Tag Archives: china

The Death of Truth rings true

real enemy tweet

Michiko Kakutani’s book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, is the second-best Trump book I’ve read, second to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, more trenchant than Jonathan Weisman’s (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in the Age of Trump, and infinitely less completely wrong than Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (review essay). Those are the only ones I’ve read (open to suggestions).

Kakutani is a great writer, and this little book of 11 chapters in 170 small pages flies by. Since she left the New York Times, where she was book critic for many years, her Twitter feed has been a chronology of political crisis and social decay under Trump; reading it all together induces anxiety at the pace and scale of the descent, but also, surprisingly, some optimism that the situation remains decipherable with the tools of intellectual incision that Kakutani wields so well. With lots of good reviews out there, I’ll just briefly point out some things I appreciated.

Kakutani does the disturbing relevant history without histrionics. So there’s Hannah Arendt and Margaret Atwood, Adolf Hitler and Richard Hofstadter, George Orwell and Aldus Huxley, but not with facile linkages and great leaps. Also, she delves into postmodernism and its influences, but doesn’t simplistically blame postmodernism for creating the “post-truth” world (which rightfully concerns Andrew Perrin); rather she acknowledges the cynical uses to which its language may be put, including among some of its proponents, without the casual lumping of Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, and “multiculturalism” or “relativism,” etc., that you see so often. (One thing you know about Kakutani is that she reads a lot.) Although leftist anti-science attitudes play a role in her story (along with anti-institutionalism generally, anti-vaxxers, and so on), she has no interest in the false equivalency that, for example, blames all kinds of identity politics for injecting subjectivism into politics (the way Goldberg does so absurdly), or puts campus no-platforming on the same plane as the Iraq war.

This is an early first pass at a history of the moment, and Kakutani’s wide reading of relevant history connects tightly with the today’s news from Putin’s Russia to Wikileaks, fake news and Cambridge Analytica, to the “culture wars” debates, the “me generation” and today’s information silos, to political polarization, and the siege of journalism. You may as well read it in one sitting.

One good example: In my essay on Goldberg (now updated) I noted that he falsely described Lee Atwater’s maxim, “perception is reality” as “a cliché of the left.” I was glad to see Kakutani bring that up, in the proper context, because it is a moment that still matters. The contrast between their descriptions is telling, so I’ll lay it down here.

Goldberg writes:

“It is a cliché of the left to say that, ‘perception is reality.’ Well, the perceived reality for millions of white, Christian Americans is that their institutional shelters, personal and national, are being razed one by one. They do not like the alternatives they are being offered. Some fraction may indeed be racists, homophobes, or Islamaphobes, but most simply don’t like what they are being offered because they do not know it or because they do know it but prefer what they perceive to be theirs. And yet people like Sanders insist that resistance to their program is not just wrong but evil. The grave danger, already materializing, is that whites and Christians respond to this bigotry and create their own tribal identity politics.”

Goldberg falsely attributes the “perception is reality” approach to the left, then blames the left for making whites into racists. (With anti-Trumpists like these progressives don’t need enemies.) An accurate reading of that history in its proper context links today’s “perceived reality” to Atwater and the GOP itself, to decades of racist propaganda which the GOP generated and then gleefully weaponized. Here’s Kakutani:

“When the Republican strategist Lee Atwater observed in the 1980s that ‘perception is reality,’ he was bluntly articulating an insight about human psychology that Homer well knew when he immortalized Odysseus as a wily trickster, adept at deception and disguise. But Atwater’s cold-blooded use of that precept in using wedge issues to advance the GOP’s southern strategy – and to create the infamous Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign – injected mainstream American politics with an alarming strain of win-at-all-costs Machiavellianism using mass media as a delivery system.” (p. 79)

My historical quibble is in the brief handling of China, where Kakutani includes Mao along with Hitler in the Orwell section on the co-optation of language. The Hitler material is excellent, and ties in well with Putin and then Trump’s big lies. But Mao’s “plan of linguistic engineering” does not fit that pattern. China was mostly illiterate, there was no mass media, and the state that was so forcefully imposing fixed terms and meanings, with simple slogans, was also expanding basic education to hundreds of millions of people, and literally reformed the language to make it more accessible, a change that still pays dividends. No need to spare China the criticism, but the early socialist years doesn’t belong in the category as advanced capitalist countries using the tools of fascism against their own democracies.

