Peony, from Tang Dynasty Times, asked me to recount an exchange I had, years ago, with eminent economic historian Andre Gunder Frank. There's no ancient Chinese philosophy in this, just a rather amusing personal story. It's a bit long, so I am putting it below the fold, for any who are interested.
A couple of days ago we went to see the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Its premise is, at once, unusual yet obvious: it traces the life of a man born old and who, as he ages, gets progressively younger. I have never encountered this kind of narrative (but I am not a fiction guy...); so, it struck me as ingenious, but it also seemed like something that should have been done before, rendered in various cultural contexts. Maybe there are other versions of the "gets younger as he ages" story. Please let me know if you know of any.
In any event, I will say right up front that I liked it. Not everyone did. For me, the questions raised by the process of aging backward were fascinating. What kind of relationships could he have with other people? What would his life amount to, ultimately? And in pondering these questions, I found myself, as I often do, falling back on Taoist answers. I will sketch out some of the Taoist angels below the fold, so as not to spoil the plot for those who have not yet seen the movie.
Chris, in searching for the core of Bell's argument, comes up with this reading:
Bell puts it this way, “rights, if they’re to be meaningful in practice, must have some grounding in the local culture” (91). What
I take Bell to mean is that authentic values and practices (a) are
responses to empirical facts on the ground specific to the
circumstances at hand, and (b) spring from the way in which those facts
can take on different weightings or salience when they are interpreted
through the lens of the specific local culture and history in which
those facts are enmeshed.
Given that for Bell this is the “Eastern” way, as he sees it in the Eastern perspective, the particular trumps the universal. Authentic or meaningful values spring from a combination of contingent sets of facts, both empirical and cultural.
I want to consider this notion of "the particular trumps the universal."
I can see how this statement captures something important about Confucianism. Any reader of Hall and Ames will appreciate the context-dependent nature of Confucian ethics. And, thus, it makes good sense that any consideration of human rights in a Chinese cultural milieu would have to be open to a strong particularist, or situational, approach to the issues involved.
I have two cautions to add to this, however.
First, I would hesitate to make too stark a distinction between the particularist "East" and the universalist "West." While it may be true that a kind of universalism may be strong in "Western" philosophy and ethics, particularism is certainly to be found. Think of the abortion debate. While universal rights are certainly invoked, particularly for the women involved, a key aspect of the pro-choice position is the impossibility of applying a single moral standard to a plethora of possible situations. Each individual must sort out for herself whether to bring a pregnancy to term or not, based on her specific personal circumstances. And that is why choice is good: it is flexible enough to allow for a host of particularities. On the other side, we can find universalist elements in "Eastern" thought. I am always struck by the tone of Mencius: he articulates clear principles of humane governance that should serve as general (yes, we could say universal) guidelines that transcend any particular state border (or possibly even cultural context). Of course, the application of the guidelines will have to the shaped by specific circumstances, but there is a distinct sense of an ultimate good: humane governance. Confucianism is not so situational as to give up on certain core principles.
To put it another way: the West is not, and has never been, as "Western" as our philosophical generalizations suggest, nor has the East ever been so "Eastern."
Second, let's say that Chris's reading of Bell is correct, and that Bell, in turn, is correct; that is: in a Chinese cultural context "the particular trumps the universal." So what? What difference does that make for the possibilities of human rights in China? Not much, I think.
Historically, at least since the May 4th period (and we might be able to push that back...), there have been Chinese people in China making claims that all Chinese people should share in universal human rights. Those advocates of human rights were a minority, to be sure, but who is to say they were not "Chinese." We can reject the "they were simply embracing a foreign ideology" critique because that is what Chinese Marxists did as well. The early twentieth century was a time of openness and cosmopolitanism, when many ideas and theories and cultural practices were flowing into and through China, reshaping the meaning of Chinese-ness. Chinese culture was transformed in myriad ways. A liberal expression of Chinese-ness was just as Chinese as a socialist expression of Chineseness: they were all hybrid reinventions of Chinese-ness.
The issue, then, is not one of philosophy or "culture" (however that might be defined), but of politics and, ultimately, military power. Marxism won in China not because of some supposed affinity between its collectivism and Chinese communitarianism. It won because Mao was a more ruthless and effective guerrilla fighter than Cai Yuanpei. Liberalism failed politically in China, squeezed between the neo-traditionalist, neo-fascism of the right-wing of the KMT and the Leninist-Maoist mobilization of the CCP. Culture did not determine politics; politics determined politics, and in so doing obstructed certain cultural possibilities.
Fast forward to 2008. Since 1949, there have been repeated instances of Chinese people coming forth to demand protection of fundamental civil and political rights. These have all been crushed by the CCP. In other words, in the particular circumstances of the PRC there have been various instances of people demanding human rights. Or, to put a finer point on it: the demand for human rights is very much a part of the particular circumstances of the PRC. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the tyrannical political system of the PRC inherently generates these demands for human rights. Human rights are absolutely and deeply embedded in the particularities of the PRC.
