The Inimitable Grandma Stell

In Memoriam: Estelle R. Freedman (1926 – 2017)

On New Year’s Eve in 2013, I took a college friend of mine down to Atlantic City to visit Grandma Stell. We made dinner; then, a few hours before midnight, my friend and I got ready to walk down to the casinos to ring in the New Year. As we bundled up to face the nighttime cold, Stell grew very concerned about our plans to go out. It was dark, Atlantic City was not safe these days, there are lots of crazy people around during the holidays, etc. We told her not to worry, but of course she was going to worry, because Jewish grandmothers worry, and Stell could out-Jewish-grandmother any other grandmother on the planet.

We insisted on going, and Stell’s worries subsequently shifted: she became concerned that we wouldn’t have enough money for the casinos. She wanted to give us money to gamble with. We refused, of course, but she was not pleased with our stubbornness. Take the money, she urged us. The same woman who saved paper shopping bags full of decades-old receipts “in case there was something useful” would not relent: if her grandson was going to go to the casinos on New Year’s eve, well, then, she was going to give him money to do that. Only after a long standoff and my comments about the paucity of the social security system did we manage to reorient her concerns back to safety and the fact that we were going out after dark.

She implored us to be safe as we headed out the door. We stepped inside the elevator when the apartment door flew open and Stell came out, yelling at us. “Hold up, hold up!” she screamed.

“What is it, Grandma?” I asked as we retreated back into the hallway. I thought someone had been hurt, or worse.

“I forgot to tell you,” she said. “Make sure you win some money.”

We returned to the apartment around two in the morning, tiptoeing silently through the door so as to not wake her. But she was wide awake, sitting on the couch, waiting for us to get home.

“What are you doing awake?” I asked.

“I was worried about you,” she said.

My memory tells me that the next thing she asked was, “Did you win any money?”


Any remembrance of Stell will focus on two things: worrying and talking. Her care was expressed as worry, and she liked to talk, which meant that you were always fully informed about how much she cared, and thus how much she was going to worry.

In college, I woke up one morning to a distressed phone call from Stell. She had received a scam call saying that I had been arrested for drunk driving in Canada and needed someone to wire me money. She was on the verge of sending money, because she was worried.

When I moved to Washington, DC, she did not hesitate to share her concerns. “Stay away from the kookaboos,” she warned me. By kookaboos she meant crazy people, and by crazy people she meant kookaboos. And it didn’t matter: if I was thinking about going near them, she was going to worry.

And, of course, then I moved to China. I understand her worries about that one.

Yet despite this, she always maintained that she was not worried. “Joshua,” she would tell me, “I was with the girls, and we were talking about our grandchildren, and I said, ‘If there’s one grandkid I don’t have to worry about, it’s my Joshua.’” I’d inform her that, yes, she told me that the last time we spoke, and the time before that. “Well, it’s true,” she’d say. “Of all my grandchildren, I know I don’t have to worry about you.”

And when there was worry, there was something to talk about. Phone calls to my other grandmother, and nearly any other person in my family, have always been short and utilitarian, never lasting longer than a minute and a half. The key points — safe, healthy, no long-term relationship, no life direction, eating a lot — were satisfactorily established, we said “I love you,” and then we hung up. But phone calls with Stell could last nearly an hour, meandering from topic to topic, circling back around to once more bring up key worries (or lack thereof, because “have I ever told you that, of all my grandchildren, you are the one I never worry about…”). The telephone was basically an extension of her arm. It didn’t matter who was on the receiving end: she would take any opportunity to talk to you about what was going on in her life, about the Phillies and the Eagles and their painful ineptitude, about her grandchildren. She would walk through the Plaza Place apartment building, where most of the residents had long since cleared age 65, and work the room like a suave executive. She would spy her friends on the other side of the main social area — the card playing room — and launch into multiple conversations at once. “Harry, how are you this morning? Rose, what a beautiful day it is outside today!” And, of course, “Harry, Rose—have you met my grandchildren?”

When she got a cell phone, she would call me and leave a message.

“Joshua,” she would holler. “I just wanted to give you a call and hear your lovely voice.” Then, as if there were many octogenarian women who called me by my full first name, Joshua, and claimed I had a lovely voice, she would add, “This is your Grandma Stell, just in case you were wondering.”

