Monday, September 17, 2012

Freedom of Expression, Sovereignty and Interdependence

There is an interesting story (see here and  here and in Forbes here and  SCMP story here [requires subscription] ) about a Taiwanese-American who had a mural painted on his building in Corvallis, Oregon, promoting independence for Taiwan and for Tibet. According to news stories, the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco wrote a letter to the Mayor of Corvallis asking her get David Lin to take the painting down. She wrote saying she did not have the authority to do that, since it is protected free speech, so the consulate sent two officials to meet with the mayor (presumably to pressure her, though one news story mentioned that they did not actually ask her to have the painting taken down). This, somewhat predictably, has led Oregon's politicians to line up to blast China.

Perhaps most surprising in this story is the idea that China's diplomats, who are a pretty savvy bunch, nowadays, thought that the mayor could somehow have the painting removed. This shows a surprising lack of understanding of the American political system (not to mention the Constitution).

Furthermore, it seems to American eyes quite astonishing that China would think it had the right to request the removal of political art in the US. Since China is constantly complaining about outside interference in its domestic affairs, at first sight this seems, to American eyes, an example of Chinese interference in American affairs. 

But of course, that is not the way the Chinese government would see it at all.  It sees the picture as seditious. It is offended by the images, and feels compelled to register its protest. In this case, its protest has had the unintended consequence of publicizing the painting, and the issues it promotes. It has cost China PR points in the US, making China seem to be excessively assertive and to be attempting to undermine American values such as free speech.  Chinese nationalists and the government, however, see the sentiments in the painting as beyond the pale, beyond what can be protected as free speech. But by seeking to express that position in the US, it has undermined its interests. (While not as extreme, it does remind me of the Qing government's attempt to arrest Sun Yat-Sen in London with the claim that he was a criminal. There too, the Qing's bungled attempt led to Sun becoming world famous.)

Most interesting in this case, however, is how notions of national sovereignty can be seen to be weakening with globalization. China is concerned that its national sovereignty is weakened by a painting in the US. The US politicians feel that US sovereignty is weakened by Chinese diplomats seeking to have the painting taken down. In an increasingly interdependent world, both may be right, but the result is that the notion of sovereignty is weakened, because we cannot pretend that what we do in Corvallis does not have an effect in China. That is true whether we are American, or Chinese.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Neuroscience and Anthropology

I wish I had time to read David Eagleman's book Incognito:The Secret Lives of the Brain. I heard him speak on Fresh Air. He argues that our conscious mind only sees a small portion of what actually goes on in the brain. He notes that we can easily lift up a cup without thinking of the thousands of nerves and muscles that need to be controlled just to successfully pick up a cup. 

He also notes that our brain is made up of different parts, and that the different parts are often fighting with each other. This is true for the conscious and emotional sides, left vs. right, and more. He says we can see it in that sometimes we want to keep a secret for social reasons, but there is also a side of our brain that does not like to keep secrets, because secrets raise our level of stress.
"You have competing populations in the brain — one part that wants to tell something and one part that doesn't," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And the issue is that we're always cussing at ourselves or getting angry at ourselves or cajoling ourselves. ... What we're seeing here is that there are different parts of the brain that are battling it out. And the way that that battle tips, determines your behavior."
This is interesting because Richard Wilk, in his book Economies and Cultures, has argued that “human nature” has different aspects. Contrary to the economic assumption that humans are individualistic rational maximizers, neuroscience is confirming the view that different parts of the brain operate on different principles. This is a good example of how biology and neuroscience can support long established anthropological insights. And it is an example of why anthropologists should not fear, and resist, biology.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Journalism, Truth and Politics

I'm not sure what to make of Andrea Seabrook's decision to leave her job as NPR's Washington correspondent to set up a new website/blog called DecodeDC. She complains of being lied to by politicians, and of being forced to report on the daily posturings and the theatre of DC rather than what is really going on. I sympathize, but from a certain point of view, it seems naive to complain about this: all politicians spin and tell half-truths, and it is the job of journalists to see through this, or to report on this. Otherwise, we would all simply read the politicians' press releases.

By coincidence, I just listened some old podcasts these days that provide admirable reporting that sees through the spin and fog.  David Wessel writes for the Wall Street Journal, which can often be quite ideological, but in his interview on NPR's Fresh Air, he discusses his book Red Ink and the problems with the federal budget deficit in a clear and bipartisan manner. He is able to explain why each side is not telling the whole story, and how values and ideals about the future determine the different views of what should be done.

In another example, Ryan Lizza wrote a story for the New Yorker on Paul Ryan, before he was nominated as Romney's VP partner. The story is very balanced, as noted in a Washington Post article, though Paul Ryan feared it would be a hatchet piece. Lizza does note, however, that Ryan had not had much bad press. Ryan has been popular with the press; he is considered fairly open, frank, and accessible.  On the other hand, Lizza in a blog is extremely critical of Ryan's GOP convention speech. He lists five attacks against the President that he says "were breathtakingly hypocritical" and ends saying, "Ryan started this race with a reputation for honesty. He’s on his way to losing it."

The problem is that some journalists seem to believe that all problems have technical solutions (Adam Davidson of NPR's Planet Money is the the best example). But political problems are NOT technical problems. It is a dangerous conceit of extremist ideology of the right and left that there is one best "scientific" solution to most problems. Political problems are "political" because they deal with who gets what, and they depend on values, and one's ideal image of the future. Lizza, in an interview on Fresh Air, mentions that Paul Ryan is motivated by Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism (As an aside, I view her philosophy as puerile, a very unsophisticated view that does not understand social forces and culture, but that is a topic for another day). Lizza reports that Ryan believes a person can only be free when they take responsibility for themselves, and that too many people are dependent on government, making them less free. This is a legitimate view that most people can accept to some extent, but it has to be balanced with the opposing view that one cannot be free when worried about where their next meal is coming from, or whether they can pay for cancer treatment, or for their parents' healthcare. And who should pay for all this? How we balance these issues depends on our class, our vision of a good society, and our values. There is no technical or scientific answer (though not all answers are the same and there are some answers that do not add up!)

Already many comments on Andrea Seabrooks website are very critical of her posts for being naive or biased. That should not surprise us. Good journalism, like Wessel's and Lizza's, help us understand the issues better, but they have to balance the blue and red perspectives, and show how both are valid moral views, even when politicians are not being entirely honest in their statements. Even then, partisans will have their gripes. That's politics.