27 May, 2013

Do The Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?

A selection of the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World.
Image source.

A "proper education" changes with its times.

In the days of America's founding a true education was a classical education. An educated man was not simply expected to be familiar with the great works of Greek and Roman civilization; the study of these works was the foundation of education itself. Thomas Jefferson's advice to an aspiring nephew captures the attitudes of his era:
It is time for you now to begin to be choice in your reading; to begin to pursue a regular course in it; and not to suffer yourself to be turned to the right or left by reading any thing out of that course. I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed. This I will detail to you, from time to time, as you advance. For the present, I advise you to begin a course of antient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith's history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up antient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next, will be of Roman history (*). From that, we will come down to modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton's Paradise Lost, Shakspeare, Ossian, Pope's and Swift's works, in order to form your style in your own language. In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophontis Memorabilia, Plato's Socratic dialogues, Cicero's philosophies, Antoninus, and Seneca.... 
Having ascribed proper hours to exercise, divide what remain, (I mean of your vacant hours) into three portions. Give the principal to History, the other two, which should be shorter, to Philosophy and Poetry. Write to me once every month or two, and let me know the progress you make. Tell me in what manner you employ every hour in the day. The plan I have proposed for you is adapted to your present situation only. When that is changed, I shall propose a corresponding change of plan. I have ordered the following books to be sent to you from London, to the care of Mr. Madison. Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon's Hellenics, Anabasis and Memorabilia, Cicero's works, Baretti's Spanish and English Dictionary, Martin's Philosophical Grammar, and Martin's Philosophia Britannica. I will send you the following from hence. Bezout's Mathematics, De la Lande's Astronomy, Muschenbrock's Physics, Quintus Curtius, Justin, a Spanish Grammar, and some Spanish books. You will observe that Martin, Bezout, De la Lande, and Muschenbrock are not in the preceding plan. They are not to be opened till you go to the University. You are now, I expect, learning French. You must push this; because the books which will be put into your hands when you advance into Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, and will be mostly French, these sciences being better treated by the French than the English writers. Our future connection with Spain renders that the most necessary of the modern languages, after the French. When you become a public man, you may have occasion for it, and the circumstance of your possessing that language, may give you a preference over other candidates. I have nothing further to add for the present, but husband well your time, cherish your instructors, strive to make every body your friend; and be assured that nothing will be so pleasing, as your success, to, Dear Peter. 
(*) Livy, Sullust, Caesar, Cicero's epistles, Suetonius, Tacitus, Gibbon. [1]

Mr. Jefferson's ideal education was more than a close reading of Herodotus, Sophocles, Caesar, and Cicero. A proper education was incomplete without a strict exercise regime, a study of the leading scientific and mathematic minds of the day, and a mastery of multiple foreign languages, both living and dead.

These would be the hallmarks of  'proper' education for the next century. The general contours of the classical education changed very little -- the emphasis on mastering multiple languages was reduced as time went on and (for Americans) the subject of oratory and rhetoric was added to the list. In addition to studying the "Great Books" of the Western world most Americans would study the great speeches of English-speaking world; compilations like The Columbian Orator were a cornerstone of 19th century education. [2]  

During the 20th century things changed drastically.  Several weeks ago Michelle Togut wrote a thoughtful overview of these changes for the League of Ordinary Gentleman's Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. [3] She notes that controversy over and opposition to the hallowed place the Western cultural tradition had at the center of American education (embodied in the study of the "Great Books") came in two waves, ultimately resulting in the system of general education found in America's 21st century universities. Conservatives alarmed by these changes have thus fallen into two groups, each raising a different objections to the modern system. Their arguments can be summarized succinctly:

  • 1. The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because post-modernism, gender studies, area studies, and multiculturalism generally have replaced them. This is bad. (The primary argument from the 1970s to the 2010s). 
  • 2. The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because social science and statistics has conquered the humanities and specialization has made general education irrelevant to the average student’s education. This is bad. (The primary argument from the 1930s to the 1960s).

Of the two, I find the second both more convincing and alarming.

Mortimer Adler was one of the founding members of the second group. (He is most famous today as the first editor of the 60-volume Great Books of the Western World.) Professor Adler and his kin often talked of the Western cultural tradition as a “great conversation.” Said he:
“What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways” [4]
As Adler saw it, understanding Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Conrad requires a knowledge of what came before them. Their words, ideas, and works were inspired by the good that came before, written in response to the bad which they deplored, and full of allusions to both. It is hard to appreciate or engage with these authors in isolation.

