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« Samuel Huntington and the Politics of "Civilizations" | Main | The Tao of Benjamin Button »

December 30, 2008


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Hi Sam,

This was a really great post and in general terms there was nothing that I disagreed with either. And what is really interesting to me about that is that despite the fact that I was nodding my head in agreement the entire time I was reading this post, at the same time, nothing really changed in my own standpoint-- because I just don't think that anyone (not me, not Chris and not Bell) is aruguing that the CCP should never change any of its policies or approaches.

As a bit of background, I came to Bell's work by way of Parag Khanna's book the Second World. I highly recommend taking a look at this book, in particular the chapters on China and Singapore (as well as on Central Asia). The China/Singapore chapters are influenced by Bell and Khanna had recommended that I take a look at Bell's EastWest-- so the book reading was an idea that Bill Haines and Chris and I came up with.

Personally, I have been a bit surprisied at the emotional reaction that Bell's book seems to generate in people and I have wondered more than once if people don't know something about Bell that I don't. To be up front, I am basing all of my own opinions on Bell's EastWest, on Parag Khanna's book The Second World, on a book review written by Bell (that Chris uploaded to his blog) and email correspondance with Bell on many of the issues we have been talking about-- and no where have I ever seen Bell state that he thinks that the Chinese CCP is beyond reproach or has no need to change. Indeed, even in the book review, he is talking about his desire to join the commemoration of the victims of Tiananmen, which was being held in Victoria Park when he was in HongKong. That must have been years ago but unless someone shows me where Bell says that the CCP doesn't need to improve anything, then I just don't know what to say.

I mean the thing is, if someone says that, "neolibreal policies need to be checked," all that says to me is the positive statement that: not all liberal agenda policies can be applied without regard to cultural context (this is a reaction against universalism). From this statement (ie "neolibreal policies need to be checked," )it is _not logical_ to conclude, though, that he is saying that 1) all liberal polcies are bad or 2) that the current status quo in China is to be accepted in its entirity. Nobody to my mind (not Bell or Khanna or anyone) is saying this.

The same goes with the adovacy of approaching issues of human rights with local knowledge. This is not in any way to say that the Chinese are somehow inscrutable, but rather that when you are trying to have a dialogue, it's not a bad idea to understand the context. It is a prescriptive not a categorical statement.

So, yeah, I agree with everything you say and I wonder why you think Bell wouldn't as well?

Regarding my view that universalism is strongly inherent to Western philosophical and religious traditions-- I still stand by this. But again, this is _not_ to say that 1)we are exclusively or categorically universalist in our perspective; nor is it to 2) deny universalist approaches that exist in other cultures. All it says is that this thinking is strongly emphasized in Western culture-- from evangelic desires of spreading the good news (and whether it is good news or not, I am not committing to here) as well as the explicit tying of stratgic and economic policies with the exporting of values-- which this is particualrly so of American foreign policy.

Anyway, I was hoping you would join the conversation and was so curious about your stand.

Enjoy your New Year's Eve Sam and hopefully we can talk more if and when you have time... Peony

Thanks for the great comment.
I know Bell personally. He stayed at my house years ago (1995?), when I masterminded a protest against my college giving an honorary degree to the PM of Singapore. He was a part of that protest. I was with him at a conference in Beijing in 2006, and had a pleasant lunch with him just outside the gate of Qinghua University.
He tends toward communitarian types of political arguments, but he does not simply reject individual rights. I suspect that, for him, as for me, these are not black and white distinctions. Rather, we struggle to find a workable balance between individual rights and community interests.
And he is not blind supporter of the CCP. Far from it. "Canadian social democrat" probably comes closer to his political orientation.
Happy New Year.

Hi Sam,

Thanks for clarifying-- it sounded almost like any critique of Western neo-liberal policies (political policies)toward China would equate one with condoning everything the CCP does and I just don't think anyone-- not Bell, Chris or myself-- was ever stating that (so why specifically bring it into the argument?).

As I said, I was not familiar with Bell's work till relatively recently and my biggest impression at this point is that he is incredibly controversial. However, nothing he says is all that provocative so I wonder what is at the root of this reception...

And, I love a good mastermind.... are you panning any new protests these days?

