By Philip J Cunningham
“The Closing of the American Mind” by philosopher Allan Bloom decried the widespread moral relativism and nihilism that, in his mind, threatened not just the tenets of university education, but the fiber of American life itself in the 1980s.
The culture wars and political battles in America at the time caught the eye of the young Wang Huning, now a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, who visited numerous universities on a US study tour in 1988. Although Wang’s angle of approach and perspective was quite different from that of Bloom, they both detected something deeply wrong in the heart of the world’s most materially-advanced society.
Wang wrote “America against America” in response. His grasp of core problems in American democracy is profound and there is a renewed appreciation for his perceptions in the aftermath of the failed January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.
Bloom saw what he termed a “void in the souls” of Americans which allowed demagogic radicals to dominate the national narrative. To him, the “political correctness” of the day was causing people to become narrow-minded and afraid of pursuing the truth.
A defender of great books, Bloom would be alarmed at the way the internet has further fragmented American society into information siloes, creating narrowcast echo chambers in which people surround themselves with like-minded voices instead of listening to others.
Russia’s sudden and unexpected invasion of Ukraine has put great stress on the world community, polarizing national narratives and making it hard, even in free societies, to coolly contemplate both sides of the issue.
The polarization is evident in the US media where the justified sympathy for Ukraine as a victim of cruel invasion has expanded beyond reasonable limits to include hatred for Russia and things Russian.
In China, the synchronized drumbeat of Chinese media in all formats has been shockingly uniform since the February 24 when Russian troops blasted across the border into Ukraine.
News of unfolding events is tightly edited, sliced, diced, chopped and repackaged by state overseers before being offered up for public consumption.
The monopoly of state media has produced a pro-Russian view that is not well-grounded in fact. The vigorous censorship against scholars and activists who beg to disagree with what the nightly news is telling them hurts society as a whole. The deprivation of good information shorts out the feedback loop necessary to keep supple and sensitive to important changes.
A full month into the horror of a war visited by one nation upon another, and the Chinese media is still toeing the same line, that Russia was basically in the right, and American was basically to blame for everything.
To achieve that pre-ordained conclusion, state media workers have had the unenviable task of portraying the Russian jets and tanks and missiles and bombs raining destruction upon the people of Ukraine --plainly visible even in limited video footage available on TV in China—as a non-invasion invasion.
The “one-size-fits-all” national narrative discourages individuals to think for themselves and makes it hard to understand why resentment against China is on the rise across the world.
What is obvious to those on the outside looking in, but not necessarily apparent to news consumers inside China where officially sanctioned wolf-warrior nationalist narratives run wild, is that China runs the risk of becoming an international pariah due to its hawkish support of Putin.
For Bloom, the intolerance of rigorous free speech created a void in which tribalism, identitarianism and populism flourished. The way he saw it, there was “a void in the souls of Americans” into which demagogic radicals could pour their narrow, self-serving ideologies.
As for China, the healthy exchange of ideas is voided if CCTV News is the only game in town, if a handful of party-run Chinese newspapers set the tone and China Daily is the only “serious” English newspaper.
Does this not represent a closing of the Chinese mind?
Cornell-educated Jia Qingguo, a respected Beijing University scholar recently railed against the extremism and hate speech which has come to dominate many online forums.
In recent years, due to periodic tensions with Japan, the US, South Korea, India and other states, a nativist nationalist narrative has captured the imagination of many Chinese citizens. This couldn’t take flight without government connivance, but the nationalistic swings in mood are at times so extreme that the state has to intervene on the side of diplomacy, dialing down the hate.
But ultimately the state bears some responsibility for the rabid nature of unregulated speech inasmuch as it consistently prunes away healthier, more viable schools of thought.
Hate speech and tribal speak are as much the enemy of free thought as censorship because they replace debate, diminish the range of acceptable thought and limit the exchange of ideas.
The solution lies not in doubling down on a single narrative, but in nurturing a healthy information ecosystem in which different ideas can contend and allow for different flowers to bloom.
It was precisely the tribalism inherent in America’s 1980s culture wars that Wang Huning and other astute Chinese observers found so disconcerting. But China is now grappling with lock-step tribalism on a scope and scale that makes the narrowing of the American mind look mild in comparison.