How bad is it? If Brave New World was warning us about capitalism, and 1984 was warning us about Soviet communism, as Kakutani has it, then it’s ironic that we’re now speeding toward a 1984 scenario even as the capitalist Russian kleptocracy literally parades around the White House (details on Putin’s upcoming visit to be determined). So, it’s bad. (Her conclusion, that only journalism and education can save us, is mercifully brief.) Every week is a crazy unprecedented crisis. Kakutani’s ability to get it down to an organized, linear narrative, with carefully chosen, relevant facts, makes The Death of Truth bracing and clarifying, and well worth a read.

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A step toward civilization (and have more children), Shanghai edition

Over the course of two weeks in China, I saw several versions of signs like this:

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“A small step forward, a big step for civilization” (向前一小步, 文明一大步).

This one is posted in the old-town section of Nanxun (now a tourist attraction), naturally, above a urinal.* Invoking civilization may be overblown for the problem of men standing too far away (which didn’t seem to be especially extreme, compared to U.S. urinals), but China has a long tradition of using dramatic slogans to call citizens to higher common purpose. Here was one that struck me, in downtown Shanghai:

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Every family striving to become a civilized family; everyone involved in its creation (家家争做文明家庭; 人人叁与创建活动).

This is from the Shanghai public health authorities. (No, I don’t know Chinese, but I love trying to use a dictionary, and I ask people.) The fascinating thing about that is the composition of the civilized family pictured: father, mother, two grandparents, and two children. 

Fertility rates in China are well below replacement level, as they are in other East Asian countries, meaning the average woman will have fewer than two children in her lifetime and the population will eventually shrink (barring immigration). China’s total fertility rate nationally is probably at about 1.5. In Shanghai, a metro area with some 20 million people, the norm was already one child per family before the one-child policy was implemented in 1980, and fertility has continued to fall; it most recently clocked in at a shockingly low .88 per woman as of 2008.

Reasons for ultra-low fertility are varied and contested, but likely culprits include expensive housing and education costs for children. It was reported to me informally that about half of children can go to college-track high schools instead of vocational schools, and that is determined by a standardized test administered at the end of middle school. That puts tremendous pressure on parents with middle-class aspirations. Which helps explain the extensive system of expensive supplemental private education, as promoted by this ad I saw in an upscale mall:

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School advertisement, Shanghai

The website for this company promises, “Super IQ, Wealth of Creativity, Instant Memory Capacity.” How many kids are you going to send to this private program?

One of the five perfect, super-involved parents at the parent-child class is a man, which may or may not seem like a lot. Of the many people taking their kids to school on scooters, I didn’t see a lot with more than one child, and the only picture I got was of one piloted by the apparent dad (note also something you don’t see here much: schoolboy in pink shirt):

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Man taking children to school, Shanghai

This recalls another probable cause of low-low fertility, the gender-stuck family and employment practices that keep women responsible for children and other care work (scooter dads notwithstanding). In conjunction with women outperforming men in college graduation rates these days (as in the U.S.), this indirectly reduces fertility by leading to delayed marriage, and directly reduces fertility by causing parents to decide against a second child.

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Grandparent, parent, child, in Hangzhou

The weak system of care hurts on both ends, with people having fewer children because raising them is expensive, and people needing children to take care of old people because public support is lacking. This may be one reason why grandparents can have a positive effect on parents’ motivation to have children, as reported by Yingchun Ji and colleagues (including Feinian Chen, who hosted my visit). The fact that it is common for grandparents to provide extensive care for their grandchildren, as Feinian Chen has described (paywall), presumably helps strengthen their pronatal case.

