13 June, 2013

Far Right and Far Left Coming Together - With Infographics!

In one of the Stage's most popular posts, I asked if the "far right" and "far left" are really just two peas of the same pod.  On the face of things America seems divided between two hostile cultures. Yet look beneath the surface and a different picture emerges: underneath partisan rhetoric are two parties united in a plutocratic, establishment consensus. "There are two groups who consistently oppose this "pragmatic" consensus", I noted in the post, "the far left and the far right. These two groups, seemingly divided, are united by their "radical" opposition to many otherwise unquestioned aspects of America's standing political regime."[1]

This week one of the "unquestioned aspects of America's political regime" has received unusual attention: the runaway expansion of the 'classified state' and its clients, seen quite vividly in the extensive powers given to the NSA by the American people. A recent Pew opinion poll suggests that a slight majority of Americans support these measures [2], but an outspoken minority has ensured that the controversy surrounding the NSA leaks has made front page headlines every day this week.  The mainstream press is now turning its attention to who these contrarian rabble rousers are.

Nate Silver (who blogs for the New York Times) focuses on the United States House of Representatives:

Image Source: Nate Silver. "Domestic Surveillance Could Create a Divide in the 2016 Primaries." New York Times. 11 June 2013.
His explanation of the info-graphic is worth reading:
Take, for example, the House’s vote in May 2011 to extend certain provisions of the Patriot Act — including the so-called library records provision that the government has used to defend the legality of sweeping searches of telephone and e-mail records. The bill passed with 250 yes votes in the House against 153 no votes, receiving more of its support from Republicans. (In the Senate, the bill passed, 72-23, winning majority support from both parties.) However, the House vote was not well described by a traditional left-right political spectrum. 
In the chart [above], I’ve sorted the 403 members of the House who voted on the bill from left to right in order of their overall degree of liberalism or conservatism, as determined by the statistical system DW-Nominate. Members of the House who voted for the bill are represented with a yellow stripe in the chart, while those who voted against it are represented in black 
The no votes are concentrated at the two ends of the spectrum. The 49 most liberal members of the House (all Democrats) who voted on the bill each voted against it. But so did 14 of the 21 Republicans deemed to be the most conservative by DW-Nominate. 
By contrast, 46 of the 50 most moderate Republicans voted for the Patriot Act extension, as did 38 of the 50 most moderate Democrats. [3]

This pattern - the pragmatic center upholding elite consensus while the radical wings unite against it - matches that described in the earlier "Far Left and Far Right" note. Despite all of their verbal animosity, the Tea Party and the Progressive Caucus voted together. When the data is plotted on a two dimensional spectrum the pattern is even easier to see.

Image Source: Nate Silver. "Domestic Surveillance Could Create a Divide in the 2016 Primaries." New York Times. 11 June 2013.

Silver then notes:
You can find similar patterns in certain votes on policy toward the financial sector — for example, during the various bailout votes that were cast toward the end of 2008. More recently, votes on the federal debt ceiling have taken on some of the same contours.

What is the link between the financial votes and those on the surveillance state? In both cases, members of Congress were asked to trust the assertions of elites that significant harms would result if the bills were not enacted: terrorist acts in the event that the Patriot Act was not extended, or financial calamity in the event that the bailout was not passed or the debt ceiling was not raised.

As a matter of practice (but not necessarily theory), convincing someone that a future crisis must be averted requires a higher level of persuasion than making the case for a policy that is claimed to ameliorate some extant problem. Members of Congress who are members of their party establishments might be more inclined to trust testimony from financial or national security elites, and therefore might have been easier to pitch on these bills. (Emphasis added). [4]
There is a large constituency in both parties that distrusts the national elite and supports radical reformation of our political system. At this time they are a minority. They may not remain so in the future. Few would have guessed in 1895 that the Progressive movement would (from the bottom up) capture dozens of municipalities, states, and ultimately both national political parties before a decade had gone by.  Indeed, the progressive movement is the most important model 21st century reformers have. [5] Entire posts could be devoted to the lessons the progressive movement's success can teach us; today I will mention but one, relevant to the info-graphics presented above: resist the temptation to make this a one party affair. 

If reform is to be complete, comprehensive, and permanent it cannot be a partisan endeavor. Decentralization, dismantling America's security theatre, and killing crony capitalism must be kept as far away from the "culture wars" as possible. If these reforms become the mantra of a single party instead of the starting point of both then they will not last.

It is time the radicals learn to work with their opposites across the aisle. 


[1] T. Greer. "Far Left and Far Right - Two Peas in a Pod?"The Scholar's Stage. 10 April 2013.

[2] Pew Research Center. "Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic." (Washington: Pew Research). 10 June 2013.

[3] Nate Silver. "Domestic Surveillance Could Create a Divide in the 2016 Primaries." New York Times. 11 June 2013.

[4] Ibid

[5] Lest this sentence be a stumbling block to some, let me clarify: I do not advocate a return to the programs or policies  that the progressive movement championed (though its hostility towards corruption is much needed in this day and age), but suggest that we should study and imitate the methods progressive reformers used to spread their movement across the country and alter existing political structures at every level of American society.  

11 June, 2013

What Are You Reading?

This week I finished Sallust's The Jugurthine War (translated by A.J. Woodman), Michael J. Lotus and James C. Bennett's America 3.0, and Vaclav Smil's fantastic The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change.

