Categories
Civilization Meta Miscellany World

Why Do Mechanical Explanations of the Social Deny Software?

They say that a good social theory must throw out some reality in order to have any explanatory power. Thinkers who favor mechanical explanations of the social—the people who claim that it is climate or asteroids or guns, germs, and steel that explain the rise and fall of civilizations—always seem to throw out the part of the mechanism that is the software. Why?

That is, all mechanistic explanations of the social treat people as machines—robots—that have certain operating limits. They need food and water. They need temperatures that are not too high and not too low. They cannot withstand the slash of a steel weapon. They are susceptible to disease. And so on and all true. These operating limits do constrain what the robots can do. But that is far from all.

Robots need an instruction set to run; they need, in other words, a behavior. And if the dawn of the age of artificial intelligence should be teaching us anything, it is that behavior matters a lot. There is a very big difference between a car, a car that knows to break before hitting something on the highway, and a self-driving car. There is a very big difference between a Rhoomba that moves only in straight lines and one that criss-crosses the room. It would seem to follow that the robots’ software should matter a lot in the rise and fall of civilizations. So why not make social theory by keeping the software and throwing out the robot hardware instead?

Programming in the social is thought, belief, training, worship, prejudice, emotion, philosophy, literature, letters, culture, art. It is the humanities. Humanistic explanations for things—Ruskin’s observation that you can read the decline of a civilization in its art—theorize the social in terms of the human robot’s programming. The humanities throw out the hardware.

(By programming I do not mean that we are necessarily controlled by others. In human beings we are dealing with semi-autonomous, artificially (nay, actually!) intelligent robots. So programming, for us, necessarily means self-programming at both the individual and social levels. Our programs are some peculiar function of inputs from other robots, inputs from the programs of the robots themselves (that is, we use our thought to influence ourselves), and hard-coded inputs (those determined by our genes).)

It is a peculiar thing that at the same moment that, as a technological matter, we are coming to recognize the transformative nature of artificial intelligence in relation to hardware, and indeed at the same moment that, thanks to the great financial success of companies like Google and Facebook, which derives entirely from the value of connecting businesses with individual minds, we are coming to appreciate the great difference influence over minds makes in social outcomes, we should continue to favor mechanical explanations for the social, to attribute the fall of Rome to barbarian invasions rather than decadence, or the rise of China to good policy rather than good spirit.

When we do consider the software, we tend to ignore the most important parts. We credit the power of propaganda, but not the power of religion, ideas, philosophy, love, or, indeed, art. But these too are a part of the programming, and if you judge by the things you yourself hold most dear, likely the most important part.

So do not tell me that talking won’t work. That writing will never change things. That symbolic protest is weak. Or that the only political power grows out of the barrel of a gun—unless you believe that your computer will behave the same no matter what software it runs.

Categories
Meta Miscellany World

If Mars Attacks, It Will Be Us

Maybe the best Martian policy would be to prevent anyone from colonizing Mars, rather than to colonize it first.

Let’s assume for a moment that Mars really can be developed into a self-sufficient Earth 2.0. A big if, of course.

But if true, then see: The New World.

Settlers always have high asabiya, thanks to the challenges they face, and homogeneous interests relative to those who remain in the Old World, with its historic divisions. The Old World always thinks it can control the new, otherwise it wouldn’t foolishly bankroll settlers. But the new is far, far away. It is protected by distance. It is bigger than the territory of any one mother country.

And because it is united—or will become united, because, again, regardless of the origin of the settlers, their interests are always more in common with each other than with those of their mother countries—it can exploit this bounty at scales that no one mother country can ever hope to match.

So, eventually, the new will know its own power and come to dominate the old.

It has, after all, happened before.

And even if we don’t think Mars might be viable, or we think it might be more likely to make a Cuba than a U.S.A., why risk it?