The multiculturalist objection to all of this is easily resolved. How can we support a “great conversation” that excludes so many voices? The answer: what stops us from including them? This has been the course I have followed in my personal education, and have found it rewarding. I have learned more from Sima Qian and Ibn Khaldun than I ever did from Herodotus or Plato. The Great Conversation has excluded the view points of women and minorities? Then let us add Sei Shōnagon and Kālidāsa to it! This cross cultural approach has deepened my appreciation for and understanding of the Western canon. [5] Moreover, in a world as interconnected as ours now is, almost any argument for attaining cultural literacy in the Western tradition can (and should) be applied to the Indic and East Asian traditions. Cultural literacy in the 21st century reaches far beyond Athens and Jerusalem.[6]

The second argument is more worrisome. The eclipse of the Western tradition has just as much to do with specialization as it does multiculturalism, though some habits of the newer humanities – such as the general distaste for studying “great men” at all – have contributed. The general expansion of college education from an elite endeavor to career-prep for the masses is another part of the story. I think so many critics of the university ignore these things because multiculturalism is an easier target. Changing a reading list is easy; changing the structure of higher education is not.

The consequences are the same, either way. There is something to be said for education that has coherence; there is something to be said for seeking to learn from lives long gone. I fear that we are cutting ourselves off from the past. When we do not leave room for the “great conversations” in our studies, it dies. Thousands of years of human endeavor and emotion are found in the Western tradition. And unlike our predecessors, we have the option of adding to this tradition, to expand it from Western to human. I find that exciting. Alas, the academy does not. “Tradition” is not a word worth much there.


[1] Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr. Paris, 19 September 1785. Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. Accessed 25 May 2013. 

[2] Frederick Douglas eloquently testifies to the power the English oratorical tradition.    The Columbian Orator was one of the first books he ever read; he described its influence in the following terms:

The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts which had often flashed through my mind and died away for want of words in which to give them utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth penetrating the heart of a slave-holder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue; and from the speeches of Sheridan I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was indeed a noble acquisition. If I had ever wavered under the consideration that the Almighty, in some way, had ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for His own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated to the secret of all slavery and all oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power, and the avarice of man. With a book in my hand so redolent of the principles of liberty, with a perception of my own human nature, and the facts of my past and present experience, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether white or black,—for blindness in this matter was not confined to the white people.
Frederick Douglas. Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Library of America). (New York: library of America). 1994. p. 226.

[3] The series is in three parts:

 Michelle Togut. "G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part I ". League of Ordinary Gentleman. 10 April 2013.

 Michelle Togut. "G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part II". League of Ordinary Gentleman. 15 April 2013.

Michelle Togut.  "G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part III". League of Ordinary Gentleman. 19 April 2013.

This entire post is an expansion and reworking of a comment I left on Ms. Togut's concluding entry,

[4]See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1

[5] For example, consider the insights found in my earlier essay: "Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?" The Scholar's Stage. 9 April 2013. 

[6] This is something most non-Westeners understand. At sundry times and places I have been friends or colleagues with Chinese men and women. I was very surprised at how historically grounded the Chinese are – Chinese popular culture, even at the level of the uneducated layman, is saturated with its history and literature. It took some getting used to (and it presents a very practical language learning problem!) Among educated Chinese, I have been very impressed with their desire to learn about and absorb Western history and culture. They value that of their own world, and seek that of the new, thus beating out Americans twice over, who do neither.

22 May, 2013

Quick Hits: Life Before the Plow

No time for substantive commentary tonight, but I wanted to point my readers to four articles worth their time. All concern life before the Neolithic Revolution - that is, human society before the advent of agriculture and the civilizations built upon it. 

There are many common misconceptions about hunter-gather societies. This is partly because there are so few left; in the grand contest between agricultural and hunter gatherer society the agriculturalists won. By the twentieth century the only hunter gatherer societies left were those  found in remote environments where agriculture had trouble taking hold. These societies (e.g. San and !Kung bushmenAboriginal Australiansthe Hazda, or the Inuits) received considerable popular and anthropological attention during the 20th century. Consequently, the small group size, egalitarian social structures, and nomadic life style of these groups are strongly associated with hunter-gatherer society in the mind of most moderns. Many assume that the life style and social structures of these group reflect the general state of humanity before the Neolithic Revolution. 

This assumption is flawed.  The hunter-gatherer societies studied by 20th century ethnographers lived in environments of extreme resource scarcity (e.g. the Kalahari desert or the Canadian tundra). Even today few people live in these regions. This was just as true in the Neolithic.  Most humans would be found in more hospitable environments. What would hunter-gatherer societies there be like?  

Archeologists have searched for the answer to this question. What they have found upturns many of these assumptions about the nature of hunter-gather society. Well before agriculture arrives on the scene, we see evidence of inequality and social stratification, large migrations and displaced peoples, and ritual centers and buildings built of stone. Each of the following articles touches upon one of these these examples:

Alan Honick and Gordon Orians. Pacific Magazine. 31 August 2012.
...About 40,000 years ago humans began developing more complex tools and behaviors, and about 10,000 years ago, agriculture and animal domestication. For a long time researchers believed that these latter innovations, by greatly increasing the volume, reliability, and storability of food resources, were prerequisites for the development of socioeconomic inequality. However, the people of Keatley Creek still made their living by hunting, foraging, and most importantly for this story, fishing. They didn’t have agriculture or domesticated animals, except for dogs. What spurred the rise of inequality in that setting? Read the whole thing-->

Peter Turchin. Social Evolution Forum. 17 & 20 May 2013.
Most likely humans who lived in the Fertile Crescent had already known about techniques needed to intensify plant production, but for reasons we have discussed, did not deploy them. The new conditions of widespread warfare, however, imposed an intense selection regime for larger group size, because the best way to ensure tribal survival was to have more warriors. Growing their own food enabled human groups to raise more warriors and concentrate them within larger war bands. Such groups then expanded at the expense of groups that didn’t have agriculture. So we have a typical process of evolution by cultural group selection.

