19 July, 2017

Everything is Worse in China

One of the benefits of living in China is a certain sense of perspective.

China exists outside of the Anglophone culture wars. It would not be accurate to say the Chinese don't have an opinion or even a stake in American cultural crusades. They do. But our fights are not their fights, and even when they squabble over parallel issues it is on very different terms, terms quite divorced from those that led Anglophone politics to its current trajectory.

My time here has thus given me a rare vantage point to judge many of the claims made over the course of these campaigns. In few places is this sort of outside perspective more useful than when judging the claims of an American jeremiad. Jeremiading is a fine art. Its practitioners hail from lands both left and right, but my sympathies lie with the cultural traditionalists. You know the type. In America they find little but a shallow husk. For some it is the husk of a nation once great; for others it is the decaying remains of Western civilization itself. Few of these gloom-filled minds deny that wonders have marked their days on this earth. It is not that advances do not happen. It is just that each celebrated advance masks hundreds of more quiet destructions. These laments for worlds gone by are poignant; the best are truly beautiful.  The best of the best, however, do not just lament. Every one of their portraits of the past is a depiction of a futureor more properly, a way of living worth devoting a future to.

I have read a few of these books in 2017. The best of these (both for its lyricism and for the demands it places on the intellect) is Anthony Esolen's newest book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. This blog is not the place for a full review. I plan to write a proper review for it and a few of the other recently published books of this type for a less personal publication than the Scholar's Stage. Here I will just share one of my strongest reactions to the booka thought that occurred again and again as I drifted through its pages. Esolen presents a swarm of maladies sickening American society, ranging from a generation of children suffocated by helicopter parenting to a massive state bureaucracy openly hostile to virtuous living. My reaction to each of his carefully drawn portraits was the same: this problem is even worse in China.

Are you worried about political correctness gone awry, weaponized by mediocrities to defame the worthy,  suffocating truth, holding honest inquiry hostage through fear and terror? That problem is worse in China. 

Do you lament the loss of beauty in public life? Its loss as a cherished ideal of not just art and oratory but in the building of homes, chapels, bridges, and buildings? Its disappearance in the comings-and-goings of everyday life? That problem is worse in China. 

Do you detest a rich, secluded, and self-satisfied cultural elite that despises, distrusts, and derides the uneducated and unwashed masses not lucky enough to live in one of their chosen  urban hubs? That problem is worse in China. 

 Are you sickened by crass materialism? Wealth chased, gained, and wasted for nothing more than vain display? Are you oppressed by the sight of children denied the joys of childhood, guided from one carefully structured resume-builder to the next by parents eternally hovering over their shoulders? Do you dread a hulking, bureaucratized leviathan, unaccountable to the people it serves, and so captured by special interests that even political leaders cannot control it? Are you worried by a despotic national government that plays king-maker in the economic sphere and crushes all opposition to its social programs into the dust? Do you fear a culture actively hostile to the free exercise of religion? Hostility that not only permeates through every layer of society, but is backed by the awesome power of the state?

These too are all worse in China.

Only on one item from Esolen's catalogue of decline can American society plausibly be described as more self-destructive than China's. China has not hopped headlong down the rabbit's hole of gender-bending. The Chinese have thus far proved impervious to this nonsense. But it would not be meet to conclude from this that Chinese society's treatment of sex is healthier than the West's. In far too many ways the opposite is true. Urban Chinese society is just as sex-obsessed as America's, and in many realms (say, advertising) far less shameless about it. Prostitution is ubiquitous. For men over 30, visiting prostitutes is socially acceptable. In many situations these visits are not just acceptable, but expected. Many a boss believes he can't trust his underlings until they have spent some time sinning together. No one blinks an eye at professional mistresses; a wealthy Chinese man is expected to keep up one of these "Little 3rds" and carouse about with karaoke bar hostesses and banquet call-girls. The worst of that culture has (thankfully) been cut down by Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive, but there is no evidence that government campaigns have had any effect on pornography abuse. As the standard joke goes whenever some Chinese millennial wants to mock government weakness: "They've been at the anti-porn campaign for ten years now, but none of you have had any problem getting your hands dirty!"

All of this should lighten the tone of gloom and doom that pervades the traditionalist critique of modern America. The reference point of these writers is the American (or less usually, the European) past. Look instead at the present! It could be so much worse for those of our ilk. In some countries, it is. Thus I chuckled at a Jr. Ganymede thread from a few months back which solemnly declared that (spiritually speaking) modern Westerners have been "born into the most difficult, challenging environment that humans have ever experienced."[1] Those who say such things view spiritual life through a narrow lens. I cannot conceive making this claim after having lived in China.

There is much that I love about China. However, I must be frank: I live in China because I am foreign, single, and young. As a foreigner I am somewhat immune to many of the pressures of the Chinese scramble for success. That will not change. But were I the father of a young child I could not stay in this country in good conscience. Degraded and disgraceful as American culture may be, it is still possible to live a life of integrity within it. It is possible to secede from the main stream of its currents and follow a different course. In China this is a hard thing to ask. Integrity always requires sacrifice.  Yet what must be sacrificed to live with integrity in America is nothing compared to what honest Chinese must sacrifice to live with integrity in their own land. Nothing. My admiration for the Chinese who do manage to keep their integrity intact despite all of this is boundless. They have succeeded in a test of character few Americans will ever face. It is not a test I would choose for my children.

