Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Hamlet in China: why we all need critics.

Somewhere in this neighborhood.
A week or so ago, I visited the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.  This is the most important of those new cities that have sprung up between Hong Kong and Canton (Guangzhou), that with the latter older cities together constitute the densest and largest urban conglomerate on the planet.  Some 50 million people live in these cities: Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Canton EACH have the population of New York City or so. 

I found a chain hotel a few minutes walk from the border, and stood behind a woman who wanted to get a discount or change rooms.  The clerk was polite, but the customer didn't get what she wanted, and started complaining.  "Everything is bad here!  The elevator is slow, there are no restaurants nearby -- everything is really bad." 

Actually, I was pleasantly surprised to find so reasonable a hotel in such a choice spot.  True, the elevator was like molasses.  But the staff was courteous and eager to help, the place was clean, and it only cost $30 a night.  Furthermore, not only were there some cheap eats -- Muslim noodles, Hunanese, soups and dumplings -- a five minute walk down the road, walking in the other direction, I found myself in the center of a very fashionable and attractive neighborhood, with lights pulsating on a 70 story skyscraper, and all sorts of shops, if that's what you like. 

"Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so," said Hamlet.  His complaint was weightier than that of the woman in front on me in line: his uncle had murdered his father and shacked up with his mother.  So being Prince of Denmark, while attractive from the outside, proved not to be all it might appear from the outside. 

"I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."

Especially, of course, after his father visited him and his friends as a ghost, and demanded revenge. 

The next day I came across someone who was having good or at least happy dreams, and was not bound within his nutshell. 

I asked a taxi driver to take me to the nearest church, it being Sunday.  I knew there was a white one on a hill -- I'd been there before.  He mentioned a neighborhood, and it sounded vaguely familiar --- it had been five or six years -- and off we set. 

The driver seemed delighted to find an American who spoke Chinese.  He was from Henan Province to the north.  His fondest hope seemed to be to argue with an American about world politics. 

How lucky he got me. 

I obliged him, and we both enjoyed the fifteen minute trip to the church.  When the argument over the relative merits of our general national policies grew vehement, twice he stopped, worried that I was growing angry.  "No, I'm enjoying our chat," I told him, assuring him that I didn't take his criticism personally.  When he stopped, I got out of the cab, shook his hand, paid my fair, and said goodbye. 

What troubled me about the conversation was not the driver's patriotism.  As I told him, I believe a person should love their country.  Nor exactly that he seemed to buy into all the standard communist propaganda.  He did say, "China is a peaceloving country," but couldn't help but add, "You might win in the short run, because you have better weapons, but we have studied the art of war for much longer." (But who wants a war?  I actually had to ask that myself -- usually even the most strident Chinese patriot make it clear that conflict with the US is the last thing on their minds.)

I was troubled by the driver's insistence that he was not simply parroting the Official Line.  "You think we are brainwashed!  But I got these ideas myself, from reading books."  And he did, indeed, seem pretty well-informed, but what books had he read?  Any that challenged his assumptions?  Apparently not. 

But what really concerned me about our conversation was when I asked,

"Do you really think China never is to blame for anything?  It's always the other country's fault?  When you have a war with India, it's India's fault.  When you dispute islands with the Phillipines, it's entirely their fault.  You put the world's worst tyrants into power in North Korea, and that's America's fault?" 

The driver replied, "Yes."   He seriously maintained that China really is never to blame.  Chinese are peace-loving, and he could prove that each and every time China had a conflict -- and it has had plenty of them over the past 70 years, with almost every neighbor -- it is the other guy's fault. 

In other words,

"Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so." 

I just went through the Genesis story of Adam and Eve with my first-year students, in which Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the snake.  (The serpent probably blamed his genes, or God for creating him.) 

These two anecdotes are part of a larger trend that includes you and I.  Atheists call it "confirmation bias," but then almost never notice their own.  Another word for it is "cherry-picking," or in the case of Christ-mythicism, "parallelmania."  It is the picking and twisting and spinning of data to confirm those beliefs that have become close to your heart. 

This is why propaganda is a community activity.  As Jacques Ellul pointed out, propaganda always appeals to values, or "myths," that the community already has its heart set on: "Democracy," "Science," "Socialism," "Peace," "Equality."  'Grace" and "Faith" might qualify for Christians.  And then you can sell it anything, even the opposite of what those words normally mean, because in a sense, the community, the individual, is selling the package to himself.  That's because self-deification has become a collective activity.  To the extent "China" -- or "America," or "Christianity," "the Seattle Seahawks," or any other group identity -- is our god, we make ourselves into the incarnation of that god, and an attack on it is an attack on our own egos.  Which we will fight to the death to defend. 

This is one reason the doctrine of sin and of human corruption is so liberating -- because it confronts us with our own duplicity. 

And this is one reason I DO thank God for the New Atheists, and for other critics.   We need them, as they need us. 

This is one of several reasons that, when asked who our favorite "apologists" were, I wrote:
"Personally, I appreciate John Loftus, Richard Carrier, Richard Dawkins, David Hume, Sam Harris, Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, John Crossan, Carl Sagan EO Wilson, Elaine Pagels, Reza Aslan, Greta Christiana, Celsus, Philostratus, Matthew Fergusen, Bart Ehrman, Phil Zuckerman, Dan Brown, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Law, Robert Price, John Hick, and other apologists of that stripe. Don't know what I'd do without them."

And this is also one reason why, while I am not sure about evolution and creation scientifically, Genesis is one of my favorite books in the Bible. 

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