Friday, July 10, 2009

The connection between latchkey kids and grass-fed beef

Roger Ebert recently posted an article on how growing up in America has changed from the Leave it to Beaver days of unsupervised neighborhood havoc to an "overprotective" world of fear, disease, and crime. This topic had recently been in my mind in the last few years as my niece and nephew were born and grew. There have been so many changes in raising children since I was young! Helmets are no longer optional; child seats, too. Latch-key kid is basically a dirty word now, whereas nearly all of my friends were such.

My mother initially thought that maybe things haven't changed as much as I seemed to think. Her opinion was you have to determine the safety of children individually based on their level of responsibility. She felt that my sister and I were trustworthy enough to be left in charge of the house without getting into trouble or burning the place down. She was absolutely correct that a couple of squares like us would just return home and watch Scooby-Doo reruns. Bless her, she's right. But despite the truth of her words, things have changed.

While the basic rule, that children's supervision level must be determined individually, remains true, the environment seems to have changed. There is a fear today of random violence that never seemed to be true before. It's most likely just our human nature to imagine each media horror story as happening to our own loved ones and to devise ways to guard ourselves against vivid threats that have little basis in reality, all while ignoring true killers like high-fat diets and lack of exercise. But human nature or no, it seems undeniable that there is an expectation in America that we must guard our children against every threat, from psychopath to man-eating shark. E. coli has never been more vilified.

But at what point does this paranoia become unacceptable? At what point do we allow children to decide what level of risk they wish to take?

On the first question, I have a feeling we have passed that point already. However, I hesitate to assert my opinion because I have no children of my own. On the second question, there is a strange tension between admiration of the impetuousness of youth and the fear of it. I am inclined to let children demonstrate maturity and reward it with further trust. In any case, I thought Mr. Ebert's article was interesting and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Reflections on Urumqi

The unrest in Xinjiang recently has revived in my mind some of the discussions I've had in the past regarding Chinese nationalism. I don't mean the Generalissimo Chiang-type Nationalist Party, I mean the burgeoning self-righteousness and pride. Most obviously beginning in the mid-90s, China began pulling herself out of the wallow of state regulation and self-destructive purging. China's cities began to leverage the cultural heritage of entrepreneurship and cutthroat economics under an iron hand of state surveillance.

Towards the late 90s, and perhaps most obviously in during the winning of the 2008 Beijing Olympics bid, a thread of Chinese nationalism emerged. This "nationalism with Chinese characteristics" is marked by paranoia, anger over centuries'-old injustices, a sense of entitlement, a sense of "manifest destiny," self-righteousness, minimization of problems in society, and a carryover of imperial-era narcissism (wherein other countries' problems and lessons-learned do not apply to the only "true civilization"). All of these characteristics are foreseeable and perhaps a natural result of an unleashed id, but all should be exposed as irrational and unhealthy. However, each and every one has been cultivated by the Chinese leadership to serve as a yoke upon the populace so that they may channel the emotions of the Chinese populace toward their self-serving goals.

I acknowledge that with the unhealthy characteristics, many healthy characteristics emerged as well. Pride, in moderation, leads to joy; hope leads to achievement; unity leads to harmony. However all these beneficial characteristics can be fostered while minimizing the unhealthy ones.

In 1999, I spoke with a pro-Taiwan Independence friend of mine, who was confident that China would not risk the anger of the international community during and could not sustain public support for an aggressive invasion of a "peaceful" Taiwan. A Korean friend of mine who has lived in China and I immediately informed her that we believed China would most definitely carry out its threats based on the level of knee-jerk nationalism we saw.

The Taiwan issue engages so many of the myths and legends underlying the Chinese psyche. First, Taiwan was taken in the one-sided and tragic Sino-Japanese War; this history triggers the PTSD-like memories of all of the slights and indignities of the colonial era. Second, Taiwan is largely inhabited by and was considered during the the imperial era to be Han Chinese (some Taiwanese will dispute this and claim independence prior, but this post is about Chinese thought processes); this belief triggers romantic notions of thousands of years of Chinese territorial and cultural unity that differentiates Chinese history from barbarian history. Third, strategically-speaking, Taiwan is too important to Chinese "Manifest Destiny" in the Far East to allow off the leash and into U.S. protection; in a sense, China has arrived at the Prom of colonialism a week late and is attempting to dance with the ladies on Bingo night. Fourth, Taiwan serves as one focal point to measure wills against the most powerful nation in the world and allows an objective verification of China's potency on the international stage. All of these factors swirl in a heady mix of self-loathing, self-love, and injured pride and create a potion that robs many Chinese of moderation.

Case in point: many Chinese were and still are convinced (based upon conversations I have had) that the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was a deliberate attack by the U.S. on China for no other purpose than as a display of strength and dominance. They refuse to believe that the U.S. is capable of making targeting mistakes as claimed and reject the idea that the U.S. might not want to antagonize the Chinese people in such a public way when there are any number of options that do not involve political repercussions within the U.S. They furthermore refused to accept the NATO apology (although they willingly accepted monetary reparations). It is precisely this lack of moderation, lack of willingness to consider innocent explanations, and jumping to conclusions that frightens me most.

All this brings me to the impetus for writing today. I am no fan of the Uighur independence movement, or for that matter, either the Taiwanese or Tibetan ones either! It's probably some artifact of my upbringing, but I have no desire to see these areas descend into chaos. However, I willingly acknowledge that the fist of Chinese power surrounds each, and as it squeezes, the proverbial sand is trickling out. When the Chinese media shows Han Chinese in rags streaming blood and tears, but neglects to show police action against hundreds, thousands of men, it screams a call to arms to defend the motherland, never mind the reasons. When Chinese mobs run down the streets of Urumqi telling reporters to cease filming, it cries out their shame for what they are about to do for the motherland. The self-righteous claim virtue and hide their actions: but the truly righteous are bold as a lion.

Among the lessons of the 20th century experiments in nationalism were the conclusions that submerging oneself in a national cause can lead to atrocities in its name. In short, the utilitarian concepts of ends justifying means have their limits, just as a Kantian mind might instinctively push back when pushed too far. Many willing accomplices of the Nazi regime were later ashamed at their fervor. The late Robert McNamara regreted many of his actions in Vietnam. Latin America has been poorly served by a series of dictators installed to combat communism. Despite this, whether through a belief in superiority to or perhaps just immunity to the problems of other cultures, Chinese seem to think they can avoid these lessons. I know my Chinese friends are optimistic that China will emerge from this police-state era as a vibrant and flourishing socialist democracy. I sincerely hope they are correct. However, I am not an optimist by nature and what I see are entrenched prejudices being harnessed to erect a national mythology designed to enslave the many to serve the few. Unfortunately for Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, they are "thems" in a country where "us" is very fashionable.