The rebuttal to this point might be to ask: then why have the demands for human rights never been victorious? Why haven't more people supported these demands? And we could answer: because the CCP ruthlessly destroys anyone who tries, thus creating a very powerful disincentive for people to follow what otherwise might be their natural political inclinations.
I realize that my answer is loaded - how can I possibly know what "natural political inclinations" might have been? Of course, I cannot know. But neither can Bell. In the repressive political environment that is the PRC it is impossible to know if people would freely choose to demand and defend human rights to a greater degree. And that is my point, exactly: the problem is not the culture, it's the politics. Without greater political freedom we cannot know the full and unfettered political expression Chinese culture.
Samuel Huntington died on Christmas Eve. He was a fairly famous academic, best known, in the past decade or so, for his "clash of civilizations" idea. For someone of my age, however, there were other, perhaps more important books. His, Political Order in Changing Societies was an important book for those of us who do comparative politics. It may have suffered from something like physics envy, in its attempt to reduce very complex historical processes to rather simplistic formula, but it stimulated a lot of discussion and ideas. Whether one agreed with him or not, all had to engage his arguments - and that is about the greatest accolade for any academic.
In trying to delineate major cultural divisions in the world, Huntington identifies a "Sinic" civilization, which encompasses China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam. It does not include Japan. Indeed, Japan, for Huntington, is a civilization unto itself. This strikes me as absurd. Culturally, there are long standing and deep historical interactions among China, Korea and Japan. If by "civilization" we mean some combination of religious and philosophical and aesthetic ideas and practices (i.e. some general notion of "culture"), then it is very hard to see how Japan would fall outside the "sinic" zone.
What sets Japan apart from China is not so much culture as it is politics. The Meiji Restoration was a key turning point in the modern disjunction between China and Japan. And I would argue that the key reason why Japan was able to transform so quickly in the face of imperialist pressue (as my students are tired of hearing me say) was its internal political structure, a combination of fragmented military power (with each domain having the prerogative of maintaining its own forces) and centralized political authority (which meant that if the Shogunate could be overthrown a new national project could be undertaken from the center outward). China's more thoroughgoing political centralization (held together critically by the examination system and the bureaucracy) proved much more resistant to fundamental change. Japan changed and modernized faster than China, not because of some civilizational or cultural difference, but because of some very basic political institutional differences.
If that is the case, then Huntington's "civilizations," at least as they relate to Asia, appear to be based more on politics than culture. And that would seem to undermine his general proposition that a kind of vague cultural affinity will shape international politics. In other words, it is not culture that shapes politics, as he wants us to believe, but politics that shapes politics.
That is not to say that culture is meaningless. Rather, however influential Huntington's ideas, his notion of "civilization" is just too vague to explain the difference between China and Japan. And if you can't explain that difference, you can't say very much about East Asia.
Wow. I think I just found a way to stream Dylan Thomas's, "A Child's Christmas in Wales," onto the blog. When you click the links below, a recording of the author reading the piece should download directly to your machine, and it will play on a Windows Media Player. I am not sure about other types of machines or connections. Let me know it if works.
I'm excited because this is something I have listened to since I was a small boy. My parents were great enthusiasts of Thomas. On Christmas Eves back in the sixties and seventies, we used to listen to a scratchy record. I have read it myself a couple of times, once in China, in Nanjing on Christmas Eve, 1988. But nothing compares to Thomas himself. His voice is exquisite.
No real connection to Chinese philosophy here. Just a marvelous oral performance. Or I guess I could say I am doing a filial thing: my father especially loved this recording. Enjoy:
I have yet to emerge from the demands of the season. Much running around yesterday to tie up loose Christmas ends. And today, though rather more relaxed, a family dinner will keep me busy from afternoon into the night - I am the cook. Not much time for original blog content; so, let me revert to the last refuge of blogging scoundrels: links to past posts.
This first one reflects upon winter solstice and whether our various celebrations this time of year are escapes from our fear of the dark:
Almost a week without a post. That's not like me. So what's up? A couple of things. First, was the grading. This semester I taught two sections of the same class, "Asia and the World," an introduction to Asian history and politics. All told there were seventy students between the two sections. I give a final exam: a take-home, selfs-scheduled, twenty-hour hour, open-book, two essay exam. Each essay comes in at about 3-4 pages. Let's say 4 pages (some are much longer) each: 4 x 2 x 70 = 560 pages to grade. It takes a while. I finally finished today. Hooray!
