Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Monday, June 27, 2005
I will now also be guest blogging on Asiapundit, where I will mainly be posting shorter entries and linking to interesting posts and stories about China and other parts of Asia. Go check it out.
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
In light of Markos's post today on conservation as a better way for us to frame environmental issues, and as a means for Democrats to chip away at the Republican voting bloc, I would like to offer something I wrote sometime last year. Although if asked, I would probably say I am a progressive democrat, at the time, I contemplated how progressive and conservative values could be brought into harmony. I think the notion of conservation, which need not only apply to environmental issues, is a wonderful start. Well here it is. Hope you enjoy:
I'm a progressive conservative. At first glance these words--progressive conservative--when viewed in combination, might seem like a contradiction, an oxymoron. That is how we are taught to believe: the great polarization in society, in our minds. "To progress" is the opposite of "to conserve."
I believe in both since both are necessary in life; together they are the dual aspects of growth. To learn something new is to progress. To remember what we have learned is to conserve. There is no contradiction. Inherent in the word "progress" is the drive to become better, to improve the design, to try to create new designs, to outdo ourselves--always moving beyond what we were, in the past; not just where we were, but essentially.
Progress implies movement. Conservation alludes to staying in play, inertia, holding on to what was, the good old days, the golden years, when times were good, people were honest, life was beckoning, there was hope and innocence buzzing in the air.
Why not preserve the glory of the past? Why not let it mold our view of the future?
Look to the past and discover the best in it, not from one culture, but from many. Discover in the past what is great, what is conducive to life, to community, to humanity, and beyond humanity--what helps humans live in harmony with their surroundings, with each other, and with others. Let us conserve this in the face of our drive to progress, and prosper.
Disgard the rest, the destructiveness of what we were, the prejudice, the animosity, the killing, the lies and dishonesty, the covering up, the slavery and alienation. Become tolerant!
Open yourself to the vast interplay between what once was and what will be, what could be and what never was. Embrace the multiplicity while treasuring the simplicity under your lens. Preserve local knowledge and community, and let that be your link to global exchange. Innovate. Collaborate. Act with integrity.
This is my attempt to de-polarize.
Thursday, June 16, 2005
Even shorter post-defense thesis
I have written a history--part cultural, part political, and part religious--of contacts between the Chinese state and autochthonous peoples in what is now South China, and have explored the specific terminology, narratives, and symbols (Daoist, imperial) that represent and mediate these contacts.
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
This paragraph from the intro to my dis, I feel, is a fairly concise statement of the issue I was ultimately attempting to explore:
Although pre-Qing sources do not shed much light on the question of Yao Daoism, or on any other aspects of
The Role of Daoism in Yao/State Contacts
Daoism, as an organized religion, which emanated from Han Dynasty legitimating practices that focused on the Mandate of Heaven and the position of the Emperor, came to play a similar role among local leaders, including Yao. As such, it served to mediate encounters between center and periphery, capital and locality.
Monday, June 13, 2005
What's your thesis? What did you accomplish?
Well, isn't that the question?
When I started my dissertation, I think the main issue was: How and when did Yao people, who live in South China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, first adopt Daoist practices? How did Daoism function in Yao society?
The question then went beyond Daoism. There was more in common between Yao and Chinese culture than simply the ritual traditions they practiced: their cosmology, their festive calendar, their pantheon of deities with its heavenly hierarchy, their system of ritual practices, and their texts, which were all written in a variant of Chinese, marked by a combination of literary, vernacular, and even southern Chinese and Yao dialectal elements.
Jacques Lemoine, who wrote Yao Ceremonial Paintings, went so far as to argue that the core of Yao culture was "borrowed." And everywhere I looked people were making similar claims. Chinese anthropologists, writing in the 1930's and 40's, also maintained that in every instance where they noticed what they took to be Han practices in a Yao context, Yao must have learned them from Han people. Inherent in this view was the belief that Yao were primitive; Han, on the other hand, were civilized.
