What Other Nations Know: Economy Without Culture Will Fail

Regrettably, this past week saw the suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. His show Parts Unknown was (still is) my favorite TV show. In it, he traveled the world in search of authentic cuisine, culture, subculture, history, politics, and interesting people. I’ve seen probably 30% of the 11 seasons of the show, but this was still enough to make it my favorite.

 

My favorite one episode is when he goes to Shanghai, China. It has a more somber, serious tone than most episodes, and it addresses big questions. The opening montage of images and music establishes the themes: Unimagined wealth and opportunity, the future, and the fear of missing out. These are the conversations that play out during the episode as Bourdain visits with Shanghainese residents.

 

I come away from the Shanghai episode with a few strongly felt beliefs, most of which had already been simmering in my mind but were affirmed and magnified, even emotionally, by this particular episode. The newest of these beliefs is the seemingly unstoppable nature of Chinese economic conquest. Supporting this is what appears to be, although I haven’t been to China, a culture far more homogenous than what we have in America. Atop Chinese culture sits the authoritarian Chinese government, which will stop at nothing to win the economic competitions of the world and which has great latitude in dictating how Chinese culture is or is not preserved.

 

The thing that makes rapid Chinese economic growth different than our own is that they have retained their culture through the process, or in spite of it. In America, we have not done this, as evidenced by the fact that there is no longer a universal definition of what it means to be American. The only things we all have in common are the land itself, our form of government, and the rights guaranteed in our Constitution. However, if you ask a Chinese person what it means to be Chinese, you will get a longer answer. Our problem is that land, style of government, and rights alone a culture do not make. The Chinese have fewer political rights than us, but no one would say they have a weaker culture than we do. And therein lies the key to their future economic victories: They are supported by a strong culture. Sure, China has modernized a lot and the culture has changed. But it’s still recognizably Chinese to any external observer. What would an external observer consider recognizably American? Guns? Barbecue? Fast Food? Militarism? “Freedom?” These things are not enough to sustain the world’s largest economy (us) forever. “Freedom” increasingly means different things to different people, after all.

 

The Shanghai episode also highlights a mortal threat to our continued success as a country: The utter inferiority of our big cities (i.e. 600K+ people) compared to those of East Asia. On what basis can New York, L.A., Chicago, and even D.C. compete with the likes of Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong? They can’t, because our biggest cities have degenerated into powder kegs of racial anger, a “tossed salad” of subcultures with no unifying American culture, and the ever-present, unceasing rat race. Nothing in that mixture suffices as one definition of what it means to be American. It’s as if American culture means not having a culture. By definition, a culture unifies an entire people, but Americans are not unified by anything except the few things I’ve already listed.

 

The rat race is the single biggest contributor to the lack of American culture because it diverts us from addressing the other issues in a meaningful way. Does anyone really immigrate to America because they love American culture? People come here because it’s easy to make money here. In America, we have allowed the pursuit of wealth to blind us to the cultural degradation going on all around us. If you want to make money in America, you probably have to move to one of our big cities and sacrifice your health, sanity, and probably morals, for 20-30 years in the rat race before whatever is left of you can retire. Our small towns and rural areas have dealt with the resulting “brain drain” for a long time. As a nation, we should have been asking questions by now about whether this is optimal for our long-term national health, but our cities and states are too locked in economic competition to have the conversation. Plus, the whole machine has the media as its champion, continually lauding glistening city life as the path to happiness and prosperity.

 

Of course, China has brain drain too. In fact, many people in China move not just from the rural areas to the cities and suburbs, but even to other countries, like America, sometimes because of government oppression or the fear of it. But the people going from China’s small towns to her cities remain recognizably Chinese in culture. If I had to pinpoint the source of true “American” culture, the closest I could get would be in America’s small towns, i.e. “small town values.” If that is accurate, then the people who flee our small towns for economic opportunity in the cities often lose the things in their lives that made them culturally “American.” Our cities are insular, overcrowded islands of angst, narcissism, degeneracy, suspicion, and insolence. These same cities sucking the most talented young people out of our small towns and corrupting them is a sad sight indeed.

