The last mention of China I glimpsed before departing the United States was unintelligible. This is just as well, because I’m sure it would have made for a decidedly bitter parting note. It was a ‘news’ story on Lou Dobbs’ nightly transmission of hateful populism, part of an ongoing segment entitled “Red Storm Rising,” which charts the apparent threats of China’s rising economic influence upon the American middle class. The television was muted and, without text to replace Lou and his team of vigilant reporters’ voices, I was unable to catch the quality reporting on display, balanced and ideologically neutral as it surely was.
I sincerely hope you caught the sarcasm in that last statement. Fox News, our current era’s globally-acknowledged founder and continuing leader of broadcast media populism brought tongue-in-cheek irony and the steadfastly literal uneasily close together with its slogan: “fair and balanced.” For this charming institution, whose role in the video game-stylized lead-up to the Iraq invasion and consequent events cannot be underestimated, we have a septuagenerian Australian to thank named Rupert Murdoch. His company, News Corporation, possesses holdings which include British rags such as the Sun, the majority of Australian media, and most recently, the Wall Street Journal. Lou Dobbs, then, is only the little chubby kid on the block compared to Godfather Rupert, one major difference being that Dobbs’ station, CNN, in supporting his evolution from favored CEO pitstop to self-righteous middle America blowhard quickly blurred what little distinction in journalistic integrity it might have once claimed over Fox.
Dobbs’ weekdaily program spends much of its hour discussing “The War on America’s Middle Class.” I can’t claim to have watched with particular frequency, but enough to be slightly unnerved by the tone in which he demanded an Asian interviewee use “plain, Anglo-Saxon” language and the thinly veiled disgust with which he refers to Central American illegal immigrants. I can practically hear the hateful slurs being thrown around living rooms across America, a giant churlish chorus of the disgruntled and distrusting, egging ol’ Lou on. The swarm are surely no less forgiving in regards to the “Red Storm Rising”, particularly given the recent explosion of xenophobia-propelled, if not unwarranted, health fears regarding products manufactured in China.
I find this particularly disturbing because I spent much of my life on the wrong side of populist sentiment. It was a rare week in which I wasn’t on the receiving end of a “Go home boat boy” from a passing car–having been mistaken as Vietnamese–or “Chink” or “Gook” slur dropped as I walked around the shops. Certain events will remain crystal clear. My father’s rare, unbridled furious riposte towards the man in a motel elevator who asked about eating dog meat; the seemingly tireless slanted eye/flat nose face-warping fellow elementary graders paraded before me. Far more consequential, however, was the persistent feeling of being wearily observed and judged. Mine was an Anglo-Australian town of such singular cultural hegemony, multicultural rhetoric as myth, that if anything, I’ve over-compensated for my yellowness. I couldn’t just be familiar with cricket, I had to know more of its history than anyone else. I couldn’t just celebrate this year’s Australia Day in Washington in private, so I co-organized the city’s expat gathering and convinced the pub owner to make meat pies.
This identity is forged, perhaps more than anything, out of the ignorance and mistrust of others. There are innumerable things about Australia which make me proud to tell others of my nationality; cultural tolerance just doesn’t happen to be one of them. I didn’t choose my hometown; rather, my parents leapt at moving there, over the far more publicly sanctioned anti-Sino climate in Malaysia. Which is why I felt something internal click when an acquaintance joked: “Wait…Mark’s Asian?” It’s also why I offer no platitudes when my students ask me why I don’t speak Chinese. I’m yet to meet an African-American whose family speaks Wolof or Yoruba at home. Clearly, my situation was dramatically less severe, but the same no-leeway mandate of “assimilate or suffer” ruled the roost.
So assimilate I did, to the point where one day during high school I partook in the same anti-Aboriginal humor my classmates learned from their fathers, something I had never done before. It was only when I was chastized by my best friend from early childhood, whose parents are South African, that I felt the circle closing:
“Hey. That’s not funny.”