Before the month is over I hope to read or finish:

William Freehling's Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1850

Ji Junxiang's The Orphan of Zhao. (Trans by Liu Jeng En).

Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

Michael Lowe's The Government of the Qin And Han Empires: 221 Bce-220 Ce

Appian's The Civil Wars (Trans by John Carter). 

What are you reading?

09 June, 2013

America 3.0

It is unusual for me to read a book aimed at popular conservative audiences.  I am something of a disaffected conservative. Crony capitalism and government overreach have proved to be bipartisan endeavors, and I have long lost faith that the Republican party can ever be more than an organ of America's governing elite. [1] Outside of the beltway the broader currents of mainstream conservatism are so full of angry sound and righteous fury (and nothing else) that I have long stopped paying close attention them. The movement is in desperate need of a clearer vision and more compelling purpose. 

 America 3.0 is the book to provide it. 

 James Bennett and Michael Lotus get everything right that all of the other popular commentators get wrong. In contrast to pundits incessantly focused on the character flaws of the opposition and controversies of the hour, these authors focus on the broad political principles and broad political context - "centuries into the past and decades into the future" (xxv).  Where most popular political creeds are shallow, filled more with hype and platitudes than meaningful evidence, America 3.0 is both respectful in tone and deeply researched (and none the less readable for it!). Few popular political works have any real historical grounding;  America 3.0 possesses this in spades. Even more impressively, the authors manage to convey both their sense of history and their firm belief in American exceptionalism without any of the reflexive chest-pounding sometimes mistaken as patriotism in conservative corners. (As they write in the introduction, "We are attempting to avoid sentimentality in this book, and look at the record in a cold light. As we write things are not good in America. Being realistic is a matter of urgency (xxiv).") Most impressive of all is the political platform they lay out. In age where conservatives are too often defined by what they are against, America 3.0 paints a compelling picture of what they should be for.

All in all, a breath of fresh air.

The basic argument of America 3.0 is that the United States is in the midst of a epochal demographic, political, and economic transition. This has happened before. The world of the early American colonists, revolutionaries, and antebellum pioneers was vastly different from our own.  Their America (named America 1.0 in the book) was a nation of independent farmers; men did not have "jobs" working for corporations and businesses as we now think of them, but survived off what they could harvest, craft,  and sell. Government was mostly a local affair; larger government structures existed, of course, but their impact on daily life was negligible. In comparison to today's society, there was hardly any government at all. This society was not fated to last. A whole host of factors - urbanization, industrialization, changes in communication technology and transformations associated with the growth revolution - made old political and economic structures obsolete.  The transition to new forms was dirty and painful, but by the early 20th century the United States was reborn into America 2.0, land of big business, big government, big labor, - in short, big everything. In this America economies of scale, a rigid system of hierarchy and meritocracy, and mass production was the path to success. This was the America that defeated totalitarianism during the Second World War, became the center of world wide technological innovation and scientific advancement, and transformed into the largest and strongest economy of humanity's history.

But that is changing. The economic and demographic underpinnings of America 2.0 are eroding away. The coming order is what the authors call "America 3.0."

The authors chart the course of the future carefully. Their care is seen in the structure of the book itself; though the work is devoted to the future, six of its nine chapters are devoted to the past. The explanation for this focus is worth quoting in full:
"America is in urgent need of reform at a fundamental level. If we want to know what will work for us, in terms of political and economic reforms, we need to understand ourselves. That means we need to know what we are and how we are got to be like this. When we know that, we will be able to think intelligently about what we are today and what our realistic prospects and options are (25)."
The authors goes back very far in their search for understanding America's unique institutions and attitudes, beginning their search with the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain c. 550 AD. I was delighted to find that much of this analysis rests on the work of the French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd. I came across Mr. Todd's work a few months ago, and concluded immediately that he is the most under-rated "big idea" thinker in the field of world history. [2] Todd's focus is family structure; the observation that drives his work is that family life is vastly different from one region and culture to another. His big idea: all of this matters. Family structure is the foundation of cultural attitudes and expectations, and by logical extension the world's different political and economic structures closely mirror the families inside them.

The different family types of Europe.

Image Source: Frank Jacobs. "Family Ties." The New York Times. 17 June 2013.

Americans live in "Absolute Nuclear Families." In these families, children are expected to pack up and leave when they become adults. Parents have no legal control of who their children marry, and their children have no legal obligations to care for them. Parents can choose to give what they will to whom they will; while inheritance may be split up among children equally, it is not required by law or social custom. You do not marry your cousins. This all seems very normal to Americans but on the global scale it is actually quite rare. There are only a few other countries - Australia, England, Holland - whose families are structured similarly. (Think: to most of the world, the phrase "empty nester" makes no sense!) Interestingly, the countries with this type of family structure are consistently found to be the most individualistic on the Earth. This is the "deep structure" of American exceptionalism. In comparison to other countries and cultures, Americans are far more mobile, competitive, non-egalitarian, individualistic, selfish, enterprising, and dedicated to religion and volunteer work. Family structure does not explain all of this (the authors devote a chapter to the way England's medieval and enlightenment institutions - such as common law -   shape American practices to this day), but it is an undeniable part of the bedrock upon which American culture rests. These roots run deep. They persist from generation to generation. They pose a practical limit to the type of political system America can adopt. This is why European style social democracy could never catch on in America (it is also why Americans have had such difficulty exporting 'American style' democracy to countries like Afghanistan, whose society is built around the clan).  

