My Way or the Highway
Updated: Jun 8
The Loss of Nuance in an Either-Or World
I sit here on my Cape Cod perch, looking out over a manicured and mulched front yard, the morning sun streaming from behind me through and over my house. It is peaceful, others in the house are still asleep. I grew up here thinking of China. I live here now thinking of China. And also about these troubled times nationally and internationally. We are a far cry from where I grew up. The promise. The hope. The opportunity.
Decades and centuries from now, humans may look back on the period 1945–2020 (to pick somewhat arbitrary hard bookends that can easily be quibbled on either side) as an aberration, as an experiment in realigning human nature that ultimately did not stand the test of time. Really, seventy-five years is a blip in history, a rounding error.
Working with one’s geopolitical neighbors, say, a United Nations that mediates hotspots and brings humanitarian relief to those in times of crisis? Working as a collection of peoples with a stated common purpose and interests such as a European Union to soften geopolitical edges and cultivate joint economic growth or an ASEAN plus an OAS to debate regional securities and mutually-beneficial trade efforts? Even working on a relatively widespread, global endeavor to expand opportunities to improve life, promote liberty, and enhance security, for instance, the U.S.-led global order?
Hey, we gave them a go. Nice try. Oh well. All of these are suffering the strains and tears of a worldwide meltdown. The U.S. pulled out of the Paris Agreement and is threatening to retreat from the WHO. China (though certainly not only China) is a willing participant in world bodies like the WTO and World Court when it is conducive. Countries near and far increasingly discount, blame, and ignore multi-lateral jurisdiction on a range of issues. Will we be surprised looking back to this past that one century could not undue the millennia that came before?
Even during this “era,” there has always been tension between different parts of the world. Cold wars, hot wars, warm wars (if there is such a thing). Enemies, strategic adversaries, acquaintances, and allies shifting over time. Disparate ideologies, cultural mores, societal desires, economics, politics, militaries, conflict, haves and have-nots. It is enough to make one’s head spin.
Where the world’s nations find themselves today is at an artificially sped-up, pandemic-driven, inflection point that has been gaining steam for many years. Like what we are seeing with quarantine fatigue and the explosion of pent-up emotions after being forcibly removed from routine, contact, and sustenance, national and international seams of civility are finally fraying past the point of repair, easy or otherwise. The rise of nations, the fall of nations. Fantastic wealth and advancement, crushing inequality and poverty, solidifying internal and external positions and beliefs and actions. The first part of the twenty-first century has fallen onto troubled times.
This is where the world stands today. The re-birth (or just the unmasking) of the “My Way or the Highway” system of society. An excellent case study just happens to be interaction of the world’s current two largest economies, China and the United States. We each say we want the same thing. We want to be moral and ethical. We want to ensure our peace and prosperity. We want freedom and self-determination. We want to fight for good and defeat evil. We want what is best for our respective peoples, our families, our societies.
We each express similar ideals, but we differ dramatically on the mechanisms for bringing them to fruition. And even more fundamentally, we do not speak the same language even when speaking the same words. We each suffer from realities that frustrate implementation, self-inflicted and otherwise.
The two countries are led by governments that claim their way is the only true way. Already articles are being written about a new Cold War. The danger grows of a hot war too. This affliction is tearing us apart, not only from each other, but for many reasons also from within. The result of this breakdown of civil discourse is a pervasive lack of trust, lack of respect, and lack of desire to participate in national and international communities.
Examples proliferate. Here are just a few:
We see it in the extreme polarization of America, where armed citizens claiming freedom or protection from oppression roam the halls of power and local streets and retail establishments, where one part of government says no to the other part of government on every matter for no other reason than it would somehow be emasculating to acknowledge that there is another side of the coin, where my opinion on a matter (social, religious, political, you name it) is to be abused, discredited, and belittled because it is not your opinion. We live in an either-or world. We read of the can-do American attitude of the past that was based on community, compromise, and collaboration. If it still exists, it has been fogged beyond all recognition and apparent effectiveness.
We see it in the rise of ultranationalists throughout the world (Turkey, Brazil, Britain, Hungary, and America to name a handful). Populism in its ideological simplicity is a crutch to promote tyranny, couched in terms of freedom and liberty. People who do not have security, peace, and hope are desperate for a lifeline. Politics, like the universe, abhors a vacuum. It amazes me how people can be absolutely convinced of the validity of a position when it is easily debunked and even detrimental to their well-being (I would repeat some specific examples here, but instead will recommend popping online and checking a news source or three. They predominate the news cycles.). It wouldn’t have amazed George Carlin, though, and it probably shouldn’t amaze me either. To this day I believe that Roger Clemens could pass a lie-detector test stating that he did not use steroids. He had (has) that much belief in the fundamental veracity of his position.
We see it in the increasingly draconian actions of the People’s Republic of China. The security state in China is par excellence. None do it finer. Money and willpower are a powerful facilitator. Cameras and monitoring are ubiquitous, QR codes on your cellphone in the Covid-19 era dictate where and how you can move about. The social credit system will control and constrain future access and opportunity. The Great Firewall is not foolproof, but pretty darned good. Though Chinese society is far from being a monolith, there are risks in raising one’s head above the fray. Several scholars (Xu Zhiyong, Xu Zhangrun, Zi Zhongyun, Zhang Xuezhong) have written essays this year crying out over the state of life in China, critiquing what they see as self-inflicted harms to the country they love and arguing that China’s future glory and success lie in empowering her people. Each has paid a price for leaping the net. 稳定 (wending), stability, this is the bedrock mantra of Chinese Communist rule. Ostensibly, it is designed to provide a safe and secure environment to allow the Chinese populace, a group of people and a culture that has suffered long and hard since at least the mid nineteenth century, but also throughout a history littered with turmoil and rebellion, to once again flourish. But wending is also a naked tool to ensure the perpetual survival of the Chinese Communist rule itself.
