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November 15, 2008


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I travel domestically for work – frequently. I never write about these travels because I feel there’s very little to say. But New York stands out, as noteworthy – because it’s a world city, as much if not more than an American city.

Only in New York do I get glimpses and hints of how my life used to be – the mixture of languages on the street, styles of dress, array of classes, vertical city...and a sense that the city is part of the world.

Somehow, one of America’s oldest cities – in fact, its very first capitol – is perhaps its most liberal, diverse and outward looking. It defies America’s self occupied, isolationist culture and includes everyone.

Each time I come to New York, I’m struck with several things – and have pondered on them each visit now for a year.

In New York, everyone seems to be what they are to the fullest extent. Jews are openly and outwardly Jewish – and ever-present. They are a visible part of society. Gays are as gay as they can be. In fact, this trip a gay man from Italy told me he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else – including Italy – because he could never bas as openly gay. I wondered if he had visited San Francisco and Los Angeles yet… Blacks seem present throughout society – and many as moved-on-up as George and Weezy. And New York and surrounding areas seem to be one of the last places in America where Italian Americans still see themselves as Italian – and hold it out there proudly.

Of course, the interesting other side of this is that in a sense, New York seems more segregated than West Coast cities. Each ethnic grouping has its “neighborhood” or groups of them. And they seem to hold themselves up in their ethnic identities often as primary identities. So, whereas anywhere I’ve lived, Irish and Italian have melded into American Caucasian, they’ll know who they are in New York. And whereas in Los Angeles and even more so Seattle, Jews mostly blend into society as American Caucasians who happen to practice another religion – in New York, they’re an entire culture.

And this leaves me wondering if this is “good” or “bad” per my socially liberal, somewhat non-traditional worldviews. Are people better off being more American and less wherever it is we came from? Or better off being out there with our differences – and enjoying more of a like-cultural community?

Previously, I’ve always believed that the less we see each other as people, the less we really accomplish. After all, one of the primary lessons of my time and travels abroad is that wherever they are, whoever they are – every society really seeks the same things: to be able to feed one’s family and live a joyous life. They have many different circumstances, and may define their joy and well-being differently – but they all want the same basic, happiness and comforts we all do.

And of course, the lesson of Singapore is that as Chinese, Malays, and Tamils they had nothing. As Singaporeans, they have prosperity and security beyond what they ever imagined. Lee Kwan Yew and Rajaratnam understood that when they all saw each other as people – one people – they could work together and achieve.

But how many countries are, or aspire to be ethnic homelands? I enjoyed Israel when I was there. Malaysia, unlike Singapore, openly puts the Malays first. The cultures exist side by side, but they all know the Bumiputras come first. As soon as the Soviet Union was dissolved, numerous small countries reemerged – giving each ethnicity a place to call their own again. It was like they all waited seventy or more years to get right back to where they were. The draw to be among one’s own is strong.

And New York seems to offer that. Everyone can be them, pushed up against everyone else. They don’t have to be all one people. Somehow, New York by its very nature – densely populated, limited in space, fast-paced – forces a common platform.

And somehow, in this mixture remain the vestiges of the Industrial Revolution. I’ve seen no other American city whose roots are so firmly planted in the Industrial rise to power. New York simply exudes it. All around Manhattan are the warehouses, the factories, the ship and train yards.

Even in Manhattan, the meat packing district, left over warehouses and lofts, and more striking – the gifts and monuments of the Robber Barons. Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, The Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal – the testimonies to the greatness of the wealthy who built the city, left as gifts to the public. And like all things that become part of every day life, no one thinks anymore about what it stands for – what it means.

The strata of the classes is so clear – the workers, the young people living in tiny, overpriced apartments – and then the incredible, beautiful living of the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, and all those amazing homes on the Henry Hudson Parkway. All of these places within miles of each other – and all are open to the world to see. No secrets, no lies, no gated communities, no pretending the vast differences don’t exist. New York freely admits there’s a Caste System – and it’s absolutely fine with that.

