26 February, 2020

Losing Taiwan Means Losing Japan

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The United States could bounce back from the fall of Taiwan to Communist rule. It would have far more dire consequences for Japan. Consider this post a short, informal primer on why this is so.

Ian Easton explains the PLA's view:
The Course Book on the Taiwan Strait's Military Geography is a restricted-access PLA manual, used to teach senior officer seminars in Beijing… This source [informs] readers that Taiwan is a chokepoint of great utility for blockading Japan. The Taiwan Strait, it notes, is a Japanese maritime lifeline that runs from Europe and the Middle East, and based on PLA studies, Japan receives 90 percent of its oil imports, 99 percent of its mineral resources, and 100 percent of its nuclear fuel needs from ships that travel across these sea lanes. In total, 500 million tons of Japanese imports pass by Taiwanese waters each year, with 80 percent of all Japan’s container ships traveling right through the Strait, the equivalent of one Japanese cargo ship every ten minutes. Consequently, these waters will, “directly affect Japan’s life or death, its survival or demise.”

PLA intentions and plans for a conquered Taiwan are made plain in another internal document, The Japanese Air Self Defense Force, a handbook studied by mid-career officers at the PLA Air Force Command College in Beijing. The stated purpose of the text is to help Chinese pilots and staff officers understand the strengths and weaknesses of their Japanese adversaries. Buried amidst hundreds of pages of detailed maps, target coordinates, organizational charts, weapons data, and jet fighter images are the following lines:

As soon as Taiwan is reunified with Mainland China, Japan's maritime lines of communication will fall completely within the striking ranges of China's fighters and bombers...Our analysis shows that, by using blockades, if we can reduce Japan's raw imports by 15-20%, it will be a heavy blow to Japan's economy. After imports have been reduced by 30%, Japan's economic activity and war-making potential will be basically destroyed. After imports have been reduced by 50%, even if they use rationing to limit consumption, Japan's national economy and war-making potential will collapse entirely...blockades can cause sea shipments to decrease and can even create a famine within the Japanese islands
. [1]
The first PLA document Easton quotes here has the statistics slightly wrong: the larger part of Japan's energy imports travel to the south of Taiwan through the Bashi channel, in the Luzon strait.[2] To get a sense for what those shipping lanes look like, here is a map of A.P Moeller-Maersk, Mediterranean Shipping Co. and CGM SA's Japan bound shipping routes:

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The Luzon Strait, you will notice, also runs directly adjacent to Taiwan. Chinese control of Taiwan would—in event of conflict—force Japanese shipping out of the South China Sea entirely. This in itself is not a death blow: at some cost, sea traffic that now passes through Malacca and runs adjacent to Taiwan could be rerouted through the Sunda Strait and up the east coast of Mindanao. I am sure someone in Japan must have calculated the likely economic costs of rerouting Japan-bound traffic this way (or in a more extreme circumstance, replacing Middle Eastern energy supplies with North American ones) but I have not yet seen any actual numbers. But given alternate sea lane possibilities, I doubt clearing Japanese shipping out of Taiwanese waters entirely would be enough to threaten Japan with "famine."

But the problem posed by Chinese control of Taiwan is not really limited to the shipping that passes through the Taiwan and Luzon Straits. Navalists like to talk about what they call the "First Island Chain," a group of islands that keeps the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force hemmed into the East and South China Seas. These islands include the Philippines Archipelago, Taiwan and the Pescadores, the Japanese Archipelago, and the Ryukyu Islands, which are Japanese territory. Here is a map of that last group:

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 In times of peace there is little to stop Chinese naval and air forces from crossing out into the Pacific as they wish, but in times of war things will be different. Over the last few years the Japanese have been quietly stocking these islands with anti-ship and anti-air missile units; were war imminent these deployments would grow. It is very difficult to imagine a significant number of Chinese commerce raiders slipping out to prey on Japanese shipping outside the Taiwan Strait as long as they have to slip between hostile Japanese and Taiwanese island bastions.  It is very easy to imagine this if the Taiwanese side of the equation is no longer hostile to Chinese forces.

This is true for several reasons. One of the more interesting ones involves submarines. Look again at the image at the top of this post; that is a seafloor depth map of the West Pacific. You will notice that the water east of the first island chain is much deeper than the water west of it. This has very practical implications for submarine warfare. The prime reason the Chinese built their most important submarine base in Sanya is because it allows the submarines harbored there to slip into the deeper waters of the South China Sea where detection is far more difficult. For China, this is the cornerstone to a credible seaborne nuclear "second strike." If the Chinese had direct access to the western Pacific—the kind of access possession of Taiwan would give them—their nuclear armed submarines could roam freely across the globe. It would also make detecting and tracking submarines tasked with commerce raiding far more difficult.

The loss of Taiwan would also put to question Japan's ability to hold and defend the Ryukyu islands altogether. Yonaguni, at the tail end of the Ryukyu chain, is less than 70 miles away from Taiwan's east coast. That is almost one fourth the distance between the island and the Chinese coast (approx. 250 miles), and one fifth the distance between the island and Okinawa (330 miles). Okinawa itself is closer to Taiwan's north coast (approx. 370 miles) than it is to the Japanese Archipelago proper (approx. 480). If Taiwan were in hostile hands, Japan would be fatally vulnerable to an island hopping campaign that would rob it of the ability to control its near sea lanes.[3]

Taiwan is the keystone of China's naval containment. Lose Taiwan, and Japan loses the ability to keep the PLA Navy hemmed up against their own coast line. Lose Taiwan, and Japan loses control of its most important supply lanes. Lose Taiwan, and Japan loses the extended island chain defense system that protects its home waters. 

Japanese naval leaders understand this. They always have. It is why the Imperial Japanese Navy insisted upon Taiwan's annexation in 1895, and it is why Taiwan contingencies have been an important part of the Self Defense Force's thinking since the 1950s.[4] They understand—even if most Japanese civilians do not—that the loss of Taiwan would give the Chinese incredible leverage over Japan.

There are some who believe that America could retreat from the defense of Taiwan while keeping the rest of its alliance system in the Far East intact. This is a fantasy. An argument to retreat from Taiwan is an argument to fatally undermine the defense of Japan. In truth, it is an argument to retreat from East Asia. That argument can be made, but I would prefer to see it made openly. 

As a final note: while preparing this post I came across a map of all of the currently existing submarine cables that run next to Taiwan. You will notice the great number that run through the Luzon Strait:


A decade ago an underseas earthquake in the strait knocked out the internet in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Eastern China. I will admit that I do not know how easy it would be to isolate the cables headed towards Japan and knock them out of service, but I am interested in finding out. If you work in that industry or have expertise in underseas infrastructure, please sound off in the comments!

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If you found this analysis of Taiwanese and Japanese military affairs of  interest, you might also like the posts "Taiwan Can Win a War With China," "Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power," "Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet or Not At All," and "At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (Washington DC: Project 2049 Institute, 2017), 27-28.

[2]Euen Graham, Japan's Sea Lane Security: A Matter of Life and Death? (Nissan Institute/Routledge Japanese Studies, 2006), pp.23-26.

[3] The Senkaku Islands are also easier to assault from Taiwan than anywhere else. However, I tend to agree with Todd Hall's assessment that the Senkaku island dispute is more about the symbolics of honor than strict military utility. See Hall, "Why the Senkaku/Dioyu Islands Are Like a Toothpaste Tube," War on the Rocks (4 September 2019).