 

It’s hard to ignore Chinese success. The richness of other Americans doesn’t bother me, because I know that for the most part, they have paid a high price for it—basically, their sanity. But through at least the glimpse of Shanghai’s rich that I saw in Bourdain’s show, they seem to be both rich and sane. Of course, it’s a show, and we’re only seeing what the producers want us to see. But who would I rather sit down to dinner with? Five rich people from Shanghai, or five rich people from DC or New York? Shanghai, because I already know they are more cultured, seemingly more sane, and probably better conversationalists as a result of both. The only thing left that American culture teaches all Americans to care about—not just in the small towns but all Americans—is chasing the dollar. Ask yourself, who benefits from that arrangement? Not the average American, for the reasons I’ve stated.

 

In Europe, culture is way, way more important than in the US. At the same time, the US is an economic behemoth when put against even Germany, the EU’s strongest economy. There is no contest. There never will be, but it’s because Europeans don’t “live to work”—they make time for the things that make them culturally German, or French, or Spanish, or Polish, etc. China’s ability to stay culturally Chinese despite its meteoric economic rise is why, in my view, they are probably going to win the economic contest with the US eventually. America has exhausted its population chasing economic growth, and we basically have no national culture left. China has exhausted many things chasing success, such as its environment, but it still has plenty of culture, and the more of an upper hand they gain on us and everyone else, the more they can slow down and thereby preserve their culture even more effectively. So currently, I don’t see any way they can lose.

 

Add to this the specter of low birth rates haunting all advanced economies. America’s birth rate would I’m sure be below replacement level if it weren’t for immigration. Now in Asia, you do have massive birth rate problems, especially in places like Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. The young of these countries can’t be bothered to slow down, get married, and start families in their mad pursuit of success. It’s worth saying that there is no point in preserving your culture if you have no one to pass it on to. So this is not an exoneration of East Asia’s rat race and birth rate woes and a condemnation of only ours. It’s a problem that affects both sides of the Pacific and that neither side is anywhere close to figuring out. And actually, the main culprit is right under the noses of all governments involved, but it is politically impossible to resolve, so I don’t see it changing under present conditions.

 

But take birth rates between East Asia and the US and use it as a study in contrasts. In China, they finally relaxed the One Child Policy into a Two Child Policy. Meanwhile, we have people marching in DC in insolent pink hats shaped like reproductive organs, demanding the right to kill babies in the womb. From an anthropological perspective, any people obsessed with destroying its own progeny is delusional and not living in reality. We also have people busily inventing “new genders.” You don’t have this lunacy in China, because people aren’t so numbed by nihilistic living and socially liberal indoctrination that they have nothing better to do with their lives. Then we have our media, such as our movies, TV, and music scene. These constantly pump degenerate idiocy into the lives of the young people who, as is necessary for societal continuance, should be getting married and starting families instead of trying to live out and identify with thug-life and street fantasies, or even yuppie fantasies. East Asian countries have been importing and trying to mimic our music and movies for a long time, but we’re doing them no favors by “exporting” these to them, no matter how badly they want them. No politician talks about the epidemic of single motherhood or single fatherhood or divorce in America or the indecency of our media culture. These things all represent large-scale challenges to the survival and perpetuation of our society, as they would in any society, but so few people do anything about it. That’s a lack of will and lack of agreement with one’s society that the Chinese, our greatest economic competitor, do not seem to be cursed with, and that’s why they’ll win if nothing changes.

 

I’m all for Trump’s desire to bring our economy back (which he has done much for and doesn’t get enough credit for), and to deal with our trade imbalances, but even he doesn’t address these underlying issues. It doesn’t matter how good our economy is if our society has no culture and no next generation to pass on our culture OR economy to. No politician I know of is brave enough to go on record with a statement like that. The Chinese don’t have to say it, apparently, because they aren’t making the same mistakes in this area. If China is able to get its birth rate above replacement level while ours continues to decline, we are toast.

 

Steve Bannon, firebrand conservative operative, has said a lot of things, and I don’t pretend to understand his ideology in much depth, nor do I agree with everything I know him to have said. That necessary disclaimer being out of the way (since we live in an age of guilt by association), there is one powerful statement he has said multiple times: “We’re not just an economy. We’re a civic society.” That statement is one that I have never heard a politician say any approximation of. In elections it always just comes down to the economy: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Economy is important, as any poor nation will tell you, but it’s not everything. Culture is a big missing ingredient in our society’s trajectory, meaning our economy is growing in opposition to what’s left of our culture. We are essentially in afterburner, expending costly culture to gain wealth. Somehow East Asian countries have figured out how blunt the “de-culturation” effect of rapid economic growth to a manageable level. We have not figured this out and show no signs of doing so.