It was her voice, and her style of talking, though, that will stick with me. Jahshua, she would say, drawing out the vowel to leave no doubt that she was my grandmother. My grandson Jahshua is coming to visit. It was an intonation grounded in a lifetime of Philadelphia accents; and it carried hints of Yiddish from her parents and older relatives, whose genes I share but whom I never met. When I was little she would pinch my cheek and shake it back and forth like a ringing phone. Shana punim, she’d say.

She even managed to turn a simple negation—“I don’t know”—into something funny in only the way that she can make it funny, something with just a touch of unnecessary shorthand. “Where’s the remote,” I would ask, and she’d look around and say, “Well, I haven’t the foggiest.”

I would talk about Stell to my friends, and even wrote a creative writing essay in my junior year of college about her. I don’t know many grandparents who would let their grandchildren tease them about their age or their verbal idiosyncracies, but I would do my old-Jewish-grandmother voice — modeled off of Stell and, to this day, the only accent I can do with any semblance of accuracy — and she would crack up and tell me that I’ve got plenty of new material for my next comedy show. And all of my friends who met her have memories that will never fade: her combination of unforgettable worrying, loquacity, and love makes even a regular Jewish grandmother look boringly plain by comparison.


Visiting Grandma Stell was a yearly ritual from my earliest days, and many of the memories that I retain from childhood are snapshots of time spent with her. The apartment she used to live in, with its rhyming address: three-hundred and twenty-two/north Wissahickon avenue. Bounding up the carpeted stairs on our immature legs to that apartment, where there sat a glass table with garish gold trim that could not have been more out of place in our own home, with its strict modernist decor. An infinite supply of paper shopping bags saved from Casel’s supermarket, and a corresponding number of discussions about the price of corned beef and potato salad. Eating Chinese food with her, in which she would never order her own dish, simply saying that she preferred to eat a little bit of everyone else’s. The story she would tell about her next-door neighbor in Philadelphia, the Italian woman who was aged 39 and already a grandmother. Learning to play, and then to love, the game Spoons. The all-you-can-eat buffet at Caesar’s casino, which she could take us to for $9.99 per person due to her discount from frequenting the penny slots. The smell of the salty marsh water of South Jersey wafting through the streets. That time we tried — and failed — to introduce her to the Internet, giving her the screen name GrandmaStell39. Spending hours thinking about what to eat for lunch, and then, after eating lunch, launching into the process of brainstorming all of the options for dinner. The animatronic teddy bear that lived on her couch, gifted to her by one of her friends, that belted out the oldies song, “Sunshine, lollipops and/ rainbows everywhere.” The number of times I pushed the bear’s paw to kick off the song-and-dance number would have annoyed just about any other human being in the world, but not Stell — she would be-bop along with it, absorbing its positive energy into her own routine.


The toll of aging is nonlinear: for a while, time seems frozen and bodies healthy, and then suddenly time works with incredible speed and nobody can keep up. When I was in high school and college, Stell’s signs of aging were still hidden, imperceptible unless you were looking for them or living through them. She had her canasta games, and her friends throughout the building. Her limp was getting stronger and she had more trouble getting to the casinos, but she was still the life of the conversation, in the center of everything. She would go downtown with her friends Selma and Zelda, whose names are forever etched in my memory, and she would attend her weekly or monthly girls’ lunches with all of her friends. She was aging, sure, but she was talking, and worrying, and telling stories about her reluctant visits to her new doctor, a young man, who could not believe that she was already in her 80s. “And I told him,” she said, “I said to this young doctor: age is just a state of mind.”

And then it was no longer just a state of mind. She needed a wheelchair long before she was willing to sit in a wheelchair; too embarrassed to admit that her body was failing, she would say that her refusal stemmed from the fact that she didn’t want to bother other people to have to wheel her around. Soon after she stayed up late into the night on New Year’s to make sure I had done well at the casinos, she couldn’t live on her own any more. She could not pick up new information. The smart and clever woman who would tease us and regale us with stories and generosity couldn’t figure out how to use a simple piece of electronics. Yet she could still remember old information clearly; as long as it happened long ago, it was clear in her mind.

When I visited this past August, we watched videos of her wedding, in 1950. She recognized each of the family members dancing across the screen in the grainy black and white. I had never met any of the people on the screen: they had died decades ago, at least. I never knew her parents, my great-grandparents. Yet she could pick them out with clarity, and drop nuggets of information about their lives. Her body was falling apart, but as long as she had her memory, she had stories, and she could talk, and she could worry, and she could love her grandchildren, even if they were off gallivanting somewhere in Asia.

