Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Maybe it’s about values.

I just returned from Beijing yesterday morning, feeling joyous and deeply grateful with every breath of fresh air. I dearly love this country and am glad to have returned home. But a sense of gnawing discomfort has been growing in me all summer as I read about the political turmoil, poisonous rhetoric and growing intolerance in America. That such rhetoric (read: naked political opportunism) could take hold and animate the electorate was disturbing, indicative of some worrisome trends.

We face challenging times ahead, yet instead of standing up for reform, people are buying into a self-indulgent narrative, where any attempt at change is deemed an “un-American,” an attack on our rights that must be resisted. For instance, revenues and profits (and by analogy, salaries and lifestyles) are seen as deserved, rather than earned. This all fits into a larger national complacency, the idea that we’re simply the best—always have been, always will be—and therefore never need to improve. Our education system? Superb. Our health care? Never better. People assume that the United States is simply the pinnacle of human achievement, when in fact, if you look at the statistics (on educational achievement, on health, even on economic competitiveness), we’re not at the top, and in some cases getting worse!

National malaise and self-congratulation is a serious mismatch. So what gives? In a recent piece about America’s apparent decline in the world, Thomas Friedman decries the “national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism,” noting that:
China and India have been catching up to America not only via cheap labor and currencies. They are catching us because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had. That is, a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.

In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do.
Hm… and maybe that's why, as the Wall Street Journal reports:
High school students' performance on the SAT college-entrance exam remained mostly unchanged from last year, except for notable gains by Asian-Americans, who continue to outperform all other test takers. [Oh, snap!]
In short, values matter, and it’s not confined to China and India alone. People with those values in the US—people with greater commitment to education and a willingness to work hard—do have success. They create it. Of course, certain basic social conditions are needed for success to arise—things like human security, political stability, and free markets. But once those are in place, then it's up to individuals and communities to make a go at it.

This summer, I visited Suzhou and Singapore, both of which were incredibly dynamic. Both places were in the midst of rapid growth, with many new projects breaking ground, while still remaining grounded in fundamental ideas of what makes a workable, livable society. The sharp contrast between what I see in East Asia—a spirit of modernization and renewal, a willingness to embrace new things—with what I see at home in the US, is deeply worrisome. We Americans have decided that we are the world's greatest country, and therefore don’t have to look outward for anything. Yet looking inward has not been a source of introspection or strength, but rather of self-inflation: we are the best and nothing ever needs to be changed.  (Note: I understand that Suzhou is not typical of much of China. It is a particularly forward-looking city, and in some ways more balanced. But the example still stands. And as Singapore shows, one can still hold fast to ideals and modernize at the same time; these things are not incompatible.)

Now, in response to Friedman, I do have to point out that "get-rich-quicki-ism" and "something-for-nothing-ism" also exist in China in spades. Because the whole country seems to be rising, everyone wants to grab a piece of the economic pie for themselves, often with no moral constraints. Hence you get poisoned milk, shoddy construction and tainted crayfish as par for the course. So while the Confucian focus on education is clearly back in force, the moral aspect of his teachings was terribly weakened by sixty years of Communist rule, leaving major openings for unscrupulous actors who just want to make a quick buck, with no consideration for the lives or interests of others.

But to return to the issue of our own country, I’m definitely beginning to think that it’s a values issue here in America—and I don't mean the values issues touted by the right-wing. (Statistically speaking, it’s not the East and West Coasts that are in trouble. We’re still the ones generating a lot of the GDP, you know).

Today, Americans are coming across as fat, greedy, and ignorant, preferring to indulge in whining and blame, instead of picking up the mantle of reform. We would rather accuse others of mistreating us and giving us our due, instead of standing up, taking action, and making our own success. Historically, America was number one because its citizens were willing to work and sacrifice and strive to improve their own lives. Unfortunately, if you just sit around on your (increasingly obese) a-s, don’t expect to keep the top spot for long.

I believe America can turn itself around, but not if we buy into the narrative that, “We’re the greatest, and we always will be, just because we are.” That’s a recipe for stagnation and at some point, disaster. The country may be "going in the wrong direction", but it's not because we've taken a few tentative steps toward reform; it's because we refuse to admit the need for greater introspection and more sustained self-improvement.

UPDATE (9/14/2010)

Related post came out this evening in the International Herald Tribune.

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