“Political Passivity Undermines US: Parallels with the predicament of late Imperial China” (article)

I originally wrote this article with Eric Marler for OhmyNews, and it was published on May 3, 2006.  The article can still be found online here.

 

“Political Passivity Undermines US: Parallels with the predicament of late Imperial China”

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.

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.

 

KOREAN TRANSLATION:

 

미국 펜실베이니아 대학(University of Pennsylvania) 동아시아 연구센터 엠마뉴엘 패스트라이쉬 객원연구원이 <오마이뉴스 인터내셔널>에 보내온 글입니다. <편집자 주>

이글을 “죽은 듯 잠잠한 한국의 지성들”에 바칩니다. 길원 남태욱.

ⓒ 로이터/연합뉴스

나라 밖 상황을 외면하는 시민들, 국가의 운명 따위는 관심조차 없는 엘리트층 때문에 돌이킬 수 없는 쇠락의 길로 빠져버린 한 강대국에 대해서 저명한 역사학자는 다음과 같이 썼다.

“지성인들의 무책임과 도덕적 타락이 이 정도까지 이르렀다는 것은 이들이 사회에 대한 의무나 지행 일치의 중요성을 망각하게 되었다는 사실을 뜻했다. 그 사회는 실질적 지도층이 결여되었다. 정부의 도덕적 타락은 어느 정도 바로 이러한 지성인들의 의무 불이행 탓이다.”

임마뉴엘 쑤(Immanuel Hsu) 교수가 이 구절에서 언급한 대상은 19세기 후반의 중국이지만, 미국 정부의 나태한 태도를 바라보는 사람들에게 위의 묘사는 오싹한 여운을 남긴다. 소수의 사람들이 미국을 이란과의 무모한 전쟁으로 끌고가려는 지금의 상황에선 더욱 그렇다.

미국이 난국에 처한 지금, 미국의 지성인들은 이상하게도 잠잠하다. 한때 동북아의 강대국이었던 중국이 19세기 초 아편과 유럽의 경제적 침략이라는 위협에 직면했을 때, 그 나라 최고의 지성인들이 무관심에 발목이 묶였던 것처럼.

미국의 시민사회단체들은 쇠락하고 있고, 냉소적 정치인들이 국정을 농단하고 있다. 정치무대의 등장 인물만 바꾸면 하룻밤 새 국정을 바꿀 수 있다는 기대는 너무 순진하다.

미국의 위기, 그러나 지성인들은 이상하게 잠잠하다

 

청조(1644~1911) 말, 중국 지식인들은 집에 틀어박혀 인생의 목표를 망각한 채 가족들에게 헌신하며 세월을 보냈다. 그들은 아편 무역이 성행하도록 놔두었고, 결국 중국은 엄청난 무역 적자로 국고가 바닥을 드러냈다. 또 그들은 서양 강대국들을 배우려고 노력하기는 커녕 ‘중국이 여전히 강대국’이라고 확신하려는 무의미한 노력을 계속했다. 이는 오히려 중국 쇠락의 징조로 해석됐다.

오늘날 미국의 지식인은 부유한 동네에서 은퇴해 지낸다. 또한 교육받지 못한 대중과 거리를 두기 위해 폐쇄된 공동체 안에서 같은 부류끼리 교류한다. 통제된 사회적 단위에 있는 사람들이 모두 평등하다는 사실은 역설적으로 미국인들이 인종 갈등을 무시할 수 있도록 해준다.

존 볼튼 유엔 주재 미국대사는 유엔을 “부적절하다”고 언급했고, 체니 부통령은 다른 국가들을 무시했다. 고통스럽게도, 이같은 행위는 청조 당시의 중국이 영국·미국의 사절들에게 복종의 뜻으로 황제 앞에서 머리를 조아리라고 요구했던 모습을 떠오르게 한다.

