Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In one episode of that excellent show, “The Good Place,” a character explains that every U.S. president who had died had ended up in “the Bad Place,” the show’s version of hell. “Except Lincoln.”
The passing of George H. W. Bush has brought forth the to-be-expected hagiographies, the reverential paeans to his management of the end of the Cold War, to his personal grace, to his loving relationship with his wife Barbara, to the beautiful letter he left Bill Clinton upon leaving office and the remarkable friendship he struck up in later years with the man who defeated him.
On the other side of the ledger, dissenting voices have pointed out how nauseating such paeans can be, and more importantly to underscore the many questionable aspects of Bush’s legacy from the Gulf War to the racism of the Willie Horton campaign ad to his administration turning a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic.
“We gather here to mourning the passing of American greatness,” said Meghan McCain at her father’s funeral. Not the passing of a great American, but of American greatness. More than anything else, more than any not-so-veiled dig at Trump, that was the line from all of the speeches that I heard that struck me the most.
There is a special agony in watching a once-great civilization writhing in its death throes. You kind of wish someone would put it out of its misery. Having to watch it die, paradoxically at once all too swiftly and in excruciating slow motion, cannot be anything but the most dispiriting spectacle. But that is what we’re being treated to nowadays watching the United States destroy itself.
A bronze statue of Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville looks over the harbor of Havana, the city where he died in 1706 while preparing for an expedition against the English colonies of the Carolinas.
His was a life that illustrated the interconnectedness of the histories of the countries of North America. Born in Montreal in 1661, d’Iberville made his name as a young man in the French struggle against English encroachment in the Hudson Bay area. In 1686 he joined an expedition to James Bay and captured three forts, over which he was made commander. In 1690 he distinguished himself in a battle fought in today’s Schenectady, New York. And the Hudson Bay campaign of 1697 made him the greatest hero of New France.
Facts are stranger than fiction.
The last couple of weeks I was in “California,” or rather “the Californias,” moving from the Mexican state of Baja California (Lower California) to the modern U.S. state of California. Originally the name applied to both of these as well as Baja California Sur (South Lower California) and parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
Spanish conquistadors affixed the name to this vast territory in the early 16th century, when they knew hardly anything about it. In fact they thought it was an island and drew early maps accordingly.
For some months now, a phrase from Confucian philosophy has recurred to me like an ear worm: “neither obsequious nor arrogant.” (不卑不亢.) Then I realized why I kept thinking about this phrase — it’s a perfect lesson for today’s Americans.
The specific formulation dates back to the early 17th century: “The sages had their middle way, being neither obsequious nor arrogant....” But in substance it reaches all the way back to the time of Confucius and forms a part of Confucian ethics, which concerns itself with the question of how to be a junzi (君子), loosely translated as “gentleman.” I say loosely because the Western concept of “gentleman” devotes more energy to social manners than the Confucian concept, which is mostly about how to live as a good and complete person in a world full of knaves and villains. And although admittedly the Confucian term was gendered for usage in a patriarchal society, the moral concept is applicable to both sexes equally.
Much of America’s present difficulties would disappear if Americans would take this Confucian lesson to heart. The old culture war and racial animosities brought to the point of the astonishing act of self-immolation that took place in November would end.
In 1960, Communist China successfully tested its first ballistic missile. In 1964, it detonated its first atomic bomb. In 1967, it had a thermonuclear bomb. In 1970, China launched its first artificial satellite. Not too bad for an impoverished nation that, from 1959 to 1961, had gone through a famine that killed up to 30 million people.
And none of it would have happened but for an MIT- and Caltech-educated scientist who returned to China in 1956.
Qian Xuesen, or Hsue-Shen Tsien, as his name was spelled when he first arrived in the U.S., was born in Shanghai in 1911 right when the first Chinese Republic overthrew the imperial regime. Ten years before he was born, in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, the imperial court had agreed to pay reparations to numerous Western powers including the United States. Unlike the other recipients, the U.S., in an earlier and wiser time, had used the money to establish a scholarship to help talented Chinese students pursue advanced studies in America.
Both George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a Fascist politician’s rise to power in America, It Can’t Happen Here, are now bestsellers. Indeed, Amazon has sold out of both.
But another book ought to be on your reading list as well: The Confidence Game by the science journalist Maria Konnikova.
A study of the art of the con artist and the psychology that leads victims to fall for scams, the book was written and published before most of us thought Trump had any chance of victory, and it was not meant to be political. Yet it reads like a history of his rise.
I shall complete the tetralogy on my time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia soon enough. But because tomorrow is Inauguration Day, a.k.a. America-Becomes-a-Vassal-State Day, I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming and suggest — however tentatively as though in a late-night college dorm room discussion — new analogies for U.S.-Russian relations and for Mr. Trump.
During the Cold War a favorite comparison of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was to Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War — on the one hand, a raucous democracy prone to hubris, and on the other, a militaristic authoritarian regime. The analogy seemed so appropriate that the American service academies started teaching Thucydides to officers and cadets.
Another celebrated strain of thought (for example, in George F. Kennan’s Sources of Soviet Conduct) was to see the contest through the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville. Back in the early 19th century, in Democracy in America, de Tocqueville had declared that America and Russia “each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world,” so that they were headed toward inevitable contest. And in that contest, America “has freedom as the principal means of action,” while Russia “has servitude.” Kennan extended and revised de Tocqueville’s remarks, concluding that to prevail in the Cold War, all that the United States had to do was to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."