Lots of pictures of grandparents taking care of a single grandchild to choose from. Here’s one, from the (awesome) Shanghai Museum:

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Grandparent and child, Shanghai

The one-child policy ended in 2016, and couples no longer have to get permission to have a first or second child (but they do for a third or more). This change alone, although a better-late-than-never thing, may not do much to increase birth rates. That is the conclusion from studies of families for whom the policy was relaxed earlier. Sadly, although birth rates were already falling dramatically in the 1970s and the one-child policy was not responsible for the trend, the policy still (in addition to large scale human rights abuses) created many millions of one-child families that will struggle to meet intergenerational care obligations in the absence of adequate public support. (Here’s a good brief summary from Wang Feng, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai.)

This is a challenge for civilization.

The pictures here, and a few hundred more, are on my Flickr site under creative commons license.


Americans who love the funny translations of signs in China may be in for some disappointment, as the Standardization Administration has announced plans to implement thousands of stock translations in the service sector nationwide.

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Don’t flatter yourself, Trump’s America

So Hillary Clinton apparently said,

My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.

What’s the big deal? Anyone who doesn’t occasionally dream of open borders either hasn’t dreamed much or doesn’t have very high ambitions for the unity of the human race. (She says now it was really just about energy policy, but come on.)

Of course, in the context of speaking to a bunch of .01% bankers, that’s not really the point: it’s a signal that she leans in their direction on “free” trade and movement of labor, so it’s probably not quite the unicorn-style dream I have in mind (I already criticized her currently-expressed vision on this, which reflects her adaptation to the political moment, and might last the rest of her career.)

Anyway, my point is about Trump’s reaction (video).

…frankly when you’re working for Hillary, she wants to let people just pour in. You could have 650 million people pour in and we do nothing about it. Think of it, that’s what could happen. You triple the size of our country in one week.

Two points. First is this is idiotic. I can only guess that whoever gave him that number was adding together the entire populations of North and South America, minus the U.S., which is actually almost exactly 650 million. So, in a week, if allowed, every single person in our hemisphere would move into the US.

Now, those of us in the dream-of-open-borders community do dream of these things. I wrote this once, after imagining combining the populations of the US and Central American countries, as well as Israel and with occupied territories:

This simplistic analysis yields a straightforward hypothesis: violence and military force at national borders rises as the income disparity across the border increases. … The demographic solution is obvious: open the borders, release the pressure, and devote resources to improving quality of life and social harmony instead of enforcing inequality. You’re welcome!

I wasn’t really talking about people moving, but rather about borders moving, or being taken down. How many people would actually move is an interesting question, one which I hope will be important one day.

For perspective, you might compare Trump’s fear-mongering in scale to the largest ever migration of people, the movement into the cities of China, during which something like 340 million people moved in about 20 years. It wasn’t pretty! It also wasn’t an “open borders” situation, as most of them weren’t really allowed to move, resulting in a bad situation of second-class citizenship for many of the migrants and their children. Thankfully, it also didn’t take place in a week — although just the annual new year travel in China (which largely results from the separations their great migration has caused) generates some of the most spectacular traffic images ever:

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Second, it’s insulting. Like Trump’s description of African Americans living in “hell,” where they have nothing to lose, “your schools are no good, you have no jobs,” etc.:

Many people have made the point that Trump’s sympathy regarding Black hardship is drowned out by his grotesque stereotyping and dehumanizing dismissal. I haven’t heard the same said about his 650-million-migrants claim, but it’s really the same thing.

I’m sure a lot of people would move to the US if the borders were opened. But I bet at least a few people somewhere between Canada and Chile would find a reason to stay in their homes. And not just because that would keep them away from us.


Related: Must-know demographic facts (it couldn’t hurt!)

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Ruth Sidel, appreciated

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Some of Victor Sidel’s photos from Women and Child Care in China

I just learned that sociologist Ruth Sidel has died. These are a few scattered notes on the influence of some of her work. I always wanted to meet her but never did. I read her early work on China as a student, and I used her later work on poverty and welfare in the U.S. in my teaching.

