Sunday, June 22, 2008

Back in the States

Back in the States, little things have popped out at me that, in China, are front-and-center. The customs officer at the airport was ethnically Chinese and said his family was from Shanghai; he earnestly asked me if I thought Chinese people are friendly and seemed relieved when I said yes. The official NBC store in New York had Beijing Olympics souvenirs on a couple of small shelves alongside shirts for Friends and 30 Rock, as if it was just one more event alongside those shows, and not the most important thing ever to happen ever.

New York, as always, is full of big, delightful surprises. While walking down Sixth Avenue yesterday I saw a big parade with various immigrant groups displaying their cultural dances, clothes, and flags. There was a group representing dear Colombia…

And sparkling Thailand…

And there was an especially large contingent of flags from countries that are controversial or formally nonexistent, such as Puerto Rico…

South Vietnam…


And Tibet.

…Including a map that would raise fists as well as eyebrows back in China.

These last groups, especially the latter, were not just interested in showing off their “culture”: they had an agenda. Pro-Tibetan activists weaved through the crowd, handing out pamphlets. Thankfully I didn’t see any Chinese nationalist protesters, as they have a reputation for violence when confronted with those with whom they strongly disagree. I did, however, see evidence of their insecurity earlier in Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota. Stretching across the Mississippi is a bridge that connects the east and west banks, and the two sides of the campus. Along the bridge is an indoor passageway, presumably used mainly during Minnesota’s biting winter. And along the sides of the passageway student groups had posted information about themselves—a nice visual celebration of campus life, which is, after all, really just one small but very active civil society.

Included in the lineup was a group advocating for a free Tibet. The group had appropriated the Olympics slogan “One world, one dream” (could Beijing have come up with a slogan easier to use for various purposes?) to advocate for a free Tibet, the implication being, I suppose, that every nation in the world had a right to its own state. A passer-by, however, clearly couldn’t handle even this small act of defiance, and vandalized the sign by writing “No free Tibet” and “Tibet will never be independent.”

Pro-Tibet protesters can, of course, be just as irritating and ignorant as Chinese nationalist protesters. But the deeper point is that they may say whatever they like and they may wave whatever piece of cloth they want to. I like the fact that, here, these issues are simply incorporated into the larger milieu of opinions, and no one is privileged within the general discourse (in theory at least, and, to a sometimes surprising extent, in practice as well). The country is made up of thousands of little issues, all the more striking after living in a place where a couple of “big” issues are crammed down your throat day in and day out.

Next week back to China and the media meatgrinder.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Among women in Minnesota

I’m in the States at the moment and, for reasons I won’t go into, I’ve found myself tagging along at the Berkshire conference on the history of women, held at the beautiful University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Most of the conference participants are women, as can be expected, though I don’t see why this should necessarily be the case in the long run—many panels deal with issues that would fascinate historians who don’t primarily focus on women’s history. At any rate, it has been very interesting to learn more about the field.

I’ve gravitated towards panels dealing with Asian women’s histories, but the most exciting talks were in a panel included in the conference at the last minute, entitled “Clinton and Obama: Historians Reflect on Historic Candidacies.” Yes, this blog does deal primarily with China, but I am in the U.S., I am excited about the election, and it is a personal blog after all, on which I can write about whatever I wish! But I promise it will not turn into a blog about American politics.

The auditorium in which the panel was held was overflowing; it was one of the most extraordinary presentations I’ve ever seen. Picture this: a roomful of extremely intelligent, extremely knowledgeable, extremely well regarded feminist American historians. Many have an activist background; their speaking skills are forceful; they have something to fight for. They delve deep into the workings of the primary season that has just come to a close.

Most were furious at Hillary Clinton, though all were excited about how far a woman (and a black man) managed to get in the political process. Here’s a list of some of the points they brought up that I made note of—I just wish I could replicate the energy in the room and the forcefulness of the argumentation.

American media often cast the democratic primary contest as “gender vs. race.” This is a false dichotomy and harmful to the overall progressive cause. In addition, media coverage has revealed much misuse and misunderstanding of terms like “gender”—people say gender when they mean sex. Americans don’t have a sufficient understanding of categories of analysis when it comes to gender conceptualizations.

Jesse Jackson has frequently been invoked in the media and by politicians such as Bill Clinton as a warning—he has been painted as a candidate purely of black grievance. That is false; in reality he had wide support and won several primary contests.

While Hillary Clinton was able to rouse people based on gender (though she didn’t base her campaign on a feminist agenda), Obama has been reluctant to rouse people based on race—he wants to avoid the appearance of an angry black man seeking power, as that would scare people away. He partially succeeded in working through this problem with his remarkable speech on the complexities of race in America. In addition, he largely succeeded in depicting a non-threatening masculinity, though in the process he worked to separate himself from “blackness”—if he were darker or if he were more closely associated with activist black politics he would not be the Democratic candidate for President.

Very few people know of women who have run for President, but there are several—Shirley Chisholm, Margaret Chase Smith, and many, many more. Why have they been so ignored in histories of American politics? Students have said that men have many presidential role models, but women don’t—this should not be the case. There is severe ignorance about the history of female presidential candidates in the latter half of the twentieth century.

While the glass ceiling has been cracked (as Clinton said) or shattered (as Obama said), it will be difficult for future women candidates to gather the same kind of resources that Clinton had at her disposal. However, the barrier has been breached, and a woman President is now more of a normative concept.

Many participants voiced appreciation that John Edwards raised the class question during the primaries. That is often a hidden issue; in this election, there has been a “gender question” or a “race question” but class has often been left out, a common feature of American politics. One participant speculated that Edwards may have asked Obama to work on class before endorsing him.

