I am an avid reader of books. Perhaps it was all of that time I spent on an airplane over the years (well over one million miles). Perhaps it was my preference for solitude and the stimulation of my own thoughts. It doesn’t matter. I read a lot and have begun to share my thoughts on the many books I read via Amazon and Goodreads. (I am currently an Amazon Top 500 reviewer.)
There have been a rash of books, of late, regarding the economic, political, and social malaise engulfing the western world. The best among them, in my opinion, is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? by Robert Kuttner, cofounder and coeditor of The American Prospect magazine, and a professor at Brandeis University. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. I’ve posted reviews on Amazon and Goodreads if you are interested.
Many contemporary books have resurrected the term “Fascism,” and drawn fearful parallels between the state of the world today and Europe in the period leading up to World War II. The most direct linkage is provided by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in her book, Fascism: A Warning.
Kuttner has little to say about China directly but Albright and the others, too numerous to mention, do. And the core of their assessment appears to be that because the Chinese people do not go to the polls to elect their president in the way that Americans do, and because the government will figuratively silence political dissidents that it deems will disrupt social security and harmony, China must be “evil” in the same sense that Mussolini and Hitler were.
It is, I believe, a tragic and unfortunate misinterpretation of world events that is empowered by the western media’s own fascist pre-occupation with being able to say whatever it wants to say, true or not, and without regard for overall social harmony, which is the only time that productive change can actually take root.
I have long believed that one of the most important hallmarks of being an American is respect for authenticity. My father referred to it as “a man that is comfortable in his own skin.” To me it means a man or woman who speaks and behaves in a way that accurately reflects the person they are and the things that they believe in. And, of course, that he or she believes in the dignity of all people, regardless of wealth, class, race, gender, ethnicity, or ability.
The Chinese, I believe, are very authentic—once you understand their culture. If you evaluate Chinese behavior through American eyes you will, as many Americans do, conclude that the Chinese are a bit rude, don’t always tell the truth, and can be more than a bit pushy. These, however, are false impressions created by the American tendency to evaluate the world against our own standards. That is American culture and it is built on the Aristotelian belief in the linear logic of cause and effect.
What I like about Mr. Kuttner’s book, and believe me that he has not read or authorized this reference, is that he seems to appreciate that cause is less important than effect. Politically speaking, that means that a benevolent dictator that genuinely believes in the dignity of the common man is far superior than a man who is democratically elected (both Mussolini and Hitler were) but who, in his heart, believes himself superior to all others.
I grew up living only miles from a US nuclear air base that was the point of the spear of America’s “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) strategy in the Cold War with the USSR. As an elementary school student in the early 1960s I vividly remember practicing hiding under our desks at school, hands behind our heads, to prepare for possible nuclear annihilation by the Russians. (The kindergarten students, as I recall, were not disciplined enough to follow the protocol, so they all huddled beneath a large blanket.)
John F. Kennedy was the president of the US at the time and my parents trusted him. He was a lot of things that misaligned with their personal values, but they believed that he was a good man, so when he told them to sit tight during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they did just that. They talked about it; they asked questions; but they ultimately believed that Mr. Kennedy would do the right thing.
First introduced in Homer’s Iliad, and later given prominence by the great French writer, Honoré de Balzac, the phrase noblesse obligee comes to mind. Essentially, whatever your personal pedigree, we all should have an innate commitment to our common humanity. And it is that commitment that ultimately matters in our assessment of our leaders. They may have gained power by the ballot box or the sword (and there is little difference, in the end), but it is what they do with that power that ultimately matters most.
In evaluating both China and the US, at the moment, I care not how wealthy President Trump is. I care not about his negotiating skills. I care not about what he says to the cheering crowds he assembles among the disenfranchised. I care only what he does or does not do.
In the case of Chairman Xi Jinping, I feel the same. I care not that he is a member of the Communist Party of China, the word communist itself bringing back terrible memories of the Soviet leaders who my teachers convinced me were anxious to take my life. I care not that his government does not allow full freedom of the press to say whatever it wishes. I care not that he employs whatever means necessary to maintain social harmony. I care, in the end, only about what he does and the degree to which he is authentic and committed to the common men and women of China.
And while we are in the early innings of a very long game on both sides of the Pacific, here is my tally to date:
USA: President Trump is authentic, but authentic in all of the wrong ways for a leader of the strongest nation on the planet. He is a corporatist in populist clothing. In the end he has only a romantic appreciation of the working men and women who made America what it is today. He is a New York elitist with an insatiable appetite for gold and limousines.
China: President Xi Jinping is not a Maoist but he is true to Mao’s original guiding light. Mr. Xi is not his father, but he is true to his authenticity. Mr. Xi, himself, is authentic. He truly believes in the Chinese Dream he talks so much about and has the personal and managerial skills to bring it to life.
If we evaluate a country and a culture not by the press’ ability to print anything it likes in the interest of selling its wares, but by the alignment of the government and the interests of the common person, China gets my nod.
I will share one specific example but there are many more:
While living in China my wife and I ventured down into one of the most popular walking streets in the heart of Beijing one Sunday afternoon to observe the throngs and to enjoy a taste of barbecue. In the middle of this very crowded street was an elderly couple from some far flung rural province that had ventured to Beijing to air some personal grievance with the local government where they lived. Both wore large sandwich boards and paper hats detailing these grievances.
Before long, the police, naturally, showed up. None of them, so far as I could tell, however, were armed. They wore no helmets and carried no shields or batons. The most senior among them, judging by his age, approached the couple and spoke to them in terms I did not understand, but his hands were clasped lightly behind his back the entire time. Nothing about the authorities was menacing in any way.
Eventually the police officer, a federal security officer to be precise, stood back and the couple was allowed to walk in a circle for several minutes. Everyone in China has a smart phone, of course, so the audience was large and many were filming the events. And after several minutes the couple walked toward the nearby police van and climbed in, with the policemen and policewomen’s deference and assistance.
My point here is not to fawn over President Xi Jinping, or to suggest that China does not have its challenges. It is, quite simply, to suggest that the ultimate democratic ideal is a commitment to truth and authenticity. And in that regard, the United States, in 2018, should stand in judgment of few others, and China is not among them.
He may ultimately prove me wrong. At the moment, however, Xi Jinping would have my vote, should China be so foolish, which it won’t, to give me one.
If you read any of my books and like them I would greatly appreciate it if you will take the time to post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or whatever book site you enjoy. Thank you in advance.