Indeed, colonizing activity by a dominant country is always a self-inflicted wound. Colonization necessarily dilutes the dominant country’s power, because any new territories dilute the power of the earth entire. If I’m two thirds of one and I add one, now I’m one third. The only reason to colonize is to preclude others from doing so; it’s a race to the bottom.

But you can also try to enforce a rule against racing.

And if you were wondering why, in the 15th century, it was the Spaniards who went off looking for new worlds, and not the great powers of the day, not the Ottomans or the Chinese, you have your answer.

Categories
Monopolization World

Unlearning Trade

First we thought the inherent superiority of our political system would defeat the Chinese Communist Party. Now that we’re coming to terms with the fact that it didn’t, we seem to think that the inherent superiority of free markets will defeat China instead.

Clearly, we’re not taking learning in account.

But I don’t mean that we haven’t learned from our mistaken view that China would become more democratic as it became wealthier.

I mean that in assuming that China’s embrace of a new closed door policy will cause its technological competitiveness to wither, we are literally failing to take the relationship between learning and output into account.

The Wall Street Journal argues that by picking fights with the West, and getting itself banned from engaging in semiconductor trade with the US as a result, China has put itself in the deeply wasteful position of having to recreate a native semiconductor industry from scratch. If the moonshot fails, Chinese high tech firms will lag, and the country’s race to global dominance will be lost.

It would have been much better, argues the Journal, for China to have continued to make nice with the West and enjoy the benefits of trade, not least of which is the ability to leverage what others do best—like making semiconductors—to enable China to do what it does best—like making smartphones and 5G infrastructure.

The Achilles heel of this and all free trade arguments is that they don’t take innovation into account, and specifically that most valuable of all forms of innovation: learning by doing.

The fact that China is not an efficient producer of semiconductors today, and would be better off trading with those who are, does not mean that China cannot learn to be an efficient producer of semiconductors tomorrow.

And if China is able to learn, then the money it pours into starting more or less from scratch now won’t be wasted.

Instead, it will be the most important investment China has ever made, because it will buy not only a valuable skill, but something more valuable still: independence and a shot at world domination. The future belongs to high tech, the hardest thing to do in high tech is chips, and so if you’ve got the best chips, you will win eventually.

The key to learning is doing: the more you make, the better you get at making, which is why semiconductors have a downward sloping learning curve. As production volumes increase, cost falls and falls and falls.

That in turn means that if you want to produce the difficult-to-make things that render countries rich and powerful, the opposite of free trade dogma is required: you must shut out foreign competition, freeing up domestic demand for your native industries, so that those industries can ramp up supply and start marching down the learning curve.

If you don’t do that, then your domestic market will buy from foreign producers, helping them learn, not you.

Of course, too much protection can also be a problem. If your domestic industries are not subject to competitive pressures, they won’t have an incentive to learn. That can particularly vex small countries whose internal demand can only support one or two firms in a given market. But for a country the size of China, that’s not a problem. (Indeed, it’s no accident that free trade ideology has roots in Western Europe, home to lots of small- and medium-sized countries.)

So by picking fights with the West at a moment in its development when it has plenty of domestic demand for semiconductors (think Huawei) China is really just binding itself to the mast: committing its domestic market to its native semiconductor operations. It is forcing itself to learn.

And China does know how to learn. America installed the first solar panel in 1956, on the Vanguard I satellite. But at that time a single panel cost the equivalent of $500,000 today, meaning that we weren’t very good at applying the technology. As we made more solar panels, however, we got much better, as the solar learning curve below shows. But by the early 2000s learning had stagnated at around $5 per module.

Then China, which is energy poor but for coal—a mature technology that promises few gains from innovation—embraced solar, installing panels across its vast peripheral deserts.

By doing, China learned to do better, driving price south of 50 cents per module by 2019, making solar power the cheapest in the world today, more so even than coal or gas, and coming to dominate the global solar industry.

Will China walk just as quickly down the semiconductor learning curve? You can bet on it. And the country’s leadership in the new technology of quantum computing—the future of chips—means that it is not starting all that far behind its global competitors.