[3]  E. I Chen, "Japan’s Decision to Annex Taiwan: A Study of Ito-Mutsu Diplomacy, 1894-95," The Journal of Asian Studies (1977), vol 37, iss. 1, pp. 65-67; Graham, Japan's Sea Lane Security, passim.



07 February, 2020

A Note on the Romney Vote

image source.
But if Greatness be so blind
As to trust in towers of air
Then let it be with goodness lined
That at least the fall be fair.
–Sir Henry Wotton

Senator Mitt Romney's vote to impeach President Trump has the chattering classes all in a titter. Romney is being called a man of magnificent character, a profile of courage, a 21st century reincarnation of Sir Thomas Moore. This is all a bit overblown. For Romney, the costs of integrity are small. Mitt Romney is a 72 year old man. He does not face voters again until 2024. He is rich. He has five children who love him dearly, and they have borne him almost thirty grandchildren. Romney could retire tomorrow with full knowledge that his life of service has created  friends and followers who are truly devoted to him, regardless of his (or their) political position. His funeral will be full. Had his GOP enemies the power to strip Romney of his senatorial office, they would be doing him a favor. He would then be allowed to spend the twilight of his mortal life as old men ought: in the warm embraces of fellowship and family. What more could Romney ask for?

Nothing more.

Romney knows this. Romney has been around politics long enough to know false friends from true; he knows that the accolades and acclaim directed his way today come from poisoned pens. The sweet words of talking heads hold little weight; they are given by the same men and women who undeservedly savaged him in years past, and who will just as viciously attack him when the next confirmation vote for supreme court justice rolls around (this man voted for Brett Kavanaugh, you will remember, with the same clear conscience with which he voted against Donald Trump). Romney's impeachment vote made permanent enemies, but only flighty, fair-weather friends.

But why should Romney care?

Mitt Romney is not in the friends-making businesses. The Senator already has those. I served as a missionary in the same Massachusetts congregations that Mitt Romney once presided over as bishop and stake president. From members there I heard stories of Romney's past. Some told tales of incredible generosity on Romney's part. The gratitude and loyalty these people felt towards their old leader ran deep. These people could give a flying flip for Romney's politics. He could sign up as a card-carrying member of the Democratic coalition tomorrow and they would still love him. Their love transcends political squabbling.

In recent years the concept of "FU Money" has gained some currency. Mitt Romney's vote provides us with an alternate conception: the FU Community. Mitt Romney can afford to burn the bridges with his party friends in Washington because those friends in Washington are not the only friends he has got. In times of crisis or need he has other, stronger, less mercenary networks to fall back on. Let CPAC spurn him. Let them say what they will: at the end of the day he still has 30-some adoring grandchildren to dote on, and a community of fellows and followers that only a life of charity could create. 

This is the lesson we should be taking away from all this. Romney's vote was not especially courageous. If anything, given what Romney believes and the privileges he enjoys, it would have been cowardly for him to vote any other way. Mitt Romney's vote was a product of Mitt Romney's life. Romney was a man with no political principles but sterling personal ones. He prized people over programs; his conduct was guided by personal kindness, not political platforms. This sort of leadership has its weaknesses, but this week we saw its strengths. This is the neat thing about a huge family and a lifetime of service: it empowers you look at the world, face it pressures, and say, “Nah, this time I will follow my conscience after all.”


04 February, 2020

Washington DC Meet-Up

A few announcements for the blog readership.

First of all, my latest "Notes From All Over" round up post (basically, a round up of the best reports, studies, essays, etc. I read over the last month) has been posted to Patreon. For the last six months or so I have moved these posts over to Patreon as a reward for those whose support makes The Scholars Stage's continued existence possible.

Second, I am planning on having a meet-up for blog readers who live in the Washington DC metro area later this month. This meet-up is open to all blog readers, be they Patreon supporters or not. This meet up will be held on February 28th, 2020 at 5:00 PM. As with past meet-ups it will probably last several hours; coming late or leaving early is fine. I have not chosen a venue as I do not yet know how many people will be coming. If you are interested in attending, please send me an e-mail with your contact information. Once I have a solid head count, I will inform everyone who has e-mailed me with information on the venue. Of course, if you have a suggestion for a good venue for the meet-up, I encourage you to recommend it to me.

29 January, 2020

Public Intellectuals Have Short Shelf Lives—But Why?


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Several months ago someone on twitter asked the following question: which public thinker did you idolize ten or fifteen years ago but have little intellectual respect for today? [1] A surprising number of people responded with "all of them." These tweeters maintained that no one who was a prominent writer and thinker in the aughts has aged well through the 2010s.

I am not so harsh in my judgments. There are a few people from the last decade that I am still fond of. But the problem is inevitable. This is not a special pathology of the 21st century: when you read intellectuals of the 1910s talking about the most famous voices of the 1890s and early 1900s you get the same impression. You even get this feeling in a more diluted form when you look at the public writing of the Song Dynasty or Elizabethan England, though the sourcing is spottier and those eras and there was no 'public' in the modern sense for an individual living then to intellectualize to. But the general pattern is clear. Public intellectuals have a shelf life. They reign supreme in the public eye for about seven years or so. Most that loiter around longer reveal themselves oafish, old-fashioned, or ridiculous.

To give you a sense of what I mean by this, consider the career of public intellectual whose career peaked in the early aughts. Thomas Friedman is now the butt of a thousand jokes. He maintains his current position at the New York Times mostly through force of inertia, but secondly through his excellent connections within the Davos class and his sterling reputation among those who think as that class does. But this was not always so. Let us review Friedman's climb to prominence:

Thomas Friedman earned his BA in Mediterranean Studies in 1975; a few years later he obtained a prestigious Marshall scholarship to study at Oxford, where he earned a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies. By age 26 he was a reporter in Beirut, and at age 29 he had won his first Pulitzer (for up close reporting on a war massacre). He would win another Pulitzer as the New York Times' bureau chief in Jerusalem, and at age 36 would write his first award winning book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, a recapitulation of his years of reporting in those two cities. This put Friedman at the top of the "Middle East hand" pack. That is a nice place to be, but it is still far away from the position of household public intellectual.

To get there Friedman would first transition to reporting from Washington DC as a White House correspondent. A few years later (now at age 41) he would be given a foreign affairs column at the New York Times, moving him a step further into the opinion-business. I attribute his transformation from minor public commentator to Voice of the Zeitgeist to two events: first,  the publishing of The Lexus and the Olive Tree in 1999 (when he was 46 years old), the first of several books that would lay out his theory of globalization; second, the terrorist attacks September 11th, which allowed him to write columns that drew on both his long personal experience in the Middle East and his newer interest in globalization. These were the columns that won him his Pulitzer for commentary in 2002 and made him a central voice in the debates over America's response to the terrorist attacks and the the invasion of Iraq. I place Friedman's peak in his 52nd year, when his most famous book, The World is Flat, was published. It was also around this time that opposition to Friedman was at its peak, with bloggers and columnists alike writing long diatribes against him.