Michel Strickmann, a sinologist and specialist of Daoism, and the man often credited with the discovery of Yao Daoism (some Qing Dynasty local histories as early as the 18th century already mention this), also embarked on this line of reasoning. In his brief article, "The Tao Among the Yao: Taoism and the Sinification of South China" (really the article that got me started thinking about Yao), Strickmann questioned how these texts came into the hands of impoverished villagers living in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
This was the question that was often asked: How did these texts, written in classical Chinese, pass from ethnicity to ethnicity, and beyond Chinese borders. In this formulation, Chinese writing was always confined within specific territorial and ethnic borders, even though it had been used for several hundred years in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Since Daoism is so inextricably linked to Chinese writing (a major difference with Buddhism, which has several linguistic media), it also enticed people into the same kind of pre-conceptions--Daoism and Chinese writing were all strictly Chinese phenomena, and people generally meant "Han" Chinese.
I fell into a similar trap: I remember being surprised when someone told me Yao in Northern Vietnam--known as Landian or Mun Yao-- shared a Daoist tradition in common with Landian in South China. It never struck me as odd that Yao in Guangxi or Yunnan, directly across the border from Vietnam, practiced those same rituals. It was only the fact that this Chinese religion could also be found on the other side of the border.
Why is that strange? The whole concept of a national border is a figment of the early modern period, when the global map was being divided up into separate and distinct nations occupied by single peoples, or at least ruled by single, autonomous entities.
I was imposing my modern mindset on history. I couldn't get past the conceptual block imposed on me by the modern map. And yet, peoples have crossed for millenia--back and forth--what are now perceived to be national borders.
I also did not consider it strange that Han villagers in the same regions had similar practices. I never asked how it was that impoverished Han villagers might have obtained Chinese writing. Most people in the pre-modern world, including in China, did not read and write. There is nothing genetic about writing--that is, writing is not somehow inherent to a culture, part of the essence of a people. It is absurd to say Chinese culture is "borrowed" in the case of Yao and "natural" in the case of Han.
Chinese writing was originally conceived as part of the politico-religious, divinatory, practices of ancient kings; they used it to communicate with their ancestors. Throughout much of Chinese history it was the culture of the official elite.
Recent scholarship has shown that certain religious traditions in China are connected to specific regions, and are practiced by a variety of groups in those regions. That is to say that in those regions, Han, Yao, Miao, Zhuang, etc. have similar practices. Moreover, religious traditions travel with the people who practice and believe in them.
So, back to my original question: how and when did Yao become Daoists. Strickmann, followed by Lemoine, had argued that it was by the thirteenth century, and was part of a larger process by which native peoples in South China were sinified. He viewed Daoist priests as missionaries of the state; what they were transmitting was not merely a religious tradition; it was Chineseness--Chinese literacy and a very specific socio-political structure. They were representatives of Chinese officialdom, and were helping the state to absorb--and domesticate--indigenous populations of what is now South China.
I have no major problems with Strickmann's formulation, except that it places all agency in the hands of Chinese officials, Daoist priests, Buddhist monks, etc. It is also short on evidence.
Strickmann's primary evidence was the ritual manuals discovered in Yao villages in Thailand by Shiratori Yoshiro, and re-produced in the book, Yao Documents. He noticed several motifs in these ritual manuals that were indicative of Daoist ritual movements that first appeared during the Song Dynasty (960-1279)--movements that were patronized by Chinese emperors.
However, the earliest of the Yao ritual manuals come from the 18th century, about the same time Chinese sources first begin to speak of Yao Daoism. Nonetheless, they are probably copies of older materials, and some of them can even be found in the Daoist canon (Daozang).
As I write in the introduction to my dissertation: However, the early provenance of a text is not necessarily an indication of the use of that text by a given community. Conversely, lack of concrete evidence from earlier periods does not prove that Yao Daoism is a Qing phenomenon—merely that it is difficult (if not impossible) to say when Daoist traditions were revealed to
One Yao document (or type of document), known as the "Charter of Emperor Ping and the Passport (really Roster or Announcement) for Crossing the Mountains" appears to have an earlier provenance than the Daoist ritual manuals. Strickmann and Lemoine believed it to be an official document issued to the Yao people by the Song Emperor, Lizong, in the year 1260, which by the way, was the same year that Khubilai rose to power as the great Khan of the Mongol people, ten years after the Mongols first reached South China and Southeast Asia, and nineteen years before they defeated the Southern Song, whose capital was then in Hangzhou.
Strickmann, and Lemoine more explicitly, viewed the Passport--the one document collected by Shiratori that was not Daoist--as evidence of Yao/State contact. In so doing, they ignored Daoist imagery (admittedly only in later extant versions) and mythological motifs in the Passport, as well as its ritual uses in Yao society. Although the Passport was probably written after 1260, that year was indeed a year of significance for Yao/State contacts, and yet it certainly was not the first such contact.