So when the Wall Street Journal says things like this:

Beijing is essentially now engaged in a massive, long-shot attempt to build from the ground up an advanced semiconductor manufacturing capability that doesn’t depend on foreign suppliers—churning through gargantuan amounts of the Chinese people’s money in the process. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, a better economic strategy would be to mend its relations with the West and reform China’s dysfunctional credit system—then import chips and let Chinese markets and Chinese companies decide what China is really good at.

Nathaniel Taplin, China’s State Capitalism Collides With Its Technological Ambitions, Wall St. J. (Jan. 2, 2021).

I have to wonder at its lack of learning.

And as I have pointed out elsewhere, the really funny thing about this mode of thought—the notion that a country is better off not trying to do the things that it is not right now good at doing—is that those who love it most also tend to be those who, when they turn their gaze to domestic markets, talk most about innovation and learning, and the need to protect firms from too much competition in order to promote them.

They argue in favor of monopoly and against regulation at home on the ground that shelter from competition is a necessary reward for innovation, that though big firms may destroy “static competition”—competition over price by firms with fixed levels of technical skill—doing so actually enables “dynamic competition”—competition to learn and innovate that eventually leads to far greater benefits for society.

So they ought to know better than to assume that a new Chinese closed door policy will save America from China.

Indeed, the Journal’s faith in free trade reminds me a bit of Ah Q, the eponymous antihero of The True Story of Ah Q, by the great early 20th century Chinese writer Lu Xun.

Ah Q’s talent, you see, was convincing himself he was the winner whenever he lost a fight.

To be sure, Ah Q was a metaphor for the much-oppressed China of a century ago, whereas America is still on top today.

But mentality is fate.


Categories
Civilization Despair Miscellany World

God Has Died a Thousand Times, and Once in Philadephia

In its most extreme form, the state to an American is ‘a bunch of people’, politicians and their officials whom he watches with critical and even distrustful eyes; he sees the state as a powerful instrument that belongs to and is operated by groups of people for their own ends. At the other extreme one finds in Europe the adoration of the state as something majestic, transcendent and even divine (in the tradition of the ‘divine’ emperors of Rome). Nobody expressed this feeling better than the famous philosopher Hegel, who was professor at the Prussian University of Berlin from 1818 to 1831 and wrote: ‘The march of God in the world, that is what the state is. In considering the Idea of the State we must not have our eyes on particular states . . . Instead we must consider the Idea, this actual God, by itself’.

R. C. van Caenegem, An Historical Introduction to Western Constitutional Law 168 (2000).
Categories
Antitrust Civilization Monopolization Paradise Lost World

Permian-Triassic Extinction Event Antitrust

The Great Dying deconcentrated markets:

The complexity of an ecosystem can be estimated by the relative number of species: if a handful of species dominate, and the rest carve out a marginal existence, then the ecosystem is said to be simple. But if large numbers of species coexist together in similar numbers, then the ecosystem is far more complex, with a much wider web of interactions between species. By totting up the number of species living together at any one time in the fossil record, it’s possible to come up with an “index” of complexity, and the results are somewhat surprising. Rather than a gradual accrual of complexity over time, it seems that there was a sudden gearshift after the great Permian extinction. Before the extinction, for some 300 million years, marine ecosystems had been split roughly fifty-fifty between the simple and complex; afterwards, complex systems outweighed simple ones by three to one, a stable and persistent change that has lasted another 250 million years to this day. So rather than gradual change there was a sudden switch. Why?

According to paleontologist Peter Wagner, at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the answer is the spread of motile organisms. The shift took the oceans from a world that was largely anchored to the spot — lamp-shells, sea lilies, and so on, filtering food for meager low-energy living — to a new, more active world, dominated by animals that move around, even if as inchingly as snails, urchins and crabs. Plenty of animals moved around before the extinction, of course, but only afterwards did they become dominant. Why this gearshift took place after the Permian mass extinction is unknown, but might perhaps relate to the greater “buffering” against the world that comes with a motile lifestyle. If you move around, you often encounter rapidly changing environments, and so you need greater physical resilience. So it could be that the more motile animals had an edge in surviving the drastic environmental changes that accompanied the apocalypse . . . . The doomed filter feeders had nothing to cushion them against the blow.