Luckily for us, the authors claim, the economic, demographic, and political trends of our time are leading to a world where the autonomous, enterprising, and individualistic features of American society will be a competitive asset. This transition is inevitable. The 2.0 model is broken. Labor unions are gone. Public programs are supported with a debt the government cannot possibly hope to pay back. Federal regulations and taxation are too complex to understand and rigged by the wealthy and powerful for their own advantage. Big businesses cannot offer the job security they once did. The executive branch is oversized, the military industrial complex out of control, and the legislative branch is closer to K-street lobbyists than the people who elected them. America has the largest prison population in the world but bails out and excuses criminals on Wall Street. The whole thing is a plutocratic mess of chilling proportions. But the system is not sustainable. What cannot go on, will not. Americans trying to shore up unions, the welfare state, or stable corporate monopolies like the kind we had in the 1940s and 50s are doomed to fail, having no more hope of bringing back America 2.0 than William Jennings Bryant did of restoring America 1.0 in his day. The future is coming. The proposals in this book "are meant to reduce the difficulty of the transition (187)." 

I will not summarize the predictions the authors make for the new America at great length - they do that themselves in an entertaining chapter devoted to visiting "America in 2040." It is enough to say that in many ways the new America will be closer in image to America 1.0 than 2.0. As with America 1.0, "the entire concept of 'job" is going to away" (187), as more and more Americans work from home in a manner not too different from their Colonial forefathers. 3-D printing and additive manufacturing will make any home a factory; production of goods will be as decentralized as production of software is today. American political structures will follow suit, and the authors go so far as to suggest that states like California, Texas, and New York may split into more manageable units. I found this section of immense interest; long time readers will know that the urgent need for political decentralization is a common theme at the Stage. [3] The authors agree with this sentiment, but go much further than I have, suggesting a  series of reforms that move talk of decentralization from the realm of abstract political principle to concrete action. The book is worth reading for these twenty pages on decentralization alone.  Key to the program is the goal to "push as many contentious issues as possible to the most basic local level as possible, and then reducing the transaction costs as low as possible (229)." In other words, let each community decide its own policy on social issues but make it as easy as possible for people to switch from one community to another. If state senators in Connecticut want to ban the ownership of assault rifles - let them! If a small town in Utah wants to require every teacher to carry a gun with them to school - let them! If you do not like the policies in your community, move to somewhere new. The end result will be drastic ideological sorting, as people move to the communities who have the laws and services they want their government to have. 

Mr. Lotus and Bennett expect the shift from America 2.0 to 3.0 to be long and difficult. Indeed, implementing the reforms needed to make America 3.0 succeed will be "hellishly difficult (234)." Nevertheless, the authors are "betting on the positive scenario (22)" that the reform will happen without any systematic collapse. I am less sanguine. My pessimism reflects something the book seems to pass over: the drastic decline in American "social capital," or the social networks and friendships that allow people to work together.

Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone is the classic account of American social capital and its precipitous decline in the latter half of the 20th century. Since "the greatest generation" that fought in WWII, each generation of Americans that has followed has been less likely to vote, to participate in community groups like the PTA, Boy Scouts, or even neighborhood bowling leagues,  to give charitable service, attend Church, have dinner parties, or trust strangers than the generation before it. Socially isolated Americans of this type will have trouble doing anything "hellishly difficult" for social capital is what effective political movements are built upon. Putnam includes a wonderful chapter in his book on the progressive movement, which was the movement that engineered America's transition to the 2.0 model. [4] Putnam points out that the progressive movement was one of the few true "grass roots" political movements in American history. Central to their success in the 1900s and 1910s was the dense network of reading groups, charity clubs, churches, and political committees they created or joined during the 1880s and 1890s. (Most of America's famous civic groups today - Big Brothers, Sierra Club, NAACP, the Red Cross, the PTA, Rotary, and many more - were founded in the thirty years between 1880 and 1910). Putnam argues convincingly that the progressive movement could not have happened without this explosion in civic activism. The progressives did not just found the political order of America 2.0 - they founded the civic associations and institutions of American 2.0 as well. Lotus and Bennett place the high point of America 2.0 at 1960 - this is too was the high water mark for American civic engagement. The civic organizations (and the lifestyle they promoted) lasted the duration of America 2.0, and have fallen into decline with it. 

Given the excellent treatment of the of America's economic and political insitutions, the precious little the authors had to say about America's religious and civic institutions was disappointing.  More importantly, they have little to say about how to rekindle America's civic spirit or what forms America 3.0's civic associations might take. This is a critical omission. If past American political experience is anything to go by, then bottom-up reforms cannot and will not happen without the kind of social capital   that conquers hellish tasks. 

My hope is that those who read this book will have their own ideas on how to bring a civic renewal to America 3.0. The ideas in the book - particularly the parts about decentralization - are worth organizing for. 

But enough on that theme.  America 3.0 is an excellent book. It is an example of a historically grounded and thoroughly researched book designed to reach popular audiences - in other words, what all political tracts should be like. Even those who disagree with the authors will find the style and substance of this work admirable. 5 stars.  

