The 21st Century Dilemma

A friend sends me this column by Niall Ferguson:

Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 4.31.14 PM

I don’t see myself naturally aligned with Ferguson on much, but I found this analysis interesting.

That said, I think he glosses over the fact that China represents a wholly different political system with regard to human rights and freedoms than the US and Europe do. That same cultural perspective should be unifying us, and instead, Trump attacks our democratic allies and warms up to dictators.

That’s emerging as the central danger to our republic from Trump. He’s a wannabe autocrat. And while we might constrain him at home (if Republicans ever grow a spine), there’s a very real danger that he will have permanently damaged our relationships with our fellow democracies. And once that happens, autocracy will rule the global political day (which, in fact, is just a reversion to the human norm of millennia).

I envision a global democratic alliance that also includes India. Sure, India often gets laughed at for having so much democracy that it can’t develop – or function. But I’d rather throw humanity’s lot in with that problem than autocracy.

What’s at stake in the Chinese century?

This Sunday the 10th was the 69th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. LandscapeAs one of the various attempts to put civilization back together after World War II, the creation of the Declaration – chaired by American Eleanor Roosevelt – spelled out in 30 articles a rich set of freedoms to which every person in the world should be entitled. Forty-eight nations approved the Declaration, with the Soviet Union, other Communist countries, Saudi Arabia, and the Union of South Africa abstaining from the vote. China, which was then the Republic of China, voted for its adoption.

Certainly, the principles in the Declaration weren’t always practiced. Many nations and leaders would fall short in the decades to come. For example, even the United States condoned torture during the George W. Bush administration, and it has kept prisoners locked away in Gitmo now for years with no hope of release. But that doesn’t change that the Declaration is still on the books as an aspirational document. And it remains true that it was modeled on the U.S. Bill of Rights and notions of individual liberty, which the U.S. has promoted during its “American century” as one of the leading ideologies during that period.

But now, the U.S. century seems to be coming to a close, and in its place, we have the rise of the Chinese century under the Communist Party. This has been a banner year for the People’s Republic of China and its supreme leader, Xi Jinping. After decades of building its economic and diplomatic power, in 2017, China stepped up to become a world leader, while the U.S. – after the election of Donald Trump – seems to have stepped back. If the trend lines of China’s development continue, we seem to be poised for a coming “Chinese century”.

If one adopts a certain, blunt nationalist and nativist perspective, this is to be feared. The hubris of nationalism would dictate that the U.S. should run the show to the exclusion of everyone else. I confess, having grown up in a world where the U.S. was pre-eminent, it will seem strange if that disappears. But I don’t necessarily fear it.

I have never felt that the U.S. had some pre-ordained right to remain the global hegemon. I reject outright any kind of racist, “Yellow Peril” backlash. I don’t necessarily fear Chinese ownership of companies – after all, U.S. and European companies have been doing this for decades in the rest of the world. And I don’t even necessarily fear China as a military threat. Modern economics makes enormous wars a bad idea. (And on this score, the U.S. seems the bigger threat with its many small wars in the Mideast and elsewhere).

No, I don’t fear a Chinese century for these reasons. What I fear is what will happen to the values spelled out in the Declaration.

It seems an inevitable rule of history that the greatest standing power has enormous influence over the culture and norms of other civilizations. This was true of the British empire and then, in turn, the American empire. While I acknowledge the many flaws of these systems, I still believe in the values of freedom and human rights that emerged from western culture, and these values did manage to seep into the international consciousness. It is no accident that we have liberal democratic regimes now in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and India. The rights and political systems pioneered, articulated, and promoted in the west still shined through, despite the many failures and atrocities of the promoters.

But these values are not shared currently by China. And in fact, under Pres. Xi, China has become more repressive and intolerant of freedom, even as it continues to promote trade with other countries. Should China remain on track in its development and current political stability, I fear that the allure and support for systems of authoritarianism will grow – and that the systems of human rights as spelled out in the Declaration will shrivel down until they are the norms of a group of small, backwater nations that carry little influence. My fear is that the era of human rights in human history will have reached its high water mark, never to rise again. Pres. Xi expressly rejected these values in his address to the Community Party Congress this year. I think we need to take him at his word.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, in history. China has many internal tensions to avoid and overcome. But I am a bit of pessimist by nature. And I think we need, as inheritors of the western tradition of rights, make sure that they are not lost as the new century begins.

Shutting down Trump rallies and justifying our freedoms

I believe in freedom of speech. I believe in freedom of assembly. It’s an important part of liberalism that unpopular, obnoxious, and noxious views are allowed to be expressed and heard and that people who share them are allowed to gather together. Among the classic reasons given for this position are that it promotes individual liberty; it allows citizens to consider and dismiss failed and unjust viewpoints; and, in turn, it reinforces successful and just viewpoints. That’s the political theory.

However, I also applaud the protestors who are risking their safety by going to Donald Trump rallies and, yes, even causing some of them to be shut down.

How do I square that?

While it might be tempting for a liberal such as myself to simply see action against Trump as self-justifying, I think it’s important to articulate how rights should be exercised, and while die-hard Trump supporters might be unpersuaded, there are many other people who might have similar concerns and be open to justifications.

The answer is basically this: Because freedom of speech does not mean that you are completely free from the consequences of your speech.

The U.S. and its people allow an incredible amount and range of free speech. Take a look around the world, and you’ll quickly get a sense of how tolerant, lenient, and forgiving of a people we are.

But some speech simply breaches the limit that Americans are willing to tolerate. They then exercise their right to free speech and assembly to rise up in opposition. The citizens who are protesting Trump’s racist, xenophobic, violence-inciting speech are doing precisely that. This is how our system wrestles with extremes. I abhor the violence that’s taken place in these events. I especially regret that police officers have gotten hurt. But in other countries, these issues would be settled through the barrel of a gun. I’d trade our chaos for open war any day.

By the way, Donald Trump seems to understand very well that there are consequences to speech. After all, he routinely threatens to sue people who criticize him. And he even wants to “open up” well-established law regarding the freedom of speech and the press. Sometimes the consequences of Trump’s speech come in forms that don’t work in his favor.