I never called enough, of course; because we all never call enough. I have been fortunate to travel all over Asia in the last three years, and I made it a mission to send her a postcard from whatever far-off locale I visited. Finding postcards in Asia turned out to be more difficult than anticipated — only weird foreigners like me have any interest in sending postcards — but I could always dig up something to mail to Estelle R. Freedman, c/o Seashore Gardens Living Center, 22 West Jimmie Leeds Road. Sending postcards was an important way for me to stay connected, but it was also insufficient: Postcards are a one-sided conversation; they don’t capture what it means to be fortunate enough to be the grandson of Stell.

Of course, I had it easy. I got only the good parts, in a way. The infrequently visiting grandchild is always rewarded: just by showing up or sending a postcard I could brighten my grandmother’s day. And although I saw the toll of aging, I only saw it through a tiny porthole; if I caught her on a good day, even toward the end, it was almost as if not that much had changed from when she would dance around the apartment singing, “sunshine, lollipops, and / rainbows everywhere.” I didn’t have to be there for the bad days, or care for her when she was at her most vulnerable and feeble. In my infrequent visits, even the most obvious signs weren’t enough: I assumed there would be plenty of time because I thought she was still young at heart, even as she brought up her own mortality, and that Selma and Zelda and all of her friends were long gone, and her surprise that that she was still alive and kicking at the age of 90, and then 91.

I was worried about her, of course, because as her grandson I inherited at least some of the same tendencies. But worrying about her didn’t make much sense to her: she was never worried about herself, only about other people. If I asked how she was doing, she would laugh at the very question. “Of course there’s nothing doing here,” she’d say. She wanted to talk about me, to hear about my life and perhaps to find some new reasons to worry about me.

And even now, it is hard to make her death sink in. It is much easier to see the Stell that is telling the young doctor that “age is just a state of mind.” I still see the Stell that is engaging us all in a comprehensive discussion about the relative merits of each of the deli counter items at Casel’s. I still see the Stell that is hopping from one phone call to the next, filling her retirement schedule with card games and social outings and worries about her grandchildren. Even after she submitted to using a wheelchair, I still remember the Stell who, when I wheeled her out on the Boardwalk, was too worried that my arms were getting tired to appreciate the beach scenery.


Our phone conversations, fewer than they ought to have been, always ended with the same repartee. Other grandparents might say, “I love you,” and end the call. But that would not be Stell. “Have I ever told you lately that I love you?” she would ask.

“I believe you’ve said that before,” I would counter.

“Well just in case I haven’t, I want to say it again. I love you.”

“I love you, too, grandma.”

And sometimes she would forget something she wanted to say earlier, and we would chat for a little while longer until she would remark that she was probably keeping me from doing something more interesting. And before we actually ended the call, she would ask again, “Have I ever told you lately that I love you?”

“Nope, haven’t heard that one in a while,” I’d say. She would laugh; her memory was fading, but it hadn’t faded yet.

“I love you, Joshua.”

“I love you, too, grandma.”

First Annual List of Unsolicited Book Reviews for Books I’ve Read in 2016

If the year 2016 were a novel, any reasonable editor would reject it for its unrealistic plot lines. An insecure bankruptcy-loving real estate scion insults or offends hundreds of millions of people, admits to paying basically no income tax for two decades, is caught bragging about sexual assault on camera, and is still elected to the most powerful position in the entire free world—helped, in part, by an unrelated investigation into a disgraced former congressman’s lewd texts to a 15-year old girl and Russian hackers. Not to mention, of course, an unrelated and even more ridiculous story: Pokemon Go. That was a thing. Really.

Books come in handy for making sense of this world we live in, for retreating from the craziness when it becomes overwhelming, and for killing insects. It also helps me read more if I write things down. Here’s some of what I read in 2016, accompanied by brief reviews that nobody asked for. Continue reading

The Language of Noodles (Linguistic Notes on Understanding Chongqing Xiaomian)

I like noodles in an amateur, casual sort of way. Brother Lamp, whom I wrote about in my recent article “Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive,” is in a different category. He’s obsessed. He’s crazy about them. He’s so infatuated that an outside observer might categorize his relationship to noodles as a sickness.