Most likely, the Passport memorializes actual bonds between Yao leaders and the Chinese emperor (or his official representatives), or at least harkons back to an earlier time when such bonds were made. It thus epitomizes a specific type of relationship between center and periphery, capital and hinterland.
The very name Yaoren (Yao people) was first used in official Chinese sources in the 11th century to refer to specific people(s) living in the mountains of what is now Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hunan who were not part of the administrative units (prefectures and counties) established by the state, and therefore did not pay taxes. An earlier term--moyao--applied to people(s) in the same region--Hunan, Guangxi, and Guangdong--pointed directly at specific claims made about exemption from taxation and corvee because of the meritorious deeds of Yao/Moyao ancestors. The Passport makes precisely the same claim: because of the merit obtained by our primogenitor, the dragon-dog Panhu, all later generations were exempted from taxation and were granted other privileges, such as the freedom to live an autonomous existence in the mountains unperturbed by Chinese officials and powerful families.
Now we come to Wulingren (a person from Wuling), the name I use on this site. By the 12th century, some Chinese officials recognized a connection between Yao people, who were by then scattered throughout South China all the way to Hanoi, and groups who had earlier occupied a specific region of Western Hunan, known as Wuling. One 12th century text claims: Yao people are the descendents of the dog Panhu, from Wuling, known as the Wuling Man.
There were Man (the a is pronounced like the sound you make when a doctor looks inside your mouth, like the o in "fog") with various geographic designations from all over what is now Hunan, Hubei, and outlying areas--Wuling Man, Lingling Man, Changsha Man, etc. The important thing to keep in mind here is that these are not necessarily different subgroups, in a modern anthropological sense; rather, different Man are defined and distinguished with respect to their territorial relation to specific administrative units (commanderies), i.e. Wuling Commandery.
By the 3rd or 4th century--a period of narrative and ritual codification--a story about these Man was first recorded in written sources, for the most part, the same as the one told in later Yao documents, such as the Passport. Some of the names are different, but the narrative is the same. It told of how a dog named Panhu, in the service of Gao Xin, one of the legendary emperors in ancient China, had killed an enemy ruler. Because of his merit, he was able to marry the emperor's daughter. The couple, part wild and part imperial, settled down on a mountain in Wuling, where they had 12 children, 6 boys and 6 girls--the origin of the 12 Man/Yao clans.
This story was used both by Chinese officials and by Man/Yao leaders. From the Chinese perspective, it situated Man/Yao within the state. From the Man/Yao perspective, it legitimized their autonomy from it. Ultimately, every later dispute about taxation, and the position of Man/Yao with respect to the state (an empire), harkened back to specific bonds entailed by what I refer to as the Panhu myth.
What did I accomplish? I think I provided the reader with a cultural and politico-religious history of Yao/Official contacts throughout the history of imperial China. As I explored the various narratives told by and about autochthonous peoples in South China, as well as the labels used to represent them, I also highlighted the emergence of the Chinese state--that is, the administrative network that linked diverse regions with the capital.
The Future of the Media
This post by Armando at dailykos is also right on.
On Democracy, Impeachment, and the Mandate
See this excellent post by Stirling Newberry, who in my view, is one of the most insightful voices in the blogosphere.
David Broder and the Beltway
Today, on Meet the Press, prior to their conversation about Howard Dean's comments, the enlightened panel discussed Hillary Clinton's recent speech, in which she, in Judy Woodruff's words, threw red meat to the base. When asked about Senator Clinton's criticism of the the contemporary press, as lacking the instincts and skills for investigative journalism of the Watergate generation presscore, David Broder, in his wisdom, said, and I paraphrase: Senator Clinton's nearsightedness is evidenced by the fact that there is a front page story on the cover of the Washington Post on a new Downing Street Memo. Isn't that Investigative journalism? Come on, give us a break! Sorry, David. That was basically a London Times story. See here and here for more about this. David, explain to us why there have been no front page stories about the original "Downing Street Memo." If you haven't read it yet or don't even know what it is, then check here.
