Author Archives: jbfreedman

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.

Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative or Independent Boutique Shop?

China’s foreign policy initiatives claim to be forward-looking. Hipster fashion: the opposite. Beijing-based cross-cultural comedian Jesse Appell and I worked together to try to find where they meet. Welcome to: Is this a Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative or Independent Boutique Shop?

    1. Belt and Road
    2. Aggregate Supply
    3. Friends and Neighbors
    4. Going Global
    5. Gravel and Gold
    6. The Rising States
    7. Give and Take
    8. The Silk Road
    9. The New Silk Road
    10. Trend of the Times
    11. Band Together
    12. Dream Collective
    13. Community of Shared Destiny
    14. Timeless Trends
    15. Neighborly
    16. Strut
    17. New Stone Age
    18. Peaceful Rise
    19. String of Pearls
    20. Supply and Advise
    21. Iron and Resin
    22. Win-Win
    23. Modern Cooperative
    24. March West
    25. Coolly Observe, Calmly Deal with Things, Hold our Position, Hide our Capabilities, Bide our Time, and Accomplish Things Where Possible

—-

Answer key:

Independent Boutique Shop: 2 [San Francisco, CA], 3 [Austin, TX], 5 [San Francisco, CA], 6 [New York, NY], 7 [Portland, OR], 8 [Bronxville, NY], 11 [Meridian, ID], 12 [Los Angeles, CA], 14 [Thurmont, MD], 15 [Chicago, IL], 16 [South Austin, TX], 17 [Los Angeles, CA], 20 [Miami, FL], 21 [San Francisco, CA], 23 [Chicago, IL]

Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative: 1, 9, 10, 13, 18, 22, 24, 25

Both: 4 [Toronto, Ontario] and strategy to encourage business investment abroad, 19 [Elmira, Michigan] and description of China’s military activity in the Indian Ocean

Myanmar: Cautious Optimism for Democracy

Near the top of a long, covered stairway leading to a golden monastery overlooking the administrative town of Kalaw in the hills of Myanmar’s southern Shan state, a Burmese man and I attempted to communicate. He spoke no English; I spoke no Burmese. He tried to say something. I didn’t understand. I tried to tell him that I didn’t understand; he didn’t understand. Then he said ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’, the global icon of opposition to military rule in Myanmar and head of the National League of Democracy (NLD) party, and I indicated that I knew her name. His face lit up and he broke out into a beaming smile, followed by attempts to aggressively shake my hand and express positive feelings in any way he could without actually being able to say anything that I would understand. For about ten minutes, this was the extent of our conversation, the only point of mutual understanding hidden between myriad ways to say “I don’t understand.”

If this were an isolated incident, I would have let it pass: I wanted to avoid a Thomas Friedman-esque understanding of political change based on the opinions of the first cab driver you encounter. (Important note: the first cab driver I met in Myanmar spoke great English and worked as a radio operator on ships all over the world. We had a great conversation. I learned a lot from him.) But throughout Myanmar, whether on the streets of Yangon or the hills of Kalaw — and in conversations with locals and foreigners alike — it became clear that this was far more systemic. Everywhere, everyone wanted to express similar feelings: “Aung San Suu Kyi — very good!” “I definitely voted for the NLD!” “The military gov’t is corrupt and stupid!” Etc.

Coming from China, whose central government is further cracking down on political dissent and activism, the open and frank discussion of politics and unreserved disdain for the previous era of military rule that pervades the streets of Myanmar is as foreign to me as fish-paste noodles for breakfast (delicious) or clear blue skies (also delicious). There seems to be a collective release among the population of pent up frustrations built up over 53 years of military or military-backed rule, unfair elections, violent suppression of resistance, and economic concentration in the hand of military elites.

But it is a cautious optimism: even ardent supporters of the NLD are trying very hard to keep their expectations in check. State institutions have a long path to go, and so many things can go, and have gone, wrong amid cycles of hope and failure to move toward democracy. The NLD has to maintain a delicate balance to keep many constituencies happy while building effective governance institutions that have been missing for decades. “Hopes are high, but so too is skepticism born of half a century of military dictatorship and the memories of earlier, lost moments of promise,” writes Trevor Wilson. Continue reading

Life Under the Dome: The Political Economy of Pollution in China

A subset of my thoughts on pollution in China, particularly about why it’s so hard to fix, is up on Priceonomics.

In short, it’s part of the detritus lingering over a larger pattern of uneven development in China. In Beijing, which has reached a much higher stage of development than its neighboring areas, the desire to cut down on pollution has reached levels both high (top government) and low (a growing sense of frustration and awareness from people who previously thought nothing of it).

And of course there is a gratuitous and strangely specific metaphor about pizza-making establishments. Because China is a land of metaphors, in addition to the pollution.

Recent Activity: On China, On China, On China

I have finally had a chance to reflect on some of my experiences being an American in China.

Previously, I reflected on some of my experiences being an unproductive American in China.

I have also had a chance to reflect on some of the major themes that I encountered in my preliminary research in China. These are broad outlines, and my current research is aimed at digging more deeply into these issues, how they are reflected in policy, and what that means for, like, the world or whatever.

