Friday, January 28, 2011

Understanding The Rise Of China

The Sophist's Choice.

This interesting TED talk was posted up at the Alpha Asian and bigWOWO blogs, and offers some insights into some of the western world's attitudes regarding Asia. I will admit, though, that I felt somewhat none-the-wiser by the end of the talk.....

As you can see, the gist of the talk seems to be that China is so different that it can never be expected to "become like the West" and that in order to understand China's rise to prominence one must take into account specific qualities that make it atypical. Jacques presents three main points that he calls "building blocks" to help us understand the rise of China.

To be honest I was really underwhelmed by Jacques' talk and found his ideas to be overly simplistic. Much of what he concluded didn't follow from his arguments and at certain points his arguments were actually evidence against the conclusions that he drew - all founded upon some sweeping generalizations and an inept grasp of historical nuance. Jacques simply seems to be making mountains out of molehills, and perceiving differences where they don't actually exist.

His first point attempts to point out how China doesn't think, act or have the characteristics of a nation state and is therefore distinct from the west. Yet, all of the characteristics that he presents that are supposed to show that China is not a nation state (common ethnicity, common cultural values) are actually the very qualities that define a nation state. Here is a good definition of what a nation state is....
'country in which a nation of principally the same type of people exists, organized by either race or cultural background. In the nation-state, generally, everyone would speak the same language, probably practice the same or similar types of religion, and share a set of cultural, “national,” values'.
....somehow because China has different cultural characteristics it is disqualified from the calling itself a nation state. He goes on to insist that China's use of more than one system within its sovereign territory is further evidence that it is not a nation state. Yet, this is simply false. There is no reason why a nation state can't have multiple systems and conditions existing within its borders. Ironically, the UK is an example of this. As part of the terms that turned the British Isles into the "United Kingdom", the constituent kingdoms that comprised it were permitted to maintain many of their own cultural, ethnic, religious, and even legal identities, so according to Jacques definition, the UK cannot be a nation state. Of course, this is nonsense, and only highlights the fact that Jacques has re-defined terms and applied them selectively in order to create this idea of a gulf of distinction.

Jacques' second point actually has no point and is really a pejoritive dressed up as a sophisticated observation. Here, Jacques waxes poetic about the inherent racism of the Chinese and how their attitudes set them apart from the enlightened west. The most obscene aspect of this part of the video is the ease with which Jacques presumes to know the attitudes of 1 billion people, and makes casual generalizations about them. Such is the power of white privilege and the white sense of superiority. Of  course, the biggest irony is that the more Jacques describes this ethnic chauvinism of the Chinese, the more they seem to sound exactly like Europeans.

In the third and final point of Jacques' talk he highlights the subservient nature of the Chinese. He begins by using a fuzzy application of terms. He says.....

...the relationship between the state and society [in China] is very different from that in the the west we see the authority and legitimacy of the state as a function of democracy....the Chinese state enjoys more legitimacy and more authority amongst the Chinese than is true with any western state....
The first problem with this is that nowhere is the legitimacy and authority of the state a function of democracy - not even in the west. This is because the nation state gets its legitimacy and authority from those factors that define it as a nation state. It is a government that gets its legitimacy from the democratic process, no-one votes (except in cases of separatist referendums) on whether or not their state should exist - it is simply taken for granted that it should exist and no-one votes for their state to cease to exist. Of course, when a government's authority comes from itself then what you have is an authoritarian entity, and in the case of China, this is a totalitarian entity. But, so what? Didn't we already know this? Even worse is Jacques' suggestion that totalitarianism is somehow embraced by the Chinese psyche. The reason that the Chinese state (and I think Jacques actually means "government" here) enjoys so much legitimacy amongst the Chinese is because they have the power and will to run a two thousand volt electrical charge through your testicles if you show dissent. Yet, this hugely important fact doesn't figure into Jacques lesson on how to understand China, in fact, it's looking more and more like he actually doesn't really understand China at all.