 

Fortunately for me, I live in New Mexico, an undisputed beacon of culture. (I plan to write more on New Mexican culture in the future.) New Mexico is also a “poor state,” and tends to score in the bottom 10 states by multiple economic indicators. But New Mexico has figured out culture, and a lot of the culture here ranges in age from 100 to 400 years. I would like to see New Mexico be a more prosperous state, but not at the expense of its culture. Economies can come back, but once lost, culture is harder to retrieve, relearn, and revive. Contrast this with Maryland, the richest state, and the place I recently moved back to New Mexico from. Maryland has pretty much no prevailing culture, despite subcultures in places like Annapolis and “tossed salad” multiculturalism in the counties close to DC.  So as New Mexico struggles to climb the economic ladder, I think to myself: Do it carefully, or your future will look like Maryland, where the only prevailing “culture” is the rat race because there is nothing else that all Marylanders have in common.

 

A society can survive a bad economy, but no society can survive a lack of culture. Without anything binding them together, people will fragment based on their subcultures, just like a wrote about in my essay on Singapore and multiculturalism. I fear this is the path America is on unless we can re-grow a culture and stop sacrificing everything for the economy. After all, the economy exists to serve us, not the other way around.

The Singapore Example and the Limits of Multiculturalism in America

“In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion. Supposing I’d run their [the British] system here, Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese. I would have a constant clash in my Parliament which cannot be resolved because the Chinese majority would always overrule them.” – Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore 1959-1990

 

The tiny island nation of Singapore, located between Malaysia and Indonesia, consistently ranks among the top 10 countries in development and economic strength, even beating out the US in some measurements. In less than 50 years, Singapore transformed from a third-world British colony and World War II conquest of Imperial Japan to a glistening, highly-developed economic giant. Singapore is one of the “Four Asian Tigers,” powerhouse Asian economies also including Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. Singapore’s astonishing success has been the subject of many a book and white paper.

 

Lee Kuan Yew was independent Singapore’s first prime minister. He governed for three decades, and occupied various governmental and political positions afterward until his death in 2015. He governed in perpetual fear of the collapse of the society he had built, and believed to his death that his People’s Action Party (PAP), which still governs Singapore as a virtually one-party state, needed to rigidly maintain power and often suspend democratic norms in order to keep the society together. Lee was often condemned for autocratic rule and even human rights and press abuses.

 

What was it that Lee feared so much, causing him to govern this way? Identity politics.

 

In 1963, Singapore, still loosely under British control, merged with Malaysia due to strong ties between the two nations and the hope of economic benefits. However, the first year of the new union was marred by conflicts between Malaysia’s (the name of combined Malaysia and Singapore) dominant political party, United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and Singapore’s PAP party, as well as deadly race rioting between Singapore’s Malay and Chinese populations. The central position of Malaysia’s prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and his party was the need to fight for the rights of ethnic Malays, including those in Singapore. In fact, from the outset of the union there was considerable concern that the inclusion of the Singaporean Chinese population would alter the ethnic proportions of the voting base upon which UMNO depended to maintain dominance. Lee Kuan Yew’s consistent theme, on the other hand, was that the new Malaysia needed enforced racial equality in order to survive. Lee held a meeting with prominent Singaporean Malay organizations and leaders to assure them they would not be discriminated against, but throughout 1964 Malaysia’s PM and UMNO politicos made multiple incendiary moves and statements that increased suspicion among Singaporean Malays toward the Singaporean Chinese population. Two sets of deadly race riots broke out in Singapore that year, and negotiations between UMNO and PAP on various issues were making little progress.

 

In 1965, less than two years after unification, Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman decided that Singapore needed to separate from Malaysia to avoid further conflicts. Negotiations to achieve this went on in secrecy between the two sides, with Lee Kuan Yew and other Singaporean officials negotiating with the Malaysian government after it was made clear there was no way Singapore would be allowed to remain in Malaysia. The move to separate Singapore from Malaysia required an amendment to the Malaysian Constitution in the Malaysian Parliament, and PM Abdul Rahman introduced a resolution on August 9, 1965, which was passed by a vote of 126-0. That day, Singapore became independent and Lee Kuan Yew gave an emotional speech explaining the break-up to the people of Singapore.

