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Political Passivity Undermines U.S.
Parallels with the predicament of late Imperial China
Emanuel Pastreich & J. Eric Marler (news)     Print Article 
Published 2006-05-03 14:10 (KST)   
A distinguished historian wrote thus about a world power that had slipped into irreversible decline as a result of its citizens turning inward and its elite refusing to concern themselves with the fate of the nation:
"When intellectual irresponsibility and moral degradation fell to this level, it meant that scholars had become oblivious to their duties to the society and had lost track of the importance of the unity of knowledge and action. The society was deprived of real leadership. That the general decline of morality in the government was due in part to this very intellectual delinquency is an unavoidable conclusion."
Although Professor Immanuel Hsu was referring to China in the late nineteenth century in this passage, the description has a chilling resonance for those who observe the inaction of the establishment in the United States, as a small group slowly drags the U.S. towards a reckless war with Iran.

Just as China, once the great power of the known world, found itself fettered by the indifference of its own best and brightest at the moment that opium and European economic predation posed a threat in the early nineteenth century, those Americans who could make the greatest difference in our own time are oddly silent as the nation drifts into dangerous straits. The United States faces an erosion of its social, civic, and community institutions that allows cynical politicians to manipulate at will the course of events. Any assumption that a mere change of characters on the political stage would change this state of affairs overnight is naive.

Civil Society in Crisis

At the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), educated Chinese hid themselves away behind their red-walled mansions, devoting themselves to family with little sense of a larger purpose in their lives. As a result, they allowed the opium trade to flourish and Beijing to face devastating trade deficits that drained its wealth. Rather than trying to learn about the Western powers, Chinese officials humiliated foreign diplomats in a pointless effort to assure themselves that China remained a great power. The action was interpreted elsewhere as a sign of Chinese weakness and decadence.

Today we see educated Americans sequestering themselves in affluent neighborhoods or gated communities in an attempt to keep hoi polloi at a distance. The fact that everyone within a controlled social unit treats each other as an equal makes it possible for Americans who do not wish to see the radical class fragmentation to ignore it.

The efforts of Ambassador John Bolton to dismiss the United Nations as "irrelevant," or Vice President Richard Cheney to humiliate other nations and remind them that they are lesser powers, is painfully reminiscent of Chinese demands that British and American envoys kowtow before the emperor in submission, as if that action would reduce their power. American conduct at the United Nations has more to do with reassuring those in power, and the folks watching at home, of imagined American predominance than with any meaningful strategy.

Similarly, the multitude of insults inflicted on Chinese President Hu Jintao during his visit to Washington resembled a juvenile prank sprung by a petulant America. Like the Chinese insults to British diplomats almost 200 years earlier, the jibes were perceived as a sign of American decline. So also U.S. criticism of human rights abuses in China are an effort of the Bush Administration to deflect criticism regarding its own disregard for human rights.

The ugly and shameful truth is that Americans have neglected their longstanding traditions in terms of political commitment and citizenship. Although one might expect that just about now Americans would start organizing themselves in response to a looming national crisis, we find that those with the political and economic power to make a difference in America bury themselves in the trivia of the "This Week in Arts" section of The New York Times or chat about their recent trips to Tuscany. They resemble the mandarins of late imperial China who spent their days playing chess as the empire came unglued. On the rare occasions that the sad state of the nation intrudes on such idyllic lives, they blame politicians for the rampant corruption, rather than confront their own complicity in the fortunes of the nation.

American government continues to function because the institutions of the Founding Fathers have endured for so long, and have such a momentum behind them, that they are highly resistant to change. Nevertheless, the vast array of agencies that make up the federal government increasingly are run for the benefit of narrow private interests with little sense of the greater good. The laws that govern the United States remain for the most part intact, but the Federal government's enforcement of and compliance with the law has deteriorated.

As an example, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor recently warned of the threat to judicial independence resulting from the vindictive verbal and physical attacks on judges for their rulings. In her March 10, 2006 speech at Georgetown University, O'Connor noted that "statutes and constitutions do not protect judicial independence; people do." The implication is that such institutions cannot survive if they are taken for granted and therefore neglected.

China also had sophisticated institutions that continued to operate even after intellectuals turned their backs on public affairs. As government service ceased to be a goal for the educated, the accumulation of personal wealth took precedence over a contribution to the weal of the nation in late imperial China. That trend has an exact parallel in the decline of government as a desired career for Ivy League graduates.

To understand what has gone wrong in America, we must consider the delicate tug of war that gave balance to American society for the last seventy years. Since the 1930's, the overwhelming power of corporations and the super-rich was effectively countered by educated, financially secure, and politically active doctors, lawyers, professors, accountants, and civil servants. Whether Democrats or Republicans, these citizens assured that government was responsible to local concerns and to the general needs of the community.