Why was the cultural group selection necessary? Because you cannot switch to farming when everybody else in your group is foraging. The whole group needs to shift to farming together and to acquire a new set of cultural norms, most notably, private property rights. Bowles and Choi in their paper model how this dual switch can occur. 
However, more is needed. Switching to farming makes evolutionary sense only if it leads to a larger tribe size, which is key for surviving under conditions of intense intertribal warfare. But it is not easy to keep a large group of people internally cohesive. You need a new type of social glue.

In his recent articles, including one on the Social Evolution Forum, Harvey Whitehouse argues that large-scale human societies can build up cohesion by inventing and conducting regular symbolic, or ‘doctrinal’ rituals that bring together large numbers of people. Everything we know about Göbekli Tepe suggests that it was used precisely for such rituals, and that it served a very large ritual community. It took many hundreds of people to build the monument, so there had to be a large community numbering in many thousands, since somebody had to provide the food. And it brought together population from a large area.

The cultural group selection logic also explains why agriculture was adopted despite its huge health costs. Groups of poorly nourished and perhaps even chronically sick, but numerous farmers exterminated healthy and tall foragers because of the group size advantage. So individual fitness (both in the evolutionary sense, and in the common sense of physical fitness) declined, but the evolutionary fitness of the group increased, and that is what drove the whole process....  
Read the whole thing-->

Al West. West's Meditations. 4 April 2013.
The best example against the language/farming dispersal hypothesis comes from Australia. Pama-Nyungan languages once covered about 7/8 of Australia's territory, including the entire east, west, south, and centre. Pama-Nyungan is a well-supported genetic entity and its languages show close relationships to one another, demonstrating that this is a family that spread relatively recently - in the mid-Holocene, perhaps, at around the same time as Indo-European. Only Tasmania and Arnhemland preserved non-Pama-Nyungan languages, and even that latter swampy, tropical land was penetrated by Yolngu, a Pama-Nyungan language on the northern tip.

Modern Pama-Nyungan speakers are also much more likely to carry the HTLV-1 retro-virus than non-Pama-Nyungan speakers, and as this is inherited, at least in part, we are probably looking at the expansion of a group of people - or at the very least we can say that the speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages share a high degree of inherited material. This means that the expansion must have been more like true migration than advection, although of course the reality of it was probably quite complicated (as it is with any language family). Just so you're in no doubt, this means that the Pama-Nyungan expansion is attested to by both linguistic and biogenetic evidence.

Now, Australians didn't develop agriculture before Europeans arrived, so we can't link the expansion to the domestication of any grains or animals or whatever else. This is one of the few language family expansions that we can say right off the bat had absolutely no connection to agriculture. The trouble is, the model proposed by linguists is a little old and as far as I can tell, it doesn't fit perfectly with the archaeological evidence as we now have it.... Read the whole thing-->

21 May, 2013

America Torn Apart: Panel Discussion With Charles Murray and Robert Putnam

This video is worth your time. It is long. But it is worth your time. 

A longer post on similar themes is in the works. Until that post is completed this is an excellent place to begin the discussion.


"The New American Divide
Charles Murray. Wall Street Journal. 21 January 2012.

A lengthy newspaper adaptation of Mr. Murray's book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which includes both the main argument and many of the data points discussed above. 

"Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness Among American Youth"
Robert D. Putnam, Carl Frederick, and Kaisa Suelman. Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America. 8 August 2012. 

This is study that Mr. Putnam uses as the foundation for his remarks. 

19 May, 2013

Asian Great Power Politics: Spring 2013

Image Credit: Washington Post

Interesting things happen in Asia. Over the last few months a lot of interesting things have happened. Yet as 2013 rolls forward I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with the standard explanations  American commentators rely on to explain Asia's great power politicking. This post presents a few themes neglected by many analysts but nevertheless critical to understanding Asian geopolitics. The observations I offer are very candid.  I group these observations along three broad themes: 

1)When Historical Memory Matters
2) Pivots Have Consequences 
3) Profit and Peace on the Korean Peninsula

While each of these sections touches upon affairs in the entire region, each point has a natural national focus. The first section centers on China, the second Japan, and the third Korea.  

1. When Historical Memory Matters. 

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with an old friend from Hong Kong. When she reported that a card game version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms was all the rage among the city's well to do young 20-somethings, I took the opportunity to lodge my characteristic complaint about the dearth of books on Chinese military history published in English.