If the traditionalist jeremiads are correct, such tests will become more and more common inside America, and in the future my children may face them anyway. If so, then there may be much to learn from the great men and women of modern China. Jackson Wu explicitly made this point in his review of The Benedict Option, and I am inclined to agree with him. The Chinese Christians have much to teach American Christians on how to survive in a hostile, hopelessly relativistic, non-Christian milieu. However, I would go one step further: It is not just the Chinese Christians who can prepare us for the days to come, but the Chinese who came in the ages before them.

Learning from those who passed before is nothing new in traditionalist circles, of course, but their view is sometimes so less expansive than it could be. This was particularly painful in Esolen's case. Ranging from Orwell to Homer, he peppers his book with allusions and examples from the great literature of the Western tradition. I have never seen anyone so skillfully merge literary allusion with practical analysis. He has an unmatched skill for finding just the right allusion for the moment; each clarifies his meaning instead of obscuring it. He does all of this without showing off or belittling his reader. The sad part is that he left some of the most beautiful and meaningful meditations on the themes of his book untouched. I can only guess that this was because he is not familiar with their contents.

The 21st century is not the first era Chinese have been offered a stark choice between success and virtue. If there is one theme that threads its way through the great sweep of the Chinese tradition, it is a tragic recognition that the world we live in is not designed to reward the life most worth living. It is found in the opening pages of Sima Qian's historical masterwork. It is coded into the biography of Confucius, and debated by all of his intellectual heirs. Attempts to reconcile the pressures of the world with the honest life were made by the Mohist philosophers; the attempt was proclaimed impossible by both Daoists and Legalists (though for opposite reasons). The first named poet in Chinese history is survived by one poem, a lament on this theme. Be it the rural escapes of Tao Qian,  the drunken withdrawals of Li Bai, or the stubborn realism of Du Fu, this dilemma inspired the greatest of China's poets in the millennia that followed. The great Chinese novels are obsessed with the topic: Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh ask if one can live righteously in ages of corruption and violence; The Scholars (and less obviously, Journey to the Westviciously satire those who try to do the same in ages of corruption and peace. The beautiful, sorrow-filled Dream of the Red Chamber embraces this tragedy as Chinese women lived it. And so on right into the modern era. At the turn of the 20th century, Lu Xun kicked off modern Chinese literature with a short story that paints Chinese social life as a choice between becoming a monster or being considered insane. These are just the most famous names of a 3,000 year tradition. To neglect it is to neglect a well of experience seemingly prepared for our day.

"To be in the world but not of the world" is a Christian injunction. However, the sacrifices this ideal demands have been contemplated most seriously by the great thinkers of the of a different tradition. They were not Christian, nor were they the heirs to the treasures of Western thought. But not only the West created treasures. For thousands of years the treasures of China's tragic tradition history gave their Chinese readers the hope and the courage to live through immense trials and persecutions. They may provide the same strength to us today, if we allow them to.


[1] Bruce Charlton, "The Haves and Have-nots," Jr.Ganymede (22 April 2017).

06 March, 2017

A Parable Concerning Tolerance

There once lived in a far country a people of gentle nature and perceptive understanding. They were led by a man of great vision. At great cost to his person and his standing, he decided to dedicate his life to preserving his people's established way of life. He did this because he saw in them a beauty and virtue he could find nowhere else. In a world of bigotry and darkness they were a rare light: they blindly followed no authority, nor were they were slaves to custom. No trace of the regressive attitudes so common to their countrymen could be found among them. Women were valued highly among them. Indeed, their women were cherished not only as mothers or wives, but also as honored leaders. This was a people filled with a spirit of love: all men and all women were their friends, rich or poor, young or old, saved or heathen. The poor they sustained; the needy they gave generously to (and gave to, no matter how low their background or coarse their appearance). In their eyes, to be learned was considered good. The more learned one was, they supposed, the greater service one could give. Kindness was thus their byword; brotherliness their call-sign. They disdained violence. In politics it was their part to push for less war, smaller armies, and a more peacable way of living with other humans on the Earth. This view extended into the domestic sphere: in political controversies, theirs was always the voice of tolerance. Let the downcast, the unusual, and even the heretic be allowed their natural liberties, they would say, and do not fear if they live among us. In their conception a good society was a society that let men of different beliefs and customs all live happily together. It was a self-serving position: they understood that only if tolerance ruled the day could their less enlightened countrymen be compelled to tolerate them.But this did not bother them: they were happy in the knowledge that in this case self interest aligned so well with virtue.

Their leader was not content (visionaries rarely are). The fight for toleration had been difficult. He and his allies had not been truly victorious. Their future was uncertain. He foresaw a rising tide of anger and reaction that could not be beat back. What then for his happy people? How could they secure their way of life then?

The answer was clear: separation. He would do what he could, of course, to bring about a victory for the light within the kingdom that then existed, but more drastic measures were needed. A new realm was needed. His people would secede. They would establish their own government that would protect the rights of his people. This new country would champion their values: it would be an example to the other nations of the Earth of just what humanity could achieve unencumbered by the dogmatisms and hatreds of the past. But it would be more than that. This new country would not just be an example to the world: it would be an invitation to it. His people would not just protect their own rights--they would protect and cherish the rights of any man or woman who moved there. All sects, all kindreds, all kinds of people would find a home in their homes. Love would be emblazoned in the title of her cities; toleration would be embedded in the hearts of her citizens. It would be a land without war, without fear, and without prejudice. It would be a country man (and woman) was meant to live in.

