Chinese are fond of saying that they have 5,000 years of history, which makes their country “old.” To their minds, European countries are also “old,” since most of them have at least 1,000 years of history. The comparison is also made in terms of “civilizations.” Western civilization is thought to be comparable to Chinese civilization in age, and even European civilization has at least 1,500 years of history since the fall of Rome. What, then, of the United States? The U.S. is of course considered a “young” country, with only 200 years of history. Chinese rarely see the U.S. as being a more recent, yet fundamentally continuous, incarnation of a comparably ancient Western or European civilization. Many Europeans are in agreement about America’s youth, and the Americans themselves do nothing to counter this narrative, given how it coheres with their own self-conceptions (and self-deceptions) about a nation founded anew out of the wilderness 200 years ago. What makes a country old or new? To what extent is the “age” of a community distinct from its “continuity?” And what aspects of its continuity really matter to its age?
It was indignity that drove the Germans, Chinese, and Americans to want revenge. The Germans almost had their revenge in World War Two, after having been humiliated by the settlement after World War One. Many Chinese today now want their revenge against the West and Japan for their “century of humiliation,” from the Opium War up through the unequal treaties, the “carving up” of China, and the occupation by Japan. The Americans have certainly had their revenge. A revolution born in passionate opposition to a king and the very idea of the nobility has resulted in a world where everyone wears jeans and the movies spread “the American way of life” to every corner of the globe. If, unlike the Germans and Chinese, Americans seem hardly aware of a repressed desire for revenge, this says more about the psychological blinders of dominance than it does about the effects of such dominance on the less powerful. The contemporary world cannot be understood without understanding how indignity and disrespect have led to nationalism. By what mechanism does this happen? Where does nationalism really come from?
Nationalism has a justifiably bad reputation, given its responsibility for many or most of the horrors of the last two centuries. Is there anything good about nationalism? According to Liah Greenfeld in Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, the origins of nationalism lie in the desire for dignity. Commoners in 17th Century England were elevated to the status of “the people,” who exercised sovereignty through representative institutions just like the aristocracy, and peasants in revolutionary France became citizens, whose unleashed energies would conquer much of Europe. Nationalism gave the middle-classes and even the lowest-born a reason to feel proud of belonging to the “nation” and included among the “people.” We still see these psychological benefits of nationalism play out today among the working classes of the advanced democracies (e.g. the religious right in the U.S. or soccer hooligans in England). Being part of the nation gives people a reason to be proud, and if the working class has fewer reasons to be proud individually (e.g. income or occupation), they have all the more reason to be proud of their countries.
We who live in China and have engaged in the least with local intellectuals in the debate about democracy in China should all be familiar with the argument that freedom requires discipline and responsibility. How, they ask, can we give uneducated peasants the freedom to vote, if they don’t know how to properly use that freedom? How can the rule of law be meaningful and effective if ordinary people have no fundamental respect for that law and flout it when no one is looking (e.g. stopping at traffic lights) or find ways to get around it (e.g. going through the “backdoor”)? How can government truly be limited and power checked by competition if different parties or institutions don’t exercise restraint about what they would do to maximize power? We may not agree that China is not ready for democracy. But we should know where these Chinese are coming from and have internalized their arguments. Unlike readers in America, we should know what Charles Murray means in Coming Apart when he says that freedom is enabled by certain “founding virtues,” and that the demise of such virtues threatens freedom.
Many Chinese feel surprising affection toward Forest Gump. Chinese are drawn not only to the sappy melodrama of Gump and his sweetheart “fated” to be together, but to the “simplicity” of the dim, but infinitely “wise” Forrest Gump, whose life seems to prove the merits of the Taoist concept of wuwei (i.e. not acting in the world). Gump always means what he says. Gump does not weigh the effects of his words. Gump has no “theory of other minds,” on the basis of which he might calculate the effect of his words on others, with a view to currying their favor. Unlike the Chinese, Gump is not conscious of the ubiquity of politics in everyday life, nor of the masks, personae, and posturing that help determine the distribution of resources in any group of people – or in any political regime. Gump seems to hold out hope that success is possible without politics, and that cynicism can be defeated, just as long as we are stupid enough not to know that there is anything to be defeated. Chinese see Americans just as they see Forrest Gump. Are they right that Americans are a naïve and simple people? Or are they the simple ones?
Observers starting with Tocqueville in Democracy in America have taken note of the vitality of voluntary associations in America. Chief among these has been the diversity of religious organizations. Although Europeans are apt to denounce the United States an overtly religious and Christian country, and overly conservative owing precisely to its religiosity, what they fail to realize is that the history of the church in the United States couldn’t be more different from that of state-sponsored establishment churches in European history. Simply put, sectarian Christianity in the United States has been vital from the founding until this day, because there has always been a free market among religious denominations doing their best to draw new adherents. Because the state was explicitly neutral and took no sides on what should count as an official church, organized religion was never seen as part of a political order that progressives would want to overturn. What does the continuing vitality of the church in America today really say about the U.S.? What implications might this have for how we see American culture and foreign policy?