"Can you believe that there isn't a single history of the Three Kingdoms in the English language? [1] They've translated the San Guo Yan Yi, but it is the fictional version, not the real thing. Maybe I will just have to go and write the book myself."

"You should! Put all of that history in your head to use somewhere."

"Ah, but I have enough trouble as it is with Chinese.  To write a book like that I would need to learn Japanese as well - all of the best histories of the period are written in Japanese."

Her reaction was sharp and immediate. 

"You can't believe anything the Japanese say about history. Don't you know the lies they put in their history text books and teach in their schools?"

"But those books are about the Second World War. When it comes to the Three Kingdoms Period it is much easier for the Japanese to be even-handed. They were not participants."

"I could never trust the Japanese when it comes to history. They are not honest with the past and their leaders are not trustworthy. You do know what the Japanese did in Nanjing?"

"Yes, I know what happened in Nanjing and I know what Prime Minister Abe has been saying about it. But you cannot condemn the entire Japanese people for something that happened 60 years ago. Heck, the Japanese I am friends with are the least aggressive people I know!"

And on it went, I trying to convince her that the Japanese public takes the values set forth in their constitution seriously, and she insistent that Japan is as jingoistic and dishonest as nations come. The conversation was surprising and a tad disconcerting; my friend was not a backwater provincial hoodwinked by PRC education and censorship, but a free citizen of Hong Kong educated (in the field of political science no less!) in the United States.  The conversation was a sharp, personal reminder that Americans and Chinese have very different perceptions of Japan's place in history.

Most Americans who know enough about Asia to distinguish Japan from other Asian nations associate the country with harmless novelties. The Japanese are the kind of people who eat fish without cooking it, like robots a little too much, are altogether more polite than they need to be, use really complicated emoticons, have the quirkiest game shows on the planet, buy underwear from vending machines, and are crazy enough to not just invent Hello Kitty, but build a theme park devoted to her. If Japanese militarism registers with Americans at all, it is usually for the sake of a few laughs:

This image of the Japanese as the quirky game show contestants of the world, combined with 50 years of peaceful alliance, have dispelled any lingering trust issues Americans might have about the country or its people. Indeed, when the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked Americans what countries they trusted most, Japan came second only to Great Britain. [2]

Things are seen differently in China. Between 1937 and 1945 some 10 to 20 million men, women, or children died because of Japanese campaigns. That is more than 20 times the number of Americans who died in that terrible global war. [3] The Chinese have been slow to move past these horrors. Chinese pop culture ensures that even those born long after these events took place are well acquainted with their details. While American film makers feel a moral obligation to tell the story of the Second World War from the Japanese perspective, Chinese directors have no such compunctions. In Chinese cinema, Japanese people are most commonly depicted as vicious and vulgar soldiers who make perfect cannon fodder for the hero of the tale. [4]

Noting the clear differences between the way Americans and Chinese people think about Japan is not novel. Most observers recognize these historical tensions. Less recognized is the way these tensions and narratives shape the decisions made by the leaders of Asia's great powers.

Consider the recent border dispute between India and China. Three weeks ago a PLA platoon crossed 19km over the border between Aksai Chin and Ladakh and set up camp. In New Delhi there was a minor political crisis; for three weeks Indian media personalities, opposition politicians, analysts, and military men protested and pontificated. In China things were different. There was no heated rhetoric emanating from Beijing. The Chinese press was silent; the dispute was covered on the margins, never reaching the front page. Even though the dispute ended on terms favorable to China, the usual wave of national triumphalism just waiting to erupt on Weibo never came. More important matters had captured the Chinese imagination: the week Chinese troops withdrew the Global Times and Peoples Daily published op-eds by Chinese academics questioning Japan's claim to Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands.

Notice the gap between the percentage who feel that China's 
relationship with Japan is "hostile" and the 
percentage that believes the same thing about
 Sino-Indian relations.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project. 
"Growing Concerns in China about Inequality, Corruption."
 (Washington: Pew Research Center). 16 October 2012. p. 13.
All of this reflects broader Chinese attitudes towards Japan and India. Less than a fourth of Chinese citizens surveyed by Pew believe that China has a hostile relationship with India; more than double that number believe  China and Japan's relationship is marked by hostility. There is little evidence to suggest that these feelings come from government propaganda efforts. The reverse is true: government propaganda uses these beliefs to bolster the government's legitimacy.  Narrative is at the crux of the problem. "China Dream" [5] is Xi Jinping's spin on this narrative, but its contours have been adopted by the Chinese elite for at least a decade. "China is resurgent, returning, taking back its former glory. The imperialist nations that shamed China will never do so again."

The legitimacy of the Chinese government rests on its ability to live up to this narrative. As long as this is the dominant narrative pushed by leaders of the CCP, Beijing will stands its ground when facing national embarrassment at the hand of old enemies. And none of China's imperialist enemies was so malicious in its heyday or infamous in the present as the Japanese Empire.