Concerning Maoism and communitariasm... I don't think one could ever say anything one way or another.... was it something in the culture that made China more friendly toward Maoist philosophy or was it just a military upperhand? I think one could argue either way. Did you ever read Fire in the Lake which made a similar argument with regard to Vietnam?

Happy New Year to you too.


Sam, when I ask why you specifically bring up the CCP's political approach here, it is because I am earnestly trying to follow your logic in order to understand. Is it safe to say, for example, that your critique of East West is based on a linking of human rights in China with culture (as you believe this is strictly a political matter and that political philosophical issues should be based on universal principles?)

And when I asked what you think is at the root of the surprising controversy surrounding Bell, that was also a sincere question. I've honestly been surprised at the reaction his work seems to garner.

OK, all the best, till later.


Thanks for the comment here.

I don't disagree of course that the "universalist" - "particularist" distinction is not a broad brush to use to paint the West and the East. Clearly, there is a strong virtue-ethical tradition in the West that is closer to the particularist side, and there are universalist elements of the Eastern tradition. Whether he is right or wrong, my take from the book is that Bell does think that there is a strong particularist "family resemblance" between East Asian cultures, and at least a strong family resemblance of universalism in traditional Western liberal-philosophical arguments.

You know much, much more than I do about the history of politics in China, as well as it's modern incarnation. So I won't bother to argue at all on this score, but rather defer to your expertise. However, I don't agree at all when you say that the "particular trumps the universal" has little relevance to the possibility of human rights in China. Again, I am speaking theoretically here (you know us philosophers are like Allen Iverson -- "practice?"). It could well be that some cultural tradition X leads to a set of practices co-extensive with the set of practices a human rights theorist might want to see. So in this "lucky" circumstance, sure -- no practical differentiation. But there's no reason to suspect that (a) cultural tradition X needs to remain committed to those practices, and (b) no reason to suspect that all cultures will have practices coextensive with human rights practices. So if the particular truly does trump the universal, in what way would human rights practices be secured in such cases? It's hard to see how. In fact, although only 1/3 through the book, it seems to me that Bell is suggesting that there are indeed some local practices which will _not_ be coextensive with the whole set of practices a human rights theorist might support. So there will be divergences.

Perhaps this is not a problem in China -- I have no idea. Maybe there are enough cultural/historical narratives to develop that do, in fact, support practices coextensive with a wide number of human rights. But even if it is the case, theoretically divergence remains a problem if the particular trumps.

On your remaining concern, which is an important one, I think I would separate what _did_ influence such changes (politics, military power, etc), from what I take Bell to be suggesting _should_ influence them. In fact, he seems to straight out (early in the book) claim that ideologies reflecting simply (or mostly) maneuverings of political power are inauthentic. I could be reading him wrongly, but I get the impression that such changes must be capable of being grown from historical/cultural narratives. This doesn't mean that Western ideas about X can't enter into the conversation, but that they would have to enter into a dialogue with some older cultural/historical narratives, and as a result of this "dialogue" they would be transformed in new values that can speak to local concerns.

For me, the interesting problem here (which Bell has not addressed, or perhaps does later on) is the clear fact that there are a wide variety of historical/cultural narratives to choose from, as you well know. Why not Han Feizi, for instance? Why Confucius or Mencius? There are lots of different ways to "graft" onto the past, and they don't all move in the same direction forward. So how do we pull these varying efforts apart? Are some better than others?

Lastly -- I don't take Peony to think, and I certainly don't -- that Bell is a CCP apologist. I simply think that Bell is trying to lay down a background for discussions of the local political scene in China, a particularist one. He may in fact be in favor of individual rights, or individual rights practices. I don't think this is inconsistent with what he says in the book. Of course the person who comes "to the table" with China will have interests of his/her own that motivate him/her being at the table in the first place. These might be human rights (as it is with "Demo" in the book). However, I think Bell is suggesting that there is a certain strategic approach that is best used -- one that seeks to promote human rights practices by doing what I mention above -- linking them to cultural practices that do not necessarily have anything to do with "individual rights." In addition, I do think that Bell is arguing that theoretically -- beyond strategy -- that norms themselves are local products, so it makes little sense on this ground to simply "wag one's finger" at the PRC using HR. However, that said, we can use the local background as a way to bring our concerns closer to their concerns in a way that might allow for some "negotiation" and, in the end, perhaps even come to revise each of our original values (on both sides) in the process. Which is how, I suspect, he thinks values come into existence in the first place.

