When my wife first arrived in the US in 2016, having never before traveled outside the northeast regions of China, she made two rather prompt observations.
The first was to note, “There are no people.” I was perplexed, to be honest, given that we were leaving the Detroit airport at the peak of rush-hour traffic, crawling bumper to bumper among the suburbanites leaving the city center at the end of the work day. “Are you kidding? Look around. The traffic is terrible. Just as I remember it.”
“Those are cars,” she noted, “not people. It’s different.”
Her second observation came some days later, after having experienced American television and what we call the news. “The poor people in America appear very sad. Or angry. That seems strange to me.”
She, in fact, had lived in poverty virtually all of her life. At less than one hundred pounds in total body weight, her shoulders had long since given out from the work she began at the age of eighteen at the state-owned flourmill where both of her parents worked, and on which her family relied for virtually everything, including their apartment. She lifted 25 kg (55 lbs) bags of flour off of a conveyor belt, stitched the top shut, and then piled them on a platform for removal and shipment. And she did it for 8 hours per day, six days per week, and was paid $5 per month.
She is not pious, naïve, or deprecatingly arrogant about her personal history. I have met few in my life who are as candid and matter of fact about the reality of her circumstances. She does ‘get it,’ to use the common American phrase.
But it was Confucius who said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And few people throughout history have embodied their culture or their heritage more completely than he did. Having lived in China for so long I easily imagine the 1.4 billion Chinese currently living there thinking the same thought with frequency throughout each day.
I offer here no ode to the poor and unfortunate. I don’t sing their praises as defined solely by their poverty. I do not mean to put them on an ethical pedestal. But I admit my bafflement that any of us, rich or poor, famous or ignored, imprisoned by bars or by circumstance, believe that our financial worth, or our social network, or even our Twitter following, is defined by things that should make us happy or sad, proud or bitter.
They are what they are, pure and simple. And while that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change them, we should change them for the right reasons and in the right ways.
While Chinese culture is built on a collectivist foundation that turns on personal obligation, American culture is built on an individualistic foundation that turns, so we think, on performance. We inevitably measure, as a result, success and failure of any kind, in personal terms. The successful are gifted, hard-working, and well organized. Those who fail are lazy, unmotivated, and, most likely, deserving of their failure.
The inevitable result is not a contest of ideas, but a contest of competing virtues. ‘Because my ideas are better, I am better.’ It’s just a short hop to contempt. And that, of course, is where sadness and bitterness come from.
On March 14 students across the country took to the street to protest the fact that very angry young men are allowed to buy military assault rifles and kill large numbers of their fellow students. They should be angry. The fact that we are even debating what to do is a sure sign of just how far we’ve fallen from our true American heritage. (When the Second Amendment was adopted in 1791 the only guns in existence had a capacity of only three shots per minute in the most capable hands and were accurate at little more than 20-30 yards.)
And who are the media heroes of this fight? Judging from the coverage it is the students with the loudest voices and the most contempt. And, of course, no politician gets time in front of a television camera today unless he or she is virtually seething with contempt for somebody.
Contempt, of course, seldom solves much of anything. It destroys lives, in fact. It feeds addiction, shortens lives, and leads, inevitably, to sadness and despair.
The reason our politics and our social intercourse is so vile and acerbic at the moment is not the result of Trump’s election or Pelosi’s fund raising skills. It is the result of our unwavering commitment to individualism; to the belief that the individual, either competitively or inclusively (which is really the only difference between Republicans and Democrats, respectively), stands at the center or our economy, our ecology, and our culture.
It worked, with some obvious exceptions (e.g., slavery, the lack of women’s rights), when our world was far less crowded, much more localized, less industrially advanced, and less technologically integrated. It worked, in other words, on a relatively small scale.
The message we should be teaching our children is not that they should feel contempt for the death that surrounds them, but that they are literally all in this together. And in light of that reality there is no room for contempt. There are only solutions that promote the common good. It’s the difference between shouting for the cameras in a gesture that Washington will soon forget, and, say, organizing school watch programs, or student aid programs that help the most alienated children find their social footing before they resort to violence.
In my latest book, We, Ourselves, and Us, I note that early in my career corporate executives felt a strong sense of personal obligation to the employees and the community. My first CEO wanted nothing more than to raise wages and would never have even entertained the idea of closing the factory on which the community relied and moving production to Mexico or China.
Corporate executives today often lament the change, but blame it on globalization or activist shareholders, both of which are beyond their control. It’s bunk. No law has been passed that in any way restricts corporate executives from exercising the kind of obligation they did just a few decades ago. It is merely their sense of individualism that precludes them from accepting their collective obligation.
Individualism without obligation is fatalism. Individualism with obligation is collectivism, what I call we-ism.
When I lived in China I witnessed poverty on a daily basis. It was no-running-water poverty. My friend referred to his own upbringing as a three-bath life (once when you are born, once when you get married, and once when you die). But that never once influenced how he felt about his life or the people around him.
In his latest book, Radical Inclusion, retired general Martin Dempsey notes that when he had to console troops who had lost a comrade, he always said, “Make it matter.” It’s great advice. But it won’t matter if we don’t accept we’re all in it together.
That, I believe, is the message we should share with our children and each other. Once we do, the violence will dissipate. And the newsmakers won’t be quite so full of contempt.
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