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Retreat and advance

Noboru Tomonari is the Chair of Asian Languages and Professor of Japanese.

“My firm belief is that the only thing we have to fear . . . is the fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” These are the famous words of Franklin D. Roosevelt at his first inauguration on March 4, 1933. He was speaking in the aim of trying to combat the Great Depression although fascism was also on the rise. I agree with his sense of needing to fear “fear itself” even when we are dealing with the pandemic this time. I also suggest, however, that strategic retreating has its merits too and the kind of “advance” that we make needs to be thoroughly analyzed before put into practice. 

The Carletonian sent me a manga (Japanese cartoon) and solicited my thoughts on it. The manga was on a Japanese high school student who came to be ostracized by his friends at school because his mother worked as a nurse at a hospital that was treating COVID-19 patients. The Tokyo Metropolitan government commissioned the manga and had shared it with the Japanese and non-Japanese students at K-12 schools in Tokyo.

The manga, while fictional, is based on actual ostracizing that occurred to many Japanese individuals who tested positive with COVID-19 and to the health professionals who are treating the disease. When every country in the world and its residents are trying to protect themselves (including Carleton community), it is difficult to free oneself from a defensive mindset. The victimizers in the manga, who are trying to detach themselves from the protagonist student, are also themselves victims in their own shoes. We are all victims, more or less, of our current predicament.

My discipline is neither psychology nor sociology, but my common sense tells me that an aggression or hostility experienced by an individual often has a direct correlation with the degree of victimization (real and imagined) that the individual is experiencing. The rise of fascism and jingoism in the 20th century Germany and Japan had a lot to do with the Great Depression and the erosion of the middle class. “Circle the wagons” or “build the wall” are natural reactions when a group or a community feels threatened and imagines an enemy. The degree that a person or a community stays sane is conditional on the extent of rational and scientific scrutiny one can subject oneself to.

So getting back to the Roosevelt quote, yes, we do need to fear “fear itself” but we also need to keep on protecting ourselves, our families, and our schools. Retreating for that purpose is permissible during the moment of crisis such as the present. We should refrain from rash “advancing,” moreover, and avoid victimizing or ostracizing others. Towards such an end, I think a strategic retreating of a kind, while also planning out objective and scientific counter-measures and “advance” using them, become two pillars of our shared struggle against the pandemic and its future aftermath. 

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