Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Chinese Civilization and its Discontents

"The urge for freedom," wrote Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, "...is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or against civilization altogether. It does not seem as though any influence could induce a man to change his nature into a termite's"   (p. 43, Norton ed.).  Perhaps that unshakable resistance to  the group explains not only why so many cultures all but codify certain forms of rule-breaking, but why such widespread and tolerated rebellions are often noted with pride or affection as an identity marker for the group.

That solidarity in transgression may explain my initial reaction to Deborah Fallows' account of the Chinese approach to legal and official authority in Dreaming in Chinese. Fallows  notes that the Chinese have a bewildering array of rules, many of them governing seemingly harmless behavior, then moves on to the garden of transgressions:
Cars pay no heed to green Walk signals for pedestrians, just as pedestrians head blithely into the streets against red Don't Walk signals. Crowds ignore bus attendants who scream at them through their bullhorns to stand back from the curbs. People argue with traffic attendants and even policemen who blast their whistles, trying in vain to keep people off the crosswalks and safely on the sidewalks. Airline attendants warn passengers to stay buckled up until the plane arrives at the gate, but most passengers jump up to rummage through the overhead bins as soon as the wheels touch the runway. People smoke in front of No Smoking signs, spit in front of No Spitting signs, and sit on the grass in front of Keep Off The Grass Signs (158).

Charming, right? Even more so, the rulebreaking is not a matter of simple defiance, but of extraordinarily nuanced subliminal negotiation:
A posture, a look, a hesitation, or any one of a variety of subtle moves adds much to shades of meaning. This subtle kind of body language is not something that can be taught: you use your eyes and ears together to interpret a mismatch between what you're hearing and what you're seeing, or to catch a soft "I don't really mean it" undertone. Finally, you just get a feeling, and you know it when you see it (161).
Fallows has several hilarious examples, but you'll have to buy the book to experience them.

Though by turns amused and bemused, Fallows is not sentimental about this convoluted behavioral code -- and nor, I think, should a reader be. Its underside is harsh:

There are two ways to read the facts: the arsenal of rules is so vast and so vague that no one can even reasonably keep track and obey them. Or, the arsenal of rules serves as a ready reserve in case the authorities might find it convenient to apply them. One of my young friends put it colloquially: there are so many rules that no one takes them seriously; they'll get you somehow if they want to. And, he added with a devilish tone, we break rules if we think we can, just for the heck of it  (160).
It does not seem as though any influence could induce a man to change his nature into a termite's.  But how governments do try. Here, at bottom, is the real difference between autocracy and democracy. In the United States, only those in the urban underclass (or the extraordinarily dissident) have some cause to think "they'll get you somehow if they want to."  Americans go ballistic at a whiff of unequally applied rules. The sense of power, of entitled indignation that we're prone to when we encounter real or imagined special treatment, stems from the fact that officials from the city selectman to the president serve at voters' pleasure.

Adaptation to rule by fiat may be ingenious and admirable in its way. But acculturation to the rule of law is a pearl of price.


  1. The rich win.

    I don't understand why you invoke the middle class since they don't have the guts to spend their money on poor people's weapons and lead a revolt.

    I've got a hundred dollars, inflation adjusted from 2010, that the USA will abandon democracy (in a real form) by 2060.

    I've got a thousand that the USA wil confront some other power and shift weapons into space by 2060.


  2. You: "Americans go ballistic at a whiff of unequally applied rules."

    Three major examples?

    AFAICT via reality (and the Simpsons) Americans are entirely on-board with getting screwed while rich people are free and clear.