Friedman would close out the decade with another book and three documentaries. These were mostly restatements of his columns (which in turn drew heavily from ideas he first introduced and developed between Lexus and The World if Flat). Friedman was still a part of the national conversation, but his perspective had lost its originality. His columns began to bleed together. This is the era when "Friedman Op-Ed Generators" went viral. Increasingly, Friedman was not argued against so much as joked about. By 2013 or so (just as he was turning 60) Thomas Friedman was done. Not technically so—between then and now he would rack up two more books, hundreds of columns, and heaven knows how many appearances at idea festival panels and business school stages. But intellectually Friedman was a spent force. His writing has been reduced to rehashing old rehashes, his columns the rewarmed leftovers of ideas grown old a decade ago. It is hard to find anything in his more recent books or columns that has mattered. He is able to sell enough books to live comfortably, but you will have difficulty finding anyone under 50 who admits they have read them. Friedman lingers still as a public figure, but not as a public intellectual. His thinking inspires no one. The well has run dry.

But why?

The easy answer is that the world of 2019 is not the world of 2002. What seemed compelling at the turn of the millennium is not compelling now. A man whose worldview has not budged in two decades has nothing to say to a world that has changed tremendously in that same time. But this answer is not really sufficient. It is hard to remember now, but there was once a time when the insights of Thomas Friedman read fresh and strikingly original. That his ideas seem so banal and obvious today is in many ways a measure of how successful he was at popularizing them in the early 2000s. The real question to answer is this: why are so many public intellectuals capable of generating insight, originality, or brilliance at the beginning of their careers, but are utterly incapable of fresh thinking a decade later?

Let me offer two hypotheses. One is psychological, the other sociological.

Analytic brilliance is not constant over the course of life. Both general intelligence and more nebulous measures of creativity have clear peaks over the course of a lifespan. Here is how one textbook describes research on this question (I've taken out the parenthetical references to various source studies for ease of reading):
In most fields creative production increases steadily from the 20s to the late 30s and early 40s then gradually declines thereafter, although not to the same low levels that characterized early adulthood. Peak times of creative achievement also vary from field to field. The productivity of scholars in the humanities (for example, that of philosophers or historians) continues well into old age and peaks in the 60s, possibly because creative work in these fields often involves integrating knowledge that has crystallized over the years. By contrast, productivity in the arts (for example, music or drama) peaks in the 30s and 40s and declines steeply thereafter, because artistic creativity depends on a more fluid or innovative kind of thinking. Scientists seem to be intermediate, peaking in their 40s and declining only in their 70s. Even with the same general field, differences in peak times have been noted. For example, poets reach their peak before novelists do, and mathematicians peak before other scientists do.

Still in many fields (including psychology) creative production rises to a peak in the late 30s and early 40s, and both the total number of works and the number of high quality works decline thereafter. This same pattern can be detected across different cultures and historical periods.... 
What about mere mortals? Here researchers have fallen back on tests designed to measure creativity. In one study, scores on a test of divergent thinking abilities decreased at least modestly after about age 40 and decreased more steeply starting around 70. It seems that elderly adults do not differ much from young adults in the originality of their ideas; the main difference is that they generate fewer of them. Generally then, these studies agree with the studies of eminent achievers: creative behavior becomes less frequent in later life, but it remains possible throughout the adult years."[2] 
I suspect the underlying mechanism behind this pattern is brain cell loss. Neuroscientists estimate that the average adult loses around 150,000 brain cells a day; in the fifty years that follow the end of brain maturation (ca. years 25-75), the average brain will lose somewhere between 5-10% of its neurons.[3] Fluid intelligence begins declining in a person's 30s.[4] This implies that most humans reach their peak analytic power before 40. Crystal intelligence holds out quite a bit longer, usually not declining until a person's 60s or 70s. This is probably why historians reach peak achievement so late: the works that make master historians famous tend towards grand tomes that integrate mountains of figures and facts—a lifetime of knowledge—into one sweeping narrative.

Thus most humans develop their most important and original ideas between their late twenties and early forties. With the teens and twenties spent gaining the intellectual tools and foundational knowledge needed to take on big problems, the sweet spot for original intellectual work is a person's 30s:  these are the years in which they have already gained the training necessary to make a real contribution to their chosen field but have not lost enough of their fluid intelligence to slow down creative work. By a person's mid 40s this period is more or less over with. The brain does not shut down creativity altogether once you hit 45, but originality slows down. By then the central ideas and models you use to understand the world are more or less decided. Only rarely will a person who has reached this age add something new to their intellectual toolkit.

Recognizing this helps us make sense of a many interesting aspects of human social life. I think often about Vaisey et al's 2016 study, which demonstrated that most shifts in social attitudes occur not through change in the attitudes at the individual level, but through intergenerational churn.[5] Old attitudes die because generations that hold them literally die off. Such is the stuff of progress and disaster.

Such is also the problem of the public intellectual. A public intellectual's formative insights were developed to explain the world he or she encountered during a specific era. Eras pass away; times change. It is difficult for the brain to keep up with the changes.

Not impossible, just hard. And this bring my second, sociological explanation into play. There are things that a mind past its optimum can do to optimize what analytic and creative power it still has. But once a great writer has reached the top of their world, they face few incentives to do any of these things.

Consider: Thomas Friedman's career began as a beat reporter in a war-zone. He spent his time on Lebanese streets talking to real people in the thick of civil war. He was thrown into the deep and forced to swim. The experiences and insights he gained doing so led directly to many of the ideas that would make him famous a decade later.

In what deeps does Friedman now swim?

We all know the answer to this question. Friedman jets from boardroom to newsroom to state welcoming hall. He is a traveler of the gilded paths, a man who experiences the world through taxi windows and guided tours. The Friedman of the 20th century rushed to the scene of war massacres; the Friedman of the 21st hurries to conference panels. What hope does a man living this way have of learning something new about the world?

More importantly: What incentive does he have to live any other way?

I have noticed that historians who transition from the role of academic scribbler to famed public voice follow a sort of pattern. Their first published work might be a monograph, perhaps a PhD thesis turned book. It will be on some narrow topic no sane person cares about, the product of months spent in one archives in one location. U.S.-British trade relations in the 1890s, perhaps, or state-led cultural imperialism in Japanese Manchuria. They may repeat this feat again, but at some point they transition to something broader⁠—now they are writing a global history of trade regimes under the gold standard, or of empire building in the whole Greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere. This work will be a brilliant, field-defining piece of scholarship, lauded (or resented) by other luminaries of their sub-discipline, read by scholars and interested laymen alike. That book will be published by an academic press; the next will be aimed at popular audiences. Our historian has now graduated fully to the role of public thinker: her next book will be on the dangers posed by trade wars writ large, or on the nature of modern imperialism. This title will be reviewed in all the famous magazines; people who have never read it will argue about it on twitter. And then everything starts to fall apart.

The trouble is that just as our historian reaches her full stature as a public name, her well of insight begins to run dry. A true fan of her works might trace elements of their name-making title back to the very first monograph she published as a baby academic. She was able to take all of the ideas and observations from her early years of concentrated study and spin them out over a decade of high-profile book writing. But what happens when the fruits of that study have been spent? What does she have to write about when they have already applied their unique form of insight to the problems of the day?

Nothing at all, really. Historians like this have nothing left to fall back on except the conventional opinions common to their class. So they go about repackaging those, echoing the same hollow shibboleths you could find in the work of any mediocrity.