Note: a slightly condensed version of this review has been posted on Amazon.com. If this review has been useful to you, I encourage you to 'like' it - and buy the book!


[1] See T. Greer. "Ominous Parallels: What Antebellum America Can Teach Us About Our Modern Political Regime." The Scholar's Stage. 26 February 2013. 

[2] His "big idea" book is Emmanuel Todd, Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems. trans. David Garroch. (New York: Blackwell Publishing). 1989. Brian Michlthwait and hbd*chick are the two people to have posted extended summaries online. The second author is a genetic determinist, and thus disagrees with many of Todd's major points, but she summarizes his contentions well. 

[3] Most recently expressed in T. Greer. "Far Left and Far Right: Two Peas in a Pod." The Scholar's Stage. 10 April 2013. 

[4] Robert Putnam. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon and Shuster.) 2001. Ch. 23. "The Lessons of History: The Gilded Age and the Progressive Movement". p 367-402.

06 June, 2013

Finally, Some Sanity on Events in Turkey

A protester holds up a Turkish flag with a picture of Kemal Ataturk on it.

Image Source: AP Photo/Kostis Sniroris. 3 June 2013. 

 The riots and protests that rocked Istanbul this week have taken many in the West by surprise. I have been astonished at how poorly Western outlets have explained what these riots are about and why they are happening. There is a basic disconnect between the narratives Westerners are using to interpret Turkey's political dynamics and actual events on the ground.  Fortunately, Gary Brecher offers a corrective dose of sanity in his most recent War Nerd column. As his articles are hid behind a pay wall two days after publication, I will post a longer excerpt than usual:

Gary Brecher. nsfwcorp. 5 June 2013.
"Turkey isn’t like any other country in the world. That’s why all these analogies are futile. What happened to Turkey in the 20th centuries is one of the great, bloody epic tales of all time. I suspect that’s why so few non-Turks know much about it: It’s too grim. There was a lot of grim around, in the first half of the last century, but even in that gory anthology the Turkish story stands out. The Ottomans sided with Imperial Germany in WW I, fought well but fell with their allies, and lost everything. The Allies handled the defeated Ottomans as vindictively as they did the Germans, and reaped the whirlwind much sooner. By 1919 Ottoman rule was limited to the northern part of the Anatolian Peninsula, and the Sultan seemed willing to settle for this shred of former Ottoman territory. But now came Young Turks 2.0, led by one of the greatest leaders of the century: Mustafa Kemal, later called Kemal Ataturk, “Kemal, Father of the Turks.” He earned that epithet by taking back the entire peninsula against pretty much the whole world. The Allies wanted to hand Western Turkey to the Greeks—and the Greeks had a good case that the Mediterranean coast was and always had been Greek. But Kemal, seeing that the days of multi-ethnic empires like the Ottoman were finished, took Wilson’s lessons deadly seriously and was determined to make the whole Anatolian Peninsula a mono-ethnic Turkish country. He collected hardcore Turkish vets in the center, near Ankara, while a Greek invasion force landed in Smyrna, ferried there by an Allied fleet. 
Smyrna is now Izmir, which tells you how that campaign turned out. It was a horrible, bloody campaign of massacre, or what we now call “ethnic cleansing,” with no mercy on either side. Kemal retook Smyrna, which had been a Greek city for thousands of years, and renamed it Izmir. He renamed everything he conquered. Turkey was going to be 110% Turkish. This is what people flinch from seeing: Ataturk saw very clearly how the 20th century was going to go: toward mono-ethnic enclaves like the “small nations” Wilson was blithering about. And he was going to make sure the whole peninsula was one of them....
Ataturk was as tough with actual Turks too. He wasn’t cruel for the fun of it; he had a plan, a more effective, intelligent and farsighted plan than just about anybody else from his era. Ataturk and Mao have more in common than they’re given credit for. Mao said “Women hold up half the sky,” but Ataturk did more than just talk: He outlawed the veil and encouraged women to join the workforce. Even now, a Turkish woman who wears a headscarf is making a pretty shocking statement that she’s an Islamist, a conservative. The wife of Abdullah Gul, the President, wears the headscarf, and for coastal types, Kemalist secularists, that makes her husband the enemy. 
....Ataturk’s people were going to have the most thorough makeover since Peter the Great turned the Boyars’ assembly into a barber college. His top-down reform covered everything. Clothes: suit and tie for men; no more fez and slippers; no veils for women. Language: before Ataturk, Turkish was written in the Arabic alphabet; he singlehandedly strongarmed Turks into remaking their language into Roman script. He made a point of violating Islamic law by publicly gulping Raki, the Turkish variant of Ouzo. 
For Ataturk, the less Turkey resembled any other Muslim country, the better. He gave his life to make analogies like Tahrir/Taksim impossible. Turkey joined NATO and ignored Palestine. The Turks that foreign writers met made it look like Ataturk’s transformation was totally successful. Time or Newsweek would send some idiot, all expenses paid, to Istanbul and he’d look out over the well-dressed crowds hustling off the ferries to work in ties and high heels, and he’d tell us that Turkey was just Manhattan with a little exotica thrown in, and cheaper souvenirs. 
Meanwhile, back in the boondocks of Central Anatolia, they wore the required uniform, white shirts and flat Andy Capp hats, but none of it sat well, any more than the Sixties sat well with the mud turtles in Missouri or Indiana. We’ve got a silent, sullen majority in the US; we know that. But we never seem to figure that most other places have one too. 
In every revolution of the last decade, pundit after pundit announces that it’s “spring” and that the people will soon vote into power some nice moderate pro-Western technocrat. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt—they were all going to elect somebody Jon Podhoretz could praise in the op-ed pages. Any day now. Except it didn’t happen. Because those pundits talk to Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians from the educated urban elite, and just assume that such sharp, reasonable, cultured folks will naturally slide into power. 