Hillary performed well as a woman pretending to be a man. The “masculine mystique” has become a very important discourse in American politics, especially since 1964: Reagan and Bush succeeded in deploying it, while Dukakis (riding in the tank) and Kerry (windsurfing) were depicted by their opponents as non-masculine. In the 19th century presidential candidates did often include “domesticity” in their images, such as being good fathers. This is still present to an extent, but has been overridden by “toughness.” Hillary made passing the “masculine test” her top priority with her focus on the military, the red phone ad, etc. But she got left behind when Obama did well in deploying an anti-war message. The next female candidate for President should challenge the masculine mystique itself, and focus instead on a humanist message. (As one participant put it, “George Bush-like men are not helpful for the environment and other living things”—why should we subscribe to that kind of tough masculinity?)

Finally, a participant said that America is a “sick country” and we still have an enormous amount of work to do. I would note, however, that discussions about race, gender, and other social issues in America—discussions such as this panel itself—are remarkable in their depth and their vitality. Coming as I do from working in journalism in China, where the media and intellectuals are, publicly at least, deathly silent on issues such as minority rights, race, and gender—“everyone is happy and everything is fine, just fine”—the vigor of the debate in the U.S. is stunning. We have come so far, and though we have a long way to go, intellectuals like the ones I heard at this panel don’t make the future depressing, they make it exciting.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Moving forward

During an internship I once did at an American consulate in China, a disheartening experience was walking through the doors each day and seeing three faces smiling down at me: Bush, Cheney, and Rice (though Cheney’s wasn’t a smile so much as an attempt at a smile). The harm that the Bush presidency has done to America’s image around the world was often most acute in its embassies and consulates. Occasionally it was almost a palpable feeling; at some functions it hung in the air like a noxious fume.

Now that a change in those three portraits can finally be glimpsed over the horizon, and now that the primaries have finally wrapped up and we’re getting down to the general election, I’ve been thinking more about why exactly I support Obama. This blog is as good a place as any to unpack my reasoning—which, as should be evident, is not unconnected to my experiences in China.

An ideal scenario is already impossible. I wish McCain had won the election in 2000, served for eight years, and a Bush-like character—perhaps the Decider himself—would now lose in 2008. I like John McCain—I think he’s honest and a healthy product of American politics. This election is a contest between two qualified individuals who are both closer to the mainstream than they are to their parties’ extremes. That is, after all, what American presidential elections should be like—it would be fine if either candidate won, unlike in 2000, in which the election results led to a disastrous presidency and immense harm to America.

But McCain is less fine than Obama. He represents insider politics, he supported key aspects of Bush’s policies that he simply shouldn’t have, and he’s an old white man. In theory that last point shouldn’t matter—if we’re truly supposed to be colorblind, shouldn’t race not be a factor? Shouldn’t we concentrate on the issues and not on race or age, which are merely symbols and are meaningless to good governance? Probably. But the fact is that race and age do matter. What is politics if not symbolism? The good that actually gets done usually happens away from the spotlight; now more than ever the vital role of the President is not as bureaucrat but as inspiration.

I don’t care much about “the issues.” McCain and Obama are candidates of major political parties in the United States. We basically know how they will behave when it comes to specific policies, and we can become familiar with excellent debates about the important issues in American politics (especially domestic ones) by reading editorial pages and by watching West Wing. Obama is remarkable not because he really has anything new to say but because he is so interesting and so exciting, an opinion shared not only at home but abroad as well. Jeremiah over at the Granite Studio recently wrote about those who are skeptical that Obama can win because they don’t think Americans are capable of getting past the racial factor. Another, perhaps subconscious, reservation is the miserable weight of the Bush presidency. How can a population that elected someone like Bush—and it did legitimately elect him in 2004, even if many votes were cast out of fear—turn around and choose someone as vastly different as Obama?

If it does, and if the doubts that Americans can get past race are overcome, it will be a terrific blow in favor of the United States’ work around the world. This is the root of my support for Obama—America’s reputation internationally. Domestic politics will change slowly and with legitimate input from many groups. That’s how American politics is designed to operate, and that kind of gradual change has worked well for us. But internationally, the President and his foreign policy will really matter. If Obama is elected we’ll show the world that we aren’t willing to put up with torture, arrogance, and hubris. We’ll show the world that we are one of the few countries that are mature enough to elect someone of not just a minority but an ethnic minority, the clearest of them all. We’ll show that our political stability enables us to peacefully enact a sea change in worldview and personality in the most powerful institution in the country, the office of the President. And by getting serious about issues like human rights and the environment we’ll show the world that we can be—we want to be—a responsible member of the international community.

In short, we’ll take a giant step forward in restoring America’s moral authority, which will be all-important as the global power structure shifts in the coming years. The United States’ best hope is not to be a preeminent economic or military power but a moral one. Its power will decline but it can find a new role for itself in its moral weight. In argument after argument with Chinese nationalists, they bring up the legitimate point that for an American to criticize human rights abuses or mistreatment of minorities is deeply hypocritical. The best counter to this is that we’ve succeeded in working through many of our problems through open and uncensored discussions in our civil society, but an Obama victory would show that we’re truly serious about moving forward. Remarkable leaders have been vital in the United States' historic rise; they will be equally vital in its decline.

Like much of the world I look forward to the coming campaign, and like many Americans I look forward to casting my vote for Obama in November. Most of all, I look forward to seeing his face on the wall the next time I walk into an American consulate. That'll be a smile I can believe in.