And somehow, that’s exactly its charm. NewYork, is honest. It says people don’t all integrate. It says more money is better than less. It tells the world we’re not all equal except when we’re walking in the streets, then we all have some common rules. It tells you that life isn’t so easy and pleasant unless you can either pay enough – or you can learn to love the rough edges.

Because of this, New York is an exception. No other American city stands as open and honest – as clear and true to its unvarnished, unsentimental convictions. So New York stands apart – and in its nakedness finds itself part of the World, an international city. But for that same reason – and because of the greatness of it all – it stands as a uniquely American city too – showcasing some of the things we most associate with the United States, and which exemplify some of our greatest achievements.

In this paradox, I continue to find New York fascinating – and the only place in America where I feel that I’m out, in the World.


There is this Australian documentary that I love (I think I already told you about it actually) loosely created around Vivaldi's Four Seasons, called 4. Director Tim Slade says he wanted to make a film that would explore issues of nature and homeland. But, in reality, the film, perhaps more than exploring issues of homeland, actually was very affecting in exploring the effect that "place" has in respect to our inner lives.

For the film, Slade chose 4 violinists to each present 1 of Vivaldi's 4 seasons (in 4 different cities/in 4 different seasons).

My favorite segment was Autumn-- which was filmed in... Manhattan.

The most beautiful autumn I ever spent in my life was in New York. That was years ago, but was so beautiful that truly no autumn scenery has ever surpassed it for me. In fact, New York remains probably the only place in the United States that I would ever consider living-- and that is partly because of its gorgeous autumn season-- Unsurpassed.

The other reason this was my favorite segment was because of violinist Cho Liang-lin. Born in Taiwan, Cho at a very young age immigrates (I think alone) to Australia to embark on his musical studies. He ends up-- like many great musicians-- in New York City.

I read somewhere that Joshua Bell said he refused to live on the Upper West Side because "every other person is carrying a violin case"-- I thought of this watching this segment as Cho joins a bunch of his musician friends for lunch at a neighborhood deli. Talking about music and how there's "no place like New York," one of the guys tells the camera that "Jimmy" (which is what they call him) is an "honorary Jew."... it's not just race, but-- yes, there is something very different about those neighborhoods in New York, I think.... Like you, I also love them.

Regarding Central Asia etc. I also feel the same. It's not that one way is superior but rather that there are many viable and valid ways to live.

My friend Shunya may ask me, then, how does one not impose one's utopian vision on another culture but still not side with the executioners. Which is to say, how do we not fall into the trap of cultural relativism?

Well, we aim at true pluralism for one thing. And, I think perhaps the days of "coalition" style diplomacy are fading in favor of a more EU consensus-style (functioning as meta-institutions that go beyond culture or even nation-state). The EU is setting all kinds of international standards and they tend to take a more global approach I think (by virtue of the fact of course that they are composed of a dozen plus countries).


L'Autunno--Everyone is made to forget their cares and to sing and dance/By the air which is tempered with pleasure
And (by) the season that invites so many, many
Out of their sweetest slumber to fine enjoyment


Amen to Wallmart. And Costco-- which arrived to great fanfare in Japan (as I said, it is the end of the world).... The Japanese have their version which you will know from there: Aeon. Have you been to the Tai Po Mega Mall out past Shatin? When a small version of a Jusco mall went in to our town, an entire shopping area on the other side of town (full of mom and pop non-chain stores) all went bankrupt and now the area is a ghost town.

It's been 5 years now and nothing new is going in... the entire town seems to be shifting toward the Jusco... it's amazing really.

Also of interest is the Japan Focus interview with Dean of International Studies at Beijing University, Wang Jisi here who sees the US as being the sole superpower and believes this will continue for another several decades (he makes a distinction between hard and soft power and sees that while soft power has decreased, hard power-- military, technology economy-- have increased).

I believe that, for most Americans, their faith in religion and belief in the ideology and values of the United States are real. However, there certainly are leaders and politicians who use the sincere faith of the Americans to serve their own selfish interests. We can criticize the values of the United States, and we should also point out that they are absolutely not "universally applicable," but we should not deny that the Americans truly believe in this and practice it. As far as the foreign relations of the United States are concerned, ideology and interests are tightly joined and inseparable, with ideology being realized, as are interests.

