Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.


Monday, July 3, 2017



Many friends tell me to my face or in print that healthcare is not a right for Americans. I say it is a right for every human being. My friends don't agree.  Many of them are against any kind of government healthcare program.  They defend their position by claiming that people in this country of the brave and free have the responsibility to work hard and take care of the cost of their own healthcare.  That side of the argument says that many poor sick people in America are just lazy and take advantage of social programs already in place.  That seems to go against everything I know about human nature, history, economic conditions, medical science, and plain old luck.  

I'm not ready to let people die on the street, as they used to in many parts of the world, if they were weak and penniless.  I have to believe that the first humans living in caves instinctively believed that animals should be killed, usually with a rock, and eaten.  Pretty soon they treated strangers as enemies and decided they should also be hit in the head with a rock. The biggest rock killed the most people, winning the day.  Later they discovered how to make weapons out of rock, chiseling sharp blades and arrow heads. The best man wins must have been the lesson of thousands of years of human history. Many Americans still think so. Donald Trump is surely a case in point.

But he is by no means alone.  American parents, especially fathers, urge their sons to stand up for themselves.  Get in there and fight, they say.  Don't be a sissy.  My own case is so unlike that.  It was no secret that I was a fat little sissy, a spoiled (I say much-loved) only child who played the piano and hated violence of any kind, even in sports.  My parents protected me from any bullying I encountered by confronting the bullies (and sometimes their parents) with truly frightening consequences if they didn't leave me alone.  So in a way the urge to strike out at strangers was alive and well in my parents. Looking back on it, such primitive instincts were in me, too.  I think I never doubted my superiority to my tormentors, and secretly dreamed of killing all of them in the most gruesome ways the human mind has ever concocted.

Dreaming of how to kill others is nevertheless not the same thing as doing it.  Tripping lightly over history from caves to castles, I can see how advanced weapons and a monetary system soon took the place of rocks, in the hands of people who feared outsiders and used tribal loyalties and religions to maintain their own superiority over others.  The dance of the wealthy over the poor became the only dance in town, all over the world.  Music for the dance was heard in small groups and large groups alike.  Each municipality placed masters over servants, in a pattern that was repeated everywhere in counties, provinces, and nation states. Masters became masters through wealth and power that rendered servants helpless to resist.  Wars often rearranged the master/servant configurations, with kings suddenly reduced to slaves, and vice versa.

Not until modern times did people question the old law, that the strong should win.  The ancient Greeks had a great notion about justice and how it might be achieved in society, but even they had slaves. The idea was reborn in what we call the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but it took the toppling of lots of emperors and kings before the 18th-19th- century revolutions in the name of liberty were successful. Our own Thomas Jefferson put it best in his 1776 declaration that begins, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..." The hope in that statement was clouded, even at that time, and we've been trying to remove those clouds ever since. 

We've pretty much done away with the rule of dictators, but not entirely.  The most outstanding are in Africa.  Some that remain are presidents of republics. The Russian Federation is listed as a "federal semi-presidential republic," according to Wikipedia, which I think means Putin is largely in charge of everything.  The Russians we met in Moscow and St. Petersburg seem to adore him and blame all the problems they encountered after the fall of communism on democracy.  Of course, such modern imperial governments as England, Sweden and Japan have beloved royal families that have very limited power and, in any case, generally follow the dictates of the voting public. Representative government is the enlightened approach to keeping people free in today's world.

Communism, the Great Notion of the 20th century, failed because it took away peoples' freedoms in order to make them equal. Marx and Lenin would frown at the few communist governments still operating today, because they are shot through with liberal features of democracy.  The flag of democracy is flying high today, with each nation putting customs, religious laws, natural resources, and old grievances together in its national identity.  Some people want free markets to govern us all, but that is too close to the dog-eat-dog paradigm of human history to satisfy me. 

The level playing field is a feature of democracy.  Everyone in any society starts with a chance to develop interests and talents that can contribute to the fullest development of society.  Good health and healthcare is part of that chance in modern society.  From natal care to death, each person deserves -- has the right -- to be in the best physical and mental health to participate in nation-building.  If I am born with a medical problem, or develop a chronic ailment like cancer, I deserve to have that problem treated by the best physicians in the country.  If I am in an accident, my recovery should be tracked by medical experts.  My psychological welfare, likewise, is to be looked at by professionals in the field. But if my country has no healthcare system in place, I may die if my medical costs are more than I can afford.

No other advanced industrial country in the world allows its citizens to be as endangered as Americans are right now. Most of them have some form of single-payer insurance.  My wife and I are lucky.  We are retired, and receive Social Security that we paid into for sixty years.  We also can afford to have additional health insurance (AARP-United Health Care) for drugs and treatment that Social Security doesn't cover. But our son and many of our friends are not so lucky.  My mother taught school all her life, but was senile for the last seven years of her life, and died in a rest home.  Her Medicare ran out and Medicaid finally ran out, as well. 

Luck is fickle.  That's its nature.  We have some exceedingly wealthy acquaintances.  As it happens, some of them inherited the wealth that they live on today, or that they used to build the wealth they have today.  A few of them hitched their wagons to a star that took them into the outer space of our 1%.  Surprisingly, most admit they don't pay enough taxes to support the health needs of our country.  We also know some moderate-to-very-poor people.  Hard-working people.  Proud people.  To think that these two groups -- the very rich and very poor -- have an equal chance in America's future is ridiculous. Making all Americans responsible for their health care is blind to all the things that keep them from beginning life on a level playing field.  It puts the poor and unlucky in a hole they can't dig out of for several lifetimes. Republicans and Democrats have the responsibility to heal this problem now, by creating universal healthcare for all Americans. I'm no economist, but I know some form of universal, government controlled healthcare, comparable to plans in other highly developed countries, is  
not only possible, but morally imperative.

As a teacher, I also hope all Americans will someday have access to a good education.  Tests after tests show that our public and private schools do not provide it. There are many reasons for that.  But poverty, above all, breeds ignorance. Prejudice does, too.  I almost vomit when people say, about a group of people they have categorized by race, sex or culture, "Well, you know, that's just the way they are."  I realize that up until retirement, except for a few intervals, I was stimulated (and insulated) by very well-educated people all around me.  As the author of the play "Pugwash" said recently about Cyrus Eaton, the financier who brought Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell together in Nova Scotia to discuss nuclear energy, "He believed that thinking was equally as important as making money."  So do I.  University life is not normal. It offers infinite opportunities to examine everything on earth.  Nobody punches anybody out over anything.  Conversations can be animated, but rarely threatening. 

I have also been taught to empathize with others as a moral duty.  My Christian childhood, lifelong study of religions, and years of practice in Japanese Zen temples have all worked together to convince me that I am my brother's (and sister's) keeper, and to love everyone, knowing that I am, in some profound way, everyone. We are all related, even identical. And yet I confess now that when I am out in public rather than behind the speaker's podium, I don't easily relate to most of the people around me. We often don't speak the same language, share the same views of the world, or even listen to the same music. (And, my deepest confession, I've never been able to share the world's infatuation with balls:  football, basketball, baseball, golf, etc.) Regardless of how hard I attempt today to put myself in other people's shoes, I often come away with a sense of failure, even when love remains.              

- At home in Palm Desert, CA, July 2, 2017.

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