As he envisioned, so it came to be. The new government was formed. A new nation was forged. Its people lived in prosperity. In less than ten years their average worker and farmer could claim more wealth than their social betters in the old realm. They grew tall and healthy--taller than almost anyone else in the world! Their diets were nutritious, their environment was clean, and their children were happy. Onerous taxes they no longer needed, for they fielded no army, and manned no navy. Instead their leaders learned the languages of all potential enemies, and through deft diplomacy created a stable peace on all of their borders. They honored their treaties and treated all foreigners honorably. Instead of building armies, they built cities; instead of financing navies, they created vast trade empires that brought in wealth from all over the world. Amidst all of this growth and fortune, the original promise of the country was not forgotten. The people of the land did not let lucre crush their love. Nor did ambition warp the tolerance they extended to people who did not believe as they did. Under their government, freedom of conscience was protected. Heretics, communes, minorities--all were sheltered and nurtured. It was truly a land of love and liberty. 

As others saw the freedoms and prosperity citizens of this new realm claimed, the desire to experience these same blessings spread amongst the peoples of the Earth. It was not long before men and women from across the world were emigrating there. The population boomed; the capital became a multicultural entrepot, a critical node in a global trade network, her goods sold on shores thousands of miles away.

The scheme could not have succeeded more brilliantly. Now near the end of his life, the visionary could look on what he created with happy eyes. For the cause of decency and toleration he had bankrupted and exhausted himself. He had lost what influence he once had in the mighty country from which he came. The new land which he had created (filled as it was with men and women who blindly followed no one) had not always followed his plan of things. But in the final sweep of things he could be happy. He had created a new realm--a realm that aspired to embody everything he thought good in the world.

It could not last.

Far away there was another country. This realm was racked by horrors. War. Rebellion. Depression. This land had never been rich. It's soils were poor, its landscape stark. Those travelers who had misfortune to venture inside its bounds described it a land of crags, wastes, and blood. This was a marchland of great armies; the people who lived there survived on the margins, learning to eek out an existence between the ravages of roving armies on the one hand, and the extortions of the tyrannous and petty men who claimed lordship over their impoverished farms on the other. These were a people who could not afford to trust. War and hardship had turned them into a harsh, rough, and vulgar nation. Anything less would have meant their death and dwindling. Painful experience had taught to treat anyone outside of their extended family as an outsider. Their hostility amazed: in an age of general prejudice, they were famous for being filled with prejudice--even practiced bigots were shocked by their rage and xenophobia. Education was not unknown among them, but it was not treasured, nor widely spread. They sought for finer things in life than learning: drinking, brawling, and warring. So accustomed were they to this base way of life, that if they could not find an enemy to war with, they would soon descend into bloody feuds with each other.

Had the Gods purposed to make a more compelling contrast, they could not have found one. Friends of the earth, on the one hand, generous to all and intolerant of none. Scum of the earth, on the other, hostile to all and trusting of no one. They were united in one aspect only: a fervent hope for a future better than their past.

And so the refugees came. First it was a trickle. Then it was a flood. The visionary's people were aware of what was happening--how could they not be? Wherever these new people went, problems followed. Thievery attended their coming; bloodshed followed in their wake. The immigrants were not interested in assimilation. They cloistered themselves together, rejecting the friendship of the old folk. Those who did not speak their language they hounded; those who did not follow their customs were despised. Into this utopia they brought chaos--and even more worrisome, they threatened to spread that chaos outside the borders of the realm itself. None of the new people followed laws. Those who who settled near the frontier did not just break laws, but also brazenly disobeyed the realm's carefully constructed treaties. The newcomer's mere presence threatened to bring war to them all.

The elders of the realm met in council to discuss the problem. Their debates were long--and for a people of kindness, unusually heated. "Perhaps we have found the limits of toleration? The new comers do not understand our way of life," some said. "They are not capable of living it. If we do not halt their migration now, if we do not bar any more of them from entering these lands, we risk putting everything we have built into jeopardy. For the safety of my countrymen, for the peace of the realm, for the sake of the holy experiment being conducted here, whose example promises to benefit all mankind, do not let any more of these men in. They will ruin us all!"

That argument almost carried the day. Almost. At the critical moment one who remembered the visions of past years stood up. He stood to remind them all of why their realm had been founded: "We were created from a vision, and the vision was this: love and tolerance for all. We will be the friends to all. If we turn our backs now on this poor people, subject to lives of poverty and war, what shall we then be? You worry that they shall destroy our way of life. My friends, I worry that we shall destroy it before the newcomers ever get the chance. We were founded on a foundation of tolerance. We claim to be a people of tolerance. If we cannot find room for the newcomers, then we will have failed. The experiment will have ended. We will have ruined ourselves."

And thus the last chance the people of friendship had to preserve their way of live passed away. They had saved their souls, but lost their realm. Within a generation the old people and their descendants were a bare majority; within two generations they were no longer even a plurality.

As the men of the margins flooded in, all that was expected to happen did indeed happen: large parts of the realm became cesspools of senseless violence. The once peaceful borderlands succumbed to the terrors or raid and counter-raid. Warfare afflicted the realm. The special reputation for tolerance and generosity the commonwealth once claimed was forgotten. The realm was forever divided between two peoples, the barbarians on one side, and those who allowed the barbarians into their midst on the other. Never would the barbarians let their benefactors kindness go unpunished: as the centuries passed by, they broke laws, started wars, caused riots, dragged down the local economy, subsisted off the other half's taxes, and then gave the state's electoral votes to Donald J. Trump.