Great post. I agree that there is no good reason to expect that Western-style liberal, free market democracy will be the destination for all societies. Western modernity came out of a specific historical experience, and the question is (in the words of JM Coetzee): "Can a culture become modern without internalizing the genealogy of modernity, that is, without living through the epistemological revolution, in all its implications, out of which Western scientific knowledge grew?"

Though globalization is as old as cross-cultural trade, it is now a bigger-than-ever force in the lives of people worldwide. But to what effect? Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? Each blind man touches a part of the elephant and comes up with a description of the animal. None is "wrong", but each provides a subjective, partial picture. Same with globalization, whose results have been rather mixed. Most people will agree that globalization is altering old power equations in societies and furthering new hybrid ideas of the "self". It is impossible to predict a culture's long-term response to it. What novel set of beliefs will it provoke? Will these beliefs be broadly liberal, rational, and conducive to economic success? Can we say how the dust will settle? The patient may get worse, or trade one serious illness for another. This recognition, far from turning us against globalization, should make us more realistic about its effects. Amy Chua's wonderful book, World on Fire, brims with cautionary examples.

So while I think that cultures have their own priorities and responses, I also think this should not become an excuse for relativism. Yes, we will probably never agree to everyone's satisfaction what "pluralism without relativism" means and that's not a bad thing. Rather than wishing for the disagreement to go away, we need to keep debating the boundaries between pluralism and relativism based on our best understanding and moral reasoning, just as we do with the idea of justice. That may be the best we can ever do.

Take China for instance. Is it reasonable to think of Chinese culture as a single entity and resisting all judgment in the name of a pluralism of world cultures? Aren't there many contending forces within Chinese society--struggles and sufferings and countless interplays of power and dominance? Why should we not take sides and show solidarity based on our own values? Is there any reason to think that the present Chinese government is an organic expression of its people? Even if it were organic, should it be above reproach by outsiders? There is also no reason to elevate Mencius as an arbiter on what rights are more important to the Chinese people today. Why not be ready to dump Mencius just as easily as Kagan and look at contemporary realities on the ground?

For instance, we know that the Chinese government invests in creating conditions for economic competitiveness, but not in conditions for intellectual competitiveness (like freedom of expression). Should we accept this in the name of pluralism, or should we call it a cynical ploy by an authoritarian government to preserve its power? Granted, we do not see a groundswell of Chinese people demanding freedom of expression, but nor do we see the Chinese agitating for high-tech parks and special economic zones with restrictions on their internal migration. Might not the people grow to value freedom of expression and intellectually develop from it, even if only a fraction of how much they have come to value economic development? Similar points apply to their excessively punitive legal system (averaging 27 executions a day, even for minor crimes), lack of religious freedom, etc., which are all relatively recent political choices.

Finally, should China be shaped only by the Chinese? China has chosen to engage with the world and benefit from it; the cost of this engagement is that other cultures will exert their own reciprocal pressures on its evolution. So I wouldn't want to shield China from any Western criticism, but only hope that this criticism continue to become more sophisticated and nuanced (yes, that implies abandoning "the good news" approach :-).

Anyway, just some thoughts. By the way, a couple of reviews I read of The Second World make me think of it as a "zeitgeist book". Do you think it will be instructive to read ten years from now?


No one keeps me on my toes like you do! Thanks for the comment!! Where to even start?

Should China only be shaped by the Chinese? In short, yes.

First, let me separate two issues that you and I always tangle together: 1) standing up against human rights abuses **versus** 2) culturally-based (biased?) ideologically driven policy/discussion.

I am mainly speaking about the latter and you are mainly speaking about the former (and in fact we basically agree with each other on both counts I think!)

