Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Silence and Sensibility

I believe it was from Spinoza (delivered to me by way of Kenneth Burke's Grammar of Motives) that I first picked up the idea that some concepts are best understood through negation ("all determination is negation"): a concept is determined by that which remains after the "negative" of the concept has been eliminated (a strategy that Conan Doyle later attributed to master detective Sherlock Holmes). From this point of view, Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent for Reuters, has provided a very interesting think piece on the current presidential campaign in the United States in terms of an issue important to every voter that is being almost totally neglected by every would-be candidate. Here is his lead:

Food safety fears and broad economic concerns keep China in U.S. headlines, but the epochal rise of America's greatest potential rival has barely rated a blip so far in the 2008 presidential campaign.

The reasons for silence on the political trail range from the pressing fact that U.S. soldiers are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan to the elusive nature of a competitive China that threads through issues such as the environment, energy, economics and security, analysts say.

However, just as important as the way in which Eckert began this report was the way in which he chose to end it:

Former U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman, who interpreted for Richard Nixon when he opened ties with China 35 years ago, says dealing with Beijing will be a defining issue for the next president. But for now, the less said, the better, he added.

"I'm happy that the presidential campaign is relatively silent on China because campaigns do not bring out the greatest wisdom in our politicians," Freeman said.

This is probably best read as a reflection on H. L. Mencken. Presidential campaigns are not about deliberating over complex issues before making decisions about what to do (and there can be no doubt that China is one of the most complex issues now confronting us). Rather, campaigns are about promoting easily-remembered slogans in the hope that the right slogan will trigger the right memories when the voter actually casts a ballot. (Actually, given the current state of voter turnout, these slogans are also necessary to get the electorate to both register and actually show up at the polls.) Unfortunately, as Mencken warned us, clear and simple solutions to complex issues are invariably wrong; and the strength of any slogan is its clarity and simplicity. Thus, whether or not Barack Obama has tried to address this complexity on its own terms through an essay in Foreign Affairs is not going to count for very much unless someone on his campaign staff can milk just the right "magic slogan" out of that essay. Such a "magic slogan" would most likely be a sin of either omission (leaving out critical parts of the argument in the essay) or commission (constituting a flat-out misreading); but it would still what the voters "take away" as an "understanding" of Obama's "position on China."

Thus, in spite of my continuing aversion to the reckless use of the noun "wisdom," I think Freeman has got it right, because he it reflecting my own reasoning about the need to think in paragraphs, rather than simple slogans. Indeed, the admiration I expressed yesterday for Dennis Ross cuts right to the heart of the complexity that must be faced. Any engagement with China is going to have to involve "statecraft" of the highest order of skill; but that statecraft must be exercised over that broad spectrum of issues that Eckert raised in his lead: "the environment, energy, economics and security." Personally, I think the problem is not just that "campaigns do not bring out the greatest wisdom in our politicians." Ultimately, that "greatest wisdom" may reside not in the President of the United States but in how that President provides himself with skilled advisors and knows how to draw upon the advice they provide. We have now had far too much experience with what happens when such an approach to "wisdom" is compelled to take a back seat to faith; but, as voters, we are unlikely ever to be informed of which of all those many would-be candidates can assemble and work with powerful teams when confronted with harsh complexities. I am not saying that past voters were any better informed of such matters; but, as the complexities become greater and entail more dire consequences, the need for such an informed stance will become far more important.

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