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.
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.
Consider those white voters, not least the 53 percent of white women voters, who opted for a racist tyrant in order to feel better about their whiteness and their cultural inheritance. A white voter secure in his identity would have no need to do this. White voters neither ashamed of their whiteness nor haughty about it would take gentle pride in the accomplishments of their ancestors but also accept such less than valorous deeds as they committed. A White America secure in itself would have no need to reiterate in anger that “all lives matter” or to insist that fictional characters like Santa Claus and James Bond are ipso facto white. From a religious perspective, a Christian America secure in its own faith has no need to take offense if anyone chooses not to say “Merry Christmas.”
The same applies to the other side as well. A multicultural America secure in its own values, chief among them the celebration of diversity, should feel no need to denigrate the accomplishments of white men. Yes, Plato and Shakespeare and Mozart and Washington were all white men. But a secure multiculturalism would not see that as a reason to dismiss their works, but instead would recognize that White America forms an indispensable element of a multicultural America and of its vaunted diversity. Minority students on college campuses, if they are secure in their identities, would have no need for trigger warnings.
Much has also been made of the role that sexism played in the events of 2016. An embarrassingly large number of men do appear to have translated their sexual frustrations into political views. Their candidate was attractive precisely because he could assault women and get away with it, because “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” Put another way, so many men seem trapped in some master-slave dialectic, in the false binary between obsequiousness and arrogance. Indeed, the new favorite insult against men who disagree with the Trumpian point of view is “cuck,” which is supposed to mean men somehow emasculated and obsequious to women.
But the gentleman, the junzi, secure in his own masculinity, conscious of his own worth, has no need to put down women in order to feel better about himself. A gentleman has no trouble respecting women or really anyone, because he knows he deserves respect himself, because he feels neither the shame of obsequiousness nor the cruelty of arrogance. Barack Obama is a gentleman; his successor is not. The difference is obvious.
Let us all, then, take a page from Confucian ethics and its attitude of moral self-cultivation. Let us all strive to be “gentlemen,” humble knowing our own flaws but never obsequious, proud of who we are but never so arrogant as to lord it over others. I suspect we’d all live in a better world if we tried.
Or, as one Western writer put it in an age when the West was more concerned with gentlemanliness (again setting aside the patriarchal phrasing):
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
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."