Why do I think that ideologically-driven policy/discussion is bad? Well, I think quite frankly that while those engaging in it believe they are aiming at universals, in fact, they are both imposing their world view on others who may not share this world view at the same time they are probably ignoring their own cultural blindspots (for example executions without trial gets noticed but people without healthcare turned away from hospitals goes unnoticed or at least less outrage shown; or silence about human rights abuses where the US has strategic interests is seen and remembered as hypocritical by those overseas). Khanna's book, actually does a phenomenal job documenting this around Asia and the Japan Focus article above also brings this up in some detail with regard to China.

Like we have talked about too, Vikram Seth's statement 20 years ago (when China was much less open) that as much as he loves his democracy and freedom (in India), if he had not been born wealthy, then he would rather have been born in China. Different people have different priorities when it comes to organizing their societies.

And connected to this point: Why not throw away Mencius? Because Mencius informs the culture on the ground-- while Kagan does not. Only the Chinese can throw Mencius away or not. And we probably should throw Kagan away!

Regarding abuses-- that is different. And, as I hinted, while I've always believed that people should stand up and speak for what's right, I am coming more and more to believe that this should be done with committed action. And especially if its about an international issue, EU-style meta-governemntal institutions (composed of people from many cultures and based in many nations-- even something like China Watch which is I think US-based, but works with people from various places to watch and report) may be the real way of the future (consensus versus coilition etc).

So, I guess to answer your question, no I don't think the Chinese government is the sole expression of the Chinese people, but I do think the Chinese people are. And, while I would NOT want to disagree with what you said regarding shielding the Chinese government against Western criticism, what do you do about the fact that most Chinese people report themslves to be happy with their government and wonder why we criticize China but remain quiet about Saudia Arabia or Dubai?

It is definitely a slippery slope and I wonder what Khanna would suggest?

Regarding his book-- because it is a region by region look at individual countries-- no it probably will be out of date in 10 years, like you said. His ideas, on the other hand, well, put it this way, I look forward to hearing what's next from him...

Namit, PS: Did you ever see this debate called "Debating Democracy Promotion in China" with Daniel Bell? It is quite close to my own views, I guess. More later--

Do I sense an undue protectiveness in you towards China? Allow me to probe further.

Let's leave aside outsider criticisms of human rights problems in China (which you agree is desirable, though you prefer it came from culturally mixed bodies - UN OK?) as well as the transparently ideological western attitudes to China ("the good news" approach, which I agree is not desirable but which I believe is best checked via criticism). I think there is still a strong case to be made to not leave China and Chinese culture alone. Consider the following points:

a) Is the US shaped only by the Americans? Clearly, no. US govt. policies and American cultural habits are subject to robust criticism from around the world, from all manner of press, think-tanks (including Khanna), writers, politicians, ordinary citizens, etc. If China aspires to be one of the three biggest imperial powers (already is, according to Khanna), it needs to be ready for similar criticism from outsiders. And I hope not just outsiders. If we believe public debate in society is critical for transparency, accountability, and greater self-knowledge, should we not push China to encourage public debate in their society? Do we want a society of 1.3 billion people that produces accountants, architects, and engineers aplenty -- but no critical thinkers, historians, writers, intellectuals, legal scholars, or artists of note? Some of us are understandably worried about an emerging superpower that places no value on cultivating such things. Why the reluctance to support and sympathize with people like me who legitimately fear such a China? We're not talking about cultural critiques of an isolated group of tribals in Papua New Guinea. This is a country armed to the teeth with nukes (which it proliferates), is the biggest polluter in the world, and has grown rich from the wealth of the world.

b) I see a fair bit of criticism of S. Arabia by western intellectuals, disproportionally more for a country of 27 M people. Besides, can we not criticize an idea or country unless we carefully calibrate our criticism across everything worth criticizing? Is that a good reason to devalue criticism of China? Similarly, "our" blind spots -- yes, "we" have them and by all means we should expose them too. The point is not to say: you and your countrymen have some blind spots, so you should not be criticizing anything in our country or culture. Are there no blind spots among those who criticize the US?