The term “noodle obsessive” is an awkward translation: it captures some, but not all of this passion. This is a translation issue: in Chinese, Lamp is a 面痴 (mianchi).

The first character, mian 面, means noodles. The second character, chi 痴, means infatuation; it is literally translated as “silly or idiotic; crazy about something; insane or mad.” The character can be broken down into two parts: the outer section 疒, which represents an illness of some kind; and the inner part zhi 知, which means to know and provides the overall sound of the word (zhi —> chi). To be a 痴 is to be an obsessive, sure, but it is a level above and beyond. It is not just crazy about something in the way that we are all crazy about something, but literally crazy, linguistically more similar to a disease than a love.

Brother Lamp’s preferred noodle, Chongqing xiaomian, is itself confusing. It means “little noodle,” yet its distinct importance comes from the fact that it is not, in fact, little. Walk down any street in China and you will see stores selling all kinds of local snacks, or xiaochi 小吃 — little eats. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and Chongqing’s neighbor to the northwest, is a hotbed of world-famous xiaochi, including dan dan mian 担担面. (Dan 担 means to carry on your shoulder; the name dan dan mian comes from the Sichuanese street vendors who carry it on a pole on their shoulders to sell it).

Some versions of Chongqing xiaomian, bursting with Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil, taste indistinguishable from Sichuan-style dan dan mian. Many people who are not Brother Lamp consider the differences to be marginal; yet to a true mianchi there is a key distinction: dan dan mian is a snack (xiaochi), while xiaomian is a staple food (zhushi).

Historically, xiaomian was served in portions of 150 grams, or three liang, a Chinese unit of measure equivalent to 50 grams. Dan dan mian, meanwhile, was only two liang. A two-liang bowl, Brother Lamp says, leaves you hungry for more; it is merely a snack. A three-liang bowl of noodles — and I will attest to this fact, having eaten far too many three-liang bowls of noodles — will leave you full. Extraordinarily, painfully full.

This linguistic difference is irrelevant in modern society, obliterated by consumer choice. At any xiaomian stall, you can order two or three liang bowls; at some, like Zhu Lin Beef Noodles, you can order a mere one liang. Yet during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, when food was rationed and resources limited, the difference between a two liang bowl and a three liang bowl meant something more.

To Lamp, the difference matters. After all, his identity depends on it. 

A Post-Mortem of Post-Mortems

Human beings are always looking for something to blame. My roommates are looking to point the finger at whoever ate all of their avocados (wasn’t me), and the population of Beijing has been searching for years for the real culprit as to why the air we breathe is laced with harmful pollutants (also not me). Now, much of the world is searching for a reductionist, digestible answer as to why Donald Trump, the man who personifies the word ‘bloviating’, has been elected president of the United States of America. (Ok, I took an avocado. So what?) So far, I have been informed that the real reason he won is racismsexismstupidity, the director of the FBIsocial media, the electoral collegeidentity politicsHillary Clintonthe DNCthe Russians, the liberal bubble, the white bubble, and Barack Obama.

It’s got to be one of those. Or maybe all of them. Or maybe some of them?

The Democratic Party, claiming the mantle of cosmopolitan anti-racism that gestures to the working class in an oblique way (“trumped up trickle-down”), suffered a crushing defeat — not only against its own expectations of vainglorious triumph, but in a favorable electoral map and running against a candidate disliked by 60 percent of people. The Republican Party hung onto majorities in the Senate, the House and statehouses around the country, despite facing numerous vulnerable seats; the Democrats could only pick up two seats, both in states won by Clinton. The Democrats now hold a minority of seats while staring headlong into an unfavorable 2018 map. The election of Donald Trump, regardless of what his own views happen to be or become, has emboldened the fringe elements of society who traffic in hate and fear.

In the days since the election, the internet has churned out a pile of ex-post analyses, mixing together a hodgepodge of righteous indignation, justifiable fear, and alarmist doomsaying about the state of liberal democracy (the justifiability of which remains to be seen). And a few people have written things that challenge us to think a bit more deeply about why politics matters, why tens of millions of people would vote for a man who has so openly broken social and political norms, and why the Left cannot uniquely claim the moral high ground. Here are a few of these; I welcome more. There is no comments section, so you have to email me or blockchain me, whatever that is.