If only they’d look at America’s recent history, they might notice that when the silent majority makes its preferences known, it’s not always the suave urbanites who come into power. It’s much more likely to be some sleazy pseudo-hick who puts on a fake Texas accent and talks about God and Jesus. That’s what silent majorities like. And the more the coastal elite mocks him, the more stubbornly the inland hicks cling to him—because one aspect of their votes is revenge for being pushed into places they don’t want to go. 
That was us, in the first decade of the millennium. Now imagine how much harder the silent Turkish majority has been pushed in the 90-odd years since Ataturk tore their culture apart. Their empire became a country, their language changed its entire written form, their beloved leader openly despised their religion…it’s a lot to handle. If you were one of the lucky kids from a liberal, educated family, you’d cling to Ataturk’s reforms like grim death—which is what those kids are doing at the moment in Istanbul.
....The issues that set off this round of protests were the bulldozing of an Istanbul park area and “restrictions on the sale of alcohol. “ That sounded familiar to me after Saudi, where booze is a felony, but I was shocked when I found out what these restrictions were: No sales between 10pm and 6am, warning labels on bottles, no advertising. That’s all? Treating booze like cigarettes? It actually shows you how totally different Turkey is from most Middle Eastern countries that rules like that could be seen as radical Islamization. Make it 2am instead of 10 and you’ve got California’s booze laws, and last I heard we weren’t under Sharia yet, no matter what the Freepers think. 
What seems to be happening in Turkey is more like a red-state/blue-state fuss than the second coming of Riyadh....
So this is politics as usual. Including the riots. Riots are a fundamental part of politics and always have been. I’m old enough to remember the “Burn, Baby, Burn” era, growing up in a white-trash neighborhood, and believe me, it was fear that the fires would spread that won whatever concessions those “urban minorities” got. What’s happening in Istanbul now involves another urban minority; it just happens to be a richer one. There’s no clear break between rallies, riots and civil war; you go as far as you need to, along that spectrum, until your group feels it’s got the best deal it can get. At the moment, after Erdogan’s JDP won two national elections by huge margins, the inland religious hicks have been strutting a little, throwing their weight around a bit... [and] it’s no wonder the smart people on the coast were looking for a reason to express themselves with sticks and bandannas and rocks in the classic manner. There’s only so much of that heartland idiocy you can take, and when Erdogan announced that he was going to tear down some of the last trees left in downtown Istanbul to make way for a shopping complex modeled on an Ottoman barracks, it was the mall that broke the hipsters’ backs. It was a perfect trigger: nostalgia for the very un-secular Ottoman past, crass commercialism, no sense of the value that the downtown crowd places on green space. Pure hick-ery, in other words. 
Erdogan had the votes on his side, but the rioters in Taksim had advantages too. Above all, they showed that they could shut down Istanbul, where 15 million people live. Heartland people can vote, but nobody cares if they shut down their hick towns, but when you can shut down the city that holds a fifth of the whole country’s population, you have power. 
So the riots were a perfectly standard democratic way of indicating to the red-state administration that they better take it a little easy on the coastal folks, or risk serious embarrassment—not to mention some very insulting comparisons to Cairo. For all the news-wonk gibbering, these riots have gone off very politely—firmly, because these are Turks and they don’t f* around—but politely, as in very few dead, no live ammunition fired at people, no cops beaten to death with rocks." 

05 June, 2013

2010s: The Decade Asian America Goes Mainstream

In an effort to prepare for the release of Iron Man 3 I devoted a several hours over the past few weeks to all of the Marvel Studio blockbusters I missed when serving as a missionary for the LDS Church. These films inspired the following observation: Asians Americans [1] are now an established part of America's popular culture.

The portrayal of racial minorities in pop-culture is a volatile issue. The over-use of "Token Black Guys" to fill out Hollywood casts has been a source of particular derision. Urban Dictionary explains:
1. token black guy - Any black character in any movie that is neither the protagonist nor antagonist, is unimportant to the plot and does not significantly contribute to it, preferably dies before the end, usually does not end up with the girl. 
2. token black guy - Any fictional character of African-American descent that has been inconsequently inserted into the plot a movie or TV show for the express purposes of creating an image of commercially safe, politically correct, and insipid racial harmony. [2]

In the Marvel Studio films Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger the stereotyped token black guy has been eclipsed by a new character type: the token Asian guy.

Thor begins his film with a posse of Asgardians introduced as "Lady Sif and the Warriors Three." Reflecting Thor's identity as the Norse God of thunder,  the group is dressed in shiny Hollywood versions of Viking attire. One does not need to be playing close attention to notice that one of these warriors looks distinctly un-Viking.  