Sunday, June 12, 2005
The Beltway v. Hinterland
I was just watching the Meet the Press discussion about Howard Dean's recent comments, and I noticed the reporters making a distinction that is also central to what it meant to be a Yao person, when that label was first employed. The issue, as many of you know, was the reaction among certain Washington Democrats to Dean saying Republicans are basically a White, Christian party. While many Washington Democrats are upset, and afraid, of what Dean said, those out in the Hinterland, according to the reporters, are generally supportive of Dean; they want a leader who will stand up and fight back. Here the distinction is being made between Washington Democrats, those inside the Beltway, the Center, the Capital, and those on the Hinterland, the Periphery, far removed from the heart of power. As I will discuss after I eat my sandwich from Koch's Deli, what I discovered through the course of my research, is that the binome Yaoren傜人 (Yao people) was first used in official, Chinese sources in a similar fashion--Yao were those people living in the mountains of certain areas in South China who were not registered subjects and did not pay taxes. Obviously, it is not exactly the same phenomenon, but the notion of the Hinterland as a site that is remote with respect to the power base in the Capital, and is undisturbed by it (or would like to be autonomous from it), is crucial to understanding what it means to be Yao, and why Washington insiders were so offended by Dean's comments.
Friday, June 10, 2005
I'm not sure if the following is the best way to begin. It seems like I'm taking too long to get to the central points of my dissertation.
The starting point for my dissertation was the discovery by a Japanese anthropoligical team, led by Shiratori Yoshiro, of ritual manuals and other materials, written in a variant of classical Chinese, in Yao/Mien villages in Northern Thailand. Shiratori's published collection of reproductions of these materials, known as the Yao Documents (1975) caused an international stir among sinologists, anthropologists, and historians, in that it seemed to indicate that a non-Chinese (non-Han) group living in the mountains of Northern Thailand were using Chinese texts in their religious practice. In1982, Michel Strickmann, a sinologist and specialist on religious Daoism, published a brief article, entitled, "The Tao Among the Yao: Taoism and the Sinification of South China," which argued that the materials collected by Shiratori had more affinities with Chinese religion than simply the script in which they were written; the majority were Daoist ritual manuals. In the same year, a French ethnographer, named Jacques Lemoine, published a full length manuscript, called, Yao Ceremonial Paintings, which followed Strickmann in maintaining that the deities represented in Yao paintings were Daoist in origin, and that the bulk of their culture--their writing system, their cosmology, their festivals, their rituals--were borrowed from the dominant Han Chinese.
It should not seem strange that there are affinities between Yao and Chinese culture, because Yao in Thailand migrated there from Central and South China (Hunan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan), where they still reside.
Mediating the Yao/Chinese Encounter: Writing, Daoism, and Politico-Religious Legitimation on the Imperial Frontier
Because next week is my dissertation defense--the final rite of passage in my graduate career--the moment of transformation after which I will no longer be referred to as a student--I will spend the rest of this week writing more specifically about my research, at the risk of losing one or two of my three readers.
It is not easy to capture in a few soundbites, or even in a twenty minute talk (which I will have to do next week) exactly what I spent the last five years working on. It is like capturing an unwieldy beast; first I have to catch a glimpse of the dragon; then I must track it down and tame it. Kind of like that Zen sequence of the boy chasing the ox. First, he spends all of his time chasing the wild animal, searching far and wide. He sees it from time to time, but then it is nowhere in site. That is the search for enlightenment, but in my case it was the struggle to write a book--the whole time I had to figure out what I was trying to understand. Then the boy captures the animal, but it is still wild. I have completed my manuscript, but it is still beyond simple expression. I mean, I can hone in on specific points I made and describe them, but it is harder to convey the whole. Finally, the boy is seen riding the tamed animal. Well I am hardly saying that I attained enlightenment in the process. I wish! Well, not really. Not really looking for that anymore.
There are a few reasons why it is difficult to describe:
For one, I didn't just try to write about a single period, historical figure, or specific text. Believe me, it would have been better if I had. I always had a problem focusing. I guess I am more interested in the big picture, and how what seem to be isolated events or phenomena are actually part of that picture. Perhaps I am looking for a unified theory of Chinese history.
Moreover, at different points in the process of writing I was dealing with different issues; different questions came to mind; different texts appeared before me that opened up new paths on which to proceed. Frequently months of intertia would divide one period of progress from another. During these months I didn't know how to proceed, or was just lazy, or had my mind on other things. It was also during this period that I was turned on to American politics. See, for instance, my post below on the Perfect Storm.