 

This is the only incident in modern history that I know of in which one country has been voted out of another against its wishes. While there were economic and political issues at play, it is inescapably clear the racial conflict was a linchpin in the desire of Malaysian leaders to expel Singapore. It was negotiated and communicated in ways that made it look like something other than an expulsion, but for all intents and purposes that’s exactly what it was since Singapore didn’t want to separate. The entire episode profoundly affected Lee Kuan Yew’s political philosophy and only further strengthened his belief that Singapore could not last as a multiracial society if identity politics were allowed. Being Chinese himself, he walked the talk by making English the official language of Singapore (to this day), not Chinese which was the language of the Chinese majority (although English was actually his first language). This move earned him many critics, but he believed that giving a clear demographic advantage to one group would eventually tear the country apart.

 

There were additional race riots in 1969, but over the next several decades Singapore grew into a peaceful and stable economic titan. The People’s Action Party maintained a veritable stranglehold on national politics, as it does to this day. However, Lee Kuan Yew’s quasi-autocratic methods and the PAP’s dominance are not the reason I write this essay.

 

Multiculturalism has probably never been a more hot-button issue in America than it is right now, and I don’t see it getting better any time soon. Lee Kuan Yew’s quote about people voting based on race and religion in a multiracial society has nary proven truer than in America today. Even the most novice student of politics understands which groups vote for which political parties, sometimes in staggeringly high proportions. Blacks and Hispanics vote heavily for the Democratic Party. Most whites vote Republican, although by a lesser volume. Even different Christian denominations tend to vote for different parties. Non-Hispanic immigrants are believed (the data is difficult to decode) to vote Democrat. Asians generally vote Democrat, although there is a growing trend among Indian Americans of voting Republican.

 

Democrats have aggressively courted the immigrant vote over the years, especially in the 2016 and now 2018 election cycles. The word “xenophobia” was practically unknown to the public until Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton popularized it to mean irrational fear of immigrants, using it to galvanize the Hispanic segment of the Democratic voting base. The Democrats have carefully constructed a constellation of various ethnic groups in order to counter the steadfast strength of conservative white voters. Never before the 2016 election have the charges of racism and other, similar forms of acrimony flown so freely across the airwaves, including Hillary essentially calling Donald Trump a racist during a presidential debate televised around the world when she condemned his “racist lie” that Obama wasn’t born in the US.

 

The Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 overhauled the American immigration system by removing restrictions on national origin which had basically preferred European immigrants beforehand (think waves of German immigrants in the early 1900s). This change occurred during the height of the Civil Rights Movement era and was viewed as further dispelling racism in society. Although Senator Ted Kennedy assured the public that the bill would not substantially alter national demographics, that is what ended up happening.

 

But this essay is not about the past, it is about the future. Given the demographic changes in the US over the past 50 years and the ever-increasing tension in our society regarding race, immigration, and even religion, we must step back and look at the course we are on. How much worse will the tensions get? Is there a breaking point, and if so when is it? We’ve already seen race riots—those are nothing new. But could there be something more drastic ahead?

 

I’m of the belief that race matters way less than people think. Race is just the ways that some human bodies are different than others, but all are human bodies. Race obviously is most noticeable in the way someone looks as compared to someone else, but this is a surface level characteristic. What really matters is culture, and that’s why I titled this essay with “the Limits of Multiculturalism in America,” not “the Limits of Multiracialism in America.” Our policies toward multiculturalism are what will determine our national future probably more than anything else. Currently, we are doing an abysmal job of assimilating new immigrants. In fact, until this process is righted and strengthened, we should greatly reduce immigration because we’re accepting immigrants faster than we can assimilate them. Sure, we have a citizenship test, but that is laughably insufficient for assimilation. Since we have been doing such a poor job, we have become what some describe as a “tossed salad” instead the traditional metaphor of a “melting pot.” But unless you’re in an international airport, putting multiple distinct cultures with little to nothing in common next to each other tends to bring rivalries.

