Monday, July 30, 2012

Context and More Context

Much ado has been made of Barack Obama's purported declaration that "If you've got a business- you didn't build that." Democratic pleas that the President's remarks are being taken out of context will have little effect in certain quarters of the electorate. It is ridiculous to suggest, as Republicans contend, that Obama was wholesale denying the value of individual initiative and entrepreneurship. He was, however, arguing that our social responsibilities and indebtedness remain robust, even grow, as our individual success contributes to the general prosperity. That message will never be welcome among voters who are persuaded that taxes must never be raised on "job creators," no matter how much context is provided for the President's phraseology.

In fairness, Mitt Romney's words have been subject to similar parsing in the course of this campaign. In August of 2011, during a soapbox talk at the Iowa State Fair, Romney made the unfortunately phrased declaration that "corporations are people, my friend." Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called this a "shocking admission." Republicans would correctly point out that Romney's words are only shocking if you misconstrue his meaning and elide his subsequent remarks. The former Governor did not mean that corporations themselves have the moral status of human beings, but that "everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people."

Still, put into the larger context of his campaign message, Romney's statement does draw a clear contrast between his perspective and that of the President. This June in Wisconsin, Romney accused the President of being "out of touch," saying, "He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people." If we place this quote next to Romney's declaration of last August; what other implication can we draw except that corporations are people, but firemen, policemen, and teachers are not?

Romney's defenders would no doubt insist that this is a misreading of the candidate's words. At the very least, however, they beg an inquiry into his larger perspective. If Romney is spontaneously capable of articulating that "everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people;" why is he not likewise intuitively capable of acknowledging that everyone rescued, protected or educated by the groups he denigrates are people too?

Though a narrow focus on a candidate's phrasing offers little insight into his or her policy positions, the extemporaneous choice of words can open a window onto a candidate's general values, priorities, and political reflexes. Whether any of the statements quoted above represent genuine "gaffes," they do in some sense offer a picture of two general world views. The President spontaneously stresses our responsibilities to one another over the rewards due individual initiative. Mitt Romney, by contrast, reflexively exalts monetary earnings and and is dismissive of personal labor. This fall the voters must decide which perspective they find more humanistic and humane, which represents a clearer and more positive break with our recent past, and which will best serve the nation in a time of economic distress.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Syria is not Iraq

In yesterday's New York Times, Thomas Friedman offered a column entitled "Syria is Iraq." In it, he notes that "Syria is Iraq’s twin — a multisectarian, minority-ruled dictatorship that was held together by an iron fist under Baathist ideology." He therefore predicts that a "decent outcome" is unlikely in Syria in the absence of "a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition." In other words, Syria is doomed to perpetual anarchy and civil war, because unlike Iraq, Syria will not enjoy the benefits of being invaded by the United States.

Friedman is not arguing for a U.S. invasion of Syria. He concedes that "Iraq was such a bitter experience for America" (as opposed to the Iraqis themselves, for whom the U.S. invasion was presumably a holiday) that invading Syria is unthinkable. It is difficult to fathom the practical point of Friedman's piece. Having conceded that "what is impossible," Friedman notes that "in the Middle East, the alternative to bad is not always good. It can be worse." His conclusion would thus seem to be that since the U.S. can not do what is necessary in Syria, it should do nothing at all.

What intrigues me most about Friedman's column is the way it epitomizes much conventional American thinking, not only about the Middle East, but about the world at large. "Decent outcomes" can only come from the application of U.S. power. Where American might is ineffective, only pessimism and fatalism are warranted.

In his fit of paternalism, Friedman has forgotten one colossal difference between Syria and Iraq. The movement to displace the Assad regime, unlike the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is an organic, indigenous impulse of Syrian society. That fact alone may create resources and possibilities that were curtailed in the case of Iraq. If the Hussein regime had fallen to a home-grown uprising rather than succumbing to a sudden power vacuum caused by foreign invasion, perhaps in the process alternative power structures could have been built and new social compacts negotiated, precluding the "need" for a nine-year occupation. Perhaps the outcome in that case might have been a good sight more decent than the strife-torn country Iraq is today.