The Asgardian posse in Thor. 

Captain America has his own side-kick team, a group of talented soldiers handpicked by the movie's titular hero to face off against super villain Red Skull and the renegade Nazis under his command. Included in the team is another "Token Asian Man", the Japanese American Jim Morita.

Captain America's side kicks.

This character is less of an anachronism than it seems at first glance.  The most decorated American unit of the Second World War was the 442nd Infantry, composed entirely of Nisei Soldiers. The best of the Nisei soldiers certainly deserved to be on America's premiere special-ops team; whether or not the military brass of 1944 would agree to place a Nisei soldier on such a team is a different question. 

We do not have to ponder the question at great length. Fortunately for the viewing public, Captain America: The First Avenger is a super-hero adventure movie, not a work of historical fiction. Thor and Captain America  are a window into 2010s, not the 1940s. As with most films, these two movies betray the expectations of their audience. The inclusion of "Token Asian Men" in these blockbusters suggests that Asian Americans are now too prominent a part of American society for politically correct Hollywood producers to ignore.  [3]  

Source: Pew Research Center. Rise of the Asian Americans.
(Pew Research: Washington DC). last updated 4 April 2013. p. 1
It is not a coincidence that this is happening in the 2010s. The growing presence of Asian Americans in American pop-culture mirrors the growing Asian American population of the United States: the 2010s is the first decade in American history where Asians are the largest group of new immigrants entering the United States. [4]    

This is just the beginning. Over the next few decades more American communities will start to look like the 626. As the number of Asian Americans grow, their impact on American pop culture will only increase. Who knows? Before the decade is over America might have her own Asian Will Smith.  


[1] "Asian American," as the term is used here, refers to the peoples most Americans associate with the phrase: immigrants from Northeast and Southeast Asia (or descendants of such). Sorry my Desi and Arab friends: you are not main stream quite yet. 

[2] themarcuscreature. "token black guy." Urban Dictionary. 13 Feb 2013.

[3] Hollywood is not the only place to see more Asian Americans during the 2010s. The music industry has also seen notable shifts: in late 2010 the Far East Movement became the first Asian American group to reach the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.  

[4] This is especially true in the areas close to Hollywood itself. See  Jennifer Medinia."Asians Now Largest Immigrant Population in Southern California." New York Times. 28 April 2013. 

04 June, 2013

Geography and Chinese History - The Fractured Land Hypothesis

Occasionally I come across attempts to explain the broad course of Chinese history in reference to China's geography. These arguments tend to focus on the unified empires of Chinese history. Always contrasting Chinese history with the European experience, they suggest that China's political unity and Europe's perpetual disunity are reflections of the unbroken terrain of the first and the disparate geography of the second. Two prominent examples can be found in Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Powers and Military Change, 1500-2000 and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Society. Quoting Professor Kennedy first: 
"For this political diversity Europe had largely to thank its geography. There were no enormous plains over which an empire of horsemen cold impose its swift dominion; nor were there any broad and fertile river zones like those around the Ganges, Nile,Tigris and Euphrates, Yellow, and Yangtze, providing food for masses of toiling and easily conquerable peasants. Europe's landscape was much more fractured, with mountain ranges and large forest separating the scattered population centers in the valleys; and its climate altered considerably from north to south and west to east. This had a number of important consequences. For a start, it both made difficult the establishment of unified control, even by a powerful and determined warlord, and minimized the possibility that the continent could be overrun by an external force like the Mongol hordes. 
Conversely, this variegated landscape encouraged the growth, and the continued existence, of decentralized power, with local kingdoms and marcher lordships and highland clans and lowland town confederations making a political map of Europe drawn at any time after the fall of Rome lool like a patchwork quilt. The patterns on that quilt might vary from century to century, but no single color could ever be used to denote a unified empire. 
Europe's differentiated climate led to differentiated products, suitable for exchange; and in time, as market relations developed, they were transported along the rivers or the pathways which cut through the forests between one area of settlement and the next. Probably the most important characteristic of this commerce was that it consisted primarily of bulk products timber, grain, wine, wool, herrings, and so on catering to the rising population of the fifteenth century Europe, rather than the luxuries carried on the oriental caravans. Here again geography played a crucial role, for water transport of these goods was so much more economical and Europe possessed many navigable rivers. Being surrounded by seas was a further incentive to the vital ship building industry, and the later Middle Ages a flourishing maritime commerce was being carried out between the Baltic, the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea." [1]
And here is Mr. Diamond's version of the same thesis:
"China’s frequent unity and Europe’s perpetual disunity both have a long history. The most productive areas of modern China were politically joined for the first time in 221 BC and have remained so for most of the time since then. China has had a single writing system from the beginnings of literacy, a single dominant language for a long time, and substantial cultural unity for 2,000 years. In contrast, Europe has never come close to political unification. Still splintered into 1,000 independent statelets in the 14th century, into 500 statelets in 1500, reduced to a minimum of 25 states in the 1980s, these have increased again to nearly 40 at the time of writing. Europe still has 45 languages, and even greater cultural diversity. The disagreements that continue to frustrate even modest attempts at European unification through the EU are symptomatic of Europe’s ingrained commitment to disunity. 
Map of the coastlines of China and Europe, 
drawn to the same scale.