At some point this past January I was going through all of my many fragments of writing--some large, some small--and I decided to put them all together in one file. Not everything. What a surprise! Now, some people write 300, 400, 500...page dissertations. For me, considering it was my first time--and still is--writing a book, I was always shooting for 200. And there before my eyes, lo and behold, 160 pages. They still needed a lot of editing and revision, and I hadn't yet written an introduction, but there it was, the bulk of my dissertation. Believe me when I say this, it is so much easier when you already have something written to then hone and polish it, then it is to accumulate pages. Staring at the blank page can be a nightmare. Blogging and emails are, for some reason, different. Please someone explain to me why. I think I know.
Maybe this is a good time to stop. Consider this an introduction to a weeklong enterprise (less) in which I attempt to target my talking points for the defense--kind of like a press conference. I give a statement and then I am asked questions, except instead of reporters there will be professors.
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Bush's Divine Right and Polling
Lately, I have seen a lot of posts around the web cheering Bush's low poll numbers. I am also happy when I see these low numbers because they reveal that the majority of people in America are reasonable.
However, I'm not sure Bush, his most devoted followers, his corporate sponsors, the religious right, or Karl Rove really care. If Bush cared at all about democracy, then of course he would be concerned about low approval of his policies, because in a democracy the sovereignty of the ruler should flow from the will of the people.
If Bush cared at all about the mandate that he so arrogantly declared he had won, then he would be worrying about low polling numbers because he would recognize his base of support crumbling around him--a clear indication that he had lost the mandate and should change his ways. As one Warring States Chinese philosopher (Mencius) declared, "Heaven speaks through the will of the people." Mencius was rationalizing the possibility of rebellion, but the statement applies equally to American style democracy.
Bush does not believe in democracy, nor does he believe that he needs a mandate. Rather, his religion is the divine right of kings, though perhaps in a twenty first century guise. How is that different from the Mandate of Heaven? From the perspective of the Mandate, a ruler's authority is never assured; it is dependent on his/her behavior, his/her ethics, his/her policies. Every thought and action must be in accord with Heaven. Of course, I am not here advocating a return to an ancient Chinese belief system, and I realize concepts such as the Mandate are used as much for legitimating purposes as they are for moral ones.
Divine right, as I understand it, is different. The ruler has the right to weild power because of the fact(or accident) of his/her birth, because of the lineage in which he/she is born.
Bush believes that he deserves power. It is his divine right, granted to him by his higher father. Everything he does as president is an attempt to restore the absolute authority of the ruler, without actually bringing back the title of the king. He said as much in one of his first press conferences after securing power in 2000: "It sure would be easier to be a dictator, he he he." We have all heard the assertions that the Bush family is related to European nobility--a connection that is obviously very important to them.
Now, I don't feel Bush--and it is not just Bush but who he represents--wants to return to the ancien regime of the 17th or 18th century; the goal is instead to create a new corporate elite, or perhaps to ensure that the corporate elite, of which Bush is a part, can perpetuate their power, and make it permanent.
Before November 2004, Bush needed to win a small majority, as did Kerry. At that point, polls were important. If Bush could just squeak by with a win, then they--the corporate elite--would be unstoppable in ramming through their agenda. They control the media. They control every branch of the government. Increasingly, they are attempting to control the courts.
So, I don't think Bush really cares that his numbers are low. To a certain extent, I believe him when he says: "I don't care about polls." Would someone who believed it was his destiny and his right to become president care about polls? Like the princely families from whom he claims descent, popularity is not an issue; what is, is keeping the masses in line even when they are not content, and diminishing the effectiveness of the opposition.
Bush does not need to win re-election--he can't. More important is for him to dismantle the protections that have been put in place to prevent permanent and absolute rule. The most critical factor to achieve that is to stack the courts with a bunch of clones.
Finally, I am not arguing that all is lost, or even that the polls mean nothing. We have to take that unpopularity and make it stick beyond lameduck presidents and corrupt congressmen who will probably go to jail. Beyond merely employing new frames, we need to completely discredit their vision and what attracts people to it.
Links to the Mandate
In the comments to the following post, there is a blogroll of links to different articles on the web about the Mandate of Heaven. Talking about good framing, there was a concept formulated thousands of years ago and still applicable today.