She had a great influence on American leftists (and me) initially because of her writing on China, especially Women and Child Care in China, which came from a trip she took in 1971, during the Cultural Revolution, with her husband, Victor Sidel (and one of the founders of Physicians for Social Responsibility). At the time of that trip she was a social worker, having written only a masters thesis, invited in her role as wife, but found their hosts willing to open up their visit (which was supposed to be about medical care) to the issues of women’s liberation and education. She remembered in an oral history interview:

They integrated what I was interested in into every single thing we did. It was just remarkable. … Half way through the trip I said to Vic, “There is a book here.”… He said “How can you have a book after two weeks?” And I said “Trust me, there is a book here.” …and I did and wrote a book called “Women and Childcare in China” which was really like successful. People really wanted to read about it. They wanted to read about mutual aid. They wanted to read about how the communist government was trying to take care of children and women. We went to preschools and how the children were taught to help each other, love each other and take care of each other according to the words of Chairman Mao, literally, I’m quoting. The book went into paperback and sold even more copies and I spoke everywhere. I’d never given a speech before in my life, ever. Terrified but I had to do it because I knew stuff that other people didn’t know and I had to communicate it.

One book led to the next book about neighborhood organization [Families of Fengsheng: Urban Life in China] and I helped Vic finish his book on healthcare. The whole 70s I was writing about China and lecturing about China all over the country and in many parts of Europe. We were invited—I mean it was just unbelievable. It was a total life change and thrilling.

I am awed by that spirit of adventure, the confidence to seize that moment, and the commitment to doing social science for the public interest.

Later she got a PhD in sociology and went on to write on poverty and welfare, the work she was known for after the 1990s (see books listed below).

Although writing books promoting the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s is not a fast-track ticket to respectability nowadays, if you go back to those books you will also see how close her observations are, and how incisive. The macro-political context of course is important (and she wrote about that), but that was not her primary contribution. In addition to what she learned (or didn’t) from official documents and statements, she did see some things with her own eyes. One of the key insights she brought back from China was the value of deprofessionalization, the role of non-professionals to improving community health and education. This was essential to the dramatic improvements in public health achieved in that period in China (which I wrote about in a remembrance on another China-inspired American feminist, Janet Salaff.) This was a radical-democratic view of public health in particular. From Families of Fengsheng:

Health care, perhaps better than any other single facet of Chinese society, vividly illustrates some of the principles that guide life in China today: a strong belief in mass involvement; recruitment of health workers from among those who live in the community to be served; short periods of training to minimize alienation from the community; a minimum of social distance between the helper and the helped; attempts to demystify as much of medicine as possible; decentralization; and motivating people through altruism rather than through prestige or material incentives.

Wouldn’t that be something!

I hope there will be more comprehensive remembrances from people who knew Ruth Sidel and her work more fully. This note is just to register my own deep appreciation.


Some books by Ruth Sidel:

  • Sidel, Ruth. 1972. Women and Child Care in China; a Firsthand Report. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1974. Families of Fengsheng : Urban Life in China. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1978. Urban Survival : The World of Working-Class Women. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1986. Women and Children Last : The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America. New York: Viking.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1990. On Her Own : Growing up in the Shadow of the American Dream. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1996. Keeping Women and Children Last : America’s War on the Poor. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 2006. Unsung Heroines : Single Mothers and the American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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International adoption to the US has fallen 75%

Just updated my data series on international adoption. You can see previous posts, with commentary, at the adoption tag.

The data are the US State Department, which grants the adoption visas. It’s kind of a mess, back to 1999, here. (I have an old spreadsheet that goes back to 1990 for the big countries but I can’t find the link anymore.) The most recent report is here, and the briefer narrative is here. For the first time in those documents I saw an official description of what’s changed in China, which partly explains the broader trends. The State Department says 20,000-30,000 children are placed domestically in China now, as a result of increased government focus on domestic adoption, although without providing comparison numbers. They also say more than 90% of children adopted to the US from China now have special health needs, up from 5% in 2005. They conclude, reasonably it seems, that this results from “overall positive changes made to the child welfare system in China over the last decade.”

