Friday, March 11, 2011

Disaster Preparedness and Godzilla Movies

As I was driving in this morning, listening to an NPR reporter in Japan report on the earthquake, she said something that caught my ear. She said that if any country could be prepared for something like this it would be Japan because they spend far more money on disaster preparedness than any other nation in the world.

Of course, this immediately made me think of similar claims that are made about the U.S., except that when someone says the U.S. spends hundreds of times more on it per capita than any other nation in the world, the it they are always referring to is national defense. The Japanese spend their money protecting their people from natural disaster, whereas we spend ours on weapons to be used, by in large, overseas.

Why the difference? Japan, of course, has a pacifist constitution after WWII, but even if this wasn't the case, they would probably be on par with European nations or South Korea in terms of military spending. We, on the other hand, may not have the earthquake concern to the degree that they do -- although the west coast certainly has worries -- but we have all sorts of other natural disaster issues that we treat much less seriously (can anyone say Katrina?). from the Reagan era, FEMA was seen as nothing but a political plum, a do nothing, unimportant job to give friends for political patronage. Clinton reformed the agency under James Lee Whitt, but it obviously fell back to its old ways under Bush II.

Then I thought of 1950s and 60s adventure movies from the US and Japan. Our bad guys, the fears that most spoke to our psyches, were Indians needing to be run off by cowboys and villians, super criminals needing to be stopped by super heroes. Theirs were Godzilla and Mothra -- major threats derived from nature run amok. We need guns and powers to protect us from people and peoples who are threats to the American way. But they needed to protect themselves from natural rivals.

the claim is not that pop culture drives spending at the federal level, but rather that priorities are driven by fears which can be seen in various forms in places one might not expect. It also means that changing the collective sense of threat from one thing to another -- say, through popular culture -- could have long-term policy implications.

If that is true, who are the new movie bad guys we ought to see on the screen? More John Grisham type films in which corporate types bring about dangerous situations for the rest of us to enrich themselves? Who else should be seen as fictional threats in cartoon form?