James Fallows explains why David Brooks is an idiot so I don’t have to. Links are such a time-saver.

In a nutshell, Brooks’s column today is all about China’s “collectivist” mindset versus the West’s “individualistic” mindset. Fallows, who has been living in and reporting from China in recent years, explains why Brooks’s column is over-simplified hooey.

Certainly, Chinese culture has emphasized social harmony at least since Confucius (551-479 BCE). But that doesn’t mean that Asians are non-thinking automatons.

Brooks writes, for example,

If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

Brooks builds on this to explain why Asians don’t value rights and privacy as much as we Westerners do — Westerners focus on the individual fish, see. But fixating on the biggest fish is not necessarily a sign of individuality, IMO. It more likely indicates that the observer identifies with or admires dominance.

Awhile back I complained that right-wingers don’t see the interconnectedness of things. One of the differences between progressives and non-progressives is that the progressives perceive how the lives and personal fortunes of individual citizens interconnect, and how events and issues connect to and impact other events and issues. Righties, on the other hand, have rigidly linear thought processes and cannot see beyond their own personal interests. Does that make them more “individualistic”? or just more “selfish”? And “narrow minded”?

Years ago I stumbled into a virtual nest of Objectivists. These are Ayn Rand culties who have made a religion of individuality. The peculiar thing about them is that none was a particularly original thinker. They all tended to quote the same passages of The Fountainhead to make the same points and show how “individual” they were.

One guy in particular, who kept going on and on about how he didn’t need anyone else, finally got to me. Do you realize, I said, that your entire environment is a web of interconnection with other people? The roof over your head, the chair you’re sitting in, the utilities you use, the food you eat, your bleeping Internet connection are all the creations of other people.

He snapped back, I paid for these things. Of course. An economy is a facilitator of interconnection.

Righties drop by here from time to time and accuse us liberals of being “statists” and “collectivists.” Righties make a big show of loving liberty even while they support giving the Bush Administration unlimited power to violate individual rights and bully anyone who dares disagree with them. So much for “individualism.” As with the Objectivists, they like to fancy themselves rugged individuals when most of the time they are just tools, believing what they think they are supposed to believe.

I’m Buddhist enough to understand individuality as an illusion. We’re all more part of each other than we realize.

The three major philosophy-religions of China — Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism — all in different ways emphasize interconnection. Zen Buddhism — Zen Buddhism originated in China, as Ch’an Buddhism — was heavily influenced by an Indian philosophy called Madhyamika, which argues that nothing has intrinsic identity, and phenomena take identity only from other phenomena. There is neither reality nor not-reality; only relativity.

Another Chinese school of of Buddhism called Huayan came up with the metaphor of Indra’s Net. The net extends in all directions without end, and in each “eye” of the net is a multifaceted jewel. Each jewel, although existing separately, also reflects every other jewel in the net. And the jewels in the reflection reflect all other jewels in the reflection, to infinity. This represents how beings and phenomena exist. Simultaneously, we are individuals and not-individuals.

Yes, China has a totalitarian government. The form of that government is based on an economic and political philosophy originally dreamed up by Europeans, as I recall.

Robert Louis Chianese writes
in the Los Angeles Times,

Without a tradition of individualism and personal rights, Chinese society represents the perfect counterbalance to our own rights-emphatic culture. If we find fault with the suppression of the individual in China, we also might fail to see the disadvantages in the West of devaluing social harmony. We in the U.S. seem to be going off in 330 million directions at once. Contrariwise, our current administration wishes to overrule the Bill of Rights in the name of security, our debased form of “harmony.”

I would say that without a tradition of social harmony, we often cannot reach consensus without devolving into schoolyard taunts and bullying. Or, that great favorite of dictators — fear.

I’ve come to appreciate more and more that “social harmony” and “individualism” are not opposites. When kept in balance, they enhance each other. When only one is valued, too often you have neither.

20 thoughts on “Interconnections

  1. I had the misfortune a few weeks ago to spend an entire weekend with a full-tilt Randian, who went so far to name his kids after the characters in Rand’s books. He had the maturity of a spoiled punk rocker, and like all righties, could not see past the end of his own nose.