But it all took a bit longer than it might because on Sunday we (my wife and daughter and I) went into the city (there is only on "city" in my parlance: NYC) to see a show: "Road Show," the new production by Stephen Sondheim. I liked it. Even though it will most likely not become a great Broadway production, it had all the virtues of a Sondheim show, an interesting score, some nice songs (especially, "The Best Things That Has Ever Has Happened"), and a quirky plot. A good night. But a couple of days that took me away from grading and blogging, etc. I'll pick up again tomorrow, or soon....
MORE than 3600 people from all walks of Chinese society have now signed
"Charter 08", an internet manifesto calling for the Communist Party to
relinquish its absolute political control.
And blogger Oiwan Lam in Hong Kong also reports "thousands"of signatories at this point. She also delves into some of the criticisms of the Charter, those who refer to it as "a traitor declaration."
Of course, we have to expect that CCP agents and sympathizers will take to the internet and attack anyone who criticizes the Party as "traitors." They are rather like Red Sox fans who, when confronted with the question of which is the greatest baseball team of all time, resort to the unthinking, knee-jerk reaction: "Yankees Suck!". It is more like a primal scream than a rational argument.
But there is a more interesting question here for defenders of CCP dictatorship: how can we know what the preferences of the Chinese people are regarding democracy? The Party itself, and all those associated with it, are so deeply vested in the current authoritarian system that their resistance to democratic change must be seen as politically self-interested. They cannot stand as disinterested transmitters of popular will. Indeed, anyone with a passing knowledge of PRC history knows how disastrous it has been in the not so distant past when Party leaders have arrogated to themselves the unique capacity to give voice to the will of the people. Cultural Revolution anyone?
When Party people thus complain about "traitors" they have no epistemological foundation. A pro-democracy stance would be traitorous only if it violated some fundamental national principle. But how can we know if it does, since full and fair debate on the topic is suppressed by the powers that be? Of course, the CCP doesn't care about epistemology; it cares about power. It is fearful of open and extensive discussion of the principles espoused in Charter 08 because it simply wants to maintain Party dictatorship. It is not confident enough in its claim to represent the people's will to allow that claim to be examined in open and non-coercive public debate. Perhaps Party leaders know, in some manner, that if such free discussion were permitted, their claim to be the spokesmen of the people would come crumbling down.
But who knows? The Party doesn't. And it doesn't want to know what the people's will might be. It simply wants power.
...Then, as now, economists believed that all uncertainty could be
reduced to measurable risk. So asset prices always reflected
fundamentals, and unregulated markets would in general be very stable.
contrast, Keynes created an economics whose starting point was that not
all future events could be reduced to measurable risk. There was a
residue of genuine uncertainty, and this made disaster an ever-present
possibility, not a once-in-a-lifetime “shock.” Investment was more an
act of faith than a scientific calculation of probabilities. And in
this fact lay the possibility of huge systemic mistakes.
A "residue of genuine uncertainty." Sounds rather like Chuang Tzu, though he is open to a much greater tolerance for the unknown. Uncertainty, a Taoist might say, is all that is really genuine; that is, it is always true that there is much beyond our knowledge. But that uncertainty is something that is extensive and fundamental, not merely residual. Thus, the Taoist would be more emphatic about understanding investment decisions, and economic theory in general, as acts of faith. And, by extension, the Taoist would expect "huge systemic mistakes" to be more likely and common.
Nonetheless, it was refreshing to be reminded of Keynes' milder skepticism. In this moment of massive market failure and outright thievery it seems apt to remember that there is much we cannot know and that is beyond our control, and that applies as well to economic "experts" and government policymakers.
The NYT Magazine today had its year-end edition,The Year in Ideas 2008, in which ideas from the last twelve months are briefly described. One item caught my eye, because my daughter plays goalie on her lacrosse team: "Goalkeeper Science." Here are some key grafs:
What’s the best way to stop a penalty kick? Do nothing: just stand in the center of the goal and don’t move.
That is the surprising conclusion of “Action Bias Among Elite Soccer
Goalkeepers: The Case of Penalty Kicks,” a paper published by a team of
Israeli scientists in Journal of Economic Psychology that attracted
attention earlier this year. The academics analyzed 286 penalty kicks
and found that 94 percent of the time the goalies dived to the right or
the left — even though the chances of stopping the ball were highest
when the goalie stayed in the center.
If that’s true, why do goalies almost always dive off to one side? Because, the academics theorized, the goalies are afraid of looking as if they’re doing nothing — and then missing the ball. Diving to one side,
even if it decreases the chance of them catching the ball, makes them
Interestingly, the goalies’ behavior violates “norm theory,” which
suggests that when people are faced with a tough problem, they often
choose inaction, because a bad outcome looks worse and causes more
regret when it appears to be the product of a bad decision. Better to
do nothing and hope the problem goes away! But in soccer, this paradigm
Better to do nothing... I couldn't let that go by without remarking upon the Taoist resonance. Chuang Tzu in goal?