 

I say all this not because I dislike immigrants. It’s normal for a country to have an immigration policy, and every country has at least some immigration (beyond tourism). I’m pretty sure even North Korea has Chinese guest workers (could be wrong). But our system is out of control and we have no good method of assimilation. No other country except the currently beleaguered countries of Western Europe approach immigration this way. Other countries expect you to assimilate—to “become similar” to the population. Obviously you cannot racially assimilate, which is why this is not a racial issue. But you can culturally assimilate, and in other countries you are expected to do so. You are viewed as a guest in other countries, with a highly limited ability to make claims on your host country until you’re a citizen.

 

The Democrats have known for years that they are struggling to keep the white vote. There are multiple reasons for this, but one factor is the falling white birth rate. The Democrats know that the next generation will have fewer whites in proportion to other ethnicities, particularly Hispanic Americans. The black population has remained about the same proportion for years, and Asians, while a fast-growing population due to immigration, are still too small of a constituency for the Democrats to make much of a national appeal to. Their sights are firmly set on the Hispanic vote as the key to electoral dominance, which is why the Democrats fight any attempts to reduce either legal or illegal immigration. Additionally, most immigrants to America come from political traditions similar to the big-government policies espoused by the Democrats, which is another way they court the immigrant vote. The minimal-government model of our Constitution is a rare animal indeed, and were it strictly enforced there would be less draw for immigration because the government would be much smaller and could provide far fewer social services.

 

So where does all this lead? What I’m concerned about as a very real possibility is a future break-up of America along ethno-cultural lines. If, for example, the Mexican-American population becomes the majority in California, then California’s politicians could simply focus (openly) on appealing to Mexican-American concerns. Just like Malaysia’s UMNO party focused only on Malay issues, Democrats only need to pick the largest group and pander to them to stay in power.

 

Additionally, as long as the Democrats successfully conflate Trump’s tough stance on immigration with racism against Mexicans and others of Central American descent, he cannot effectively make an appeal, as Lee Kuan Yew did, for a multiracial society in which no race is given priority over another. Trump repeatedly emphasizes in his speeches that we are all Americans, not whatever the color of our skin is. He is right, and America’s experiment as a multiracial society can succeed, but only if we stop being such a multicultural one. Do I think Trump has some racist beliefs? He might. But what matters is how he governs, not what his inner beliefs are. The vision of America that he enunciates is one not of a country of “hyphenated Americans” but of all one people, known simply as Americans, no hyphens needed.

 

But imagine any one of the following scenarios. In the future, California secedes as a majority Mexican-American state that wants self-determination in accordance with its ethnic identity. I’m a big believer in self-determination and the right to secede, but although I wouldn’t miss uber-liberal California, I don’t want America to break up. Or if not California, maybe the same thing happens with Texas or a section of it. Perhaps California or part of Texas joins with Mexico, like Singapore joined with Malaysia. Or what if, a few decades from now, today’s minorities are large enough to create a permanent voting majority and dominate Congress? If they dominated Congress, could they vote out “white” parts of the country that resisted ethnic transformation out of the US, just as Malaysia expelled Singapore? Or what if the poor white regions like the Appalachian states were deemed a “drag” on the national economy while simultaneously accused of incurable racism? Or if they resisted affirmative action policies, which was another bone of contention between Malaysia and Singapore?

 

A staple of American consciousness is the belief that “it can’t happen here,” but to me, these scenarios are not as far-fetched as they sound. The Democrats are examples of politicians who will say or propose virtually anything to maintain power. They will always “go there,” wherever “there” is, if they think they’ll come out on top on Election Day. This is a sad state of affairs, because national preservation through a unifying culture, something even a country as tiny as Singapore knows is necessary for survival as a political unit, should always trump identity politics. Unfortunately, the Democrats don’t care about healing old wounds; they’re only interested in winning, even if it means ripping off bandages (sometimes while calling it “healing”).

 

I write a lot about the need to not get upset about politics. I am not writing this essay to stir emotion. When I first read about Singapore’s history and how they were expelled from Malaysia because of, among other factors, racial tensions and bloodshed, I thought I might be seeing a future break-up scenario for America. I wanted to share this because too many people in politics today don’t have a long-term view with regards to immigration and culture, and don’t focus on what all other countries know—that a divided populace means a divided country, and sometimes that division becomes literal.

 

And if you were offended by this essay, I suggest reading the previous one about how to free your mind from political correctness.

 

“I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.” – Lee Kuan Yew

 

Sources for Singapore history: Wikipedia and the National Library of Singapore website