You see this pattern recur again and again in the op-eds of our nation. A once-bold foreign correspondent whose former days of daring-do have already been milked for more than they are worth, a Nobel laureate two decades removed from the economic papers that gave him acclaim, a nationally known historian who has not stepped into an archive since graduate school—the details change but the general pattern is the same. In each case the intellectual in question is years removed from not just the insights that delivered fame, but the activities that delivered insight.

The tricky thing is that it is hard to go back to the rap and scrabble of real research when you have climbed so high above it. Penguin will pay you a hefty advance for your next two hundred pages of banal boilerplate; they will not pay you for two or three years of archival research on some narrow topic no one cares about.  No matter that the process of writing on that narrow topic refills the well, imbuing you with the ideas needed to fill out another two decades of productive writing. The world is impatient. They do not have time to wait for you to reinvent yourself.

There are practical implications for all this. If you are an intellectual, the sort of person whose work consists of generating and implementing ideas, then understand you are working against time. Figure out the most important intellectual problem you think you can help solve and make sure you spend your thirties doing that. Your fifties and sixties are for teaching, judging, managing, leading, and dispensing with wisdom. Your teens and twenties are for gaining skills and locating the problems that matter to you. Your thirties are for solving them.

Public intellectuals who do not wish to transition in the their forties from the role of thinker to mentor or manager are going to have a harder time of it. Optimizing for long term success means turning away from victory at its most intoxicating. When you have reached the summit, time has come to descend, and start again on a different mountain. There are plenty of examples of this—Francis Fukuyama comes to mind as a contemporary one—but it is the harder path. For some, this will be a path worth taking. For others, wisdom is found in ceding the role of public intellect over to younger upstarts and moving to more rewarding positions guiding the next generation of intellectual lights.

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If you would like to read some of my other jottings on psychology may find the posts "Historians, Fear Not the Psychologist,"  "Public Opinion in Authoritarian States," and "Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously" of interest. If writing on intellectual life are more up your alley, consider "Questing for Transcendence," "Books Notes--Strategy, a History," "I Choose Hannah Arendt,"   and "On the Angst of American Journalists" instead. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] I've forgotten who, and did not bother saving the tweet—if you know who it is sound off in the comments)

[2] Carol Sigelman and Elizabeth Rider, Lifespan Human Development, 6th ed (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Learning, 2009).

[3] John E Dowling, Understanding the Brain: From Cells to Behavior to Cognition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).

[4] John Horn and Raymond Cattel, "Age differences in fluid and crystallized intelligence," Acta Psychologica (1967), vol 26, 107-129. For a very strong counter-statement that argues this fluid v. crystal distinction does not match the complexity of the data, see Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine, "When Does Cognitive Functioning Peak? The Asynchronous Rise and Fall of Different Cognitive Abilities Across the Life Span," Psychological Science (2015), vol 26, iss. 4, 433–443.


[5] Stephen Vaisey and Omar Lizardo, "Cultural Fragmentation or Acquired Dispositions? A New Approach to Accounting for Patterns of Cultural Change," Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World (2016), vol 2 .

28 January, 2020

Political and Practical Implications of the Wuhan Virus

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Several months ago I was twittering back and forth with Matt Watson, one of John Hopkins' biosecurity gurus. Watson was trying to convince me to sign up for their newsletter; I, a man irrationally disturbed by poisons, pandemics, and all other means of non-kinetic mass death, demurred. I knew if I read too much about bugs and bacteria I would soon be too paranoid to step outside my home ever again. Better to escape another decade unscathed by study of epidemiology.

I did not get a decade. Epidemics, it seems, follow the same logic as that (faux) Trotsky quote on war: you may not be interested in viruses, but viruses are interested in you!

I am not going to play the part of the epidemiologist here and lecture you on R0 or other concepts I have learned of only over the last two weeks. But there are a few points I want to raise regarding the political and practical implications of the growing crisis:

1.  There is a lot of commentary out there blaming various parts of the Chinese governing system for the epidemic. Some place personal blame on Chairman Xi, others on the provincial party standing committee of Hubei, or on the mayor of Wuhan. Frankly, we still do not have enough information to make that call. We likely will not have a detailed picture of who knew what when, and who directed whom to do what, for several months still. Those who try to convince you otherwise are  rumor-mongering. These rumors are inevitable (more on that in a minute), but that does not mean you should pay them any attention.

I'm also unconvinced that the Communist system itself deserves special blame for the epidemic. The truth is that the cycle of denial, political games, and over-reaction that has marked this virus' spread fit a historical pattern that democracies have often fallen victim to (consider the events surrounding San Fransisco's brush with the bubonic plague in 1900). Down playing news of a novel disease only to pivot to an extreme, coercive response when public panic begins is common. This does not excuse the Communist officials responsible for putting "stability management" ahead of disease management. Hundreds are dead. These men are responsible for these deaths. But human pride, not something unique to Communist politics, drove those decisions.

2. The same thing cannot be said for the unrelenting wave of rumors sweeping across China at the moment. This is very much a product of the Chinese Communist system.

The Chinese people have an interesting relationship with the Party propaganda and censorship system. Chinese are well aware that the government lies to them. What they often have difficulty discerning is what it decides to lie about. Sometimes it does not lie. Other times it simply leaves the truth unsaid. You will occasionally meet Chinese who have never heard of the June 4th (Tienanmen) Massacre; those people have no way to know that its absence from their history books is the lie. Similarly, I have met many Chinese who were astounded to learn that China's claims in the South China Sea are for the most part a wholesale invention of Chinese propagandists, rejected as the product of bare power politics by even neutrals not involved in the dispute. They knew they were being lied to somewhere. It never occurred to them that this was one of the things the system would lie about.

This is not how the virus story has played out. The Chinese people already know that illness stalks the land. In moments of crises like these there is usually a space—sometimes it is a few days, sometimes two or three weeks—where the Party leadership is itself gathering information and is uncertain about the 'line' to present to the public. In such circumstances there is a fair amount of space for Chinese media (especially those from outside the jurisdiction of the crisis area authorities) to report unfettered, and for users on social media to say more or less what they will. Caixin's excellent reporting on the situation in Wuhan over the last two weeks came in just that window. That window is now closing. The Party has figured out how it wants to handle the crisis—and just as importantly for this discussion, how they want the handling to be reported.

The trouble is that the Chinese people now know the game that is being played. They know that the system lies to them. They know that as this crisis unfolds there will be ample incentive to lie. Whether the Party is actually lying to them is now quite besides the point. They cannot trust official sources, and they will not trust them, no matter how truthful they may be. That trust eroded a long time ago. The paranoia and rumor-mongering that has gripped Chinese society is a consequence of this broken trust. At most times and with most issues this does not matter. When people think their lives may be on the line that changes.

3. It is common for America's nascent socialist left to stack up the costs of aircraft carriers and striker-bombers and display how many bridges or hospitals or homeless shelters could be bought with that same money. The trick is an old one. It was a Republican president who declared that "every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

China now faces a crisis of doctors not clothed and patients untreated. Chinese media has trumpeted the construction of six-day hospitals in Wuhan (and even authorities there admit they will not be enough), but the true crisis is not in Wuhan. The real crisis zone is in the countryside that surrounds it. There doctors are few and their provisions fewer. Images of these places sweep the Chinese internet. Left unstated in these viral posts is a question that now bothers many millions: how did we let things get so bad?