Nick Lane, Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution 145-46 (2009).

There is much food for antitrust thought in evolutionary history if you think of firms as representing methods of extracting value from the consumer environment. That makes them like species, all the members of which tend to use the same methods of extracting value from the natural environment. One species of bird uses long bills to get worms. Another uses short bills. And so on.

The Advantage of Incumbency

The Great Dying teaches a number of lessons. First, like the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event about which I have written before, it suggests the advantages of incumbency. The fact that less motile organisms have not reattained their former dominant position in the 250 million years of relative competition that has prevailed since the Great Dying tells you that less motile organisms were not particularly competitive relative to motile organisms. And yet for the 300 million years until the Great Dying they dominated, despite the parallel existence of more motile organisms. Why? Perhaps simply because they evolved first.

Industrial organization economists have long warned about these “first-mover advantages,” but the antitrust laws ignore them. The “conduct requirement” in antitrust holds that simply being dominant is not an offense in itself. There are plenty of good reasons for that rule, because it’s easy to use it to punish justified market success. But one bad reason to support the rule is that the dominant firm is always the better firm. If the history of the Great Dying is any guide, incumbency does sometimes protect uncompetitive firms.

Competition’s Good Side or The Virtue of Theft

The Great Dying’s second lesson for antitrust has to do with motility, for motility means, at least in part, predation and theft. Creatures that move can seek out new environments not yet colonized by stationary organisms feeding off minerals or sunlight. But one of the major things that motile organisms also do is to predate. Motility lets you range across the environment eating the organisms that have done the hard work for you of generating energy from light and inanimate matter.

We think of theft as being a problem in the law. We like to say that theft reduces incentives for innovation and economic growth because it means that innovators can’t fully reap the fruits of their productive labors. The plant that has a leaf torn off by some vicious armored predator has done the environmentally-friendly work of converting light to energy without so much as emitting a single carbon atom, and yet here the fruits of its labors have been stolen from it. Fortunately, we say, in the business context the law is there to stop such theft.

But the fact that the flourishing of motility after the Great Dying was correlated with an increase in ecosystem complexity—a reduction in species dominance—suggests that theft is not necessarily bad, at least if deconcentration of markets is your thing.

This is a familiar point, approached from a different angle. Industrial organization scholars have long pointed out that the strength of intellectual property protection matters. Make the patent term too lengthy and innovation will fall below optimal levels, because inventors won’t be able to build on prior art to create the next generation of inventions. It follows that if patent rights are too strong, then theft of intellectual property could actually lead to more innovation, and richer and more complex markets. Similarly, when a monopolist ties up a source of supply and uses it to suffocate competitors, theft would bring more competition to the market.

Antitrust recognizes the importance of theft for competition, although antitrust—probably wisely—doesn’t say so in quite such stark terms.

Every time antitrust enforcers order a dominant firm to supply an essential input to competitors—and antitrust does do that occasionally, even in the United States—antitrust is, objectively speaking, revising a property right. Which is to say: authorizing disadvantaged firms to steal from the dominant firm.

The nice thing is that when you’re the law you get to define the boundaries of the law, so you can plausibly say it’s not theft that you’re authorizing, but rather that the dominant firm’s ownership rights over the essential input never actually included the right to deny the input to competitors.

Regardless how it’s characterized, antitrust’s forced dealing remedy does allow other firms to take the fruits of the defendant’s labors, and for a price that must be less than their value, otherwise the taking would provide no competitive succor to the beneficiaries. That’s legalized predation in the biological sense. The aftermath of the Great Dying suggests that it’s probably justified, at least if the goal is to deconcentrate markets.