EDIT 6 March 2017: For those who have no idea what this is all in reference to, see here and here 

17 January, 2017

Travels and Meet Ups

One quick announcement for the readership: posting will probably be light over the next three weeks, as I will be spending that time away from Beijing, instead criss-crossing my way across America. I will certainly spend at least a week in Utah, and a week in DC, and possibly a bit of time in Texas as well. If you would like to meet up--or if you know anyone in these places you think I ought to meet--please send me a message and we will see if we can make it happen. You can contact me on twitter here, or through my e-mail, which can be seen on the right side-bar. 

05 January, 2017

The Cambodian Tilt Towards China

A map of "Khmer Krom," territory once dominated by Khmer speakers before it was conquered by Vietnam in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Image Source: Douc Sokha, "​សហគមន៍​ខ្មែរក្រោម​ថា​រកឃើញ​ឯកសារ​ជាង​៤០០០​ទំព័រ​ ទាក់ទង​នឹង​ការ​កាត់​ទឹកដី​កម្ពុជា​ក្រោម​ឲ្យ​វៀតណាម​​", Vod Hot News (15 February 2015)
Folks, I have a piece up at Foreign Policy on two of my favorite topics--Cambodian politics and China's international relations. Most analysts see the relationship between the two countries purely in terms of money. Hun Sen wants it, the Chinese are willing to give it, and Chinese money doesn't come with the -its-time-to-promote-human-rights type conditions Western aid does.

There is a great deal of truth to that narrative. However, I argue that is one an element critical to Sino-Cambodian ties that tends to get overlooked. It will remain a factor regardless of who is running the show in Phnom Penh: the Vietnamese.

Here are a few quotes:
Ethnic disharmony is not hard to spot in Southeast Asia, but few of its prejudices — outside of the Myanmese hatred toward the Rohingya, at least — can match the distrust and disgust the average Khmer feels toward the Vietnamese. Recall how conservative Americans talked about the Soviet Union at the height of communist power, add the way their counterparts in modern Europe discuss Arab immigration now, and then throw in a dash of the humiliation that marked Germany in interwar years, and then you might come close to getting a fair idea of how wild and vitriolic a force anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is in Cambodian politics....

Although both Vietnamese immigration and government influence has waned since Hanoi ordered its troops to withdraw from Cambodian territory, distrust of Vietnam’s government and disgust toward Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority remain. You can see this even in the Khmer communities of the United States. To walk the streets of an American Cambodiatown is to see a half-dozen posters warning of Vietnamese aggression, or (if you speak Khmer) be pressed to attend activist get-togethers or donate to help fight Vietnamese imperialism.

Many of these donations go straight into the coffers of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the opposition to Hun Sen’s ruling regime. The CNRP faces a stacked deck when squaring off against hostile authorities, but anti-Vietnamese agitation is a game they can’t lose. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, the man they chose to head their new puppet regime was none other than Hun Sen. The party he now heads is a direct descendant of the party the Vietnamese created to rule Cambodia. While Westerners sometimes call Hun Sen a Chinese puppet, his domestic enemies are far more likely to attack him as a Vietnamese figurehead....

The United States, a longtime ally of the Thais and newfound courter of Vietnamese affection, could not be trusted to put Cambodian interests above the other powers in the region. In Beijing, the Cambodians see a more reliable great power — an ally that not only has a fractious relationship with Cambodia’s traditional enemy, but one that has demonstrated a willingness to go to war with that country to preserve a favorable balance of power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the last war China waged was not only against the Vietnamese, it was against them in defense of Cambodia. Beijing’s decision to send troops across Vietnam’s northern border as the bulk of the Vietnamese army was fighting an insurgency in Cambodia, and then to keep a threatening military presence on that border through the next decade, badly hampered the Vietnamese push to become the premier armed power in Southeast Asia. For Cambodia, the strategic benefits of friendship with China could not be clearer. Playing spoiler in ASEAN meetings is a small price to pay to guarantee this friendship. [1]
and then the conclusion:
In Cambodian terms, Hun Sen’s decision to tilt Cambodian foreign policy toward Beijing is quite moderate. Other voices in Cambodian politics advocate even closer ties to China in hopes of generating more leverage vis-à-vis the Vietnamese. Rainsy declared in 2014 to a group of CNRP party supporters that his party is “on the side of China, and we support China in fighting against Vietnam over the South China Sea issue. … The islands belong to China, but the Viets are trying to occupy them, because the Viets are very bad.” He would later defend these comments in a post on his Facebook page, arguing, “when it comes to ensuring the survival of Cambodia as an independent nation, there is a saying as old as the world: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The CNRP, acutely aware of its image in Western circles, has since distanced itself from Rainsy’s comments, but his logic is solid. If Vietnam truly does threaten the sovereignty of Cambodia, closer relations with China is a geopolitical imperative. Cambodia’s politicians have depended, since French colonialism if not earlier, on foreign sponsors. But being tarred as a friend of the Vietnamese is the most toxic slur in Cambodian politics. For Hun Sen or Rainsy, leaning toward China doesn’t send a message of dependence on Beijing, but of hostility toward Hanoi.
Even radical changes in Cambodia’s internal politics are unlikely to produce a revolution in Cambodia’s foreign relations. Hun Sen’s patronage machine requires huge influxes of money to maintain. China provides that. It does so without asking Hun Sen to protect the liberties of average Cambodians in return. But even if the machine were to fall apart and the opposition were to rise to power, Cambodia’s new leaders would face strong political pressure to give Beijing pride of place.
Cambodia is a small country tucked between its historical enemies. The grip anti-Vietnamese sentiment has on the Cambodian masses only strengthens this geopolitical anxiety. As long as Cambodian nationalism defines itself in opposition to the Vietnamese, Cambodian politicians will never stop searching for a great power that can stand as a bulwark against Vietnam. For the foreseeable future, that country will be China. Next to this, the perceived balance of power between China and the United States will never be anything more than a sideshow. (emphasis added, hyperlinks not included) [2]

I encourage you to go over to Foreign Policy and read the whole thing.