The biggest question mark over Jacques' actual understanding of China can be found in what he omitted from his talk. Jacques and most other China pundits like to conveniently forget that the west tried to destroy China economically, politically and culturally during the colonial period. Even the though the west has forgotten this, China hasn't. Resistance to colonialism was one of the factors that drove the communist revolution, explains China's distrust of the west, and was a significant factor in much of its internal and foreign policy in the past half century.

In short, Jacques' contentions seem to be based on historical illiteracy and some questionable logical contortions. For instance, he talks about the "Holy Roman Empire splitting up 2000 years ago", which is strange because the Holy Roman Empire didn't come into existence until 1100 years ago and only dissolved in the 18th century - 300 years ago. Maybe he was talking about the division of the Roman Empire proper into East and Western portions, but that was a purely poltical endeavour which wasn't based on any civilizational or cultural divisions. If Jacques doesn't grasp the nuances of his own history, then why should I believe that he is capable of grasping the nuances of the history and culture of China? Jacques has used cultural and historical factors extremely selectively in his talk in a way that suggests a confirmation bias on his part. In fact, the more Jacques describes China, the more they appear to be motivated by many of the same factors that motivate the west.

Overall, Jacques is following a pattern of over-simplification which I alluded to in a previous post. Basically, this type of knowledge dissemination is based upon the fact that it is possible to make all kinds of over-generalized claims about Asia and its peoples and have them accepted by mainstream consumers without question as accurate- even when they are obviously a-historical and logically incoherent.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Asians Eat White Kids For Breakfast

With Chopsticks, Of Course.

In the furor created by the recent "Tiger Mom" article in the Wall Street Journal, it would have been easy to miss out on the fact that few, if any, mainstream commentators displayed any kind of skepticism that Amy Chua may have been guilty of over-generalization in her assertions that her periodically vituperative parenting exuberance was somehow representative of the wider parenting philosophy of the Asian community. In the news dissemination industry where journalists are traditionally taught to dig deeper into a story in order to better determine its efficacy, it is especially surprising that this generalization fallacy was so easily overlooked, and perhaps even embraced.

It brought home for me how willingly society seems to accept the idea that Asians can be conceived of as a single unit, where the qualities exhibited by one Asian can be rapidly generalized as the truth for the entire group and applied accordingly. Even worse is the realization that you can make just about any claim about Asians and it's veracity won't be challenged in the mainstream. The reason for this, I believe, is that Asians have become so de-individuated in mainstream culture, and consequently in the general social consciousness, that it has become normative - and simply less troublesome - to dismiss Asians as a collective entity and not see them as individuals with unique qualities and perspectives. This sociological truth enables the mainstream to feel secure in its own superiority, and transforms anti-Asian discrimination into some kind of natural outcome of Asian cultural deficiencies and not mainstream bigotry.

What this all suggests is that when Easterly Asiatic peoples or their cultures are discussed by the mainstream, reason and logic seem to fly out the window, and are replaced by a gullible inability (or lack of desire) to sort through fact from farce, all with the proclivity toward low-key hysteria. In essence what this means is that the mainstream engages with the Asian minority from an irrational position, from which any and all suggestions that reinforce their pre-conceived (usually negative) notions about us are generally accepted without question, and any evidence to the contrary is dismissed as aberrative.

Naturally, this is a prodigious issue for the Asian minority. Here we are trying to engage in dialogue through literature, art, music, politics and so on, but the mainstream we are trying to reach aren't often engaging with us from a place of logic and reason. The mainstream consciousness is so inculcated with the notion of the uniform indistinguishability of Asians that they literally don't see us as individuals and it is because of this cultural pre-disposition to think of Asian people in derogatory ways, that negative beliefs about us are so easily disseminated as truths.