I looked at him, his skin as brown as that of the people I’d just slandered at the cheap cost of earning some acceptance points, and knew exactly what he meant.
It’s why I find the lightly coated populism, and yes–racism–that Dobbs’ program issues forth so despicable. Perhaps he got tired of his corporate suit buddies and wanted to try on a more blue-collar hat. Or, perhaps it’s all one giant power-tripping guise, an elaborate response to tiring of the people who manufacture his goods or cook his restaurant meals. Who knows, he might actually care about the economic future of middle-class Americans, to which I say “very well” and hold no qualms. But international trade is an inherently political issue, and very often the ethnic or nationalist (or as in this case, both), “Us versus Them” card is simply too lucrative to turn down. CNN certainly didn’t. News Corp built its empire off of it. It bears little repeating, but last century ably displayed its utility for any aspiring Fascist movement. However, as the saying goes: you can’t have your El Salvadoran-cooked double cheeseburger and eat it too. Nor can you continue to buy the dirt cheap Chinese goods that fill your home and bite the hardworking hands that assembled them.
In my brief existence, I have personally heard enough slurs to fill a thousand bathroom stall walls: Australians slighting Irish, Chinese slighting Malays, Jews slighting Arabs, everybody slighting Jews, Indians slighting Bengalis, African-Americans slighting Africans, Africans slighting African-Americans, lesbians slighting gay men (but that’s another story), ad infinitum. St. Augustine once wrote that the world is a book and that those who don’t travel “read but only a page.” Well, I’m not sure what book he was reading but most of mine wouldn’t make for pleasant reading. I’ve been blessed to live with and visit a number of dissimilar people, fully aware that it’s an opportunity the vast majority of the world does not have (and that some, alas, have no interest in). Each country I visit, each culture I begin to understand, only reinforces my belief that people are, in essence, all the same.
This has meant for me that people are compassionate towards others, devoted to their children, and often friendly and generous, perhaps in varying degrees but never to the point of untruth. It also means that people are easily swayed by media and hearsay, largely ignorant of other people, and pointedly ethnocentric. Such aspects of our character manifest in qualities of hate, distrust and fear, all traits that politicians have utilized for millennia towards mostly destructive, ultimately worthless causes. We Western republicans entrust so much faith in democracy largely only because of the degree to which we distrust and fear despotic rule. As we commonly say: it is the least bad of our governing systems. But if anything, we have too much faith in pluralism as an end in itself, leaping blindly into its savior arms without considering preconditions to its success, such as an educated populace, an influential middle class, the rule of law or minority safeguards.
The purest vision of freedom I’ve seen played out in reality is the same one the United States has so neatly co-opted (like, as Neruda acknowledged, it’s own name). The American Dream, so to speak, is the globalized 21st Century Dream. It’s the reason that desperate young folks from countries like Guatemala or Honduras die each day in the hope that they can work washing dishes in a Georgetown restaurant; it’s the reason all of my friend Lang’s Chinese classmates have taken the GRE (over 90% of whom score an 800 on the math section, he mentioned). Without doubt, it’s the only reason I’m writing these words. When the government of New Zealand gave my parents an opportunity to attend university, even if it was motivated by economics, it epitomized a marvelous idea: that my parents would be judged and rewarded duly based on the merit of their work. Populism in democracy, more often than not, relies not on the merit of the idea and its logic, but by how many people happen to believe it. Good journalism serves its citizens by informing and enlightening their beliefs and public judgments, not by playing to the most base and vicious of human tendencies for popular or commercial favor.
I hope more Americans consider this as they go about purchasing their General Washington’s chicken (proudly China-free) at the local take-out. Smart Americans know that there’s more to the most populous country in the world than some Communist totalitarian state and over a billion poor, oppressed masses churning out their Nikes and contaminated toys. The stability and health of our tenuous Sino-American relations will depend on it. The Chinese seem capable of distinguishing between political regimes and their citizens, a skill which the Lou Dobbs’ of our media seem incapable of.