One answer to this question goes like this: things never should have been this bad. China has been blessed with three decades of unmatched plenty. Our own propagandists call the course of these decades an "economic miracle." But what have we done with this miracle? How have we spent the fruits of prosperity? On re-education camps, surveillance systems, belt-and-roads, hypersonic missiles, aircraft carriers, and grand militarized island forts built of sand! The amount of money China has spent on internal surveillance and detentions tripled over the last decade. How many hospitals could that have built?

This narrative is unlikely to be the central one to come out of this mess. But were I Taiwanese, outraged by Party attempts over the last year to flood my country with content designed to disrupt the harmony of my people and the workings of my government, I would very much want it to be. Little memes with pictures of South Sea island bases on the one side, and the number of medical kits each represents on the other could easily be made and spread about by Taiwanese interested in inflicting upon the Party what the Party just tried to inflict on them.

Americans could play the same game, of course, though in our case the message would likely die by dint of its messenger. Nor is it really in our interest to destabilize the containment of epidemic that pays no heed to the imaginary lines dividing the kingdoms of men. But if the question could be put in the Chinese people's minds—in this world of easy sickness and woe, are military machines and censorship regimes really the best use of our wealth?—we (and much the world besides) would be better off for it.

4. I was distressed to learn of the first case of the virus in Cambodia. This was news I was hoping not to hear. I admire the pluck of my Khmer friends, who flooded my Facebook feed with pictures of themselves going to work with masks-on and heads held high. There is not much more that they can do. The Cambodian medical system is a terror. The Kingdom's state capacity is low. The Chinese can quarantine tens of millions to keep the virus down; Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Europe, and the Anglosphere can isolate the individual sick and monitor their convalescence. This is beyond Cambodia's ability.

The same is likely true for several countries full of Chinese workers or tourists: Indonesia, Pakistan, multiple countries on both of Africa's coasts. I fear that these countries—and frankly, the whole of mainland Southeast Asia—will become second reservoirs for the virus. These states are not as prepared as the Chinese were to monitor sickness or maintain infrastructure under pressure. The Chinese state has mandated that food supplies continue flowing into Chinese cities under quarantine. Can the government of Cambodia or Burma do the same?

5. There are practical implications that flow from #4. If I was living in Southeast Asia right now (or any part of non-quarantined China), I would be asking myself these questions:
  • Do I have enough food stored up to last my family through several days disruption? Several weeks? (And for some countries, water?)
  • Do I have enough medicine—especially prescription pills for any special conditions—to last the same?
  • Do I have money on hand needed to get out of the country? If there was a $1000 chartered flight (as are being organized to evacuate citizens of various nations from Wuhan), would I have the cash needed to buy a ticket?
It is quite possible that the lethality of this virus is wildly over-reported. The need for this sort of personal preparedness reflects less the likelihood you will get sick, and more the likelihood that basic services may halt in fear of spreading disease. The citizens of Wuhan are already discovering what it means to live through that reality—and they have a government strong enough to keep resources flowing. People living in other countries do not have that guarantee. Better to stock up now, while it is still easy to do so.

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If you would like to read some of my other jottings on Chinese society and media, you may find the posts "The Fissure in the Facade," "Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability,"  and "Chinese Journalism and Chinese Soft Power" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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03 January, 2020

Every Book I Read in 2019


2020 has arrived. This means it is time for my annual tradition: listing every book I read the year previous, with my ten favorites bolded. You can find my past entries here (2018), here (2017), here (2016), here (2015), here (2014), and here (2013). As in those posts, I list the books in the approximate order in which I finished them. Some of these books (like the poetry ones) I read bit by bit over several months. One—Majorie Garber's outstanding Shakespeare After All—I started five years ago.

For this year's post I have included a url for every book read; the ten best (according to nothing but my own subjective judgement) are bolded and given a link. I only count books that I finished for the first time this year as eligible for "ten best books of the year." A more condensed list of books that I started but did not finish can be found at the bottom of the post.

You will notice that I read a lot of Shakespeare this year. This was sort of accidental. Early in the year I found myself with an evening to kill in a Siem Reap hostel. I had purchased several books on Theravada Buddhism to read while in Cambodia, but as I sat in hostel lobby, sweating in the heat of the Cambodian dry season at its height, exhausted from a day spent being punched about by Khmer boxers, I discovered I just did not have the energy to devote myself to Buddhist scriptures. I looked for something more light hearted on my kindle and found the cheap electronic copy of Shakespeare's works (minus Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and Edward III) I had picked up several years before. That would do. Soon I had blasted through the comedies. At that point I figured I might as well read the rest of the Shakespearean corpus now that I have the comedies down. Over the rest of the year I read according to these figurings.

I wrote several blog posts about Shakespeare over the year, though I am afraid I do not have anything deep to say about Shakespeare as a whole. I will say that I thought King John was an excellent play and I do not at all understand its poor reputation. The other shocker of the corpus was Hamlet. I read Hamlet first in high school—and thought it entirely unremarkable. So unremarkable, in fact, that it is one of the books that I read in high school but which I cannot recall what my teenage self thought about it. (In contrast, my teenage self had very strong opinions about Wuthering Heights, The Awakening, Heart of Darkness, Nineteen Eighty-Four and the dozen or so other books he read during my junior and senior years, and I remember these keenly). This reading could not have proved a greater contrast: the play shook me. Hamlet was a deeply emotional and unsettling experience this year. The play is the same. The difference is found in myself. In fact, I do not think the play would have had the same impact had I reread in just two years earlier. But my life has changed greatly in those two years, and Hamlet spoke to those changes in a way few other works of literature have managed.

Which should make you wonder: how many great works of literature have you read, but failed to appreciate, simply because you were not in the proper life stage to appreciate them?

EVERY BOOK I READ IN 2019

David Chandler, History of Cambodia, 4th ed. (Routledge, 2007). https://amzn.to/31ENqvd

Frank Dikkotter,  The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2013). https://amzn.to/2Ko80uh

---, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962—1976 (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2016). https://amzn.to/2RiEKFU

Shi Ji, 杨家将的故事 (Beijing: Sinolingua, 2017). https://amzn.to/2SWKiZP
---, 岳飞的故事 (Beijing: Sinolingua, 2017). https://amzn.to/2SWKiZP
---, 三侠五义的故事 (Beijing: Sinolingua, 2017). https://amzn.to/2SWKiZP

Homer, Odyssey, trans Samuel Butler (London: CA Fieflied, 1900).https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Odyssey_(Butler)

William Shakespeare,  Sonnets in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

David Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution since 1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). https://amzn.to/2WPPM6T

Victor Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). https://amzn.to/2L0hlYL

William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---As You Like It in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Chanrithy Him, When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001) https://amzn.to/2WQ8DyC [Related Post]

William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, King of Britain in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---Measure for Measure in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Merchant of Venice in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Two Gentleman of Verona in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Philip Coggan, Spirit Worlds: Cambodia, The Buddha, and the Naga (Oxford: John Beufoy Publishing, 2015). https://amzn.to/2Io8UoA

Alain Fressanges, Khmer Sayings (Phnom Penh: Khmer Community Development NGO Publishing, 2014). https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/16044486-khmer-sayings

William Shakespeare, A Midsummers Night Dream in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---Much Ado About Nothing in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Asanga Tilakaratne, Theravada Buddhism: The View of the Elders (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013).