One of the themes that I touch on in this piece, but don't fully develop for reasons of space, is that we sometimes focus too much on the grand drama of great power rivalry when looking at regions like Southeast Asia and don't narrow in on the smaller domestic pressures that might force politicians to choose one great power over another. This is probably because most analysts who focus on things like Sino-American rivalry don't have much experience or interest the domestic political squabbles of small countries on the Pacific periphery. But this is and always has been a major part of the 'why' behind who joins one side or another in great power competitions. It is a pattern that stretches all the way back to the Peloponnesian War. If you think the Bangkok's decision to work more closely with the PLA, or Duterte's unremitting efforts to undermine the U.S.-Philippines alliance have nothing to do with the domestic political economy of each country, then you are foolish. There is much more afoot here than a simple calculation of Chinese and American power, and if we refuse to recognize this we will be continually blind-sided by events to come.

Some folks have suggested on twitter that it is a bit silly to call Hun Sen "hostile" towards Hanoi, and I agree with this. Hun Sen is not hostile towards the Vietnamese--but he does benefit from appearing to be so when the occasion demands it. This is Hun Sen's special skill: an ability to appear to be exactly the person his wants his audience wants him to be. I cannot think of very many other actors on the international stage who are as talented at, well, acting, as he is. The best way to judge Hun Sen, then, is from his record. That record suggests Hun Sen has long been accustomed to accommodating Hanoi, while slowly building up the strength of Sino-Cambodian ties in the background in case Hanoi ever asks too much of him. 

The CNRP is harder to judge, for the simple reason they have never actually been in charge of Cambodian foreign policy, and thus have no real track record to judge from. All we have to go on for them is rhetoric, and as the article notes, that rhetoric is mixed. I reached out to the CNRP to get a clarification of what official party policy is at the moment. Monovithya Kem,  Deputy Director-General of Public Affairs for the CNRP, sent me a response, but it came too late to make it into the article's final draft. As I had extreme trouble finding any statement from the party on the South China Sea problem issued in the last year, it will be a public service to publish :
The CNRP official position on foreign affairs is a non-alignment one, meaning Cambodia will not be a client state to any foreign power. Our position on any international matters would take into account regional security and Cambodia's interests. We believe in the empowerment of ASEAN to be a stronger institution so that through this platform ASEAN nations can address critical regional issues together. [3]
I suspect there will be need to quote this in the future. 


[1] Tanner Greer, "Cambodia Wants China As Its Neighborhood Bully," Foreign Policy (6 January 2015)

[2] ibid

[3] Personal correspondence with  Monovithya Kem, dated 3 January 2017.

03 January, 2017

Every Book I Read in 2016

Image Source

New Year's Day has come and gone, meaning that it is time, per established tradition, to report the full list of books that I read over the last year. This tradition is now four years old, but I am still surprised with its popularity. These posts have not generated the highest hit counts the Scholar's Stage has seen (that honor is a near tie between this year's "History Was Written by the Losers" and last year's "Pre-modern Battlefields Were Absolutely Terrifying"), but they still bring in an outstanding amount of traffic. I suspect this just reflects the unusual size of these lists. This year's post will prove an interesting test of the theory: whereas the lists for 2013, 2014, and 2015 all had more than 70 separate titles to their name, the 2016 list does not reach 50. 

I have puzzled over this result the entire year, for it was clear to me by February that I was reading at a far slower pace than before. While I can partly blame the low total on the extreme length of many of the books I did read (Menon's adaptation of the Mahabharata, Toland's Rising Sun, Carver's China's Quest, etc.), I think the main reason I read less this year is that I have devoted so much of my time to language study. Time is the currency of language learning; the more you spend using and reviewing a language, the better you get. My Chinese improved a great deal this year. The cost of progress was the personal study time I normally would spend reading. 

As in past years, I have bolded and linked to the Amazon page of the ten best books I read for the first time this year. All titles are listed roughly in chronological order--from the date when I finished them, not when I started them. (Before any Thucydides Roundtable readers ask: This is not the first time I have read the Landmark Thucydides, so it does not make the cut. However, it shall be added forthwith to my quantum library). 

The stand out books of 2016 were written by Michael Bazzell. How I originally came across Bazzell's body of work I've forgotten, but I am incredibly grateful that I did. Here was what I put up on Facebook the day I finished Personal Digital Security:
I am already declaring this the best book I have read in 2016. It will take a very, very good book to top this; it is probably the most useful thing I have read in two or three years.

I am not a techie. I have assumed that because I am not a techie that truly protecting my computer, my online profiles, and my digital information was beyond my capacity, and that all I could do is keep to some common sense rules and hope my low profile would keep me and my data safe.
This was wrong. It is completely possible for you or anyone to learn how to secure their digital assets. In this book Michael Bazzell, a former FBI cybercrime investigator, shows you how to do that. He teaches both the broader principles of digital security and the concrete specifics, down to the names of specific programs and screenshots of specific procedures. If you have the technical literacy to use Microsoft Excel then you can read this book--and likely you will find yourself far more technically literate at the end of it. The language is accessible but not dramatic and his instructions are clear even though methodical. I cannot recommend this book more highly.
I still stand by this. I can also confirm that this helpful approach is repeated in his other books, Hiding from the Internet and Open Source Intelligence Techniques

If it makes you more excited to buy these books (or listen to the podcast version for updates), Mr. Bazzell is also the main technical adviser for the hit-TV show Mr. Robot

What was the best book you read in 2016?