In the traditional Chinese family, the father is a stern figure. While the children might find genuine human affection with the mother, they feared the father’s watchfulness. The son, especially, was watched for correct expressions of concern, affection, and filial piety. He knew that to please his father he had to display that biaoxian (performance, expression, or attitude) appropriate to being a son. Furthermore, the son knew that not fulfilling these expectations would hurt the father, because it was through these expectations that the father expressed his concern for his son. Thus, doing a good job of playing the role or “game” of being the son was the key to the father’s approval, and since the father knew that the son knew this, and the son knew that the father knew this, there was consensus as to what constituted the success of their relationship. This Confucian, role-based morality had little place for what we value as sincerity. To be “sincere” was to do the best job of performing an outwardly “genuine” adherence to role-based standards of behavior, rather than what we see as the outward expression of an inner emotional reality.
Put a kid in a room with a tempting cookie, and nothing else but that cookie, and see if he chooses to eat that cookie immediately or wait ten minutes, so that he is rewarded with another cookie. If he can’t wait, he prefers immediate gratification. If he waits, he prefers delayed gratification. According to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, those kids who wait for the second cookie turn out to be more intelligent later in life, and can even be seen as more “rational.” Might, however, those kids who exhibit more self-control turn out to be more intelligent simply because a conducive social environment determines both? What contributes to “intelligence” in advanced industrial society, if not the self-control needed to sit through 16+ years of primary, secondary, and tertiary education? Most crucially, why would we say that these kids are more “rational,” given that the preference for delayed gratification varies enormously by culture and time period, and that such “rationality” happens to coincide with that which determines success in our own advanced industrial societies? None of these questions occur to Kahneman.
As Walter Russell Mead points out in his blog, December 17th, 2011 was the 234th anniversary of French recognition of the United States of America. Louis XVI had been convinced by the American victory at Saratoga in 1777 that the American Revolution could be won, making this tiny battle of under 10,000 combatants hugely consequential for world history. France would later intervene and tip the balance of the war against the British, especially with its navy, thus engendering the gratitude of the American people in a way perhaps not dissimilar to Kuwaiti attitudes toward the U.S. after the Gulf War — a feeling at once tribal, a touch irrational, yet deeply resonant. Living in China, it is easy for us to be overawed by the rise of China and lose sight of a wider historical perspective from which we clearly apprehend the far more spectacular rise of the United States, from a population less than that of most second-tier Chinese cities to the dominant power of the last century, enjoying since 1776 what has easily been a 3600-fold increase in GDP. What does this other revolution mean in the context of China and its revolution?
Julia Lovell’s The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of China is generally a successful, highly readable history, especially in how it seems to collect every humorous detail about the Chinese war effort (not humorous to all, of course) in one place. Lovell has a talent for capturing the war’s ironies, both as they relate to subsequent Chinese history and the British Empire of the time. Where the book may fall flat is in being a classic history of the Opium War (her stated purpose), not in her discussion of the war itself, but of contemporary Chinese nationalism, which seems tacked on and out of place, and will no doubt seem dated in a decade. Stylistically, her discussion of British images of China (especially the Yellow Peril) did not seem very well integrated, and toward the end, her use of the Opium War as “spectator” in the events of 20th century, popping up at odd moments like Forrest Gump, often seemed forced and inadvertently funny (as though Gump really had been at the center of everything). Nevertheless, the book provides a good framework for discussion in our book club of a number of broader, enduring issues.
We were very pleased to host Walter Russell Mead at our lecture series last week. At The American Interest and at The Council on Foreign Relations, Mead has been one of the foremost foreign policy thinkers of the past decade. His thought has straddled the academic and think tank worlds, combining deep cultural and historical analysis with contemporary international affairs, and has resulted in number of influential books, including Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001), and God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (2007). Special Providence was especially influential in arguing that U.S. foreign policy since 1776 has been based on permutations of a small number of deeply-rooted political/cultural outlooks embedded in the American experience – and indeed that foreign policy outcomes can be explained by these cultural factors. His magnum opus, God and Gold, which we read in the book club, took this analysis a step further, arguing that commonalities in British and American culture have enabled their combined 300+ year global hegemony.
A lot of people have been asking me recently about how I like my new job, so I thought I’d try to answer them all in one place, and try to place this into some larger theoretical context. I’ll start with a contrast. Since the French and American Revolutions, we have progressively enfranchised a larger proportion of our citizenry. This means that at most once a year we get to vote for our leaders. Meanwhile, since the Industrial Revolution up through the 1980s (and possibly since then), we have increasingly spent almost half our waking lives (up to 50 weeks a year) working in large, bureaucratic corporations with clear hierarchies. Power relations are the opposite of democratic politics. Why do we accept authoritarianism at work, when we don’t in our politics? How have the convulsions of the 20th century tried and failed to address this problem? And given that this problem hasn’t been solved, and we can live with this odd juxtaposition of equal dignity in the public sphere while taking orders from our bosses, what is it that motivates us, the corporate minions (i.e. the majority of us), to go to work every day and achieve “success?”