They’re Going to Keep Losing” by Freddie DeBoer

You don’t have to get in touch with the rest of the country because that’s the right thing to do. You have to get in touch with the rest of the country because they’re kicking your ass. The Republicans will control the House, the Senate, and the presidency, have the chance to appoint at least one and probably several Supreme Court justices, run 68 out of 99 state legislative houses, and hold 31 gubernatorial seats. That is domination on an unimaginable level. Every minute you spend signal-boosting people who say that it’s Republicans who have to get on board with liberal values is a minute you’re not doing anything to change that condition…It doesn’t matter if you should have to change. You do have to change. Or else you have to accept the irrelevance of what you do.

The End of Identity Liberalism” by Mark Lilla

“How should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

“The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.” Continue reading

Administration in China’s Higher Ed System: A Problem of Kind, Not Degree

Where there is a problem in an American university, a university administrator will be hired to address it. It does not matter if the problem has a solution: as Stanford sociologist John Meyer cynically explained in a lecture this week in Beijing, as formal organizations such as universities expand beyond their core mission, the answer is to hire a professional to accommodate each additional new function, no matter how difficult or unnecessary it may seem. “You have to hire a professional,” he said. “That’s how you prove that someone is doing something when they should be doing nothing.”

While the American higher education system has been dominated by growth in the number of administrators, the crux of China’s higher education shift in the last decade-plus has been an unprecedented expansion in the number of students. The Chinese higher education system counted 36.5 million students in 2852 postsecondary institutions in 2015. From 2003 to 2013, total enrollments increased more than 200 percent, more than 10 times the growth in the United States over the same period

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don't read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don’t read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

Since the Chinese government began the latest round of higher education expansion in 1999, at the tail end of the Asian Financial Crisis, it has excelled at enrolling students but struggled to actually educate them. Most students will enter middle- and lower-tier schools, but funding and attention remain concentrated on the most elite schools — even compared to merely elite institutions. Tsinghua University, one of China’s top two schools, is slated to spend 18.2 billion yuan in 2016; more than double every other school in the nation except Peking University, Zhejiang University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University. (see chart, right)

Many scholars and commentators criticize the university’s administrative system for holding back the development of China’s higher education. But although the inequality between schools is reminiscent of problems in the United States, the administrative issue that plagues China’s higher education system is a difference of kind, not of degree. As I explain in my new piece in this month’s Washington Monthly, China’s problem of over-administration is a question of concentrated political power, not of administrative bloat.

Administrative expansion, combined with decreasing state funding, more price discrimination, and the Chivas Regal effect that equates higher price with higher quality, has spurred massive tuition increases in American higher education. It is extraordinarily expensive to go to college in the United States: the annual cost of attending an elite private college, or a public college for out-of-state students, is far higher than the median household income in the country.

None of this can apply in China because the state controls all of these levers. Tuition levels are set by the state and have not increased in a decade. Most schools rely almost entirely on government funding for their revenue; few universities except for the most elite schools can draw a significant amount of money from other sources, such as donations or external grants. Continue reading

Profiles in America: The Unexpected Trump Voter

The gig economy may be disastrous for workers, but it’s great for meeting a diverse cross-section of America. In two days of using car-sharing app Lyft in the Bay Area, each of the five drivers I met was of a different ethnicity. A small sample size, sure, but sufficient for making sweeping, unsubstantiated statements about the country.

Enter Michael (name changed), a Lyft driver from San Jose. An immigrant from the east African nation of Eritrea, Michael came to the US fifteen years ago, first to study and then to work to support his family. Now he drives Lyft and travels when he can; recently, he took a trip to Northern Europe. (London is great, but he could never live there — it’s too busy). He was friendly and positive, eager to strike up a conversation about life in the Bay area and my experiences in China.

Also, he’s voting for Donald Trump.

pres slogans4.youknow

pres slogans4.aunt

“Trump is a businessman,” Michael said when I popped the “what do you think of the upcoming election?” question. “The Democrats had their turn to fix the economy. Trump is a businessman, so he will know how to fix the economy.”

On immigration, Michael had similar ideas. “I don’t like the way that Trump says it, but he’s right on immigration.”

“But you’re an immigrant,” I replied.

Legal immigration is fine, he explained, but we need to stop illegal immigration. “If people are coming in illegally, who knows what they’ll do?” Donald Trump’s rudeness is off-putting, Michael said, but at least Trump knows that that stopping illegal immigration is important. In Michael’s view, Trump can create more jobs, and that’s the most important task.