Competition’s Bad Side or The Horror of Predation

But at the same time, one must proceed with caution in celebrating the complexification of ecosystems that followed the Great Dying, because complexity and competition are not ends in themselves.

There’s a reason for which biologists also refer to the great age before any predators had evolved, the Ediacaran period, as the “Garden of the Ediacara.” We can view the rise of motility and predation, and the demise of filter feeder dominance after the Great Dying, as leading to a golden age of competition and complexity. It’s the golden age we live in today (or lived in until we started wiping out large parts of it starting with the end of the last ice age).

Or we can view the rise of motility and predation as destroying a peaceful Eden in which life competed principally on the virtuous project of converting the inanimate into the animate, of extracting energy from the physical environment, rather than from other living things.

From this perspective, if over the first 300 million years of the existence of complex life evolution tended to hit a wall, and for eons life did not get much better at converting the inanimate to the animate, then that says something about the limits of biology. It does not tell us that the motility, predation, and theft that followed represented an improvement.

From this perspective, the rise of motility and predation was instead a symptom of evolution’s defeat. When life could no longer advance by getting better at converting inanimate matter to animate matter, it turned on itself, leading to the hell of predator-prey competition that has characterized the past 250 million years. If only there had been a world government in the Ediacaran capable of enforcing the basic rules of criminal and property law!

Life would have stayed happy.

In general, the antitrust laws today are much more sympathetic to this dark view of predation than to the other. Antitrust enforcers for the most part shy away from revising property rights. And the legal system as a whole, of which antitrust is just a part, gives great priority to property. The natural world is, of course, the state of nature. And if there is one thing that separates civilization from the state of nature, it’s the concept of property, the notion that theft is to be curtailed, and that evolution within civilization is to take place along the old Ediacaran lines, with each attempting to better himself other than at the expense of others.

Over its first 300 million years, complex life does seem to have hit a wall in bettering itself through virtuous, non-predatory competition, at least so far as the biochemistry of energy production out of inanimate matter is concerned. Our inability to generate energy other than by burning fossil fuels shows that for all our own ingenuity we humans haven’t managed to outdo nature either. We live off the productive labors of other creatures, including both living plants and those dead so long as to have been ground into oil. That makes us, and the horror we have meant for the planet, the logical extreme end of the triumph of motility and predation after the Great Dying.

But the fact that civilization’s vision, honored however often in the breach, is fundamentally Ediacaran, suggests to me that there is hope. Climate disaster is effectively forcing us to extend the property laws we enforce within civilization to the life outside of it. With luck, the virtuous, non-predatory competition that results will help us achieve the breakthrough that life could not, and allow us to advance into new methods for generating energy from the inanimate.

Categories
Apocrypha Miscellany World

Of Course They Could Have Carried It

Not quite: “In 1453, Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, and although his troops plundered what they could carry, the building was saved and turned into a mosque,” writes The New York Times, which makes it sound like the building was saved by sheer luck.

In fact, the Turks treated Hagia Sophia with honor. In contrast to other churches that had been seized and converted into mosques, the conquerors refrained from changing its name, merely adapting it to the Turkish spelling. (“Ayasofya” is the way it is written in Turkey today.) Mehmet, says Ilber Ortayli, director of the Topkapi Palace Museum, the former residence of the Ottoman emperors, “was a man of the Renaissance, an intellectual. He was not a fanatic. He recognized Hagia Sophia’s greatness and he saved it.”

Remarkably, the sultan allowed several of the finest Christian mosaics to remain, including the Virgin Mary and images of the seraphs, which he considered to be guardian spirits of the city. Under subsequent regimes, however, more orthodox sultans would be less tolerant. Eventually, all of the figurative mosaics were plastered over. Where Christ’s visage had once gazed out from the dome, Koranic verses in Arabic proclaimed: “In the name of God the merciful and pitiful, God is the light of heaven and earth.”