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
The Mandate of Heaven
In this post, I will provide a brief primer about the concept of the Mandate of Heaven in ancient China. Beyond merely teaching something about what I know, my hope is that it will generate discussion about similar concepts--whether they be viewed as propaganda, rituals, legitimizing techniques, etc.--at different times and places, particularly in but not restricted to contemporary American politics. Consider what animates notions of the Mandate in our own culture. When a party says they have won the Mandate, to what external authority or factors are they appealing? The People? My Higher Father? What? Are there any signs? How are different media used to promote this vision? What is the origin of the Mandate in the American context?
Throughout Chinese history there were two applications--really two sides of the same coin--of the concept known as the Mandate of Heaven as a politico-religious legitimating device. On the one hand, it was used in a historiographical sense as a means to explain why events happened the way they did, and as such asserted the claims of a specific dynastic line over another. In this manifestation, one group or individual already held power; the mandate then became a later rationalization of how that group or individual came to possess such power and why others did not. Yes, it was Heaven who authorized our rule, which flows directly from on high. The previous dynasty had lost the Mandate because their last king had become corrupt.
This ex post facto rationalization, which became the model of development and decay for every successive dynasty, was, if we are to believe traditional scholarship, the earliest use of the Mandate. The Zhou ruling house had made this argument after they had led a rebellion against the Shang Dynasty in what is now believed to be 1045 BCE. The early Shang kings, so it was argued, had received the Mandate, but later kings lost it because of their devious ways. The last Shang king was so bad that Heaven authorized King Wu of the Zhou to lead an attack against him.
On the other hand, ministers, regional leaders, rebels, etc. could question the existing order, or at least the living embodiment of that order--the emperor himself--by appealing to the Mandate. Thus, a minister who felt that his ruler's behavior was out of line could argue that his actions were not in accord with the Mandate. Heaven always responded to the bad behavior of an emperor by revealing signs of disapproval: severe meteorological patterns (floods, droughts, famines) and socio-political disorder (rebellions). The Mandate, then, both served as a check on the Emperor's power and as a challenge to it.
Heaven also responded to imperial actions that were in line with the Mandate. Signs of approval often came in the form of weather that was conducive to a prosperous agricultural society, but sagely rule in tune with the Will of Heaven could also usher in a utopian age, a Great Peace, when All under Heaven (tianxia天下) was in harmony. Not only was there meteorological and socio-political harmony, but Heaven also revealed extraordinary omens, signals of approval--strange creatures, magnificent objects, Heavenly Beings and immortals, etc.
By the mid to late Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)--the great formative period for discussions concerning the Mandate--as the centralized authority of the emperor gradually dissipated, regional leaders appeared who asserted links with Heaven by presenting objects that they supposedly discovered, usually at rivers or mountains. It began as advice to the court. People appeared at court claiming to have encountered divine emissaries who were sent by Heaven (or the Heavenly Sovereign) to deliver messages to the emperor in the capital. Increasingly, these messages came in the form of specific texts--evidence supporting the claims of rebellious, regional leaders.
I would love to go on with this historical discussion, but at this point I will shift focus to the question of how changing media are used in legitimating practices. One can only imagine--I know, a crazy thought--how things would have been different if the Han emperor had access to television. "Breaking News: A bizarre, multi-colored, two-headed bird has been discovered on the roof of the Whitehouse. I have never seen anything like this before! This must be evidence that the president has indeed won a mandate! Wow!"
Even the weather report would have echoed the same exact message: the Mandate. "Breaking News: The Emperor has completed his mourning ritual and purified himself completely. Magnificent ethers have emanated from his lips, causing the clouds to coalesce. A glorious spring rain is on its way. You know what that means."
Less crazy, one could think about how such media funtion in our own society. Now. Think of the centralized, top-down, corporate media. Think of photo-ops and the filter. Think of Wolf Blitzer eulogizing: "Bush shocks the world!" Think of Fox News.
Then think of the blogosphere and the future paradigm of de-centralized mediation, or in the words of Gary Hart:
Finally, the information revolution disintegrates old media and political structures. Virtually anyone in America today can organize his or her own individual information network tailored to his or her increasingly individual concerns. Nothing symbolizes this stunning fact more than the explosion of personal blog sites. Now everyone has opinions and a forum, the Internet, for expressing them. We are all consumers and producers of opinions if not also news. You can choose to focus your attention on defense and foreign policy, or fiscal and monetary policy, or health care and education, or the environment, or anyone of hundreds of individual areas of interest, or any collection of them. You don't have to adopt an entire party platform, in any case a kind of nineteenth century exercise that has become basically meaningless. You can write your own platform. You can be a party of one. And that is increasingly what millions of Americans are becoming.