2. Pivots Have Consequences

That is the Chinese side of things. Lets turn to their rivals across the sea.

The Japanese have been spectacularly active diplomats in 2013. Over the last few months they have restarted talks with the Russian government to reach an official peace agreement, agreed to give the Philippines a set of $11 billion dollar patrol boats to ensure Chinese ships stay out of Filipino waters, struck a deal allowing Taiwanese ships to fish near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, doubled the number of jets scrambled over the South China Sea, declared that the Japanese Self Defense Force has the right to develop pre-emptive strike capabilities, sent a flurry of ambassadors and special representatives to ASEAN member states, joined the American led Pacific-free trade negotiations, placed its final touches on a nuclear plant capable of producing nuclear grade weapons, invested its reserves in the South East Asian bonds market, held bilateral talks with Vietnam on maritime security, set up a fund for investing in Myanmar's infrastructure and reaffirmed its promise to waive the $6 billion dollars of debt Myanmar owed the Japanese government, and announced that it would begin talks to strike a trade deal with Mongolia while building the country a new world-class airport.

This flurry in diplomatic activity has surprised many observers; Tokyo's current energy stands in marked contrast to the moribundity that defined its foreign policy over the last decade. Washington has been positively alarmed with Japan's activities and has not kept their discomfort secret.

What accounts for Tokyo's new found assertiveness? American observers tend to focus their answers on the person of Shinzo Abe. This focus is misplaced; many of these activities began well before Prime Minister Abe took his current office. Moreover, this is his second tour as Prime Minister. His first run did not display such vigor. Perhaps the man has changed. It is more likely that the position that he helms has changed instead.

Japan's strategic environment has changed in recent times. The change began on the other side of the Pacific when the Obama Administration declared its decision to "pivot" to Asia. Strategy is no different in America than it is elsewhere; to strategize is to prioritize, to open doors at the cost of closing others. The "pivot" to Asia was just such a choice. To pivot to is also to pivot away, and the administration's declaration was designed to assure America's Asian allies that they would take priority over the superpower's many other concerns. The primary audience for the announcement was the string of democracies that marks the Asian periphery. Why America sought their support was clear: central to the United States's strategic vision is a ring of solid allies to be arrayed against resurgent China if the need arises. Major Robert Chamberlain describes this strategy as "Containment Lite" in an essay for Armed Forces Journal:
The grand strategic solution to this challenge is “containment-lite.” In this approach, America seeks out smaller regional states threatened by China’s growing power and facilitates their balancing strategies by offering a much less threatening alternative than simply bandwagoning behind China’s regional aspirations. Thereby, American power in Asia is pooled with smaller states and incipient Chinese militarism is checked. However, unlike the Cold War, Chinese membership in regional organizations is encouraged, expanding Chinese trade is welcomed and Chinese economic growth is applauded. The goal is to raise the cost of militarizing international disputes such that the only rational Chinese alternative is to seek pacific resolution through the tools of economic or diplomatic power. [6]
As it turns out, America's allies were listening when the United States announced its pivot. Japan did more than listen; it acted.

First, the back-drop: a delicate dance between two jealous giants is little fun. For the last decade the Japanese, as acutely aware of China's rising power as anybody in Washington, has tried to court both suitors.  The source of some frustration in Washington, it is a game played by many of United State's friends.   Americans have little sympathy for their allies' dilemma; what Americans seem to forget is that the United States has the least to lose in all of this. If the dance does not go her way and China becomes the central hub of all Asia, America will still be a first class super power. She will retain a fully independent foreign policy. Even a disastrous war is unlikely to scar her cities or kill many of her people. The same cannot be said for India, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, or Japan.

Thus the uncomfortable position Japan found herself in - she could not move to closer to one giant without standing square in the firing line of the other. The American nuclear umbrella ensured that Washington would win out if the Japanese were forced to make a decision, but the Japanese were far less sure America would reciprocate. Heavy commitments in the Near East signaled Washington's true priorities. Japan could not afford to be assertive when its defensive line was so preoccupied.

The "rebalance to Asia" announcement made clear that these preoccupations were over. The Far East would be the focus now. Alas, if Washington hoped that publicly declaring the fact would increase American influence in the region then they were sorely mistaken. [7] The effect has been the opposite. By publicly guaranting American commitment to her allies' defense, the United States has given them the  space they need to pursue foreign policy goals with an independence they never would have employed when they knew that they would have to bear the consequences of their actions alone.

it is for this reason that suggestions like those made by the New York Time's editorial board asking Japan drop its "unnecessary nationalism" are not just arrogant; they are unrealistic. [8] While the Japanese might tone their rhetoric down for diplomacy's sake, there is no compelling reason for them to change their actions. If American designs in the region are to succeed then we need the Japanese. They know this. As Prime Minister Abe wrote a few weeks after assuming office: "In a period of American strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region, the US needs Japan as much as Japan needs the US." [9]

American observers have been slow to realize the consequences of their pivot. [10] Peter Lee, who writes a column for the Asia Times Online, is one of the few to recognize the connection between American and Japanese policies. His analysis is compelling enough that I will break my customary rules and place their citation in the body of the post instead of burying them in the foot notes:

"Japan Stirs Campbell's U.S. Pivot Soup"
Peter Lee. Asian Times Online. 26 April 2013.