Nathan Thompson, Bobe Cone, and John Kranz, Society's Genome: Genetic Diversity's Role in Digital Preservation (Spectra Logic, 2016).

Peter Harmsen, Nanjing 1937: Battle For A Doomed City, (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2013).

David Ochmanek, Andrew R. Hoehn, James T. Quinlivan, Seth G. Jones, Edward L. Warner, America's Security Deficit: Addressing the Imbalance Between Strategy and Resources in a Turbulent World: Strategic Rethink (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015).

Marija Babovićc´ and Danilo Vukovićc, Cambodia: A Survey of Livelihood Strategies and Expectations for the Future (San Fransisco: Asia Foundation, 2016).

Vishakhadatta, Rakshasa's Ring, trans. Michael Coulson (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

Kalidasa, The Recognition of Sakuntala: A Play in Seven Acts, trans. W.J. Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Hans van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China, 1925-1945 (New York: Routledge, 2004),

Shudraka, Little Clay Cart, trans. Diwakar Archarya (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Ye Deming, Fan Huizhen, Liu Xiuzhi and Xiao Meimei, Shiyong Shiting Hanyu 3 [Practical Audio-Visual Chinese 3], 2nd ed,  (Taipei:Cheng Chung Book Co, 2007).

Stanley Chao, Selling to China: A Guide to Doing Business in China for Small- and Medium-Sized Companies (Bloomington: iUniverse Books, 2012).

Arthur Waldron, From War to Nationalism: China's Turning Point, 1924-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Jonathan Adelman and Chu-yu Shih, Symbolic War: Chinese Use of Force, 1840-1980 (Taipei: Institute of International Relations, 1994).

Asian Productivity Organization. APO Productivity Databook 2015 (Tokyo: APO, 2016).

John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1937-1945 (New York: Modern Library, reprint, 2003; or. ed. 1971).

R. Taggart Murphy, Japan and the Shackles of the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Taylor Pearson, The End of Jobs: Money, Meaning, and Freedom Without the Nine-to-Five (Amazon Digital Services, 2015).

William Shakespeare, King Lear in Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated (New York: Greenwhich House Publishing, 1984).

Ye Deming, Fan Huizhen, Liu Xiuzhi and Xiao Meimei, Shiyong Shiting Hanyu 4 [Practical Audio-Visual Chinese 4], 2nd ed, (Taipei:Cheng Chung Book Co, 2007).

A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Dao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Chicago: Open Court, 1988).

E. G. Pulleyblank, The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-Shan, (London: Oxford University Press, 1955).

Yukiko Koshiro. Imperial Eclipse: Japan’s Strategic Thinking About Continental Asia before August 1945 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2013).

Michael Bazzel, Personal Digital Security, rev. ed. (Amazon Digital Services, 2016).

BP p.l.c., BP 2016 Energy Outlook (London: BP p.l.c., 2016).

Canadian Security Intelligence Service, 2018 Security Outlook: Potential Risks and Threats (Ottawa, 2016).

Peter Mattis, Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Research Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (Washington DC: Jamestown Foundation, 2015).

Zhang Xiaoming, Deng Xiaoping’s Long War: The Military Conflict Between China and Vietnam, 1979-1991 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015).

Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Ancient China (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999).

Michael Bazzel, Hiding From the Internet: Eliminating Personal Online Information . (Amazon Digital Services, 2016).

Robert Haddick, Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014).

Hans Georg-Moeller, Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2004).

David C. Gompert, Astrid Cevallos, and Cristina L. Garafola, War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable (Santa Monica, RAND, 2016).

Edward Slingerland, Effortless Action: Wu Wei and Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Ancient China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Rob Robideua, The Incognito Toolkit (Creative Commons: 2014).

Lyle Goldstein, Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014).

J.E. London, Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

Paul Goodwin and Alice Miller, China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation (Washington DC: Institute for National Strategic Studies, 2013).

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1847).

Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964).

John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War for Independence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

James C. Bennet, A Time for Audacity: New Options Beyond Europe (self published, 2016).

George Orwell, Animal Farm 

James Madison, The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notesof James Madison, Edward Larson and Michael Winship, eds., (New York: Random House, 2005).

Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

Ma Qianfei, Hanyu Kouyu Sucheng (Zhongjipian) [Short-Term Intermediate Course in Spoken Chinese], 2nd ed, (Beijing: Beijing Language and Culture University Press, 2007).

Shi Ji, ed., Hanyu Fenji Yuedu 3 [Graded Chinese Reader 3], (Beijing: Singolingua, 2009).

David Smyth, Colloquial Cambodian: The Complete Course for Beginners (New York: Routledge, 1996).

Robert Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Richard Crawley, trans. (New York: Free Press, 1996).

Jonathan Slack, Genes: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Read in part, but not in whole:

John W. Carver, China’s Quest: History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China; Zhu Ziyi, Hanyu Yuedu Sucheng, 2nd ed; Peng Guanqian, Zhao Zhiyin, and Luo Yong, Zhongguo Guofang [China’s National Defense]; Charles and Mary Beard, History of the United States, China reprint; Archie Barnes, Chinese Through Poetry: An Introduction to the Language and Imagery of Traditional Verse;  Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution;  Michael Bazzell, Open Source Intelligence Techniques: Resources for Searching and Analyzing Online Information; Gordan Bing, Due Diligence Techniques and Analysis; S.C.M. Paine, The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949; A.E. Poe, Complete Tales and Poems; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics; Ramesh Menon, Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling; Christopher Lew, The Third Chinese Revolutionary Civil War, 1945–49: An Analysis of Communist Strategy and Leadership.