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Romeo and Juliet in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Titus Andronochus in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Jianhua Bai, Juyu Sung, Janet Zhiqun Xing, Beyond the Basics: Communicative Chinese for Intermediate and Advanced Chinese Learners (Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 2008). https://amzn.to/2ZOlXGH

William Shakespeare, King Richard II in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry IV, part I in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry IV, part II in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Kamala Tiyavanich, In the Cool Shade of Compassion: The Enchanted World of the Buddha in the Jungle (New York: Shambhala, 2018). https://amzn.to/31PHqzU

Dean Karalekas, Identity and Transformation: Perceptions of Civil-Military Relations in the Republic of China (Taiwan), Phd. diss, National Chengchi University (2016).

R. James Goldstein, The English Lyric Tradition: Reading Poetic Masterpieces of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2017). https://amzn.to/2FirOLH

Wayne Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat2nd. ed.(Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000). https://amzn.to/2FfVRmU

William Shakespeare, King Henry V in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Andrew Yang, The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income is Our Future (New York: Hatchett Books, 2018). https://amzn.to/2XsguHa [Related Post]

Amanda Holton, ed., Tottel’s Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Others (New York: Penguin Books, 2014). https://amzn.to/2Xth5bD

T.C. Locke, Barbarian at the Gate: From The American Suburbs to the Taiwanese Army (Taipei: Camphor Press, 2014). https://amzn.to/2RjrrVV

Tom Stoppard.The Coast of Utopia, vol I: Voyage (London: Grove Press, 2003). https://amzn.to/2RprWxB

—, The Coast of Utopia, vol II: Shipwreck (London: Grove Press, 2011) https://amzn.to/2RprWxB

—, The Coast of Utopia, vol III: Salvage (London: Grove Press, 2007) https://amzn.to/2RprWxB

Lawrene Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) https://amzn.to/2XmrC8c [My book review]

Dafydd Fell. Government and Politics in Taiwan,2nd ed.(London: Routledge, 2018). https://amzn.to/2KWzvKZ

Thomas G. Mahnken, Travis Sharp, Billy Fabin, and Peter Kouretsos, Tightening the Chain: Implementing A Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific (Washington DC: CSBA, 2019). http://tiny.cc/1pkaiz

Michael A. Hunzeker, Alexander Lanoszka, Brian Davis, Matthew Fay, Erik Goepner, Joseph Petrucelli and Erica Seng-White. A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture (Arlington, VA: Center for Security Policy Studies, 2018) . http://tiny.cc/3qkaiz

Sean O’Niell. How to Write a Poem: a Beginner’s Guide. (Createspace: 2014). https://amzn.to/2QKgcFT

François Bougon. Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping.Translated by Actes Sud (London: Hurst and Co., 2018). https://amzn.to/35MIXYz [My book review]

Jonathan T. Ward. China’s Vision of Victory. (Washington DC: Atlas Media, 2019). https://amzn.to/2r0f1td [My book review]

Elizabeth Economy. The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). https://amzn.to/2L95SVX

Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella in Delphi Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney (Delphi Classics: 2013). https://amzn.to/2Qo5UMR

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, reprint ed (New York: Harper Colins, 2008). https://amzn.to/37TWhML

Eric Setzekorn, Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps: The Republic of China Military, 1942-1955 (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018). https://amzn.to/2R7iqRu

Xi Jinping, On The Governance of China, vol I (Shanghai: Foreign Languages Press, 2015) https://amzn.to/37QsYdO [Related Post]

William Shakespeare, King John in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry VI, Part One in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry VI, Part Two in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry VI, Part Three in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Richard III in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

David Frum, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, An Inside Account (New York: Random House, 2003). https://amzn.to/2XZTjSg

Ross Babbage, Stealing a March: Chinese Hybrid Warfare in the Indo-Pacific: Issues and Options for Allied Defense Planners, vol I (Washington DC: CSBA, 2019). http://tiny.cc/j7kaiz

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Hamlet in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Micah Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (Touchstone, 2003). https://amzn.to/2DvVFib

James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking Press, 2004). https://amzn.to/2OCcGxN

Cai Zong-qi, ed., How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context: Poetic Culture from Antiquity Through the Tang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

Howard C Godddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). https://amzn.to/35MxfNB

William Shakespeare, Othello in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Macbeth in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Lear in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Timon of Athens in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth (New York: Penguin Classics, 1991). https://amzn.to/2rGxaw6

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017)。https://amzn.to/2LaEF5g

William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra. in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus. in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (New York: Random House, 2013). https://amzn.to/2QoyVbo

John E Dowling, Understanding the Brain: From Cells to Behavior to Cognition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018). https://amzn.to/37SkRxg

Dale Knutston, Strike Warfare: An Introduction to Non-Nuclear Attack by Air and Sea (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012). https://amzn.to/2RkXPYd

Emerys Jones, New Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). https://amzn.to/2r02l5D

Michael A Fuller, An Introduction to Chinese Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018). https://amzn.to/2ssXfix

Stanislas Dehaene, Consciousness and the Brain (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2014). https://amzn.to/35LmT0v [Related Post]

Nguyen Du, Song of Kieu, trans Timothy Allen (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2019).https://amzn.to/2QpGgYh

Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Michael Mazaar, Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (New York: Public Affairs: 2019). https://amzn.to/2sLIesD

Colleen McCullough, First Man in Rome (New York: Harper Colins, 1990) https://amzn.to/39G9ycK

Shakespeare, The Tempest in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Majorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Anchor Books, 2005). https://amzn.to/37OSssd

Howard C Godddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). https://amzn.to/35MxfNB

Aaron Poochigian, Mr.Either/Or (Wilkes-Barre, PA: Ecrustan Press, 2017). https://amzn.to/35hcwRm

Ashley Townshend, Brendan Thomas-Noone, and Matilda Steward, Averting Crisis: US Defence Spending, Deterrence and the Indo-Pacific (Sydney: United States Studies Center, 2019). https://tinyurl.com/y4szg8a5


I also read in part, if not whole, McAdams, Vanguard of the Revolution; Vu, Vietnam's Communist Revolution; Moyan, Triumph Forsaken; Bhiiku Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses;  Frank Smith, Muk Khmer; several of Speak Like Khmer's reading booklets; Morgan, ed., Oxford History of Britain; Bloom, Shakespeare;  Riggs, The World of Marlowe; Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s; Nordeen, Air Warfare in the Missile Age; Ricks, Fiasco; Bush, Decision Points; Rice, No Higher Honor; Bacevich, America's War on the Great Middle East; Farrell and Newman, Of Privacy and Power; Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War; Reporters Without Borders, China's Pursuit of a New World Media Order; 周婉窈,  少年臺灣史; 雷海宗,  中國的兵; Cai, How To Read Chinese Poetry; Rouzer, An Introduction to Literary Chinese; Barnes, Chinese Through Poetry; Diechart, Partisan Cultural Stereotypes; Clark, Mindware; Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Sort Introduction; Ames, The Emotional Mind.

