Sunday, April 19, 2020

Project X

*Sorry for any glaring typos or formatting issues. I wrote this on mobile.

I heard someone at work mention the film Project X, which immediately hit me with a rush of memories and the feelings that attached themselves like suckerfish.

If you haven't seen the film, a quick synopsis is as follows: a young Matthew Broderick works at a secret government facility that researches the effects of high-dosage radiation on chimps in flight simulators. It was filmed at the peak of the Cold War and touches on themes of friendship, autonomy, animal rights, and standing up for one's beliefs vs. following orders. That last concept is one that I would like to explore more thoroughly in the bear future, but exploring the cultivation of one's own feelings from a young age and the importance of seemingly innocuous and innocent moments of one's past that may have actually played a more important part in his development than originally thought.

First, I'd like to touch on this idea of following one's beliefs vs. following orders. If you have read much of my writing here on this site or on Reddit (u/pbzen) then you may have learned that I live in Japan. Since the end of WWII, Japan has been a model for the virtues of social harmony and cohesion. Their economy saw a massive boom, crime statistics are consistently at global lows, and generous social programs make the chances of extreme poverty very low. It is clear that working together as a group has much to offer.

There is, of course, a much darker, rusted, and defaced flip side to this coin. During WWII, for example, group-think took hold of young Japanese men (as it does to soldiers the world over), gripping their minds like a powerful and unforgiving vice. Pacifists and draft-dodgers were nearly impossible to come by as young boys found themselves following orders to torture and rape their way through China and the rest of Asia. Questioning authority, often seen as a pillar of Western thought, was an impossible notion.

Fast forward to the bubble years until today and we see similar behavior from the ubiquitous salaryman. Blind dedication to their company and a culturally ingrained ethos to be at the office for as long as one's superior, even if that means missing out on quality family time and ensuring that the only identity he needs is the one fixed to his job title. Sure, these long hours and that mindboggling commitment helps the company's bottom line and puts food on the table (and then some), but it sucks the marrow out of life.

Back to Project X, a young man portrayed by Matthew Broderick works at a military facility. No doubt he has been conditioned to be loyal to his job, to his country; yet, he befriends these chimps, and he sees autonomous creatures who are trapped, helpless and in need of help. Great movie short, he goes against his social conditioning and does what he can to help. There is something built into Western mythos that validates this act of heroism. These stories are not uncommon.

However, the Japanese soldiers and salarymen had/have not encountered these myths. They have not felt society's praise of them land on their shoulders like a friendly bird, a companion of good. The myths they have been fed have been those of teamwork and selflessness for the success of the whole. In all fairness, perhaps these types of myths need to be amplified in Western society, and perhaps a balance of the two must be agreed upon.

I got on this subject because I want to talk about COVID-19 a bit and how it's affected me personally. Living in Japan, we have seen relatively low rates of infection for a variety of reasons, and to me it does seem that the Japanese way of following the crowd has helped in this time of crisis. E.g. Don't be the only one in the office or on the train without a mask. But, there has been a late spike in cases that no one knows just yet how bad it will get. This, I fear, has to do with Japan's lack of exposure to the Western myth of rugged individualism a-la Matthew Broderick in Project X. Had more people stood up in crowded meeting rooms and demanded work-from-home opportunities, days off even, perhaps this second wave of infections could have been averted. On the flip side, of course, had New Yorkers been more like the Japanese from the onset, perhaps their horrific crisis could have at least been dampened a bit.

One of my favorite philosophers, the bard Terence McKenna, has famously stated that "culture is not your friend." I wholeheartedly agree with him; however, many of us are steeped and stinking within culture, forgotten like a week old tea bag in a to-go cup on the floor of one's car. Therefore, I urge all of us to stubbornly ignore culture's wish to clamp down on us, to mold us into its own image. Instead, let's remember to be elastic and to take the parts of other cultures that work, and to use them when the timing is right. This requires learnedness, open-mindedness, and a rare quality that is one part East, one part West, one part humble, one part brash. Perhaps don't forget to throw in a dash of spiritual/indigenous wisdom and a pinch of love.

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