"U.S. Hoisted by its Own Pivot Petard"
Peter Lee. Asian Times Online. 10 May 2013.

"Fox Leads Tiger into China's Crosshairs"
Peter Lee. Asia Times Online. 17 May 2013.

Almost five years ago I suggested that America's relationship with China is not "the most important bilateral relationship in the world this century."[11] As I noted:
Our relationship with China is nowhere near as important as our relationship with another Asian country- Japan. ...Our relationship with Japan is the foundation of all other American activities in Asia. If we want to get our "Asia policy" right, we have to get our relationship with Japan right first. [12]
This judgment has aged surprisingly well. As recent events suggest, the real spark in the East Asian tinderbox is not China, but Japan. If our relations with Tokyo fail then our relations with Beijing will not succeed; to guide the rise of China is to manage the decline of Japan.  

This whole thing ought to serve as a cautionary tale for all of those think-tank types who hope to rope India into an alliance with the United States. When the leading members of India's foreign policy establishment published their strategic vision for the Deccan republic in Non-Alignment 2.0, American observers were shocked (shocked!) that India's relationship with the United States was relegated to a few stray bullet points. [13] The report puts China front and center, expressing skepticism that a stronger relationship with the United States would guarantee American aid once the bullets began to fly. Does Washington really want to change this perception? Is America prepared to defend and support an India whose foreign policy is as assertive as Japan's is proving to be?

 I do not think many have considered the question.

3. Profit and Peace on the Korean Peninsula  

The recent crisis in North and South Korean relations have brought international attention to the peninsula. Many editorials and opinion pieces were written in response, each explaining how America can best temper the region's boiling tensions. No one has stopped to ask an important question: What interest does Washington have in defusing the situation?

Observers seem to miss just how well the status quo suits everyone involved. Running the thin line between war and peace is a dangerous game and it is a game that may prove harder to control than the interested parties anticipate. But who really wants a war on the Korean Peninsula? Who stands to profit by breaching the peace?

The North Korean regime does not. One has difficulty dreaming up a scenario where war does not end with the destruction of the regime all together. While totalitarian regimes do not have a great track record when it comes to acting in a rational manner, the North Koreans know the forces arrayed against them. They know what war will mean for them.

South Korea has no more reason for war than its adversary. South Korea is prosperous now; war would change that. They would suffer the brunt of the war's potentially catastrophic human cost, and would be saddled with the enormous burden of reconstructing a country scarred by war and decades of totalitarian rule. 

China, for its part, would lose a client state and face the justified extension of American military power right up to its front door (more on that in a bit).

This brings us to the United States and Japan. What do they have to lose if war comes to Korea? Korea itself.

This is another problem of historical memory. All of the grievances and historical baggage that the Chinese bring to their relations with Japan is matched or exceeded by the Koreans. It was Seoul, not Beijing, that withdrew its foreign minister from a scheduled trip to Tokyo after 168 members of the Diet visited the Yasukuni Shrine. Recent public opinion polls
Koreans protesting visits to the Yakusuni Shrine.

Source: The Japan Times.
show that the Korean populace trusts China more than it does Japan. [14] Following the public's lead, Prime Minister Park will be the first Korean Prime Minister to visit Beijing before traveling to Tokyo first.

There are deep historical roots for all of this. Korea has been a part of the Chinese sphere since the Han Dynasty; the two have a history of presenting a united front in the face of Japanese provoactions since the Imjin War in the 1590s.The current alliance structure in Northeast Asia is a historical anomaly. In a world where the two Koreas are united in peace, there is no guarantee that Seoul would reject an offer to join hands with Beijing - especially if the offer was prompted by perceived Japanese aggression.

Fear of North Korea is the glue that binds South Korea, Japan, and the United States together. Washington has nothing to gain from war - but nor does the United States have much to gain from undisturbed peace. Tension keeps South Korea dependent on the alliance, and provides a pretense Japanese and the American statesmen can use to accomplish broader strategic goals. Consider, for example, the logistical maneuvers the two allies have put in place in response to North Korea's most recent provocations:
B-2 and B-52 bombers, radar-evading F-22s and anti-missile system vessels like the USS John S. McCain represented the initial U.S. response to North Korea's repeated, explicit threats to launch nuclear strikes against the United States.

The U.S. also said it would shift THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System) to defend Guam from missile attack. And Tokyo's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said Japan would permanently deploy Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) anti-missile systems in Okinawa to counter North Korean missiles. [15]
These weapon systems will aid South Korea, Japan, and the United States in a conflict with North Korea. They will also prove useful if relations with Beijing begin to sour.  

