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6 entries from November 2008

A leadership readership

Covert intelligence sources (i.e. SiteMeter) confirm that Deutschland über Elvis has earned a couple of visits from the Pentagon. Welcome!

Our Pentagon visitor spent some time reading the post Waking up from the American Dream, including the comments. Until now, most of the comments have come from American expats and non-Americans. I would love to invite our Pentagon visitor to join the discussion.

Someone involved, in any way, with the defense of American values, may have a different view from this blog's coterie of regulars. I welcome your thoughts and feelings, via email or blogpost comments.


Our Pentagon visitor has revealed himself. Or herself--the reader is still a little cagey.

If Pulver is a spy monitoring my subversive activities (as many of you suggest) then he or she is the politest spook on the planet. Pulver probably just surfs the net from work, like everyone else.

Does anyone find it sad, that so many of us leapt to the conclusion that because the visit came from the Pentagon, there was something sinister afoot?

(Maybe you meant it as a joke, but many a true word is said in jest.)

Mind you, the US government as whole has given its own citizens, and those of other countries, reason for pause. From the McCarthy era, to trashing habeas corpus, US government can sometimes act as the enemy of personal freedom, rather than it protector.

That's why I am so glad Pulver commented, and why I look forward to his or her further thoughts. Do people inside the US government share our disquiet? Is there another take on American values that we should hear?

Think about it.

Our sushi snobbery is legit.

A full set of sushi kit, idle in Munich.

My boss loves sushi. He jokes that his middle name should be maguro.

I haven't the heart to tell him that maguro is nothing to boast about. Maguro, in Japan, is catfood. If he wants to boast, he should really name himself toro.

We went out to lunch at our local Japanese place. It's a species of restaurant which the Germans call, in borrowed English, running sushi. Those in the know would call it a kaiten sushi restaurant, one with a conveyor belt in the centre and diners who help themselves as dishes roll around.

After about thirty minutes, I asked him if he noticed anything odd about the place. No, he replied, it seemed fine to him.

I pointed out that amongst the many dishes which had passed before us in the previous half-hour, we had seen not one piece of fish.

He looked at the California roll impaled on the end of his chopsticks. With palpable disappointment, he realised he'd been eating a whole lot of seaweed and cucumber.

Now, I don't want to be one of those insufferable expats who once lived in Japan, and spends the rest of his life scoffing at amateur Japanophiles in the West. But really, Europeans have no fucking clue about Japanese food.

This taste test in the UK asked a respected Japanese chef to rate the food from London's most popular sushi restaurants. None rated above a three out of ten. These offerings achieved the the near-impossible; they made a Japanese person say something rude.

Master Right insists that one should never eat sushi or sashimi more than 100 kilometres from the coast. Looking at the mediocre fish on offer in the Viktualenmarkt, he has a point. The only place outside of Japan where we eat sushi is Australia; much of the Japanese catch originates there, in any case. (Here's a recommendation.)

Before I left Japan, we took an excursion to the Kappabashidori, the street where every Tokyo restaurant buys its supplies. (That includes the plastic pretend-food which they insist on putting in the window.) We bought the whole sushi kit, from the ceramic knife to the wooden trays to the birch chopsticks to the little bowls for soy sauce.

Since we moved to Munich, the stuff has gathered dust.

My favourite bit of sushibilia, found at a 7-11 konbini in Tokyo.
Two ceramic hashi-oki, or chopstick rests, which came as a freebie
around the neck of a bottle of Jacob's Creek.

No use regretting what you can't have. Better to celebrate Munich's culinary strengths. Münchners take great pride in the quality of the city's Italian food--in fact, Munich bills itself as the northernmost city in Italy.

This news hadn't quite reached our local Japanese place.

My boss ordered a caffe latte after his meal. "I'm sorry, we can only do espresso and cappuccino," explained the waitress. "We're Chinese, you see."

By the way, today's Photo Friday subject is Food.

Waking up from the American Dream, Part One.

Change. A good idea.

American values. Another good idea.

Am I the only one who sees a train wreck coming?

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for change. Hell, I voted for change. And thank goodness that change has come.

Changing presidents is the easy bit. Changing America will be tough. Some treasured American values need an overhaul.

Many would argue that rather than change, American values must change back. Back to an earlier, purer, more noble version of themselves.

Whatever. The truth is, my fellow Americans need to look hard at the values by which they live today, and not flinch when they see hypocrisy, shallowness, inhumanity and falsehood.

It takes moral courage to do this; you must be open to truth, from any source. Stop buying half-truths ready-made, cloaked under religious rhetoric, or cooked in glib sentimental goo.

What values need to change? Here's one.

The marketplace is moral.

