or material possessions but they endured the Depression era with a lot of love for each other.  Dad was super intelligent and earned scholarships in engineering to Rice and eventually MIT where he met my mom on a blind date.

My mother Suzanne was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Harvard and MIT are located.  She grew up in bedroom communities outside Boston, namely Wellesley and Needham.  Mom attended the Choate School for Girls and later Needham High School, and she could have easily attended college if she had chosen.  Her extended family had wealth and provided much material comfort to mom, if not always emotional support.  I don’t believe mom suffered much through the American Depression, certainly not like my dad may have suffered, though he never talked about it.  Here’s the thing: my parents were eternal optimists, especially my dad.  I never saw my parents ever down or depressed about anything.  They had challenges, what with four sons and one very dutiful daughter (that’s me!)  A few of my brothers gave them a run for their money, meaning that they were wild at times, but through it all mom and dad gave us love and support.  I never doubted their love, even though they came from an era when one didn’t always outwardly demonstrate affection.  Whenever anyone asks me about my good nature and optimism, I always credit my parents, my best friends for life.  So read this recent article, “A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full,” published in the New York Times.  It explains that optimism is a healthier choice.  I believe optimism is also a condition of one’s culture.  I come from a culture that prefers overcoming problems through sheer will and–here’s a key term, stick-to-it-iveness: colloq. (orig. U.S.), defined also as dogged perseverance.

So optimist or pessimist, which are you?  Do you think being one or the other impacts feelings about politics and policies.  Can culture influence a pessimistic or optimistic outcome?