I bring up the political because I am a student of politics. In no way did I mean to imply that anyone associated with the conversation had any sort of political connection or sympathy to the CCP. Rather, on certain questions, especially questions of human rights, I think philosophical and cultural arguments only go so far. They are interesting but limited. Human rights suggests a kind of political practice - the limitation of the use of state power, tolerance for political differences, etc. - that are not well captured by philosophy and culture. To fill out the discussion, we need, I believe, to keep in mind that the PRC continues to be a rather repressive political environment. As I said in the post: we can't know, really, how Chinese culture and philosophy might manifest themselves in terms of human rights because the powers that be will not allow for freedom of political expression. Whatever our position on culture and philosophy, it seems to me that we need to keep that hard political reality in mind. That's all.

Understood and agreed. For that reason, I have been trying to think of Bell's ideas in terms of Japan and Singapore as well, and would love to see someone apply the same apporach to India in the way Nussbaum did with regard to human and animal rights on 2 recent Philosopher Zone programs. Bell's ideas, in my opinion, are so engaging because they are not tied to Mainland China. (Of course Chinese culture would include so much more than modern incarnations in mainland China alone)

And, I had forgotten you were coming from political science.

I love the internet: I've got comments coming simultaneously from Osaka and Mount Vernon, MO. Great.
I have to think more about your comment - there's a lot there. But here's a quick response:
By "particular" I take it we mean something like "rooted in Chinese realities and experience." If that is so, then, it seems to me, there is a strand of Chinese reality and experience that calls for the protection of civil and political rights (which are really what is at stake here). These demands have been made by Chinese for decades, indeed over the course of at least a century.

Now, the problem may be that they have not been able, politically, to link these particularist demands to a universal theory that would provide sufficient weight to gain greater political traction. But why is that so? I would put the political horse before the theoretical cart (this is where I show that I'm not a philosopher but a political scientist, sans the "science"). Everywhere political and civil rights have been established, it has come about because of political struggle. Those who win the political battle are in a position, a better position, to justify particularist claims in universal terms. That is what happens to Confucianism in China: when the Han dynasty get a hold of it, they wring most of the particularism out of it. They codify it! Something that would have shamed the Sage.
Let me be a bit flip (it's almost New Year's after all). I don't think I really mean to be quite this materialist (I started out, years ago, as a Marxoid World-Systems Theory fellow-traveler with Andre Gunder Frank...), but how's this for an idea: to the political victor goes the philosophical spoils. It was only when Constantine converted that Christianity had a chance to extensively define the "West" - that is, only when political power authorized the universal claims. And it was only when the Han dynasty rescued Confucianism from the Qin flames that that philosophy gained its greatest cultural prominence. Thus, the converse: when political power is used to obstruct the possibilities of universalizing existing particularist claims, they will not be universalized.
I'm not sure I'm making much sense at this point. It's past my bedtime...
When do you leave for Beijing?


I like this way of looking at it. I think over at Chris's I've been thinking about whether situationalism is defended in Bell as a universal approach. Now you come to mention it, that's a slightly contradictory idea.

If Bell were right about eastern situationalism and western universalism, we'd end up with a bit of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, wouldn't we?

I'm not convinced by your defense of Chinese liberal ideals, though. While I think Bell's division into East/West is pretty indefensible, and his arguments from culture are wrong, it's not clear that you couldn't construct some kind of argument from culture. I tried to outline a couple of criteria for such an argument on Chris's Bell I. You're certainly right that the CCP has no grounds for putting forward culturalist arguments; but the arguments could be made nonetheless.


I'll attempt an answer to your surprise. Of course, I can only say what's motivating me.

(1) Bell is arguing something that I disagree with very passionately. That gets me going just for starters. You tend to agree with him, so of course it doesn't provoke a strong reaction in you. But I'm sure you're not unfamiliar with the feeling of getting emotionally involved in an argument.

(2) I think Bell's ideas would be harmful at the best of times. I believe in human rights and the liberal program, because I think they are objectively good for the world, and Bell is proposing something that I think will do real harm to real people.