Source: Jared Diamond, 
Guns, Germs and Steel, p. 415.
To understand China’s loss of political and technological pre-eminence to Europe we must understand why China has remained united, and Europe fragmented. Maps provide the clue. Europe has a highly indented coastline, with five large peninsulas that are island-like in their isolation, and all of which evolved independent languages, ethnic groups and governments: Greece, Italy, Iberia, Denmark and Norway/Sweden. China’s coastline is much smoother, and only the nearby Korean peninsula attained separate importance. Europe has two islands (Britain and Ireland) large enough to assert their political independence and maintain their own languages and ethnicities. Indeed one is big and close enough to become a major independent European power. China’s two largest islands, Taiwan and Hainan, are each less than half the area of Ireland; neither was an independent power until Taiwan’s emergence in recent decades. Japan’s geographic distance from the Asian mainland kept it much more isolated politically than Britain has been from main-land Europe. Europe is carved up into independent linguistic, ethnic and political units by high mountains (the Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians and Norwegian border mountains), while China’s mountains east of the Tibetan plateau are less formidable barriers. China’s heartland is bound together by two long navigable river systems in rich alluvial valleys (the Yangtze and Yellow rivers), and it is joined from north to south by relatively easy con-nections between these two river systems. As a result, China very early became dominated by two huge geographic core areas of high productivity, which gradually fused into one. Europe’s two biggest rivers, the Rhine and Danube, are shorter and connect less of Europe. Unlike China, Europe has many scattered “core” areas, none big enough to dominate the others for long, and each the centre of an independent state." [2]
Both historians contend that Europe's fractured physical geography led to its fractured political divisions, and that the lack of such clear geographic divisions explains China's political unity. For simplicity's sake let us call this the "Fractured Lands Hypothesis."

I once found this hypothesis very convincing. Then I began to study Chinese history. The more I learn about China's past the less convincing this argument is. A few of its serious problems are outlined below.

NOTE: While preparing materials for this post I came across Peter Turchin's note "Why Europe is Not China." I was surprised to find that he agrees with my assessment and makes many of the same points I planned to make in here using the same historical examples I intended to use! (Up to an including the reference to the film Red Cliff.) There is no need to reproduce his material here so please read his post before continuing on with this one. 

The Fractured Land Hypothesis' explanation of Chinese unity fails on two counts:

#1 - China's geography is not homogenous - it is just as fractured as the rest of the world.

The idea that China's geography is unhindered by major geographic, topographic, or ecological barriers is faulty. It is often based on maps like the one used by Jared Diamond above. The map cleverly conceals China's geographic diversity by only distinguishing the land from the sea. All of China is depicted in homogenous white. Alas, there is more to a continent than its coast line. A different picture emerges when we look at China from a topographic perspective:

A Topographical Map of Eastern China.

Source: Adapted from World of Maps
 Also see this topographical relief map viewing China from the sea, 
On the basis of topography alone we can divide Eastern China into several discrete areas: the first is the Central Plain, following along the lower reachers of the Huang, comprising modern Southern Shanxi and Hebei, and North Eastern Henan, and Shandong in its entirety. Ancient sources often called this area Guandong (关东), or "East of the Passes." Directly to its West, over the Taihang Mountains, was Guanzhong (关中), or "Within the Passes," comprising parts of Western Henan and most of Shaanxi today. The elevation is higher here than in the Central Plain; its population is centered on the Wei River Valley, easily seen on the topographical map above.

During the classical age of China's history (c. 771 BC-220 AD) these two regions were the major "centers" of the Chinese world. Passage from one center to another was difficult, limited to a few mountain passes. The Hangu Pass was the most important of these; firm control of the pass was a strategic priority for every warlord claiming either region. It has been the site of dozens of battles since antiquity.

The Hangu Pass (函谷關), dividing Guanzhong and Guandong.

Source: 'Hovering Month.' "Hangu Pass Pictures." Posted on Mafengwo Travel Guides, Henan Travel section. (Chinese language source).
South of Guanzhong is the Sichuan Basin. 100 million people call the modern states of Sichuan and Chongqing home today; before the state of Qin (c. 800-221 BC) conquered the region its inhabitants were the Ba and Shu peoples. Ringed by mountains, the Sichuan Basin has only a few points of entry: in the North through Hanzhong, and in the East by way of the Yangtze. The Qin conquered Ba and Shu before beginning their rampage across the Central Plain (some have suggested that their conquest of the Sichuan Basin gave them the resource boost they needed to do so [3]), but over the course of subsequent Chinese history imperial control over the Basin often faltered, with dynasties abandoning the region to indigenous tribes and kingdoms in times of great stress or collapse.

Annual precipitation in China. Notice the difference between the Yangtze and Huang River Plain.

Image Source: ChinaMap.org, "Climate Map - Annual Precipitation."

The lower reaches of the Yangtze river form another major region in Eastern China. Like the Central Plain, the Yangtze region is an alluvial plain dominated by the river which runs through it. Partly on the basis of their similar topographic profile, some geographers will throw the Yangtze and Central Plain together in one large "Northern Plain" region. I think this is unwise. The topography of the two regions is similar, but the ecology of each are very different. These differences ultimately derive from climate. The Yangtze basin is both hotter and wetter than the Central Plain; every year twice the amount of rain falls into the lower reaches of Yangtze than falls into the lower reaches of the Huang. The ecological effects of humidity, precipitation, and temperature can be seen in the types of crops farmers are able to grow in each region:

China's most productive rice and wheat growing regions.