I tried to gently dissuade him from voting for Trump. I launched into a long and rambling explanation of why Trump’s economic policy would not actually create jobs, and then tried to argue why he would be a terrible representative for the United States in the world. Michael listened patiently. I talked uninterrupted for what felt like hours, wrapping together myriad different lines of argument and eventually tripping all over any semblance of a straightforward, convincing argument.  I resorted to technocratic exhortations of “trust me, I’ve studied the economy.” Seeing my sincere efforts to convince him fall flat, I merely asked him to reconsider his choice. He said he would think about it.

As we pulled up to my destination, Michael looked at me and asked, “Who do you think is going to win?”

All of the polls seem to say that Donald Trump had no chance. Clinton holds a consistent lead in all of the swing states, and has even closed in on Trump’s lead in reliable Republican strongholds like Texas and Utah. Despite my concerns, I said, at least I felt confident knowing that Clinton’s chances seemed strong.

He thought about my answer for a few moments before replying. “I think Trump is going to win,” he said.

Donald Trump and the “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose” Strategy

When I think of Atlantic City, I think of the Trump Taj Mahal. My family would go down to the shore each summer to visit relatives; every so often, we would find ourselves in Atlantic City. The Taj — a glittering, bombastic, outrageous monument that makes small-scale cultural appropriation look like child’s play — held special appeal for a geography nerd like myself who rarely made it far past the New Jersey suburbs. My aunts and uncles and cousins worked in the casino business, and my grandmother would rack up comps from playing the nickel slots and take my brother, my cousins and me to a big all-you-can-eat buffet in the glittering, smoke-filled halls of the Taj or one of its brethren.

Atlantic City ain’t what it used to be, everyone says these days, and of course it’s true. The Trump Taj Mahal — which no longer has any relation to Trump but bears his name in countless light bulbs and golden letters — is hemorrhaging money and is set to close next month. The number of casinos in town has nearly halved since 2014. Jobs are disappearing; crime is up.

When I visited the area last month, the cover story in the local paper reported on a casino job fair — for casinos in other states who wanted to lure experienced dealers to new facilities in Maryland, New York, and even islands in the Pacific Ocean. “Plenty of casinos are hiring in Atlantic City,” the Press of Atlantic City explained. “But many of the jobs aren’t in Atlantic City.”

Donald Trump, the name and face of Atlantic City at the peak of its glitzy reverie, wants to sever all ties with the struggling city. Atlantic City, in turn, wants to sever all ties with him. When I asked my relatives in the casino industry what they and their colleagues thought of Trump running for president, the response was unequivocal. “The idea of Donald Trump being president is a joke to us,” they said. All he did was take a bunch of other people’s money and run casinos into the ground; the idea of anyone thinking he would be a good president is inconceivable to the people who actually saw him operate.

This finding is neither new nor surprising; plenty of reporters have gone to Atlantic City and drawn similar conclusions. It is interesting only in how it sheds light on the most fascinating part of the Year of the Donald: not his candidacy itself, but in his opponents’ complete disempowerment in trying to combat it.

Trump blunders with unrivaled fecundity, yet emerges relatively unscathed — simply by claiming that he has not blundered at all. If mistakes were made, it was somebody else’s fault. “I made a lot of money in Atlantic City and left 7 years ago, great timing (as all know). Pols made big mistakes, now many bankruptcies,” Trump tweeted.  Continue reading

China’s Overseas NGO Law: Further Philosophical Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I wrote about trying to understand China’s perspective on the recently-passed Overseas NGO Activity Management Law in Foreign Affairs. I mostly talked about practical consequences, but the law raises further, more philosophical questions — the kind of questions that no editor in their right mind will allow to be casually introduced in a 1,200 word article. And thus God invented the follow-up blog post.

Part of the difficulty of interpreting the law is that there is good reason to be deeply conflicted about foreign NGO activity anywhere in the world. Overseas NGOs made major contributions to China’s development; in part due to their success, foreign NGOs such as the Global Fund have now rerouted much of their development aid to poorer, less-developed nations. China has become both a recipient of foreign assistance and a provider, as more Chinese NGOs are going abroad. Lifting China’s status as an equal global player was part of the motivation of the law: as Peking University’s Jin Jinping argues, Chinese groups operating abroad “face the restraint of local laws in the countries where they are operating.” Overseas groups in China, therefore, should do the same. By codifying the rules of NGO activity, the overseas NGO law tells foreign NGOs: if they want to operate in China, they have to play by China’s rules.