No wonder some feel threatened. What I would add to Hart's comment is that this information revolution is not merely resulting in parties of one, that is, as atomized, isolated entities, but in new forms of connection, collaboration, and community-building.
Friday, June 03, 2005
My post yesterday was hardly an attack at the Dean campaign of 2003-04, nor at American politics in general; it was more a recollection of my own--some would argue limited--involvement in the Perfect Storm. I guess we are all influenced by what we do and read and experience, so my approach to contemporary American politics is affected by what I have done during the past ten years. For much of that time, China was my reality. Living in Chinese societies. Learning Chinese. Reading Chinese texts. Listening to Chinese music. Oh yes: eating Chinese food (but not exclusively).
It is only in the past few years that I have attempted to look past the Middle Kingdom. What is ironic about this is that initially, going to China, and then studying Chinese, exposed me--I felt--to a larger world beyond American borders. However, achieving any kind of mastery in a language--really a culture, or cultures--requires of a person to focus all of their energy on that task, to completely immerse themself in the cultural context from which the language arises. So, even while I was exposing myself to something broader, something beyond the world in which I was raised, I also had to narrow my vision on the task at hand. The demands of a graduate program make one narrow it even more. Blogs have been one antidote to this narrowing.
When I look at the political situation in contemporary America, I take with me the baggage--and hopefully insight--of the past ten years. And if we consider the myriad influences on my life since my birth and the entire history of my ancestors before that, then the baggage multiplies.
But, that is true of each of us. Each of us has his or her own unique perspective. If I studied ants or flowers or genes or corporations or teeth or profits or computers or whatever, then my interpretation would be different. The same would be true if I was a poker champion. This isn't a call for relativism. I do believe some answers are better than others. I do believe in principles. However, I am open to a variety of belief systems, and consider tolerance to be one of my most endeared values. I am tolerant of most humans except those who are intolerant--who deny other peoples' right to exist.
Thursday, June 02, 2005
The Cultic Qualities of American Politics--First Exposure
I can still remember the day I read Joe Trippi's Perfect Storm blog post. I had been hunting around looking for examples of this new word I kept hearing about--What exactly is a blog? Now, it is nothing new; I have been reading them every day since. But then, it was a mystery. I discovered Gary Hart's weblog, and Dean Nation, which still exists. I guess, as I was hunting for blogs, I was simultaneously searching for a candidate. I thought to myself: We really need an iconoclast--someone who will not be afraid to speak his/her mind. I considered Hart (before he dropped out) and Dean, and even Kerry (I believe it was soon before that that he said: "What we need is a regime change in America").
There I was on that day (I forget which day) reading Dean Nation; someone asked the question: Is a Dean Candidacy really possible? I read through the comments--different points of view about what is possible. Many were skeptical; remember, at that time, Bush was still viewed as invincible. No reason to get our hopes too high, but then something happened: Someone left a comment under the name Joe Trippi, entitled: the Perfect Storm. I had already come across his name, had read articles talking about the innovative campaign manager of the Dean campaign (It was also about that time that Hart dropped out of the race and Kerry was viewed as the frontrunner). But seeing his name there startled me. How many campaign managers would do that?
He began by asking the rhetorical question: How is this possible? There was already something of the miraculous in that question. "3 months ago Howard Dean was a political asterisk, today he has become such a threat to the frontrunner, and evidently, at least a few others...." Trippi then showed how Dean's opponents were distorting his record, and in those words a movement was born, or at least my participation in it was. They were not just attempting to stop Howard Dean, the candidate, but something bigger, beyond a single individual:
They are trying to stop the Perfect Storm.
It is a storm that has never happened before -- because it could not have happened before. The forces required to come into sync were not aligned, nor in some instances mature enough prior to this Presidential campaign. But the past few days may prove to be only the first winds of the Perfect Storm that will be required to defeat George Bush.
