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.