Fergus M. Bordewich, A Monumental Struggle to Preserve Hagia Sophia, Smithsonian Magazine, Dec. 2018.
Categories
World

Forgetting Why You Won

The New York Times tells us that “China has laid the groundwork to dominate the market for protective and medical supplies for years to come[]” because it has pursued a policy of subsidizing strategically important industries, like PPE, including by protecting them from foreign competition.

History tells us why China does that. It’s the reason for which the victim tends to remember how a fight was won better than the victor. For about a century ending in 1949, China came close to being wiped off the map repeatedly because it couldn’t control access to its own markets and didn’t have dominance in any strategically important industries to use as a bargaining chip. Foreign powers used their control over strategically important industries, not least those relating to defense, to prize open Chinese markets to foreign goods, wiping out local production. It’s not for nothing that one reads in an economic history that “British competition de-industrialized most of Asia . . . .”

That didn’t come about because a large gap in technology or industry existed between China and the rest of the world when China’s fall started in the early 19th century. On the eve of the industrial revolution, China was a wealthy country and could defend its borders. It was a difference of degree that mushroomed into near destruction. The Chinese never forgot their lesson in the foundations of modern power.

But we did. Did we really think that after more than a century of struggle to regain control over their own markets, at the cost of millions upon millions of lives, the Chinese were going to throw their markets back open to the rest of the world, laissez-faire-style, and run the risk that domestic industry would be out-competed once again? Did we think that the Chinese would not sit down and think carefully about how to take advantage of the rest of the world’s fleeting, pie-in-the-sky romance with free trade silently to achieve dominance in strategically important global industries? Did we think the Chinese didn’t learn their lesson?

Whatever you may think of the Chinese government, this is no kakistocracy happily selling its people out for a bit of short-term gain and a life of luxury in future exile, whatever the Times may once have wanted us to believe with its deep dive on Chinese princelings. Whatever it might have been for a spell decades ago now, today China is no North Korea, hobbled by corruption, operated as an extension of a few personalities. It is a government that knows and jealously guards the national interest.

It would be nice if ours did too.

Categories
World

Ethno-Nationalist When We Want to Be

John Broich’s explainer on the Kurdish question is a good example of the contradictions of contemporary American Kurdophilia. He seems to lament the failure of the Kurds to construct what he admits would be an ethno-nationalist homeland out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, even though America today is built upon a rejection of ethno-nationalism of all kinds. As I have observed before, it’s easy to advocate self-determination for peoples abroad, but a lot harder to do it at home, because self-determination weakens and fragments. That makes it good foreign policy and bad domestic policy, at least in the short run, but that also means that advocates of Kurdish statehood don’t have principle on their side.

Broich seems to think that it follows naturally from the fact that the Kurds are “a group of around 40 million who identify with a regional homeland and common historical background, but are now divided between four countries,” that they ought to have their own country.

But I rather doubt that he would support calls by white nationalists to carve an independent white homeland out of the northwestern United States, calls by black nationalists to carve an independent black homeland out of the United States, or calls by Native Americans to carve an independent Native American homeland out of the United States. Or indeed calls by blue staters to secede. Carving up the United States would surely eliminate the region’s current global military and economic dominance.

The fact is that if we believe in democratic pluralism at home, then we can’t try to protect oppressed groups abroad by supporting their calls for statehood, either diplomatically or militarily. The best we can do is support their calls for democracy and equal treatment within whatever countries they happen already to belong. At least, that’s the best we can do if we want to act toward them in a way that is consistent with the way we treat ethno-nationalist aspirations here at home. (Of course, we might not want to run our foreign policy based on consistency and principle, but that’s not how America’s advocates of Kurdish statehood have been making their case.)

Broich observes that the failure of the allies actually to create an independent Kurdistan after World War I resulted largely from European self interest. The British and French were themselves worried that hacking Arabia into too many pieces would make it difficult for both to maintain their spheres of influence in the region, so they scrapped plans for Kurdish self-determination. But the fact that the Kurds lost their chance at statehood because of European self interest doesn’t mean giving them a state would have been good for the region, or consistent with the principles according to which we organize our own country today.