Something clicked on in my brain when I read those words. It all started to make sense, and anything was possible. In the streets, the general view was: "There's no way!" And here were these words in a virtual space, responding: "Yes there is!" Here we were living at this unique moment, the forces were suddenly aligned:
First the storm requires thousands and thousands, perhaps millions of Americans to become actively involved in determining the future course of our country. But how do these Americans find each other? How do they self-organize? How do they collaborate? How do they take action together? For the first time since we heard the words World Wide Web -- the Internet makes this possible.
There was so much hope back then--all we had to do was grow the movement and generate buzz.
Obviously things didn't work out as we had all expected. The excitement has died down. The forces of the establishment demonstrated their might. Skepticism has again flooded the hopeful fires; I hear few discussions about how the internet is changing everything. And yet, there is still reason to be hopeful. There are challenges ahead, and the progressive movement is very much alive. I, and many like me, who had never before been involved in politics beyond the single act of voting, are now politically aware.
Why did I title this piece: "The Cultic Qualities of American Politics"? Some may interpret the word cult in a negative sense. Indeed, after Dean lost, some people said to me, "It is just like a cult." And, to be honest, the more I got involved in the Perfect Storm, the more I felt it was like a cult. We had our leader who some viewed as the second coming. That is why I was always disturbed by words like Deaniac. I never felt pressured into doing anything, other than mobilizing around a candidate, whose message was: "You have the Power!" I could read the views of other candidates--and I did--and sometimes was pursuaded.
By cultic, I mean the way political campaigns--truely successful ones (even when the do not ultimately succeed)--generate this excitement, mobilize vast segments of the population, and create the feeling that our candidate, and only our candidate, can lead us to the promised land, a new age, a new birth, a utopia. In this process, they use techniques that have been developed over the centuries, harnessing them through ever new media technologies.
In my next post, I will discuss some of my recent experiences at campaign rallies.
Political Metaphors in Chinese Religion
Below, I'm pasting a description of the course I taught this past year at University of Pennsylvania; actually it was my course proposal for what is known as the Critical Writing Teaching Fellowship. I include it here because it conveys some sense of my interests, and it will be a continuing theme on this site:
In contemporary life, we are taught that religion and politics are separate realms of existence, but in traditional Chinese society, as in much of the pre-modern world, there was little clear distinction. In
In this course we will examine, discuss, and write about the various intersections between political and religious life in
Welcome to my new blog! I have been reading and commenting on--mainly political--blogs since about May 2003 when I first discovered Dean for America and all of the related sites, including dailykos.com, et al. Actually, it was only two months prior to that when I first heard the word: "blog" (What the heck's a blog?). It was while auditing an anthropology class at the University of Pennsylvania, called "Orality, Literacy, and Technology," which explored changing media--beginning with the origins of human speech--and their effects on human consciousness and societies.
Although I have spent many an hour reading other peoples' blogs since my first exposure, it is only now that I create my own, since my priority (ha ha!) was completing my dissertation. Now it is finished (amen!) and I eagerly await my defense in about two weeks. Thus, I finally have some time to channel some of my limited energy into creating an exciting, informative, fun-filled extravaganza of a blog.
I will write about a variety of subjects, including but not limited to those which emanate from my graduate training in Chinese religious, cultural, and intellectual history. One of my primary interests is the nexus between religion and politics, as expressed in a writing seminar I taught during the past year--Political Metaphors in Chinese Religion/Religious Icons in Chinese Politics--the central theme of which was the politico-religious (I like that word) manifestations of the Mandate of Heaven天命 throughout Chinese history, both in the center and on the periphery of the Chinese empire. This is also an important theme in my dissertation, especially the second half. Stay Tuned: At a later date I will pen some exciting posts which discuss my dissertation. For now, the title is, Mediating the Yao/Chinese Encounter: Writing, Daoism, and Politico-Religious Legitimation on the Imperial Frontier.
Blossoming from my interest in the relationship between religion and politics throughout Chinese history is a newly discovered fascination with the political uses of media in contemporary American society, as well as other societies around the world. I hope this blog (please!) will stimulate discussion that transcends intellectual, cultural, political, and religious boundaries. Let us make connections beyond our limited fields of awareness. This is not a site restricted to those with expertise on one or another field, though those with such expertise are certainly welcome. Feel free to comment unless you are mean and intolerant. If your goal is to attack and shut down discussion, then you are not welcome; I will reserve the right to erase inappropriate comments. Otherwise: Let a hundred flowers bloom.
Lastly, once I really get this site up and running, I will begin to invite guest posts. Let the games begin!