So to return to the original question: what interest does the United States have in resolving the situation on the peninsula? Very little. North Korea is just too useful of an enemy to lose.


[1] The obscene nature of this travesty is explained with more depth in T. Greer. "Troubles With the Chinese Military Tradition." The Scholar's Stage. 23 March 2013.

[2] Pew Global Attitudes Project. "U.S. Public, Experts, Differ on China Policies."(Washington:Pew Research Center).12 September 2012. p. 8. A recent article from The Diplomat provides a fair example of how American opinion makers perceive Japanese militarism:

One of the interesting outcomes of the postwar Constitution is that the public bought Article 9 and it has often been presented as a source of pride for Japanese—theirs is the one country to renounce war. In conversations with many Japanese over the years I have occasionally used the term “guntai” in reference to the SDF. I am always corrected that the SDF is “jietai” (or rikujô jietai for ground forces), meaning a self-defense force as opposed to the meaning of guntai, which refers to an army and implies offensive capabilities. I have been told that the U.S. has a guntai, while Japan does not. While from an American perspective, it is difficult to see the difference beyond the fact that the Japanese do not maintain offensive weapons like aircraft carriers—oh, right, they have helicopter carriers now—don't have ICBMs, and don’t participate in offensive actions alone or with their allies, from a Japanese perspective the difference is real and allows for the conceptualization of Japan as a country that does not maintain a military or at least not in a way that other countries do. In other words, Article 9 is a basis for a kind of Japanese exceptionalism built on the idea that Japan is the only country to renounce war.
John Traphogan. "Revising the Japanese Constitution." The Diplomat. 17 May 2013.

[3] Wikipedia has an informative entry on this topic. It lists the number of American dead as a bit less than 420,000.

[4] Anti-Japanese themes are not restricted to theaters; even more common are TV dramas devoted to the topic:

According to a local news report, 70 of the 200 primetime dramas on major TV networks in 2012 were about the Sino-Japanese War. Sources from Hengdian Movie and Television City [a drama and film production compound] in Zhejiang province said [zh] that among its 300,000 contracted actors, 60 percent have performed the role of Japanese soldiers.
Oiwan Lam. "China's Anti-Japanese TV War Dramas Knocked For Vulgarity." Global Voices Online. 14 April 2013. 

See also:  'Shanghaist.' "More and More Anti-Japanese Dramas Being Produced." The Shanghaist. 20 March 2013; " China Cracks Down on over the top Anti-Japanese Dramas." South China Morning Post. 17 May 2013.

[5] In my opinion "China Dream" is a more accurate translation of "中国梦” than "Chinese Dream." 中国 means "China." It is occasionally used the same way we might use the word "Chinese", but it usually refers to the Chinese state or things unique to the Chinese state. Over at Tea Leaf Nation Liang Pen takes this even further, arguing for a dynamic translation of the term as "National Chinese Dream."

[6]  Robert Chamberlin. "Back to Reality: Why Land Power Trumps in the Rebalance Towards Asia." Armed Forces Journal. May 2013.

[7] It seems fairly clear that this was their intent. Mark Manyin et. al. "Pivot the Pacific: The Obama Administration's 'Rebalancing' Towards Asia" Congressional Research Service. 28 March 2012. p. 7.

[8] "Japan's Unnecessary Nationalism." New York Times. 24 April 2013. 

[9] Shinzo Abe. "Asia's Democratic Diamond." Project Syndicate. 27 December 2012.  I recommend reading his whole essay (it is short). Beyond explicitly connecting the pivot to America's "need" of Japan,  Prime Minister Abe's worries about the South China Sea becoming "a Chinese lake" are laid out in language clear and unmistakable. 

[10] Chinese observers, on the other hand, see matters clearly: 

"The U.S. has been criticised – not least by Beijing – for giving its partners the false expectation that it might back them in their territorial disputes with China. “This signal by the U.S. [of its desire to strengthen alliances] may embolden some U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines to pursue more hard-line positions for their territorial disputes with China,” argues Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University. “They may think that the U.S. will lend them unconditional support. This perception may lead to unintended consequences". ...In its newly released Defence White Paper, Beijing again criticised the U.S. rebalancing, which it said was making the situation in the region 'tenser.' ”
Trefor Moss. "America's Pivot to Asia: A Report Card." The Diplomat. 5 May 2013.

[11] The phrase belongs to Hillary Clinton.  See her "Security and Opportunity for the Twenty First Century." Foreign Affairs. Nov/Dec 2007. 

[12] T. Greer. "The Future of East Asian Security (i.e. The Future of the U.S.-Japanese Relations)." The Scholar's Stage. 9 June 2008.

[13] Some typical examples: Ashley Tellis, et. al. "Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the 21st Century." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace panel discussion. 12 March 2013;  Sadahand Dhune. "Failure 2.0." Foreign Policy. 18 March 2012; Lisa Curtis. "China's Rise and India's Obvious Partner (the U.S.)" Heritage Institute: The Foundry Blog. 5 march 2013.