21 December, 2016

The Election We All Saw Coming

Image source.

Now that the heat of the election season has passed, it is possible to examine the heat itself.  The election's aftermath was a grand spectacle. Some convulsed in desperation and despair. Others surrendered to frenzied, twitter-fueled fits of rapture. In the midst of all this noise, a pattern arose. 

In simplest terms: there is a 1:1 correspondence between what a person thought was America's biggest problem before the election, and what that same person now believes was the root cause of the election's result. Did you think that America's most serious problem is that the Federal government is not built on the Scandinavian mold? Then was obviously if Sanders had been the nominee none of this would have happened! Were you more annoyed by Sanders attacks on the DNC and the integrity of its favorite candidate than anything else last season? Then obviously it was these very attacks which kept millennials out of the voting booth! Is America's big problem racism? Then it was obviously uber-racism that brought Trump his victory! Long critic of American trade practices? Then it was Trump's promises to the working class workers that brought him success. Is political corruption and the Beltway-insider game the thing that makes your blood boil? The obviously it was the nomination of a crook that made the GOP sweep secure. NeverTrumper? Then the real problem was liberal over-reach, and this kind of thing was going to happen no matter what.

I am not immune from this. Ask me what I thought about the Vox kids before election day.

Here is the interesting thing in all this: in November, 2016, America witnessed a potentially era-defining political transition. It was a huge shift in the distribution of power. It was also a shift that almost no one saw coming. Yet somehow, every single person's reaction to the election (and I really mean every. single. one.) is to double down on whatever narrative and guiding beliefs they were committed to before it all went down, despite the inability of said narratives and beliefs to prepare them for the event. This election's unexpected result is not opening minds. It is slamming them shut.

This makes sense in it's own way. Power has been disrupted; those who can obtain a share of it now get to determine the narrative for the next few years or so. We are hard wired to avoid self-doubt in times of anger.  Victory goes not to the strong, nor to the brave, nor to the carefully reasoned, but to the assiduously self assured. Power does not exist for the sake of reason; reason exists for the sake of power. Now is the time for the ambitious to seize it. 

I suspect it will be many years before Americans will be able to look at the election of 2016 with a more open mind than they had going into it. 

14 December, 2016

Beware the Alcibiades Point

A supposed bust of Alcibiades.

spent the later part of my teenage years in the forbidding climes of southeastern Minnesota. In those days I’d often hear a joke that I sometimes still repeat:

“In Minnesota we have four seasons: near-winter, winter, still-winter,... and road construction.”

Minnesota’s northern reaches are pockmarked with lakes and marshes. Its southern parts have a few of those as well, but the landscape is different: timber forests and cat-tail bogs give way to broadleaf groves and corn-rowed farms. Flat and stagnant marshes are replaced by rivers and streams set between rolling hills. If the characteristic geographic feature of central and southern Minnesota is the lake, then the dominating feature of her southeast is almost certainly these wooded hills.

In Minnesota winters, these hills suck.

It was on those sucky, icy hills I first learned how to drive. I still remember the first 40 foot climb I made after an ice storm had struck the town. For those of you who don’t know—and outside of the Great Lakes and New England, ice storms are uncommon—an ice storm is a bizarre but dangerous sort of storm where water falls from the sky just as it normally does, in large liquid drops. As soon as those drops hit the ground, however, they freeze immediately on whatever they land on. In place of a layer of snow or hail is a glistening sheet of ice. Heavier than snow, the ice soon caves in homes, topples trees, and snaps power lines. More slick than hail, it turns driveways into skating rinks and highways into death traps. It also makes driving up a Minnesota hill very, very difficult.

The key to making the ascent is a slow and steady climb. If you go forward too fast your snow tires will find no grip. But you must move forward. If you take your foot off the gas pedal, even for the smallest moment, you invite death (or an expensive insurance claim) to your door. When the road is that slick, the car cannot stay in place. In that day not even your parking breaks will be of any use to you. Either you press forward, or you find yourself in a terrifying, uncontrollable slide back down the hill.

This moment—the moment where you are offered an unfeeling binary between surging forward and crashing backward—is the Alcibiades point.

Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, defended the Athenian invasion of Sicily with an interesting argument:
“ Moreover, we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining what we have but must scheme to extend it for, if we cease to rule others, we shall be in danger of being ruled ourselves.” (6.17)
Pericles famously argued that the Athenians should “attempt no new conquests, and expose the city to no new hazards” (2.65). Alcibiades was too young at the time of Pericles’ reign to debate him then, but his rebuttal came nonetheless. In Hellas there cannot be a sated power. Athens was not a polis “inactive by nature [and] could not choose a quicker way to ruin itself than by suddenly adopting such a policy” (6.17). Both Athenian culture and regime type awarded the daring and bold; this daring must be turned outwards before it turned inward. Her wealth was won through the spoils of empire—an empire whose strength was only as staunch as its subjects believed it to be. It was an empire built for war and conquest—and if this carefully constructed constellation of oppression did not keep spinning, it satellites would careen out of orbit.

