By Dylan Flint
“Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities” Lamentations 5:7
Whether or not we buy the metaphysical presuppositions of this passage, and others like it, from the Bible, we cannot deny the fact that we do not choose the household we are born into, nor can we choose our country of birth.
To put it bluntly, I did not choose to be American.
I moved to China in the midst of an ugly election, and considered, like many others, going (in my case staying) abroad if a certain candidate was elected. Well, he was elected, and I probably won’t stay abroad. But, then again, I do not know what the future holds.
Living in China during this election cycle has caused me a great deal of reflection, namely surrounding three things: the sociopolitical climate of my new home, the shortcomings of democracy, and what it means to be an American.
In many ways China is ahead of us. For starters, they’ve already had their experiment with socialism and thrown it out as no good. While in America, we seem stuck, trying to force feed water downed versions of a reductionist philosophy to an unwilling populous. Yet, in many other ways, China seems centuries behind. The current government at times reminds one of something out of the Dark Ages. Complete centralized authoritative rule, shadow policy making, the imprisoning and beating of dissenting artists, and a hell bent policy of eliminating any hint of revolution to boot. And while the be-headings aren’t held in the square, China currently executes more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. (1)
While we are quick to lament, and rightly so, I can not deny that it works. In fact, I have never seen so many happy people in my life.
Cyber-threats, terrorism, mis-information, hacked elections, these are all non-issues. At least, not ones felt by ordinary citizens. With closed borders, the great fire-wall, and a state run media this is the reality.
And what about crime? Likewise, it is a non-issue.
But why is this so?
One could cite the fact that the government wastes trillions of RMB on new construction projects, many of which will never see the light of day, simply so people can stay employed. While I do not deny that this contributes to the low crime rate, I feel I have struck something deeper — something ingrained in the social fabric of the people. In China, there are no second chances. I have found the concept of Forgiveness to be a strangely western, strangely Christian idea.
When I asked a group of Chinese students, aged 20–35, about the private prison system in America, many agreed that it was unjust and that rehabilitation has fallen behind cheap labor and profit in priority. But when I asked those same students if they would invite a convict back into their lives after they had served their time, I was shocked by the fiercely absolute “No” I received. Not one of them said they would hire the person if they owned a company, and many suggested they wouldn’t even associate with the person. Even if the person was a child when they committed the offense, the answer was still the same. The verdict was in: If you did something that landed you in jail, you are forever an outsider. It is no wonder people don’t commit crime.
While I found this to be a bit cruel, I had to remember that outside Christendom this is the way things work. And I am starting to realize that forgiveness comes at quite the cost.
Higher principles are not cheap. They demand a lot from us.
Last year when Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to more than a million refugees, she was doing so because it was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, the tangible consequences appear to have been devastating. Whether the rate of terror has actually increased due to the influx of refugees, or politicians are merely fanning flames of xenophobia, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Regardless of the truth, the country is in turmoil, and immigration will undoubtedly serve as a central issue come elections.
Now I would like to believe that given a long enough time horizon Merkel's good graces will be rewarded, but it is hard to see such a thing outside the classroom. All I can see, at least for the time being, is sensible people in fear, opportunistic politicians cashing in, and daily injustices being committed against those who seek refuge. A spotty resume for "the right thing" to say the least. But beyond this, I think there is a real lesson here. I think we must realize what it is our higher principles ask us to overcome.
We have to understand that this growing alt-right protectionist polemic that passed Brexit, put trump in office, and may out Merkel is not all based on false news, rhetoric, and politics of fear. Despite this going against everything I learned in primary school and was taught by Hollywood, the reality is foreigners wreak havoc on social norms, dissent is painful to bear, tolerance is exhausting, criminals hardly ever learn from their mistakes, and our enemies know to hit us where it hurts: by taking advantage of our good graces — by making a mockery of our higher principles. Free trade, open borders, second chances, all of it attracts exploitation.
Honestly taking one good-long-look at China it is not hard to see the draw of a massive one party system with closed borders, that censures media, and silences civil unrest at all cost (I have in mind Tienanmen Square June, 4th 1989). It is so peaceful here. And while the harmony may be faux, there is real solidarity. Despite all the problems China faces, and they are immense, the sentiment of the people is that we are all in this together — we are all Chinese.
It pains me to admit that this identity is gone in America, if there ever was such a thing. Despite the few radical god-fearing patriots, the sentiment of American solidarity — the pioneers of freedom, the we can build the future we want for ourselves, the beacon of hope for the tired, hungry, and poor of the world — is completely gone.
Maybe I see America’s past as a child reads a storybook, and I see China through the eyes of a foreigner, but I still believe free people can come together of their own volition, and that this is somehow better than the alternatives. However, I would be lying if I said this belief isn’t constantly being challenged by everything around me, or that I have never considered its outright abandonment. In fact, it may be worth asking ourselves why it is we even have this belief. What is this something extra that makes it better if we make decisions for ourselves, and come together on our own, instead of someone one else forcing this upon us?
This very same question is to be found, incidentally enough, in the history of Christianity. There the question takes on the form: why is conversion in the heart better than conversion through coercion?
Many Christian philosophers, Bayle comes to mind, have argued that this is just clearly so — that only a true conversion takes place if it happens in the heart of man, and not merely in his outward demonstrations. But this argument, while I agree with its conclusions, often ends with an appeal to the “natural light” of reason. In other words, a conversion in the heart is just obviously better. But, absent this vague intuition, it is hard to see why.
I’ve always believed the ends to never justify the means, but if God is the end, it could hardly matter how you got there. After all, you arrived at God.