In each of the above, the ends justify the means. It is not conducive to dialogue. Which I guess is apropos since no one in leadership positions seem to want dialogue any longer anyway.
We live in a world in which change is measured in minutes, if not seconds. As we wake and throughout each day, we are bombarded with views from home and from abroad. The torrent of information is nonstop and deafening. What is true, what is false, what is the in between? No one has time to catch their breath. This reminds me of a now-deceased lawyer in my area who refused to get a fax machine when those came into being forty-odd years ago because it would be too disruptive and people would want to get a hold of him at all times. How quaint waiting to be pestered by a fax would be today?
In part as a result of this my way highway, there is precious little nuance in the world today. We are all too willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes, globalism has produced ills. Yes, these need to be addressed. People are hurting, and inequality breeds contempt. Changes to the environment demand attention. Human rights is a concept that is debated amidst controversy on all sides. No one is an angel. This clash of civilizations rests on competing ideologies. No, China will never be a Western-style democracy, but increasingly many of the Western democracies are losing that distinction as well. Wouldn’t it be better if each country were to acknowledge and take responsibility for its weaknesses as well as its strengths, to plan and be better prepared for the path ahead, to try to understand and acknowledge the other? Criticism, from within and without, is not necessarily wrong just because it does not agree. Yet if the working theory of governance is you’re with me or you’re not, then why bother.
There needs to be balance, investment, promotion of opportunities for as many as possible and militating the effects on those who are not so fortunate. If we all want to be moral and ethical and ensure peace and prosperity, then working together is the way to go. Look at world history and count the unending rebellions, revolutions, disturbances, wars, calamities that have taken place since forever. Going it alone has generally not worked out so well. Coordination and cooperation require hard action because they require change, dedicated effort, a renunciation of baser instincts. The biggest threat right now is continued chest-thumping and brow-beating, the emphasis on one-sided, take-it-or-leave-it ideologies, and the fact that underlying human interrelations are, well, flawed humans.
Getting back to my case study, while reading the daily news would indicate that China and America apparently disagree on everything, a deeper dive also demonstrates that we are more alike than we might want to admit, both positive and negative. First, the positive. There are so many seeking to do foster understanding, keep lines of communication open, and educate to reject ignorance in each country. In China, though, these people and groups have to dance a delicate jig to do what they do without being asked “out for a cup of tea.” In America, these people and groups have to fight for airtime when so much oxygen is sucked up elsewhere.
Now, the negative. We get sidetracked by the potency of our own arguments and then get locked into the self-assured validity of the same, and to what end? Take Covid-19. Numbers do not lie, but no one country has a monopoly on trying to hide, shade, and shape the truth:
China has hidden and deflected the origins of its response while seriously underreporting pandemic numbers (of deaths, of unemployed, of impact to the economy) (https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/12/leaked-chinese-coronavirus-database-number-cases/ and https://www.newsweek.com/wuhan-covid-19-death-toll-may-tens-thousands-data-cremations-shipments-urns-suggest-1494914).
The United States is doing the exact same thing (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/12/nebraska-coronavirus-case-numbers-meatpacking/ and https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2020/05/15/trump-without-doing-covid-19-coronavirus-testing-we-would-have-very-few-cases-here-is-the-reaction/#4dac996d518c).
Blame is cast anywhere that does not include the speaker. Medical professionals in each country are sidelined and maligned and worse (Li Wenliang in China and Anthony Fauci in the United States are two examples). The question should not be where did the disease start and how did it spread for purposes of casting blame or responsibility for reparations or political hay. No, the question is important to chart a way to stop the ongoing contagion, to develop procedures and awareness to keep it at bay, and to plan for a future where similar issues can be addressed proactively and contained before control is lost. As a poignant aside, the concept of reparations from China to the West is politically explosive because this is exactly what the West required of China after the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. You want to trigger apoplexy in China, have the powerful West once again seek financial remuneration from the weaker Chinese. Words matter.
Rather than working together to tackle a catastrophic problem that respects no boundaries, bickering and finger pointing hold primacy. Think about it, if China comes back online, but few are buying products from abroad due to lack of demand, then China continues to suffer. If the U.S. comes back online, but few are venturing out because of fear, then America continues to suffer. Great Depression 2.0, coming ninety-one years after the first installment, will do no one any good.
We live in the real world. Politics is a given. All countries utilize hard and soft measures to present their case, to strengthen their position, to weaken their opponents. Each wants to be the top dog among its peers, and the same holds true among domestic audiences as well. The globe is a three-dimensional chess board. Always has been, always will be.
Is one ideology superior? China and America represent two polar opposites in this regard. Might the successful implementation of a government with a true Neo-Confucian emphasis on cultivating morality and ethics by encouraging socially conscious, compassionate, and empathetic action as the basis of being worthy (as a leader, community member, family member) be the way to go (https://www.chinainstitute.org/can-confucius-save-the-world-recap/)? What about true liberal democracy with an emphasis on compassionate and reasonable laissez faire economics, freedom of choice and speech, and individual responsibility as the epitome of moral and ethical conduct
(https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-deputy-national-security-advisor-matt-pottinger-miller-center-university-virginia/)? Does it have to be a zero-sum game?
Stridency begets stridency. To reach their respectively outlined goals and aspirations, both countries must shed their blinders, resolve internal tensions, and be willing to have an open and honest conversation to try and understand the other, to seek resolution of disputes, and to chart a way forward that is mutually beneficial. Compromise may not be pretty, but it is important. A black and white world is simple in theory, but it ultimately always runs into the gray reality within which we all inhabit. We need to be able to recognize, appreciate, and work with nuance. We ignore it at our peril.