(3) I think Bell's ideas are particularly harmful at this time. When China is busy executing 6000 people a year (going down, thank goodness); and imprisoning dozens of journalists every year; and there are cases of massive slavery being covered up (Google Henan brick kilns); and running a massive program of indoctrination against Tibetan monks; and refusing angrily to respond to international concerns about human rights; then providing theoretical support for the CCP to hide behind is potentially politically very harmful. He's Ezra Pound.

Despite the emotional reaction, I hope my critical faculties haven't been too dimmed. You could even imagine me embodying Kierkegaard's ideal: I'm not just "set[ting] errors into circulation with no thought of responsibility"; I'm making a "real commitment".


I love running into you at differnt places around the World Wide Web! But, what about your english cold turkey??? :)

And has your copy of Bell's book arrived yet??

Anyway, thank you for responding and with the following provisos, I would say the only major issue standing between us currently is mac and cheese.

1) You are right, I am totally un-emotional about this.
2)Concerning 2) No comment
3) This has been, to my mind, your big persuasive point-- and it **is** persuasive and you know very well I am a sucker for Kiekgeaardian embodiment.


I wanted to respond to your very intriguing comment to Chris above-- unfortunately, I am really tired from jet-lag.... so this is just an attempt at a response.

As Phil suggested above I too am not sure that the political situation in China right now should not be included under the subject of culture. That is to say, I too am not sure you could not construct an argument like Bell's based on culture. For a simple example, above when you mentioned that

"Human rights suggests a kind of political practice - the limitation of the use of state power, tolerance for political differences, etc. - that are not well captured by philosophy and culture."

I actually would make the counter-argument that this is indeed captured by philosophy and culture as I am not sure a japanese thinker or a European thinker would emphasize "the limitation of state power" as the 1st issue... what is emphasized and or prioritized in any debate about human rights would be informed by culture and philosophical orientation. To just remove myself from the CCP for a minute, Japan too would have some huge gaps or problem areas under the US-model (of restriction of state power and various kinds of tolerance, not just political) and yet the Japanese public in general is not bothered by this to the extent that one might think-- or even hope. That is because they collectively have different priorities which are informed by culture-- I would argue that this is one way of seeing it, at least.

How does one explain the way a minor fringe practice of what was a cult religion turns into the state religion of the Roman Empire? And that this then defines Western culture? Whatever explanation I even think about thinking about, I come back to explanations that are inherently grounded in culture

Tomorrow is the big holiday here-- so I'd better run.

"The Particular and the Universal in Human Rights"

How nice?! Who can say no to such nice sounding words such as “human rights"?!

What is happening? The deafening silence on the massacre, the holocaust in Gaza...

What about the human rights, no matter whether it is particular or universal, of the Palestinians, who are bleeding like sacrificial lambs at this very moment?

Why the deafening silence?

Are they not human enough?

Is it because mentioning Gaza Holocaust a tenure buster?

Hi Isha,

Hence the Hungtington quote on the inevitable hypocracy of universal principles you posted above, right?

Regarding "tenure busters," though, just because the good professor (or I for that matter) don't write about Gaza on our blogs, it doesn't mean we aren't thinking about it or have strong opinions, right? I also won't be writing about Gaza on my blog for reasons that are my own-- but that does not mean I don't care. Quite the contrary.

The best blogs are not just random transcriptions of everything the writer is thinking, right? They can be, but not all of them are. It's too bad you don't have a blog, though-- I would love to read it, if you do.



Seem to my limited understanding, talking about "human" right without including Gaza right now is a glaring omission that calls out for answers. If you just accept the inevitable hypocrisy of the “universal principles" as a given, then, it sounds silly even to discuss so-called “human rights “of other peoples, such as those of the Chinese. Why not calling off all this business and just admit that the whole discourse, this whole academic pretension is just dressing up emperor (or empire)'s nakedness or even providing rationalization for empire’s action?

Tenure busting remark is a little bit rude, I agree. For that I apologize. Isn’t there any self-censorship going on here?


Please take a look at these pictures,especially the second one where these nice dressed and nice looking girls are laughing while watching ... I hate the repeat that i have to say this again:Mao prevented this from happening to the Chinese, and he is loved and hated for doing it.


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