01 January, 2020

So Begins a New Age of Instagram Diplomacy


As it is New Year's Day I originally planned on writing a reflection up on the books I read in 2019 or something of that sort. Then I saw this:
Feel free to click through that and see all the pictures there published. Here is one of them blown up to full size:



That is Hou Yanqi, the ambassador of the People's Republic of China to Nepal. Here is what she posted onto twitter this morning (feel free to click through these ones too):
Ladies and gentleman, we have entered the era of instagram diplomacy.

Over the last few months the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has been pushing its diplomats to vigorously engage on global (as opposed to Chinese) social media channels. This has been most notable on twitter, and has resulted in two dozen diplomats or so adopting the persona of professional twitter troll. The United States does this, Trump says that, and voila! the Chinese diplomatic core is on the scene with a few sarcastic comments they hope might go viral. Hou takes the MOFA directive to grow her social media presence in a different direction: her model of public diplomacy is not the twitter brawler, but the Instagram influencer.

Welcome to the 2020s.

The genius of Hou's posts is hard to miss. There will be people on Zhihu and Twitter and who-knows-where-else who will criticize Hou for exoticizing Nepal and its people. Those criticisms are stupid. Read the comments beneath the tweets and you will see how the denizens of Nepal feel about being reduced to exoticized objects of aesthetic contemplation: they love it. People usually do. As long as we are being reduced to something lovely, most of humankind is happy, even eager, to be transformed into objects of romance and fantasy. Fantasy is flattering.

In this case the fantasy is a two way street. Consider what Hou is communicating with these two sentences and eight photographs. It goes something like this:
I am the ambassador of the People's Republic of China—beautiful, unpretentious, and utterly in love with your country. As charming as I may be, nowhere on earth makes my life more charming, more magnetic, more worth living, than the wonders I encounter in Nepal. Your country is a gift to me. It is a gift to humankind. It is a gift I am eager to spread with as many people possible. Thank you.
All of this is brilliant. With a few hours worth of sight seeing and a few minutes on meitu Hou has put the Nepalese ministry of tourism in her debt (note how she tags the minister of tourism in her first savlvo) and won the adoration of the Nepali public. What more could she ask for?

This will be copied. This will spread.

Which is not to say every Chinese diplomat will be able to play quite the same game Hou plays here. No overweight, 65 year old man will titillate like Hou does, and the Chinese diplomatic corp is chock full of overweight, 65 year old men. But the general lesson Hou's posts embody can be applied by anyone, no matter how wide their waistline: Aesthetics trump argument.

Many of our political beliefs boil down to a vision of the person we hope to be. This is as true for the libertarian gun nut as it is the BLM pavement pounder. These visions are felt before they are thought, communicated better in pictures than paragraphs, the stuff of aspiration, not intellect. Keen intellects will rationalize their aesthetic aspirations post-hoc, of course, but those rationalizations are ancillary adornments to a deeper thing.

Was this not a the grand lessons of the 2010s? We learned it with the election of Hope and Change in 2008; we were reminded of it in the attacks on "Pajama Boy" and the triumph of the Tea Party; we were taught it again and again as internet battles played out between Tumblr warriors and the men of 8Chan; we see it on the streets of Hong Kong, in the fires of Paris, in triumphs of Trump and the travails of all who oppose him. We live in an age where politics has been swallowed whole by the aesthetic.

Hou Yanqi understands this. Our public diplomacy programs will learn from people like her, or they will fall behind.

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If you would like to read some of my other observations on international diplomacy, you may find the posts "Do Mil-Mil Exchanges With the Chinese Do More Harm Than Good?," "What Do Cambodians Think About China?," "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road," "Chinese Journalism and Chinese Soft Power, and "America Will Always Fail At Regional Expertise,"  of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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30 December, 2019

The Problem Isn't the 'Merit,' It's the 'Ocracy'

Image Source

Two weeks or so ago Liam Bright posted the following tweet:
Liberal technocrats give us literally no reason at all to think their interests are aligned with the great majority of people, yet when they are attacked as a governing class they stress their credentials and competency. But it'd be worse if they're doing bad stuff efficiently! [1]
In very few words Bright has summarized my problem with arguments in favor of meritocracy. Take, for example, a recent post by Nathaniel Givens in favor of "real meritocracy:"
When people talk about meritocracy today, they’re almost always referring to the Ivy League and then–working forward and backward–to the kinds of feeder schools and programs that prepare kids to make it into the Ivy League and the types of high-powered jobs (and the culture surrounding them) that Ivy League students go onto after they graduate.

My basic point is a pretty simple one: there’s nothing meritocratic about the Ivy League. The old WASP-y elite did not, as Douthat put it, “dissolve.” It just went into hiding. Americans like to pretend that we’re a classless society, but it’s a fiction. We do have class. And the nexus for class in the United States is the Ivy League.

If Ivy League admission were really meritocratic, it would be based as much as possible on objective admission criteria. This is hard to do, because even when you pick something that is in a sense objective–like SAT scores–you can’t overcome the fact that wealthy parents can and will hire tutors to train their kids to artificially inflate their scores relative to the scores an equally bright, hard-working lower-class student can attain without all expensive tutoring and practice tests.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the way that everything else that goes into college admissions–especially the litany of awards, clubs, and activities–tilts the game in favor of kids with parents who (1) know the unspoken rules of the game and (2) have cash to burn playing it. An expression I’ve heard before is that the Ivy League is basically privilege laundering racket. It has a facade of being meritocratic, but the game is rigged so that all it really does is perpetuate social class. “Legacy” admissions are just the tip of the iceberg in that regard.

What’s even more outrageous than the fiction of meritocratic admission to the Ivy League (or other elite, private schools) is the equally absurd fiction that students with Ivy League degrees have learned some objectively quantifiable skillset that students from, say, state schools have not. There’s no evidence for this.

So students from outside the social elite face double discrimination: first, because they don’t have an equal chance to get into the Ivy Leagues and second, because then they can’t compete with Ivy League graduates on the job market. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you learn, your Statue U degree is never going to stand out on a resume the way Harvard or Yale does.

There’s nothing meritocratic about that. And that’s the point. The Ivy League-based meritocracy is a lie.


So I empathize with criticisms of American meritocracy, but it’s not actually a meritocracy they’re criticizing. It’s a sham meritocracy that is, in fact, just a covert class system.[2]
Now I despise the Ivy League's polluted issue as much as the next guy (probably more than the next guy), but I think Givens overstates the lack of merit in Ivy League grads. The Ivy League admissions system is designed to select the most intelligent and studious students in the world. Even with legacy admissions and related scandals, the Ivy League has largely been successful in this. Their candidate pool is global; even if one in five of their spots were given to undeserving legacies and the differences between the best of the accepted and the best of the rejected are so small that the choice between them is utterly arbitrary, the scale of this pool ensures excellence. Has there ever been a higher concentration of raw intelligence and studious industry than exists right now in America's top 15 universities (and the few industries that selectively pull from them)? I can think of none. If that is what meritocracy means, then we have one.

But is that what meritocracy should mean? There are more entries in the book of virtues than those approximated by IQ scores and collected study hours. Faith, courage, daring, resourcefulness, selflessness, patience, compassion, kindness, humility, gentility, temperance, strength, beauty, charisma, the ability to peer into the hearts of men and judge what lies therein—there are a thousand virtues, each with their champions and detractors. No meritocratic system can select for all of them; the vigorous pursuit of some arrests the growth of others. Choices must be made. Have we chosen right?