What is happening right now in Syria is of course very tragic, but it is potentially very hopeful in the long term. If the Syrian rebels manage to oust the Assad regime, it will be a major victory for people's revolution over the forces of modern military technology and entrenched totalitarianism. The very fact that the Syrian people have sustained their armed revolution for seventeen months in the face of murderous violence demonstrates that they have more courage, resourcefulness, and political will than Thomas Friedman gives them credit for.

A good outcome may be long in coming, and perhaps Friedman's darkest predictions will bear out in truth. But if the Syrian people do fight through to a better day, perhaps we can finally put aside delusions of American "midwifery" and come to a new assessment of the limits and potential of U.S. power. In the meantime, though the ultimate fate of Syria depends on the Syrian people themselves, it would be unwise of any nation to stand by and spectate as Syria bleeds. It is arrogant to assume that the Syrian people require a U.S. invasion to build a new future, but it is foolish to assume that any revolutionary movement facing such stacked odds can win through without assistance. If a new day does dawn in Syria, its people will remember who aided them and who stood idly by.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Rectification of Names

On July 10th, the New York Times published an editorial by Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell entitled "A Confucian Constitution for China." It argues that a Confucian "Way of the Humane Authority" is more suited to the needs of China than either authoritarianism or democracy. The essay has provoked much response, in both  English and Chinese. I do not intend to parse through the individual points of Jiang's and Bell's proposal, as that has been done ably by several commentators. As Perry Link observed in a brief response published by the Times on July 13, the chief failing of the essay is its claim to develop a genuine "third way" for China. Though Jiang and Bell demonstrate clearly how their system differs from democracy, which they deem "flawed in practice," they do little to distinguish it from China's current system of authoritarian rule or to explain how it would better serve the Chinese people than the current regime.

Indeed, the only thing to recommend the constitution outlined by Jiang and Bell is its purported "Confucianism." For those of us engaged in the academic study of Chinese culture here in the U.S., such a public exercise in Orientalism is disheartening. The tendency to fetishize aspects of China's venerable culture has always been strong, but one hopes that over time it will be ameliorated by education and expanding awareness.

Progress has obviously been slow, however. As one colleague pointed out in an online forum, a close historical analog for the Times' proposal can be found in the case of Frank Johnson Goodnow, an American scholar who urged the first president of the Chinese Republic, Yuan Shikai, to dismantle the republic and declare himself emperor. Goodnow, like Bell and Jiang, argued that democracy was ill-suited to Chinese culture, and that the Chinese people needed the succor of their traditional institutions. Yuan (who from the outset was an erstwhile Republican) happily took Goodnow's advice, and the result was disaster: China was plunged into a decade-long "warlord period" marked by suffering and destruction. This kind of romanticization of Chinese tradition is rare in the academy today, but it obviously continues to inflect the attitudes and judgment of many cultural leaders here in the U.S.

My own sorrow at this incident is heightened by the fact that, in one respect, I agree with Jiang and Bell. Like them I believe that Confucian tradition will be very influential in the future political evolution of China, and I am convinced that the rich legacy of Confucianism has much to teach thinkers, leaders, and artists of all kinds throughout the world. In that respect, however, the essay in question has done more harm than good. However many romantic notions about Chinese tradition they might hold, Times readers generally know a silly idea when they see one. If this is their only exposure to Confucian thinking on current problems, they can not come away with the impression that Confucianism has much of value to contribute to today's discourse. This is an unfortunate misperception, and necessitates the Confucian practice of "the rectification names." All its readers should be aware that not only is Jiang's and Bell's proposal not very practical, it is not particularly Confucian either. Do not judge the entire Confucian tradition on the basis of this one use of its symbols and rhetoric.