This is an inevitable stage of NGO development across national borders and political systems. The Catholic priest and radical writer Ivan Illich famously argued in 1968 that all volunteer activity abroad was to “pretentiously impose” a foreign set of values on a country. Volunteers should focus on problems within their own societies, rather than go elsewhere. Regardless of a volunteer’s intentions—and why he titled his argument “To Hell with Good Intentions”—Western volunteers abroad are “salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise.” (In this framing, China’s push for its NGOs to go abroad is its own form of the opposite push: selling a delusive ballet in the ideas of non-democracy, hierarchical governance, and state intervention. I call it “Good Intentions with Chinese Characteristics”) Continue reading

Donald Trump Is Not The Problem; Or, How American Liberals Are Doing It All Wrong

“I can’t wait for when we stop talking about Donald Trump and get to return to normal life again.” My roommate, in Beijing, China, March 2016

Experiencing the 2016 presidential election from China has been a uniquely frustrating experience: the longer I spend living in a non-democratic single-party political system, the greater the fundamental respect I have for American political and social institutions. Yet American politics and media seems determined to undermine my newfound goodwill with the charade that is the current election.

The problem, however, is not Donald Trump. It is the reaction on the Left to Donald Trump. Donald Trump says something offensive, liberal commentators recoil in visceral horror, somebody writes a trend story about the process of obtaining a visa to move to Canada, etc. It is a map dotted with little volcanoes of individual self-righteous outrage: Americans who support Trump must be stupid or racist, liberals say, because there is no other alternative that fits within their current worldview.

Articles that accuse Trump’s followers of being bigots have appeared by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Conservatives have written them; liberals have written them; impartial professionals have written them. The headline of a recent Huffington Post column announced, bluntly, that “Trump Won Super Tuesday Because America is Racist.”” The economy added 160,000 jobs last month; I assume that at least half of those were for new bloggers to write about how dumb Trump voters must be.

I spent a long time trying and mostly failing to express in words why this attitude frustrates me so deeply, but thankfully Emmett Rensin’s excellent essay at Vox on the ‘smug style’ of American liberalism fills much of the gap. The Left has embraced a smug attitude, Rensin argues, in which there are only two options for human thought: rationality (in which you would support liberalism, as embodied in the Democratic Party), or stupidity (in which you support Trump).

Rensin’s essay, despite its length, is worth reading in full. I want to elaborate on what Rensin writes and push the argument one step further. Those who are not ‘rational’ are likely not only stupid, but also racist. And the proper response to either stupidity or racism seems to be shame: these are unforgivable sins and whoever espouses these views must be beyond rehabilitation.

What is left of the Left is a motley coalition of rich coastal elites and minorities. Its main policy tools are means-tested social programs and semi-privatizations, promoting finance and tech elites while increasing support for the poorest. It is moving ever further away from the pro-labor party that prioritizes the interests of the working class.

Did elites abandon the labor left, or did the labor left jump ship? Both questions are primarily about the intersection of race and class. It is a question of which group prioritized race over class first. Continue reading

In Which I Launch a Righteous Crusade for Justice in the Wanfujing Apple Store, Beijing, China

If you are a foreigner in China who speaks even the slightest bit of Chinese, the first three sentences of every conversation are identical. The simplest poorly pronounced ni hao elicits effusive praise about your intelligence. You assure your conversation partner that your Chinese is, in fact, quite poor; they respond with further praise or genuine disbelief. The first few times I had this interaction, right after I moved to China, I kept messing up halfway through: I could not properly demur because my Chinese was not good enough to understand that I was being complimented on my Chinese.

You swear to yourself that you will not let the constant flurry of undeserved compliments get to your head. Your language skills — amazing! Your ability to use non-fork cutlery — impressive! Your ability to enjoy fresh, delicious local cuisine — without parallel! But it invariably does: what is meant as encouragement seeps into a pervasive sense that your ability to perform basic tasks gives you a path around any and all barriers in your way. We claim to not want to be treated as special, but of course, deep down, we find it hard to refuse. Privilege, like cheap wine at a catered reception, is constantly on offer for no reason except that you happened to show up.

This, I believe, was my state of mind when I set out to for the Beijing Apple Store to fight the paradoxes of modern capitalism filled with the fervor of righteous justice. Read the whole thing on Medium.