The spinning top is an intriguing metaphor here, for unlike the van on the hill the top is designed to stay in one place. But to maintain balance the top must spin—the faster, the better. If the spinning slows the top will topple. A top’s stability requires constant motion. It is not difficult to imagine counterparts in the social world. Perhaps it is a company. Possibly it is a political party or an insurgency. Maybe it’s a country. Maybe it is an empire. Whatever it is, it must move. External expansion is the only way to maintain its internal equilibrium. It must be kept in motion, or it will topple.

One of the clearest examples of this sort of system was the ancient Chinese kingdom of Qin. The House of Qin reigned in an age of contending states; it is remembered as the most terrible kingdom in a most terrible age. Qin was by modern measures tyrannous; some scholars have termed it the world’s first totalitarian society. Qin philosophers wrote of politics in terms so bleak they make Thucydides' pronouncements sound like the script of a Disney musical:
“If virtuous officials are employed, the people will love their own relatives, but if wicked officials are employed, the people will love the statutes. To agree with, and to respond to, others is what the virtuous do ; to differ from, and to spy upon, others is what the wicked do. If the virtuous are placed in positions of evidence, transgressions will remain hidden ; but if the wicked are employed, crimes will be punished.

In the former case the people will be stronger than the law; in the latter, the law will be stronger than the people. If the people are stronger than the law, there is lawlessness in the state, but if the law is stronger than the people, the army will be strong. Therefore is it said: "Governing through good people leads to lawlessness and dismemberment; governing through wicked people leads to order and strength.”[1]
Bottom to top, the state of Qin was a society ordered for war. “Optimize everything” is a 21st century phrase the Qin would understand. Every man was plugged into an elaborate 13 rank social hierarchy, his position determined entirely by his martial accomplishments. The old aristocracy was seen as superfluous, and so were suppressed; independent artisans, ritual masters and musicians, philosophical schools, and wealthy merchant clans won no wars, and so were rooted out and eliminated. Those who farmed more and fought more prospered. Those who failed to do either were punished. Roads, coins, letters, measures, and laws were standardized in the name of efficiency. The shape and size of houses and farming plots were dictated by the state to maximize crop production and taxation. A mammoth bureaucracy—the largest of the pre-modern era—was created to impose all of this on the wider population. Families were organized into collective responsibility groups to enforce these measures; failure to report the failings of your neighbors meant everyone in the group would be punished for them.

The Qin built their empire on a nightmare. But it was a nightmare that worked. The Qin fought war after war after war—more wars, in fact, than any other Warring State—and incorporated what they conquered into their system. They went from strength to strength. After a century of constant conflict there was no one left to oppose them. The Qin rode their nightmare straight to universal empire. For the first time in history, all of inner China was in the control of one man. The Qin imagined they had established a dynasty that would last through the millennia.

It was a vain vision. It had taken 150 years for the House of Qin to conquer China. They would rule it for 15.

The story of the rebellion against Qin is too long, and its details too complex, to relate here. It is sufficient to say that part of the dynasty’s problem was a structural one. They had built the ultimate conquest state, but had run out of places to conquer. As historian Mark Edward Lewis comments:
So why did the Qin dynasty fail? The most insightful discussion of this catastrophe is also the earliest. Writing only a couple of decades after the Qin collapse, the early Han scholar Jia Yi argued: "One who conquers the lands of others places priority on deceit and force, but one who brings peace and stability honors obedience to authority. This means that seizing, and guarding what you have seized, do not use the same techniques. Qin separated from the Warring States period and became ruler of the whole world, but it did not change its ways or alter its government. Thus, there was no difference in the means by which they conquered and the means by which they tried to hold it."

For all the ambition of the Qin reforms, with their vision of a new world where measures, laws, and truths flowed from a single source, the implementers of these reforms carried the basic institutions and practices of the Warring States unchanged into the empire. The direct administration of peasant households who were mobilized for military service continued as the organizing principle of the state, with a large servile labor pool formed from those who violated any of the numerous laws. No longer necessary for inter-state warfare, this giant machine for extracting service had become a tool in search of a use.

To occupy these conscripts, the Qin state engaged in an orgy of expansion and building that had little logic except employing Warring States institutions that had been rendered obsolete by their own success. Armies were launched on massive, pointless expeditions to the south, north, and northeast. Colossal projects to construct roads, a new capital, and the First Emperor's tomb were initiated. Laborers were dispatched to the northern frontier to link old defenses into the first Great Wall. A state created for warfare and expansion, Qin wasted its strength—and alienated its newly conquered people—by fighting and expanding when there were no useful worlds left to conquer. Mutinies by labor gangs led to a general rebellion of Qin officers and people against their rulers, and the first Chinese empire went down in flames only fifteen years after it was created. [2]
The Qin had shot past the Alcibiades point. They realized too late that they had no way to keep the tops spinning.

It is not clear if Alcibiades actually believed the argument Thucydides put into his mouth. It is an unusually self-serving one. Given the outcome of the Sicilian Expedition, it is easy to dismiss it. I would not be so quick to do so. Alcibiades needed something convincing to inspire his fellow citizens to war, and at this point in the contest the Athenians had fallen deep into the cold rhetoric of realpolitik. Alcibiades made a compelling point—the Athenians were a people who could not sit still. Her empire was built on fear of her power and strength of her word. What could maintain that fear in times of plenty and peace? “Take one’s character and institutions for better and for worse,” he advised, “and to live up to them as closely as one can” (6.18).

Athens had reached its Alcibiades point. The Athenians would now either climb the hill or come crashing down it.


[1] Book of Lord Shang, Book 5, Par 1. Translated in J.J.Duyvendak, The Book of Lord Shang, (London: Arthur Probsthain, 1928), 117.

[2] Mark Edward Lewis, Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 71.