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.