    Your essay skirts around the issue of Freedom, which is a worship-word for the right. They presumably do and believe everything in the name of individual freedom and liberty. A mind puzzle that I enjoy unloading on these freedom-lovers is the notion that by giving up certain individual rights, we gain more freedom. By adhering to traffic laws, we gain more freedom by reducing the likelihood of getting killed on the highway. By giving up certain rights when we marry someone, we gain other freedoms. And so on. By emphasizing individual freedom above everything else, righties lose the freedom to live in a safe, harmonious, and civilized country. They’d much rather cower in fear behind locked doors, with crappy medical care, a polluted planet, and all wealth and political power controlled by the top 2%. Some freedom.

    This kind of thing needs to be explained over and over to wingnuts who simply mouth cliches about freedom. There is an interesting balance between social harmony and individualism, and I’d like to learn more about it.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful post, and thank you! You’ll be the star of my own little blog tomorrow, Maha, because I have NEVER expressed these precise (and urgently important) issues about the intersections of politics, culture, and Buddhism (i.e., our ultimate inter-being and interdependence) anywhere near so clearly as you just did. Beautiful.

  3. Moonbat — I remember once posing this question to the Objectivists — what if your next-door neighbor liked to collect old tires and set fire to them from time to time. He did this on his own property, but because of the smoldering tires you can’t enjoy your own back yard. Wouldn’t you then appreciate some kind of civic ordinance that prohibited tire burning? Nope; freedom is absolute, they said. A man can burn tires on his own property.

    There’s a point at which we all become hostage to the worst behavior of a few. This is not freedom.

  4. Feh. David Brooks.

    No offense to Fallows, who is right on with his criticisms, but David Brooks has made an entire career out of writing and pushing exactly this kind of ridiculous, conventional wisdom stupidity. That he’s employed is a testament to the fact that truthiness always trumps truth.

  5. I really believe that conservatives enjoy, really enjoy living and thinking in a fact-free environment. Between their snarls and whimpers, they are like children playing at adult life.

    Interconnectedness, the sublime importance of even the seemingly least consequential of existences reminds me of the neutral meson. It has a life of only one one-hundredth of a sixteenth of a second, but when it disintegrates it is converted into the energy that holds the universe together.

    And then there’s Einstein who said that everything must change so that everything can stay the same. Talk about interconnectedness. Then there’s the physicist who said that the more she studied the universe the more it seemed to be a magnificent story.

  6. Moonbat — “There is an interesting balance between social harmony and individualism, and I’d like to learn more about it.” Try reading Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid or Murray Bookchin’s The Philosophy of Social Ecology.

    As for the Randroids–I read Atlas Shrugged when it first came out. I was fourteen at the time and I was very impressed by it. Objectivism is a basically puerile philosophy that has great attraction to fourteen-year-olds of any chronological age.

  7. “We are all individuals!”

    Ah, a great moment in cinema.

    Look. You’ve got it all wrong.
    You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!

    Yes, we’re all individuals!

    You’re all different!

    Yes, we are all different!

    I’m not.

  8. And then there’s Einstein who said that everything must change so that everything can stay the same.

    That’s so Zen.

  9. Very well said. I also recall a quotation from a famous primatologist (don’t remember who): “One chimpanzee is no chimpanzee.” This is probably even more true of us, especially considering how absolutely central language is to our humanity. Do the Objectivists even go so far as to deny that language is a collective phenomenon? Does the dude who thinks he doesn’t need anybody because he pays for his internet connection imagine that he just makes up his own words and meanings? I guess that means the ultimate Objectivist is Jodie Foster in Nell. (The Greek root of the word “idiot” is idios, meaning “one’s own, or private.”)

  10. I guess that means the ultimate Objectivist is Jodie Foster in Nell.

    As I remember, a few of them were pretty much in the “let’s leave the babies in the woods and let them raise themselves” camp.