Andrew Yang—yes, the presidential candidate Andrew Yang—is not sure we have. I was surprised to find that Yang devotes a chapter of his book to this problem. In retrospect it should not be so surprising: Yang built a business that recruits Ivy League graduates and throws them across the country to build their own businesses. He has reflected long on this problem. Yang's picture of the meritocratic class is not flattering:
In the bubble, the market governs all. Character is a set of ideas that comes up in the books we read to our children before sending them to test for the gifted and talented program, or a means of doing right by our bosses and reports, or a good way to burnish one’s personal network. On some level, most of us recognize that we are servants to the tide of innovation and efficiency. As the water rises, we will protest as we clamber to higher ground. We will be sure to stay out of the way and keep ourselves pliant and marketable to the extent possible. Our specialty is light-commitment benevolence. We will do something to help but not enough to hurt us or threaten our own standing. We know better than to do that....

We say success in America is about hard work and character. It’s not really. Most of success today is about how good you are at certain tests and what kind of family background you have, with some exceptions sprinkled in to try to make it all seem fair. Intellect as narrowly defined by academics and test scores is now the proxy for human worth. Efficiency is close behind. Our system rewards specific talents more than anything. I got pushed forward for having certain capacities. Others had their horizons systematically lowered for having capacities that our academic system had no use for. I’ve seen countless people lose heart and feel like they should settle for less, that they don’t deserve abundance....

Intelligence and character aren’t the same things at all. Pretending that they are will lead us to ruin. The market is about to turn on many of us with little care for what separates us from each other. I’ve worked with and grown up alongside hundreds of very highly educated people for the past several decades, and trust me when I say that they are not uniformly awesome. People in the bubble think that the world is more orderly than it is. They overplan. They mistake smarts for judgment. They mistake smarts for character. They overvalue credentials. Head not heart. They need status and reassurance. They see risk as a bad thing. They optimize for the wrong things. They think in two years, not 20. They need other bubble people around. They get pissed off when others succeed. They think their smarts should determine their place in the world. They think ideas supersede action. They get agitated if they’re not making clear progress. They’re unhappy. They fear being wrong and looking silly. They don’t like to sell. They talk themselves out of having guts. They worship the market. They worry too much. Bubble people have their pluses and minuses like anyone else.
(emphasis added)[3]

This is not Yang's only problem with the existing system; though he is polite about it, he paints a damning portrait of how the "winners" of the meritocratic gauntlet end up using in their victory: they work in one of six industries (consulting, law, finance, tech, medicine, or academia) in one of five places (Boston, New York City, Washington DC, the Bay Area, or Los Angeles). The remarkable thing about these numbers (and Yang provides lots of them) is that four of the six industries (consulting, law, finance, and academia) are easily described as parasitic or predatory, secondary adornments to the actual business of human activity on the Earth. We have not only engineered a system that trades wealth and honor for an incredibly narrow range of human attributes; once the trade is made, we ship the winners off to careers that provide only marginal benefit to country writ large. ("But it'd be worse if they're doing bad stuff efficiently!," Liam whispers).

However, I do not think this quite grapples with the underlying case for meritocracy. Givens and the pro-meritocrats might respond with something like this: "Well, let's say we were able to design a meritocratic system that selected for the exact virtues you value most. That system will ensure the wealth and glory it bestows would be given only to those whose position allows them to benefit the broader public. If the system was genuinely meritocratic, and the merits selected for perfectly aligned with the positions given, what objections could you have?" Or as Scott Alexander put it a few years ago:
If your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.[4]
The problem with these arguments is that they focus on the wrong side of the equation. The problem with meritocracy is not the "merit"it is the "ocracy!"

Who governs—and for whom?

Yang is worried about this as well:
In coming years it’s going to be even harder to forge a sense of common identity across different walks of life. A lot of people who now live in the bubble grew up in other parts of the country. They still visit their families for holidays and special occasions. They were brought up middle-class in normal suburbs like I was and retain a deep familiarity with the experiences of different types of people. They loved the mall, too.

In another generation this will become less and less true. There will be an army of slender, highly cultivated products of Mountain View and the Upper East Side and Bethesda heading to elite schools that has been groomed since birth in the most competitive and rarefied environments with very limited exposure to the rest of the country.

When I was growing up, there was something of an inverse relationship between being smart and being good-looking. The smart kids were bookish and awkward and the social kids were attractive and popular. Rarely were the two sets of qualities found together in the same people. The nerd camps I went to looked the part.

Today, thanks to assortative mating in a handful of cities, intellect, attractiveness, education, and wealth are all converging in the same families and neighborhoods. I look at my friends’ children, and many of them resemble unicorns: brilliant, beautiful, socially precocious creatures who have gotten the best of all possible resources since the day they were born. I imagine them in 10 or 15 years traveling to other parts of the country, and I know that they are going to feel like, and be received as, strangers in a strange land. They will have thriving online lives and not even remember a car that didn’t drive itself. They may feel they have nothing in common with the people before them. Their ties to the greater national fabric will be minimal. Their empathy and desire to subsidize and address the distress of the general public will likely be lower and lower.[5]
The American system of government was built on the assumption that the most salient political divides would reflect geography, not ideology or class. The senator from Massachusetts would share bonds in common with the lay citizenry of Boston that he did not share with a senator from South Carolina. On the national sphere this would allow him to represent the interests of his constituents as if they were his own. This has proven more true at some times in American history than others; yet because of the way American politicians are elected, this sense of representing the interests of a geographically bounded group of people is more true in the political arena than in most others.

Things have not always been this way.

Though commentators sometimes speak of the old WASP gentry as an earlier era's national elite, they were not really so: they were the business, cultural, and political elites of one region of America. They ruled the roost in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. During the WASP heyday these states had greater economic and demographic heft than other regions in the nation, and so families with names like Roosevelt, Adams, and Lodge had an outsized influence on national politics and culture. But those families were not competing against the best and brightest of the entire nation: they were competing with each other. Texas' best and brightest did not strive to get into Harvard—they strove to get into Baylor. They were generally satisfied to be Texas elites, and if they operated on the national stage they tended to think of themselves as such.

Perhaps the old upper crust of South Dakota lacked the merit of today's globe-trotting elites. Perhaps the current bunch are more intelligent politicians and more efficient administrators. Maybe they are the better neurosurgeons. But here is what they are not: more committed to the interests, culture, and people of South Dakota. A pure meritocracy undistorted by existing class cleavages will distort the nation it is inflicted upon. Deciding who rules and who is ruled through a system which selects on a narrow field of virtues inevitably leads to one outcome: an aristocracy of the meritorious few who do not have the experience or the inclination to act in the interests of masses less virtuous than they.


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If you would like to read some of my other jottings on elites and American democracy, you may find the posts "Pining for Democracy," "Despots Near and Despots Far," "America 3.0," and "Economies of Scale Killed the American  Dream" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Liam Bright, tweet on 16 December 2019, 1:30 AM, accessed at https://twitter.com/lastpositivist/status/1206506964735479808

[2] Nathaniel Givens, "In Favor of Real Meritocracy," Difficult Run, 6 November 2019.

[3] Andrew Yang, The War On Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future (New York: Hachette Books, 2018), 111-114 

[4] Scott Alexander, "Targeting Meritocracy," Slate Star Codex, 24 July 2017.

[5] Yang, War on Normal People, 114.