Source: USDA Office of Chief Economist Country Files
The ancient Chinese certainly considered the two regions distinct. During the Spring and Autumn (771-476 BC) and Warring States (475-221 BC) periods,  Chinese literati and statesmen from Guandong believed that men from Chu, Yue, and Wu -  all states founded along along the Yangtze plain - were semi-barbarians that were not fully a part the Chinese cultural sphere. Waves of Han immigrants over the centuries would change this perception; by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) China's capital rested on the banks of the Yangtze.  

Karst hill country in Guilin, Guangxi.
Source: Wikipedia.

The final region of Eastern China stretches from the Yangtze River Plain in the North to Vietnam in the South. This is the region often called the "Southern Hills" by geographers. Of all the regions of "China proper" the Southern Hills took the longest to incorporate into both the Chinese cultural and political sphere. The early dynasties did not bother trying to conquer most of the region (see this map of the Han Dynasty) and many parts of Guangxi and Guangdong were not incorporated until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Today the more remote parts of Fujian, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Guanxi still are dotted with ethnic minority villages. As with the Basques of the Iberian Peninsula, the region's rough geography allowed ethnic minorities to persist in large numbers despite deliberate Sinicization efforts  on the part of the Chinese state. 

Mountain valley in the countryside of Fujian. Source: 
"China Travel Photo of the Day: Earthen Fortress of Fujian."
Chinatravel.net 27 October 2011.

This brings us to the second point.

#2 - China has often been fractured politically along geographic lines.

"The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been." [4] So begins Luo Guanzhong's famous historical epic Three Kingdoms. One of China's "Four Great Classical Novels," the stories contained inside are some of the most beloved and well known of the entire East Asian intellectual tradition. It both influenced and captured Chinese attitudes towards their history as the inevitable cycle between dynasty and disarray.

Luo Guanzhong had the benefit of hindsight. He wrote during the early Ming Dynasty (1388-1664), when China was strong and unified. He knew that China would unite once again. The historical characters whose adventures he embellished did not have this foresight. They were the first to live through an imperial collapse. By the time the disunity of the"Six Dynasties" ended Chinese civilization had passed more years divided than united!   

China's fractured geography played a major role in China's periods of political disunity. The Three Kingdoms Luo Guanzhong wrote about are a case in point. With the collapse of the Han Dynasty the three warlords who arose from the wreckage built their kingdoms around the basic geographic barriers of East China. Liu Bei, leader of the kingdom of Shu, made the Sichuan Basin the center of his operations; the Sun clan claimed the kingdom of Wu, protected by the Yangtze, and Guanzhong and Guandong were captured by the brilliant maneuvers of Cao Cao, founder of the Wei kingdom. Despite his brilliance, Cao Cao had to give up his hopes of universal domination when the fleet he pulled together to invade Wu was burned by fireships at the Battle of Red Cliffs. Without his fleet he had no way to get at his enemies; the mountains of Sichuan and the waters of the Yangtze were barriers too large for the conquerer to overcome.  

The Three Kingdoms of storied fame.
Source: Wikimedia. 
Rivers would prove the end of many conquerers. Cao Cao was defeated on the banks of the Yangtze; the Southern Song Dynasty made their stand against the Liao, Jin, and Mongols on the banks of the much smaller Huai:

The Song Dynasty (Green) retreated behind the Huai River when nomads from Manchuria overwhelmed their forces on the Central Plain. 

Image Source: GeoNova. "Song and Jin Dynasties." mapshop.com. Accessed 29 April 2013. 

Mountain ranges also played their part. The much contested Hangu Pass has already been mentioned; the hills and mountains of South China were no less important, ensuring that the region took millennia to conquer and incorporate. The ecological gap between the North and South only made the task harder. A great deal of historical research has shown the difficulty migrant and conquering people have establishing themselves or stamping out local cultures in lands ecologically different than their own [5]; the Chinese of the Northern plain found the challenge no easier than the rest of humanity. The numerous Chinese dialects of the Southern Hills region suggests how limited this "universal" cultural assimilation really was. 

A map of Sinitic languages in China - notice that most are South of the Yangtze.

Source: Wikimedia.

All of these things present serious problems with the Fractured Land Hypothesis. A close examination of the geography of East Asia suggests that there is no geographic feature capable of explaining the divergent paths of European powers like Germany, France, and the Netherlands that cannot be found in China. Chinese unity did not come because of its geography. It came in spite of it.  


[1] Paul Kennedy. Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Powers and Military Change, 1500-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press). 1989. p. 17-19

[2] "Disunity is Strength." Prospect Magazine. 20 July 1997. A slightly adapted version of these two paragraphs is contained in the epilogue to Guns, Germs, and Steel. 

[3] The most notable argument of this type is found in Steven Sage. Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China. (Albany: SUNY Press). 1992

[4] Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms, A Historical Novel. Vol. I  Trans. Robert Moss. (Berkely: University of California Press). 1991. p.1

[5] By far the best (and entertaining) introduction to this research is Alfred Crosby. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. (Cambridge: Cambridge University press). 1992.