  11. I have come across a number of Westerners who think like David Brooks, mostly, I am afraid, American, since the ideology of ‘the individual’ is so strong in the States, chiefly among people who, as you rightly point out, don’t think for themselves, parrot Rand and other ideologues, and bear small resemblance to genuine individuals. Nisbett is on to something, though I suspect the differences are less great than he supposes (there was quite a severe critique of his views published in a book whose title I forget), but having lived in Japan for 35 years, working with and teaching Japanese people (and being married to one), and knowing as friends and acquaintances many Japanese, Chinese and other Asian people, I can assure David Brooks (who is, incidentally, abusing Nisbett’s findings, almost certainly out of cultural and perhaps racial prejudice) that the average Asian is no less an individual than the average Westerner and certainly much more of an individual than the followers of the crude and rigid ideas of Ayn Rand. Being aware of other people and the society around you doesn’t make you less of an individual.

  12. Very good piece and an important point. I see it in particular in regard to the knee-jerk anti-tax crowd.

    The biggest fallacy of simplistic anti-tax rhetoric is that the outraged person assumes that, if only he didn’t have to pay those taxes, he would have the same income with the same purchasing power. But this is by no means the case. One of the main reasons the U.S. has such a high standard of living and favorable environment for investing is simply because we are a politically-stable, well-governed nation (usually, anyway). A major component of this happy situation is a fair, sensible, and well-enforced system of public finance.

    Without that, we would be like many countries in the world (Russia and Argentina spring to mind) where lack of good public finance has led to instability, both political and economic, and has contributed to a lower standard of living, not to mention crime and corruption. We live in a great nation, and great nations cost money.

    My teenage son is somewhat enamored of the libertarian talk he hears from a lot of his friends and their fathers. I ask him to look at who the libertairans are – almost always men who are hooked on some kind of macho image of themselves and who drive pickups or SUVs. These guys have deluded themselves into thinking that they don’t need anybody else and will be better off if just left alone (where are they going to drive their SUVs when there are no tax-supported roads?).

    I tell my son not to bother going to a libertarian convention if he wants to meet women.

  13. Great post and wonderful comments. I was going to ask where Brooks got his intel on responses to a fish tank based on nationality, and then Sam, commenter #4, wrote:

    David Brooks has made an entire career out of writing and pushing exactly this kind of ridiculous, conventional wisdom stupidity.

    Ah, of course. Brooks made it up.

    And, my gosh, is there no end to the mine of philosophical riches from Life of Brian? Does that make me a “Pythonist”? A label I’d proudly wear.

  14. No. he didn’t make it up. That was a well-known experiment on cultural differences in “cognitive style” carried out some years ago by Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda. The point is not that Brooks made it up, but rather, that he doesn’t understand what it means because he already has his “conventional wisdom” template that tells him how to say the same thing, whatever the subject.

  15. priscianus, thanks for clarifying. I also see Tim Harris pointed out the source in comment 12, but for some reason his comment was blocked for me earlier. As for my misunderstanding… pure receiver’s error. Having never heard of the study, I read the fish experiment section in Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought on Google. I’d almost think Brooks was talking about a completely different experiment.

  16. There is an excellent dissection of the research (such as it is) that Brooks hopelessly misconstrues at Language Log:

    Not surprisingly, the studies don’t say what he thinks they say, and even if they had, they weren’t representative and haven’t been repeated. Not that simple facts like that ever got in the way of a Brooksian thesis.

  17. Brook’s column is just outright racism. The basic idea he promotes has been around for a long time (at least since the 1950’s) and is really just a version of the “yellow menace.”

  18. I almost never read Brooks because he’s such a tool and usually specious. But since you are discussing it I took your reader’s advise and read the Nisbett study and compared it to his article.

    I didn’t see the inference he drew either, plus he made at least 3 other statements of fact that probably aren’t true either; if true he doesn’t say who said so or how they made the conclusion. Here they are;

    Collectivist societies tend to pop up in parts of the world, especially around the equator, with plenty of disease-causing microbes. In such an environment, you’d want to shun outsiders, who might bring strange diseases, and enforce a certain conformity over eating rituals and social behavior.
    Either way, individualistic societies have tended to do better economically. We in the West have a narrative that involves the development of individual reason and conscience during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and then the subsequent flourishing of capitalism. According to this narrative, societies get more individualistic as they develop.
    For one thing, there are relatively few individualistic societies on earth. For another, the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the Western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social context

    What do you think?

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