Praying to He, She, or It in Chinese: How Chinese Third Person Pronouns Avoid (Some) Religious Gender Issues

Like many Jews in America, my family belongs to a Reform synagogue — the most progressive and liberalized of the three major Jewish schools. Every Sunday morning, all of the other Jewish kids in the greater northwestern New Jersey region and I were dragged out of bed by our parents and brought to Hebrew school to learn about Jewish history, language, and culture and to collectively complain about having to get up early on Sunday morning to learn things. One of the most memorable lessons we had dealt with what the idea of God looked like; we were instructed to draw a picture of God. There was, of course, no wrong answer: the student who drew God as an ice cream cone was as correct as the student who copied Botticelli. (NB: Someone did, in fact, draw God as an ice cream cone. I regret to say that it was not me). God was neither male nor female; tall nor short; in our teaching, the teachings and importance of God could not be simplified into a dude with a beard but rather remained an abstract concept to give life meaning and direction.

The Old Testament of the Bible, however, was written before the women’s suffrage movement and other reformers jumpstarted the still ongoing push for gender equality. It was also written before the volunteers at our community temple drafted the curriculum for Sunday school. Thus, the Bible, whether read as literature or gospel or something in between, contains not only some rather traditional views of gender relations but also plenty of gendered terms relating to reverence and God. In popular culture, the Judeo-Christian God is viewed as an old white man with an impressively long beard who bought some excellent real estate in the clouds before the housing bubble started on Earth. In the text, God is referred to as “he”, “king,” “lord,” and more, all assuming that the higher power is not only omnipotent and omniscient but has exclusively male characteristics.

Around 2008, the Reform Jewish community decided that religion ought to reflect community values of gender equality. Our religious materials were outdated. New prayerbooks were issued, and all references to God as a male were changed: “He” became “You”; the “king” became the “sovereign”; “lord” became “ruler” or “the Eternal,” etc. Some congregants viewed the changes as important manifestations of gender equality, others as awkward, grammatically questionable, surface level changes.

But in Chinese, it turns out, this problem doesn’t exist.

Unbeknownst to many, China not only has Jews – but has had Jewish residents for nearly a thousand years. A handful of Jewish traders came to China via the Silk Road and settled in the ancient Song dynasty capital of Kaifeng, along the Yellow River in north-central Henan Province. Although the community’s original language and records are in Hebrew, over many centuries, dynasties, and floods wore away language as well as many, if not nearly all, of the customs – until the opening up and reform of China starting in the late 1970s gradually led to a renewed interest in Judaism within the community and among Jews abroad. Because no residents of Kaifeng can speak Hebrew and few English, all of the prayers, explanations, and discussions are in Chinese.

For Chinese speakers learning English, one of the most difficult elements of English to remember are gender pronouns. Native Chinese speakers will frequently refer to men as “she” and women as “he”, sometimes mixing the two interchangeably in a conversation. (For example, today, from a friend: “My wife is very smart. He scored the highest on his school exams.”) This is either a language gap or the most extreme form of progressive anti-heteronormativity in existence.

In reality, spoken Chinese does not differentiate between any personal pronouns: he, she, and it are all pronounced tā. The difference comes when they are written. Each of these Chinese characters can be broken down into two parts, one of which represents part of the meaning and one of its sound. The right side of the characters for he and she are both identical: 也. But the left side varies based on the specific person being referred to. Adding the radical meaning ‘female’ (女)creates the character for she (她), while adding the character for ‘man’ (人)results in the character for he (他). (When used in combination in simplified Chinese, the man radical is slightly altered from its standalone form, hence the difference in how it looks). The character for ‘it’ is now written 它 in simplified Chinese but can be written as 牠 in traditional Chinese, composed of the character for ‘cow’ (牛)and referring to any animal or physical “it.”

Thus although spoken Chinese has no need to awkwardly but grammatically correctly include phrases like “he or she,”a speaker of written Chinese still has to deal with this issue when he or she is writing with Chinese characters. In most cases, that is — in other ways, written Chinese has managed to solve this problem. If spoken Chinese avoids the gender problem through brute simplicity – everything is pronounced tā – written Chinese avoids the problem through specificity.

The Chinese translation of ‘he’ when referring to God (上帝)is also pronounced tā, but it is written not as 他, 她,or 牠 but as 祂. As with the other third person singular pronouns, the right side of the character is the same. But the left side is neither male nor female but a radical meaning ‘spirit’ that is also used in words like 神 (meaning deity or divine). Thus, the concept of God translated into Chinese is neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ nor an ‘it’ referring to any day-to-day object but rather a unique pronoun just for things that cannot be explained by the human world. Even though the character has to specify which third person pronoun is being used, the options are not just man, woman, or thing; the language itself reflects a differentiation between the material world and the spiritual one. When a Jew prays in Chinese, either through reading or speaking out loud, then, the pronouns are only attached to an individual’s conception of God as whatever God is. God is just as much of an ice cream cone as a man.

Of course, the rest of the translated prayers in are peppered with 王(king), 父 (father), and plenty of other references to God as an anthropomorphic masculine being. But as long as we’re not trying to talk about God in human terms, the Chinese language supplies some very helpful gender-neutral but meaning-rich pronouns. Now, instead of Hebrew, all of the Sunday schools in America can turn to teaching Chinese.