[14] Atsushi Hiroshima. "Poll: Japanese like South Korea more than China, but South Koreans Like China Better." Asashi Shimbun. 8 May 2013. 

[15] Paul Eckert. "Analysis: In Bitter irony for China, North Korea Furthers U.S. Strategic Goals." Reuters. 10 April 2013.

15 May, 2013

Notes From All Over (14/5/2013) - Historical Linguistics, Guanxi, and Scary Government Data Bases

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.

This one is a bit smaller than normal; there are a few other posts or essays that deserve to go here, but I hope to devote entire posts to them at a later date. 


"An Introduction to Historical Linguistics' - Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern. Part 1: Introduction" and "Part Two: Types of Sound Change: Lenition and Fortition"
Al West. West's Meditations. 13 May and 15 May 2013.
The reason historical linguistics is so important is because it is a well-established population science, meaning that we can infer historical relationships and activities from linguistic data. If two groups of people speak languages that are clearly related, we can infer that they share some kind of history. That's a very useful thing. In fact, linguistics is such a reliable indicator of shared history that some archaeologists and other non-linguists use language families (more about these later) as hooks on which to hang their theories - 'Austronesian' migration into southeast Asia with rice farming, etc. They're generally pretty reliable hooks.

I really want anthropologists, archaeologists, and geneticists to be conversant with this branch of the human sciences.... so what I'm going to do here is to re-read Crowley and Bowern's book and write about it for you. I'm using the fourth edition, published by OUP in 2010, for this series. I'm going to go through it chapter-by-chapter, noting the important ideas and key terms in each section. As this is an introductory text, and a summary of an introductory text at that, you shouldn't expect it to be in-depth, but it should be comprehensive, in that all relevant topics will be covered. It should serve as a mini-introduction to an introduction. An amuse-bouche for historical linguistics.

This is a fantastic introduction to a poorly understood topic. I eagerly await Mr. West's next installment.


"Biometric Databas of All American Adults Hidden in Immigration Reform Package"
David Kravets. Wired's Threat Level. 10 May 2013.

"Are all Telephone Calls Recorded and Accessible to U.S. Government?"
Genn Greenwald. The Guardian. 4 May 2013.

Mark Safranski. Zenpundit. 14 May 2013.


"Long Battle of Over China's 'White Pollution' "
Shi Yunhan. Tea Leaf Nation. 26 April 2013.
In the past weeks, Chinese citizens have learnt that the styrofoam boxes from which they eat their lunches will soon be legal. On February 16, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s highest economic policy-making body, changed the Industrial Restructuring Catalog (2011) and removed disposable foam plastic tableware from the list of banned products. On May 1, the fourteen-year ban will be formally removed. 
Ban? What ban? 
The fact that it had ever been illegal came as a surprise. Many Chinese did not know the widely prevalent tableware has in fact been banned.
Please read this whole article. The topic seems a bit pedestrian, but it reveals a lot about how the Chinese government deals with its people and how the people perceive the government.

"China's Unhealthy Elites"
Elanah Urestky. The National Interest. 30 April 2013.

See also: "Book Review: China's Economy, in Thrall to the Underworld." David Carligiano. Tea Leaf Nation. 13 May 2013.


"New England vs. Midwest Culture"
George Mattel. The Urbanophile. 6 November 2012.

I have lived in both regions, and I affirm that everything Mr. Mattel writes is spot-on.

"The Split Personality of America"
"Steffan." Steffan's Personality Blog. 29 April 2013.


"The New Sick Man of Europe: The European Union"
Pew Global Attitude Project. 13 May 2013.
Support for European economic integration – the 1957 raison d’etre for creating the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor – is down over last year in five of the eight European Union countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2013. Positive views of the European Union are at or near their low point in most EU nations, even among the young, the hope for the EU’s future. The favorability of the EU has fallen from a median of 60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013. And only in Germany does at least half the public back giving more power to Brussels to deal with the current economic crisis.
"War Nerd: Our Ringer vs Your Ringers"
Gary Brecher. nsfwcorp. 8 May 2013.

Easily the best thing I have read on Syria all year. h/t hbd chick.

"The Beginning of the End for Hezbollah"
Michael J. Totten. World Affairs Journal. 22 April 2013.

When I read anything by Mr. Totten I come away with the thought that this is how investigative reporting should read. Stunning piece.  

"Back to Reality: Why Land Power Trumps in the Rebalance Towards Asia"
Maj. Robert Chamberlin. Armed Forces Journal. May 2013. h/t Information Dissemination. 

"Chinese Manufacturers Survive by Moving to Asian Neighbors"
Kathy Chu. Wall Street Journal. 1 May 2013.


"Provoked Scientists Explain Gap in Global Warming"
Paul Voosen. E&E Publishing. 25 October 2011.

"Sulfate Aerosols Cool Climate Less than Assumed"
Science Daily. 14 May 2013.