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Politics as Usual

The lieutenant, a panda, and the abominable snowman

Finding a hill to defend

In 1974, Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda finally ended World War II. It had lasted about 30 years for him, because he refused to believe that Japan had actually surrendered in 1945. He had stayed in the Philippine jungle, waging guerilla war against innocent local farmers.

He was befriended by a young Japanese traveler named Norio Suzuki who was “going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the abominable snowman, in that order.” Onoda eventually was convinced that the war was indeed over and returned to Japan to a hero’s welcome. Lieutenant Onoda returned nine years after he was the basis of a (fairly racist) Gilligan’s Island character, a Japanese sailor who didn’t know the second world war was over. 

He sacrificed three decades of his life for a lost cause. You can’t say that about most chest-beating patriots in the United States. For every American who bravely went off to fight the huns/Nazis/communists/terrorists, there are a thousand homebodies who take aim at domestic enemies in the name of fighting the foreign enemy.

We’re at it again, as Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine left people scrambling to show their anger at Russia and their support for Ukraine. I share those feelings. But this scramble to demonstrate resolve has quickly spawned ridiculous efforts to stamp out Russian cultural influence here.

For example, a number of orchestras have opted to not play the music of Tchaikovsky. Which is ridiculous. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky did not invade Ukraine. He’s, you know, dead.

This is different from the orchestras that have fired Russian conductors who are pals of Putin and who refuse to denounce his war. You want to suck up to a power-mad dictator, that’s your decision, but we don’t have to pay you for it.

I suspect my reasoning will be lost, as we blur the lines between taking targeted and reasoned actions and just making hysterical attacks on anything Russian. The end result will be a leaching of Russian culture from our larger society. It could last a long time.

Just ask the Germans. There’s a reason you eat a hot dog and not a frankfurter at the ballpark.

FREEDOM CHOCOLATE CAKE

True patriotism is demonstrated in showing devotion to the country’s ideals, sacrificing to support those ideals and the country itself. Cheap patriotism comes from renaming foods and punching downward — attacking people who have nothing to do with a conflict in question but are nonetheless representative of the “other.” 

We’ve seen it before. In the runup to the invasion of Iraq, many restaurants decided French fries would be called freedom fries. Sikh Americans were attacked because yahoos thought they were Muslim. Back in World War II, Japanese Americans were interned in camps.

Further back, in World War I, German American businesses were attacked, and the country went crazy renaming things with German origin. Germantown, Neb., became Garland; East Germantown, Ind., became Pershing; Berlin, Iowa became Lincoln. And so on. More ridiculous was that people called sauerkraut liberty cabbage, hamburgers were liberty steaks, and even German measles became liberty measles. There were also people who said symphonies should stop playing Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. 

Luckily, the genius of those classical composers has survived and thrived on American stages and radios in the decades since, though we could have used some good anti-German cancel culture when Kraftwerk came along. 

FREEDOM HILL?

Associated Press reports that “a recent poll of 1,200 U.S. shoppers found 84 percent on a bipartisan basis indicated they would boycott Russian brands as a sign of solidarity with Ukraine. Still, only 8 percent of them could correctly name any Russian consumer brands without being assisted.”

Ah, at least we’re consistent.

The news report also includes tales of profane calls to stores and restaurants with Russian names. San Franciscans pride themselves on being ahead of the curve, so maybe it’s time we think about renaming Russian Hill.

We are told by the sages — er, Wikipedia — that Russian Hill gets its name because back in those gold-nugget-grubbing days of yore, there was a Russian cemetery atop the hill. (You can still find a plaque in a park there, erected by the Russian government.) Russian sailors were buried on the site; they had visited the area since the early 1800s, with later settlers discovering the crosses marking their graves on what would come to be known as Russian Hill. 

There’s nothing to be gained by calling it Liberty Hill or Freedom Hill. If we really want to show we’re reliably all-American, let’s name it Oracle Hill, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Hill.

Luckily, there are a few people out there defending the name of Russia. In mid-March, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was bogged down — literally, with tanks and transport vehicles getting stuck in muck — a heroine emerged. A Russian journalist named Marina Ovsyannikova walked behind an on-the-air newscaster and held up an anti-war sign, telling people they were being lied to.

Here, all Americans are really being asked to do is endure a bump in oil prices without trying to overthrow the government. 

So, yeah, let’s oppose Russia’s insane and illegal war in Ukraine. But less audience participation, please.

Feedback: [email protected]; author email: [email protected]

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