Ura and Omote

Why does Dick Cheney, holder of an office that has historically been a backwater of irrelevance, think he can run a private and independent administration? The answer lies in a historic reversal of the loci of reality between the ura and omote of governance in the US. These words denote a pair of fundamental Japanese philosophical concepts: ura means “behind, hidden” and omote means “in front, visible”. What’s important is the implicit associations the Japanese attach to the ideas: in general, what is ura is real and consequential, while what is omote is symbolic but not real. The usual example of this arrangement is the long-time ura governance of Japan by a reticent and retiring (and, of course, ruthless and decisive) shogun, who was nominally the military subordinate of an omote emperor. The latter in turn performed the public ceremonial duties of office but his decisions and statements were handed to him by the shogun. Control of the emperor was simply one of the perks seized by the warlord who succeeded in making himself shogun.

A system like this is quite distasteful to Americans, who like to have things as they appear, with the symbolic exercises of government carried out as real, visible, decisionmaking and administration. The Japanese, as I understand it, think it’s charmingly naive to believe that reality should, or could, inhere anywhere but the ura of things.

What the press has been slow to figure out is that the US has come under a shogunate with which we have very little experience and to whose appearance or possibility we have always been hostile (Col. House whispering in Wilson’s ear, McKinley dancing on Mark Hanna’s strings). The current arrangement, however, is a profound rearrangement of what Americans take for granted. The 2000 election put in place a duogun of Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and an omote face, trotted out with a script and a shoeshine, for events carefully managed to avoid surprises when ceremonial or formal duties are needed. How did W get ahead of Jeb? One reason is probably that Jeb early on showed delusions of being a real executive, alarmingly lacking the docility required for the job on offer. The reactions of White House staff to Cheney’s behavior, and his staff’s, suggest only that some of them have not been properly briefed.

Historically, alliances to share power have been unstable, and one or another of temporarily equal shoguns usually found a way to neutralize or liquidate his rival and tidy things up his own way. Being out of town at the wrong moment, insulting a subordinate who switches sides, or any of myriad small errors, can topple a delicate balance of power. I’m not aware of anything so trivial as a quail and a load of #7 deflecting history…so far.

Footnote: Bettors against Cheney will be encouraged by the news that he was carrying a wussy 28-gauge with a nancy Italian name, not a real 12-gauge from Winchester or some other respectable Amurrican house. Shooting a foreign kid’s gun, though lucky for Mr. Whittington, is certainly a sign of weakness Cheney’s enemies will exploit.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.