* * *
Benjamin Franklin once said, “those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
As a juvenile, I believed this quote to be expounding the sagacity of the libertarian. Now, as an adult, I see it more as a proclamation, or rather a warning, of the insecurity of a democracy. On the one hand, if essential liberties are lost, then the entire system collapses, and on the other, if an individual wishes to relinquish his liberty in exchange for some relief from the anxiety that that liberty expounds upon him, then he loses his place in that system. In other words, everyone must believe in it for it to work. What a frail thing indeed. That is unless we take 'belief' to mean something other than it does in its pejorative sense. Regardless, if I were not a talented, energetic, young Aristotelian, who stood to gain from toppling monarchs, it would be hard see why anyone would want to buy into such a thing.
It could be rebutted that a democracy ensures against corruption, and I would say profit seeking corporations are running America. It could be replied that a democracy represents the people, and I would say the last honest politician was shot in the head. It could be said that a democracy ensures against the homogeneity of opinion and the stagnation of ideas, and I would say we are overrun with opinion and everyone’s “good” ideas. It could be said that democracy encourages progress, and I would say we are behind the rest of the world. It could be said that democracy and religious freedom go hand-in-hand, and I would say purchasing good vibes at a mega church hardly constitutes unabated spiritual development. It could be said that only in a democracy do we get to choose our leader, and I would say that over half the voting populous didn’t select America’s current president.
Now to be sure, charges against democracy are nothing new. Plato famously argued in his masterpiece Republic that the next logical step after the beautiful multifarious democracy was a tyranny. And it isn’t because some tyrant comes and takes our kingdom, it is because we give rise to the tyrant. This is simply the natural consequence of our desires playing the part of the ruler in the political organism that is the state. So the story goes: our customs and values diminish from generation to generation, because in a democracy the father is on equal ground with the son, and when things go wrong, which they are bound to, we desperately elect a leader who promises to continue to give us everything we wish for. But, the thing is, because we have destroyed our values in the relativism that co-habits democracy, the leader lacks everything that it takes to be a good leader. The beautiful tragedy runs its course, and we become slaves to the tyrant — the embodiment of our passions — in his wild pursuit to save us.
But let be also known that Plato likewise believed in something called the Form of the Good: a metaphysical force which has the power to transform the natural world, including its natural consequences.
While I do not doubt that this is a hard notion for people to understand, let alone believe in, I find it compelling. And the reason why is I have been transformed, if not by it, then by something similar. See, the thing I can not deny, no matter how bad things get in America and how good things get for me in China, is that I have been given a second chance — a second chance I did not deserve.
* * *
I was a junkie criminal who tore through the lives of others. I abused my freedom just as much as America is being abused today. My family, my community, my society, my culture, all have forgiven me, and my debt for this is insurmountable. But it isn’t a debt I don begrudgingly.
I moved to China to repay a debt to my father — to become my own man: A self-sufficient male who by use of his own volition and under his own capabilities nurtures and provides for himself and others— and it is becoming one of the defining experiences of my life. The process of going back over our lives, our histories, and making right our wrongs is one of great beauty, tremendous insight, and strengthening of soul. It is not a journey of dread. It is the path we want to be on, and, for me, it all began with a choice, a free choice.
Now, I am compelled by this path. It is not by force that I am compelled, but by a sense of moral duty. I am beginning to see what a life of service means, and it is something I really want. I want to repay my family, my community, my country, my western ethos, which gave me another chance at life.
I was once asked as a undergraduate what the Form of the Good meant to me, and for the first time I have a genuine answer: Being able to implement your own ideas, and to have the consequences be of benefit — to see the lives of other people improve by your hand. It is hard to imagine such a thing flowering and reaching its fullest fruition in a country that stifles free expression and assembly.
The spirit of the west — freedom of conscience, forgiveness, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom to influence, self-governance — is sick and dying, but it is not dead. Being able to believe what you want, to say what you want, to think what you want, to go after what you want, and to fall flat on your face, but then to be given a second chance, the means of redemption, the opportunity to really learn, and then to see it all work —to see yourself become a positive force in the lives of others — that, that is worth saving.
But I am fully aware that unless one has shared this experience it is hard to see how they could reach the same conclusion. To put it a little differently, it is hard to see why ordinary people should buy into these higher principles if they don’t immediately benefit from them.
I recently read that chaos, insecurity, anxiety, complaining, manipulating the system through unjust law, taking advantage of, deceit, rhetoric, and corruption are not signs a democracy is failing. Rather, these are signs a democracy is working —that this is a democracy in action.
Maybe it is the case that we don’t need everyone to be convinced. Maybe the system need only produce a few good men — maybe even only one. I take some solace in the idea.
* * *
So why then is it better if conversion takes place in the heart? If answers must be given, it is because once the Father dies, it can live on in the Son, and the Son can one day pass the torch. Absent this internalization, it is hard to imagine a thing surviving once this Father leaves us.
And, after all has been said, what does it mean to me to be an American? It means having the freedom to become influential in the lives of others, for better or for worse. It means taking part in a socio-political environment where goodness at least has the potential to reach its highest expression.
But what will happen to us? Will a democracy give rise to a tyrant, a few good men, or to a philosopher king? This I obviously do not know, but since I have recovered from my passions, and things are beginning to fall into their proper place, I am hopeful, nay faithful, that the same thing can happen to her.
Despite the fact my generation is being handed a broken country, I assume the responsibility it entails. I forgive my father’s transgressions. I forgive my country’s mistakes. And I, of my own volition, compelled by moral duty, seek a life in politics.
It is true I never chose to be American. But today, I do.