Anyway, here’s the chart. I show detail on those that ever had more than 2000 adoptions in one year, plus Haiti (because of the important history there), and Uganda and Ukraine (which are among the top five sending countries in the most recent year).

adoptions stats.xlsx

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Off gender-script art

Fortunately, the hotel we’re stranded at is only a few blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago. Tooling around the museum I was still thinking about sex dimorphism, especially this piece in Time where I referenced ancient art and this one where I compared depictions of Hercules. I have no expertise in art history, so file (or skip) these as random observations of someone interested in cultural depictions of gender.

Dimorphism

I’m intrigued by the idea — recurrent in the comments I get — that because animation for kids exaggerates things, then it is obvious that it will include extreme dimorphism. It seems to me that extreme dimorphism is a more common ideal now than it was in lots of other times and places, which perplexes me. So, in the category of dimorphism they didn’t do in the old days, here’s a Greek jar from 500 BC that shows men and a woman fighting. The caption describes her as “a fair-skinned Amazon, or foreign female warrior.”

vaseThe woman warrior’s body is just about the same as the man’s. “Of course,” they’ll say, “it’s because she’s a warrior.” And this is just super realistic art that happens to be about a female warrior — with no implication for gender ideal types.

Beauty standard

On a different subject, thinness in general, which of course is a historically-recent obsession. Here’s a nice example, an 8th century, Tang Dynasty, earthenware sculpture featuring a “matronly rider” with “ample proportions — conveyed by the folds of her flowing, wide-sleeved robe as well as by her plump cheeks and double chin,” which was “fashionable at the mid-eighth-century Tang court.”

chinahorseThey don’t mention her tiny hands, also in fashion among Chinese elites, and possibly bound feet (footbinding is supposed to date from around this period).

Gender (non-)differentiated children

The Art Institute is all about Impressionism, and there is a recurring theme among the French painters of little boys with long hair and dresses. Here is Jean Renoir, from 1899. The caption says the boy wanted his hair shorter but his father made him keep it long till school rules required him to cut it at age seven.

jeanrenoirThe caption doesn’t say whether he liked sewing.

Who knew Claude Monet also had a son named Jean? Here he is at age five or six, in 1873, playing hoop while his mother watches. The scene depicts the well-being of a period of “financial security” for the family, so it’s not like they couldn’t afford boy’s clothes.

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Finally, Camille Pissarro’s Woman with Child at the Well, part of a series “depicting peasant girls taking a break from their chores.” The model for the little boy was the painter’s fourth son, Ludovic-Rodolphe, who was four at the time.

ludovicNone of this is surprising to people who’ve seen this portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age two, in 1884:

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International adoption, rise and fall

Back when my readers numbered a small fraction of the small number of people who now read this blog, I wrote a handful of posts about international adoption. This link should bring them up. It had recently become apparent that international adoption was declining worldwide, and there was a debate over whether this was good or bad.

Someday I’ll update the posts with new information and read up on the state of the issue, but in the meantime here’s my updated figure on the trend, which shows international adoptions to the United States have dropped more than a third just since 2010, and more than two-thirds since the peak in 2004:

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Source: The data back to 1999 are here. I can’t find the link to the 1990-1999 numbers.

I should go pull some countries out of “other” now that the composition has shifted (For example, Ukraine is in the top 5 now, and more kids come from Haiti than from S. Korea).

One obvious pattern is that the decline in adoptions from China has slowed or stopped. After about 2008 virtually all of the children adopted from China have medical needs (see, e.g., this agency page).

In 2004 I figured a child adopted from China would be on the leading edge of a large, if not growing, wave. I wonder how the experience would be different if that had been the case.

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