That balance has been lost, perhaps permanently. That same politically active professional class has increasingly come to see itself as detached from the state and the political process. As Theda Skocpol details in her book Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, community elites have left the fraternal orders, service clubs, and political parties that once defined their identities, and now expect strangers to play the watchdog over things that need watching.

Robert D. Putnam offers comprehensive statistics detailing how Americans have turned inwards and forsaken social engagement in favor of enclosed and isolated lives. In his book "Bowling Alone", Putnam takes the fact that Americans have ceased to bowl together in leagues and clubs as a symptom of a broader withdrawal from community and civic participation. He notes that civic engagement of any form has plunged by thirty to forty percent over the last forty years. When we consider the political consequences of this withdrawal, the haunting words of Hannah Arendt in her masterpiece "The Origins of Totalitarianism" come to mind. Arendt equates political isolation with "impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together, 'acting in concert' (Burke); isolated men are powerless by definition."

One consequence of the isolation of citizens is that the Democratic and Republican parties today are essentially shells that represent narrow groups of special interests. Once parties supported by local headquarters that played a vital role in the lives of ordinary citizens with common interests, they have become crude bullhorns blaring in a desert.

The United States military, too, has ceased to be a career for the privileged, as documented in Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer's book AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Class from Military Service and How it Hurts Our Country. The conflicts in Iraq and Iran might well prove to be unsustainable if more of the family members of the establishment were deployed in the wars; the human cost of the Bush Administration's "wars of election" would then cease to be comfortably abstract -- someone else's problem.

Political Advisor Karl Rove & Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi

The comparison with late Imperial China sheds light on another mystery about the United States of our day: the remarkable career of political advisor Karl Rove. Although some may now breathe a deep sigh of relief, thinking Rove has been completely discredited, there is little reason to be sanguine.

Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi
©2006 wikipedia
What allowed Rove's bold strategies to succeed? It is not that a political genius outsmarted an entire nation, but rather that a tremendous vacuum exists in the public sphere due to the exodus of committed individuals from civic engagement -- an erosion only worsened by runaway privatization. As great as the entertainment value may be of imagining Rove at his scheming, to heap blame on him would only distract us from the civic decay that allowed him to act with so little resistance. There have been men like Rove in the halls of power for centuries. What is remarkable is that he managed to stay in a position of influence for as long as he did.

Still, I would not venture to draw a comparison between Karl Rove and Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi (Cixi) [1835-1908], the paranoid and monomaniacal woman who cowed the bureaucrats of late imperial China into submission and ran the empire into the ground. Tzu-Hsi progressively took control of the inner court by poisoning, threatening, and marginalizing her opponents. With the help of corrupt ministers, she dominated the political realm as a de facto dictator from 1861 to 1908.

But why did China, an enormous nation with hundreds of thousands of highly educated citizens, allow a single individual to perpetrate such a gross manipulation of the government? The simple answer is that Tzu-Hsi rose to power not by political genius, but rather by the disengagement of intellectuals. The Chinese elite gave the highest priority to the maintenance of the wealth and privilege for their immediate families; in the meantime, civil society ceased to function. Without a counterbalancing force pushing back, corruption crept through every level of society.

Tzu-Hsi made good use of xenophobic and religious extremists in her campaigns. The Boxers, an unruly group of local reactionary militias practicing black magic, were her loyal supporters when she had nothing left to give the Western powers battering down the walls around China. She periodically set them loose to intimidate her political opponents and wreak havoc.

A useful parallel might be drawn, however, between the corrupt shams that passed for modernization efforts in late imperial China and the reshuffling of Executive Branch departments and bureaus under the Bush Administration. The modernization movement in China known as "Self-strengthening" included reforms of the military that did little besides enrich the toadies around Tzu-Hsi. The Summer Palace that Tzu-Hsi built with funds earmarked for a new naval fleet brings to mind the use of Homeland Security contracts to enrich the politically well-connected such as Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham's associates, or the decision to turn FEMA into a dumping ground for political party functionaries.

Finally, China suffered terrible flooding in the nineteenth century because the dikes and irrigation systems were allowed to fall into disrepair. The neglect of domestic responsibilities pointed up by the failure of New Orleans's system of levees during Hurricane Katrina comes readily to mind.

The first step towards meeting the present challenges and correcting the nation's current erratic and irrational course will be for Americans to recognize that the ultimate responsibility for the erosion of the American democracy lies neither in the Bush administration, nor in foreign foes, but in our own passivity, quietism, and lack of participation in the public life of our communities and the nation.
©2006 OhmyNews

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