c) Again, the priorities of the Chinese government are not necessarily the priorities of its people. In your quote, did Mencius claim that food/material well-being cannot co-exist with political rights? Did he say that political rights are unimportant? He was merely assigning a hierarchy. Further, I tend to dismiss the argument that since Chinese people are reportedly happy with their govt., we shouldn't criticize their habits or their govt. I can name all manner of peoples in history who have been happy with their dodgy government. Bush had an 80% approval rating in 2003 -- should the critics have shut up and gone home? As in the US that year (which, however, kept alive a vocal liberal minority), China brims with nationalism, conformity, and uncritical thought. My question is: what can we do to introduce these folks to the joys of lively public debate and dissent? :-)

About the Bell/Walzer debate, notice that I have never argued (even in our past exchanges) for democracy in China (that is "the good news" approach). The entire thrust of my approach is greater justice and liberal governance -- principles as old as civilization and not specific to any culture. China can even find inspiration for it in its own past!

Probe away Namit-- I'm used to it-- have you noticed our debating is taking on a form not unlike that of ritualized dance (I'm Arjuna-- of course)

So yes, I guess the point is while anyone has "a right" to criticize whomever they wish, but is it really all that productive for the world's #1 polluter to criticize the world's #2 polluter (yes, I think the US still stands as #1).... in any case, whether #1 or #2-- if we are talking about pollution (as just one example)--rather than criticize, wouldn't a more valuable step be to work to clean up one's own act---- at least as a first step???

For example, to sign treaties (Kyoto) and to really do what needs to be done before criticizing-- for the following two reasons:
1) If one is a huge polluter and then criticizes another huge polluter-- is that person not a hypocrit? And isn't hypocritical advice usually dismissed as such? (ie its not productive)

2) The best way to criticize is by serving as exemplery model. When you stand as a polluter-free (insert whatever criticism you have for China) then you actually may have a leg to stand on!

You are on the verge of forcing me into delving into my latest theory about the validity of even attempting such a context-free objective voice.

And, no I don't think I am overly protective of China...(I'd say the same thing for Japan or India-- you know that).

However, having said all of that, I do not disagree with one word of what you said above. In fact, we completely agree with each other.

Arjuna, I submit, had a less subtle mind than yours. And I say that with the only voice I will ever have: context-laden and subjective. Shall we dance?

I came across this interesting review by Chih-yu Shih of two books on human rights, including East Meets West by Daniel A. Bell. Thought might interest you. Here is a tantalizing excerpt:

The debate between human rights universalists and cultural relativists has continued into the 21st century. Many writers today have acknowledged that universalism is the product of European history. As a result, the center of the current debate veers away from the argument over whether or not human rights are universal rights in actuality. What concerns a good number of thinkers today is whether or not human rights “should be” universal. Human rights universalism has always been challenged on the ground that it represents a form of cultural imperialism or hegemony. Having such origins, it denies communitarian values, especially of the so-called non-Western societies. In response, universalists often accuse relativists of providing excuses for legitimizing political suppression. The problem with this kind of exchange is that all sides tend to arbitrate the correct form of human existence. Unfortunately, the uncompromising stance of both parties only shifts the argument away from the fundamental issue—whether the forms of human existence and their meanings are decidable.

In the following discussion, I will put forth the view that neither universalism nor relativism is sufficient in coping with the increasing variety of the human ontologies. What scholars have overlooked is the role of human agency, which enables a person to shift among, mix, and/or transcend universalist and relativist claims. However, as long as a universalist or a relativist does not try to lock a person into specific identities and roles, their advocacy can be entirely legitimate. In other words, the views on human relationships from both schools can remain more or less valid if discursive mechanisms are available to allow individuals to move out of these value systems and accept, mix and/or create others.


Let us first take the example of the Tiananmen Massacre in China.... Relativists may respond by saying that Confucianism contains elements ready to denounce such a massacre. In other words, there is a Confucian remedy to oppression. Indeed Daniel A. Bell’s East Meets West consistently and persuasively reminds readers that respectful solutions are always extant in the local culture. However, the relativist approach is confronted by two problems: First, is the objection to political oppression, if alive in Confucianism, a universal value nonetheless so that some form of universalism is ontologically presumed? Second, who should be included in the application of a declared local culture and who should not?

Read the full review here.

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