For the Asian minority, this manifests as a challenge to reassess our ways of perceiving the manner of our interactions with the mainstream (and with ourselves). Because our reception by the mainstream is founded upon irrational gut-reactions to de-personalized pejorative stereotypes of its own creation, any challenge to it requires a staunch re-assertion of Asians as individual entities. This approach leaves no room for the kind of backpedaling defense into cultural relativity as exhibited by Chua in her Wall Street Journal article and in her subsequent interviews. Those in the Asian minority who seek to present an honest understanding of their community simply do not have the privilege of using the over-generalizing language employed by Chua (and many others) - this simply undermines their own endeavours.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Case For More Anti-Asian Bias In College Admissions

A Blessing In Disguise?

As an Asian man I belong to a demographic that is routinely misrepresented in society by gross generalizations and stereotypes. Most of the Asian men I've known come nowhere close to being the type of pathetic individuals that society apparently needs them to be. It's because of this experience that I have adopted a rule of thumb that reminds me that when discussing groups of people, the only generalization that one can accurately make is that it is more misleading than accurate to make generalizations. Apart from the vulgar generalizations such as pointing out that all people eat and defecate (does this need pointing out?) all other generalizations regarding particular groups' motivations and attitudes offer us limited capacity to truly appreciate the humanity of others.

On the subject of over-generalization and defecation, I couldn't help but be moved by a recent Wall Street Journal article written by Amy Chua, a second-generation Chinese-American mother of two - possibly psychologically damaged - teenage girls. According to Chua an extremely tough approach to parenting involving verbal abuse, totalitarian control over her childrens' desires, as well as starvation blackmail, are what is required to produce math whizzes and musical prodigies in one's children. She labels this the "Chinese Mother" approach.

In an apparent effort to avoid the charge of propagating racial and cultural stereotypes, she goes on to insist that this approach is not exclusive to Chinese mothers since she apparently knows mothers from other ethnic and cultural groups who engage in this type of child rearing. Yet, despite the disclaimer, Chua represents her method as an approach practiced by the general Chinese parenting body. To me this is both cowardly and dishonest.

Clearly Chua believes that she is presenting an approach to parenting that might be construed by her target audience (the white mainstream) as controversial. As she readily admits, some of her practices could be considered abusive and unacceptable to the white mainstream audience that she is apparently trying to convince. One might even say that her article is deliberately provocative and has the triumphal tone of someone convinced of their own rightness. Yet despite the self-assured posturing of the article's tone, not once does Chua take personal responsibility for her actions. Having thrown the rocks of controversy, she beats a hasty retreat behind the Great Wall of Chinese Cultural Mystique. She does these things that are arguably abusive yet slyly absolves herself of personal responsibility by "disappearing" behind the veil of cultural relativity.

This to me is intellectual cowardice. If Chua wants to paint herself as some kind of maverick parent promoting a superior alternative parenting method then fine, but don't make unfounded claims that these strategies are typical to Chinese culture - they might very well be, but the article doesn't do a good job of convincing me of it. Certainly, Chua attempts to support her claims by mentioning studies that show that Chinese parents don't think that learning should be fun, and that Asian parents drill their kids more than white parents. Yet, how does this support her claims that verbal abuse, threats, and threats to deny food are a common practice amongst Chinese parents? It doesn't.

As a Professor of Law at Yale and a Harvard graduate, Chua could arguably be said to represent the very best that Asian-American academia has to offer for the intellectual advancement of Asian-American thinking. Yet, the blatantly weak inductive reasoning exhibited in the article points to some very serious issues with the reasoning capacities of even our most academically accomplished individuals. To be fair, the article is only an excerpt from Chua's new book and so may not necessarily reflect the overall gist of the book, yet most writers publish excerpts that are most representative of the themes that they are exploring in the larger publication. It doesn't look good!

If the thinking exhibited in this article reflects the very best that Asian-American minds have to offer, then Chua has destroyed the motivational foundation for her parenting style. What's the point of striving for prodigy and Ivy-League when the result seems to be intellectual mediocrity?