중국은 그런 행위가 정말로 영국이나 미국의 힘을 약화시킬 수 있다고 생각했던 것일까? 유엔에서 미국이 한 행동은 의미있는 전략이었다기보다는 정치인들이나 집에서 TV를 보고 있던 미국인들에게 그들이 꿈꿔온 미국의 우위를 보여주려는 것이었다.

마찬가지로 후진타오 주석의 방미 기간 중 그에게 쏟아진 모욕도 성마른 미국이 아이들처럼 유치하게 저지른 장난이었다. 200여 년 전 중국이 했던 것과 마찬가지로, 후진타오를 향한 미국의 조롱은 쇠퇴의 징조로 인식됐다. 미국이 중국의 인권 유린을 비난한 것도 자신들의 인권 경시와 관련된 비난을 피하기 위한 술수였다.

그들은 잡동사니 정보를 읽고 있다

추악하고 부끄러운 진실은 바로 미국인들이 오랜 세월 이어온 정치적 의무 및 시민의 의무라는 전통을 경시했다는 것이다.

임박한 국가 위기에 대처하여 미국인들이 회합을 준비하기 시작할 것이라고 누군가는 기대할지도 모르겠다. 그렇지만, 정치·경제적 힘을 가진 사람들은 <뉴욕타임즈>의 ‘이 주의 예술’ 섹션에 나오는 잡동사니 정보를 읽거나, 최근에 다녀온 투스카니 여행에 대해 잡담이나 하고 있다.

왕조가 혼란에 처했을 때 바둑이나 두며 시간을 보내던 중국 관리들과 다를 바가 없다. 국가의 서글픈 상황이 목가적인 삶을 침해하는 경우에도 이들은 국가의 운명에 연루되었다는 사실은 직면하지는 않고 정치인들 사이에 만연한 부패를 탓할 뿐이다.

미국 정부는 계속해서 기능할 것이다. 제도는 매우 오랜 세월 지속되어 왔으며 이를 지탱하는 원동력이 있기 때문에 바꾸기란 매우 어렵다. 그럼에도 불구하고 연방 정부를 구성하는 기관들이 사적인 이익을 위해 운영되는 경우가 점차 늘고 있다. 미국을 지배하는 법은 아직 대부분 그대로이지만, 연방 정부의 법 집행과 법에 응하는 자세는 쇠퇴했다.

한 예로 샌드라 오코너 전 대법원 판사는 ‘사법부의 독립’이 위협을 받고 있다고 경고한 바 있다. 지난 3월 10일 조지타운대학 연설에서 그녀는 “사법부의 독립을 보호해주는 것은 법령과 헌법이 아닌 바로 사람들” 이라고 지적했다. 제도가 당연한 것으로 여겨지고 그래서 경시된다면 그 제도는 살아남을 수 없다는 뜻이다.

중국 역시 국가 대사에 지성인들이 등을 돌린 후에 제도들이 원래의 목적에서 퇴색했다. 청조 말기 정부 관료직은 더이상 지성인들의 목표가 아니게 됐고, 개인적 치부가 국가 번영에 대한 공헌보다 우선시되었다. 이는 아이비리그 졸업생들이 원하는 직장 1순위에서 정부 기관이 점점 멀어지고 있다는 사실과 정확히 일치하는 것이다.

고립되어 혼자 볼링 치는 미국인들

미국에 대체 무슨 문제가 있는 것인지 이해하기 위해 우리는 지난 70년간 미국 사회의 균형을 유지시켜 주었던 민감한 줄다리기를 살펴볼 필요가 있다.

1930년대 이후 기업과 경제적 최상층의 권력은, 교육받고 재정적으로 안정적이며 정치적으로 활동적인 의사·변호사·교수·회계사·공무원들에 의해 효과적으로 견제당했다. 민주당원이든 공화당원이든, 이들은 정부가 지역 사회의 요구를 책임져야 한다는 주장을 확실히 했다.

For original Korean translation 

 

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