Victoria de Grazia opens her book Irresistible Empire, the classic study of how American consumer society triumphed over European bourgeois civilisation, with an astonishing scene.
She recounts Woodrow Wilson's 1916 address to the World Salesmanship Congress in Detroit. With the American century still a decade away from its first spectacular cycle of boom-and-bust, he argued, with touching innocence, that greed is good.
America's "democracy of business" had to take the lead in "the struggle for peaceful conquest of the world," Wilson said...
"let your thoughts and imagination run abroad throughout the whole world, and with the inspiration...that you are Americans and are meant to carry liberty and justice and the principles of humanity wherever you go, go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and happy, and [thus] convert them to the principles of America." (pp. 1-2)
Over the next several pages, de Grazia analyses Wilson's assumptions in eloquent detail. She describes a caste of mind which I find familiar from my American boyhood.
If the gentry turn up their noses at the great unwashed, then one should use the power of mass production to make soap cheap enough for them to buy. Pretty soon, the great unwashed will look pretty clean and smell pretty good, and the gentry will seem a whole lot less genteel by comparison. The influence of the wicked old gentry will fade away, along with their silly elitist ideas. Democracy triumphs, and freedom reigns supreme.

So pervasive is this notion through the United States, that many have ceased to see material goods as a means to an end, but as the end in itself.

During my recent stint back in the USA, I would challenge people to show me how America was, in fact, the land of the free. Disturbingly, proof often pivoted on the freedom to choose amongst a vast array of consumer products.

Again, don't get me wrong. A vast array of consumer products is a jolly nice thing. In fact, I make my dosh shilling for a vast array of consumer products.

But consuming in quantity does not equal living in freedom.

You can walk right into any American supermarket you damn well please and vote with your wallet for Liquid-Plumr® over Drano®. Is that the beginning and end of freedom? Are these the fruits of democracy? You'd be surprised at how many Americans believe so.

De Grazia points out that Wilson endorsed "a peculiarly American notion of democracy, that which comes from having habits in common rather than arising from equal economic standing, freedom to select far fetched alternatives, or recognising diversity and learning to live with it."

That is, if billionaire George Bush drives a pick-up truck, and I drive a pick-up truck, then the difference in our incomes doesn't matter all that much. Homogenised tastes iron out political differences. Promoting that homogeneity furthers peace and progress. Right?
(Elections have been won and lost in America for the sake of homogenous tastes. Earlier this month, 48% of America voted the Republican ticket. Many of these voters did so, at least in part, because it contained a hockey/soccer mom just like us. More about that later, perhaps.)
Does it work?
Let's make a value judgement on this system of values. Does it work?
Recent history vividly shows that this sea of material goods is not, to stretch a metaphor, a tide that lifts all boats. The gentry hasn't drowned in an ocean of the gentrified middle class. If anything, the worker's quest for material comfort has enriched the elite far more handsomely than it has enriched the worker.
Getting richer doesn't guarantee that a worthwhile democracy will take root, as is implicit in Wilson's argument. "Liberty and justice, and the principles of humanity" don't necessarily follow from owning a lot of stuff.
Look at the Middle East or China. There are plenty of ways to get rich, and not all of them are the American way.
Nor does democracy make you rich, automatically. Just ask a South African township worker, or a disappointed eastern European after the Iron Curtain fell.

Did the spread of American bounty result in the "peaceful conquest of the world," as Wilson predicted? If only he could see how much of her wealth America pours, today, into the violent conquest of the world. With little real peace to show for it.
The marketplace is incredibly good at sorting out, and providing in abundance, what is useful. But that misleads us. An abundance of useful stuff doesn't guarantee that amongst it, you'll find what is essential.
Like healthcare. Or education. Or art. Or justice. Or equality. Or peace.
Modern Americans seem to believe that if you just get rich enough, everything else will sort itself out. From there, it is not a long stretch to believe that getting rich is the only way to sort everything out. If we're all fat and happy, what else matters?
Shovel enough Oldsmobiles, Pop-Tarts, Magnavoxes and Cheez-Whiz in my direction, and do I really need to marry the man I love? If my supermarket shelves are well stocked, is it important that the local library's shelves are not?
I'm not knocking materialism--hey, I work in advertising. But it it's a pretty poor place to search for values.
Modern American values are so entwined in materialism, that it will be a hard habit of mind to break. Can we do it? I hope so.

Photos from Cape May, New Jersey, April 2007, and the Woodbridge neighbourhood of Detroit, 2004.

Cape May is a classic, picturesque American seaside resort, popular for weekends away from Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. Some time ago, the town's hotels and guest houses were booked out by Disney executives. Locals were abuzz with speculation that they might see a new Disneyland nearby. Alas, the Mousers were in Cape May to rip it off; the town of Celebration, Florida is an ersatz Cape May. Celebration is so creepily fake, that they filmed The Truman Show there.