Broich’s unreflective observation that Woodrow Wilson “himself was explicit in calling for a new, broadly encompassing Kurdistan,” sums up the contradictions in contemporary American advocacy of Kurdish statehood. For Wilson, of course, surely believed in white ethno-nationalism for America, and famously segregated the federal government.

At least he was consistent.

Categories
World

Rewards Not Ours to Give

What I do not understand about all the criticism of President Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds is why, exactly, the Kurds should be entitled to a state in northern Syria. I had always thought that carving up sovereigns and doling out territory to favored groups was by general agreement consigned to the dustbin of imperialist history after World War Two. Especially by us Americans, with our relatively anti-colonial past.

But that’s exactly what anyone lamenting President Trump’s withdrawal from Syria seems to be calling for: that we back, militarily, the attempt of a particular group to carve its own ethnic homeland out of an existing UN-recognized country.

In other words, while other Syrians were fighting the Assad regime to create a more democratic, tolerant Syria, the Kurds were fighting the Assad regime to grab land for themselves. That’s hardly the sort of democratic behavior we normally think of ourselves as supporting. Yes, the Kurds helped us fight the Islamic State, but Syria isn’t ours to carve up and dole out to our allies like so many slices of reward cake. Yes, the socialist Kurdistan Workers’ Party has a women’s movement, but again, Syria isn’t ours to carve up and dole out to socialist women’s movements like so many slices of reward cake, especially when we’re not (yet) voting socialist here at home.

And while I’m on the subject of the beatification of the Kurds, I wish to note the irony of the House’s recent rebuke of Turkey for attacking the Kurds in Syria by voting to recognize the Armenian mass killing as genocide. For, as any Armenian will tell you, the Kurds played an important role in carrying out that genocide a century ago.

President Trump made the right call on Syria.

Categories
Despair World

More on the Chinese Nile

We ought to know that we’ve hit a new level of denial when we become convinced that our global dominance is secured by the superiority of . . . our pop culture:

Ten years ago, I joined a U.S. trade delegation for the chance to visit, as a journalist, a remote part of China that borders both North Korea and Russia. As we traveled around, local Chinese greeters proudly pointed out the contrasting vistas: rugged empty hills in North Korea and isolated clusters of Soviet-era buildings in Russia, whereas in China, commerce and construction abounded between booming border towns. In one such town, Hunchun, population 250,000, regional officials asked me if I planned to write anything. Perhaps something cultural, I suggested. I hoped for a window onto Chinese life in this far-flung zone.

The next night they laid on a manifestly ready-made, two-hour pageant of old Manchu ethnographic music and dance, with fluttering feather fans and colorful costumes. I explained to my conscientious hosts that I had hoped for something more contemporary—perhaps portraying current life on the frontier, something about real people and ideas. My request engendered a lot of brow-furrowing discomfort. I had asked for the one thing that their country’s authoritarian system has found it almost impossible to deliver at any level: a vibrant popular culture.

China has become globally competitive in many fields with blinding speed, from the economy and military to science, medicine, sports and even in cultural areas such as cuisine, classical music and contemporary art. But it can’t seem to compete with the West in crucial mainstream genres such as movies, popular music, fashion, novels and the like. I say “crucial” because, without universalizing its culture at a popular level, China cannot ultimately sell a lifestyle for the world to emulate, a set of aspirations that people elsewhere might embrace. Nor can it make its engagement with other cultures more palatable, less like an intrusion by outsiders.

Melik Kaylan, China Has a Soft-Power Problem, The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 5, 2019).

What the Chinese offered this author was the highbrow. But our tastes have eroded so badly over the last generation that we no longer even feel shame at disliking it. Indeed, we have even come to see the persistence of highbrow art in other cultures as a sign of weakness!