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Red Flags

Red Flags

At some point “socialist” became a dirty word in this country. You get tarred with it and you’re regarded with some suspicion and downright hostility. I suppose there are some mitigating circumstances for this; after all, it was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was the National Socialist German Workers Party whose German name became shortened to Nazi. Neither one of them distinguished themselves for their humanitarianism.

A lot of Americans think of socialism as being the next step to communism in the same way marijuana leads to, in their minds, harder drugs. Yes, it’s a gateway economic philosophy. The next thing you’re calling everyone comrade and abolishing religion.

The truth is that there are all sorts of types of socialism just like there are many different types of capitalism. There’s hardcore socialism in which the state owns all businesses (which is essentially the last step before full-blown communism) and then there’s social democracy in which the state provides social services (i.e. health care, postal and phone services, television networks and so on) while business remains privatized. This seems to be the most successful socialist system to my mind with Sweden and Canada both practicing it and having robust economies. It is also the direction China is trying to move in to a large degree albeit without the democracy portion.

I have rapidly begun to move in that direction myself. And yes I was like a lot of you who grew up thinking socialism was a bad thing. My father preached it to me. As a refugee from Cuba, he had particular reason not to have any love for a system that to his mind had betrayed his homeland and exchanged one dictatorship for another. He married a woman whose grandfather had fled Russia (or more accurately, the Ukraine which was part of Russia at the time) because of a communist takeover there. I grew up in a household in which there was personal experience with countries that had suffered through a conversion from capitalism to communism (or more to the point from a despotic monarchy to something more despotic). Needless to say my attitude towards anything socialistic was to say the least hostile.

But as I grew up, it soon became apparent that capitalism is far from perfect. There are far too many opportunities for abuse. While I agree it is the least objectionable to most economic philosophies, I don’t worship at its altar the way some do. I also don’t believe it can’t be improved upon.

I have come to change my philosophy about government as well. My dad had always had tendencies towards anarchy – no government whatsoever. He also understood that there were certain basic services that only a government could provide – an infrastructure for business to be conducted, education so that the country could remain competitive and innovative, a military to protect the citizenry from foreign and domestic threats – and that those services needed to be paid for through taxation. My father didn’t object to paying taxes, but he thought taxes should be lower because the services a government should provide should be less. My father didn’t believe in safety nets.

It wasn’t until after he passed away that I began to question my long-held beliefs. I’d always felt that there had been a discrepancy in them. I’d always felt vaguely uncomfortable that backing conservative precepts and the Republican party was potentially wrong. I always wondered if it was the liberals and the Democrats who weren’t exercising the compassion I longed to see in government.

It was the second Bush administration that finally woke me up. I saw a conservative government that was trampling on the constitutional rights of its people willy-nilly and using terrorism as an excuse to do that very thing. I saw an administration that believed in torture as a legitimate means of fighting its war on terror. I saw a government whose allegiance was to the wealthy and whose attitude towards the poor was that they existed to provide cheap labor for businesses whose sole existence was to provide wealth for their owners. I watched business, whose watchdogs were systematically dismantled and deregulated, take an economy that had been leading the world and bring it down into the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

I realized then that government had different responsibilities than I had always believed. While yes, I still believe that government should interfere in the lives of its citizens as little as possible, it has the responsibility to provide its citizens with the opportunities to pursue success as well. It has always been our common belief that in America, anyone can achieve success if they are willing to work hard and be innovative. The truth is that success now is mostly inherited; small companies face a terrible uphill climb to become successful and the people who create and invent are rarely the people who profit from their creations and inventions no matter how hard they work – often it is the financiers who reap the benefits. Legal recourse shouldn’t be the sole domain of the wealthy.

Neither should health care be. We define the basic rights of every individual of this country as those quoted in the Declaration of Independence – the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But what defines those things? To me, good health is a necessary component. Nobody should be forced to endure sickness and disease because they can’t afford to see a doctor.

That doesn’t mean I believe in Obamacare. Actually I believe in something far more radical – socialized medicine. I believe America should have a system like France, Canada, Denmark – heck what most of the world enjoys. There are those who point at long waits for physician visits in those countries to which I say that they are no longer than those who wait for months to see a specialist here. I also don’t think medicine should be a for-profit business and that medical insurance should be rendered unnecessary.

There are those who will disagree. There are those who think that medicine like everything else should be on the free market system. You’re wrong. Your health care should not be based on how profitable your care is or is not. You deserve better than the lowest common denominator of health care. If you’re going to pay your entire life into a system, that system should not then deny you the care your physician prescribes based on expense.

I find it ludicrous that the people who complain that government is too inept and bureaucratic to administrate your health care don’t seem to find it too inept and bureaucratic to administer your defense. I also find it that those people who complain about social welfare programs aren’t above obtaining government grants to help them go to college, or start a business or aid their business when it needs it. Apparently the government should only give aid to those who deserve it.

I believe the government should give aid to those who need it. Are there abuses in the social welfare system? You bet. There are also abuses in the military, in religious institutions, educational facilities basically anywhere you find humans. That’s what we do. We find loopholes and take advantage of them.

That doesn’t mean we should deny the millions of people who need help – the single moms, the disabled who are unable to work, the children who have been abandoned by their parents – and who don’t take undue advantage of the system. Those who take advantage should be punished on an individual basis. An entire social strata shouldn’t be punished because they need help.

Yes, I am a socialist in many respects. I believe that a government should behave with compassion towards the less fortunate. I believe that a government should encourage innovation and excellence and give those people the opportunity through low-interest small business loans to grow their businesses which can then become economic engines for that country – investments into that government’s own future prosperity, you might say. I believe that the role of government is to defend its people but not just from foreign governments and terrorists – but from rapacious businesses who choose to use their wealth to intimidate and defraud those who can’t afford to fight back. From health crises that would incapacitate a productive member of society. From hunger and want. Nobody in a country as prosperous as ours should ever go hungry.

I no longer care if I’m labeled a radical for believing in those things. So be it. I am tired of people being more concerned with their wallets than the welfare of others. I am tired of greed trumping compassion. It’s time to raise the red flag and say there’s something wrong here. It needs to change. We need to change. We deserve to have the best lives possible. We deserve opportunity and safety. In short, we deserve the American dream that the founding fathers always saw this country providing. And it’s time to stop saying we believe in Christian values and start acting on them. IF Jesus were alive today, he’d be a socialist. Don’t think so? He shared everything among his disciples. They lived in a socialist system, one far more extreme than the one I’m advocating. He healed the sick without requiring them to pay anything. He fed the hungry and helped the poor. Quite the radical, this Jesus.

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The Land of Mao and Yao

It isn’t easy to get a handle on a country as immense and diverse as China after only ten days and three cities. In fact, it’s damn near impossible. Still, whenever you spend time in a culture as different as yours as Chinese culture is from ours, it is inevitable that some opinions will be formed and some observations made.

For many Americans, the China of their imagination is the China of the Cultural Revolution – suspicious, paranoid and resistant of the outside world, a kind of Fu Manchu China that owes its image to Cold War propaganda and, in many ways, deservedly so. However, that China is more than a quarter of a century gone. In its place is a new China, one eager to take its place as a leader in global economics, innovation and culture. While still conservative in many ways, there is vibrancy in China that is exciting and surprising.

There is construction everywhere. Skyscrapers are being erected as fast as they can be built, each one more modern and beautiful than the next. China’s cities are modernizing at an astonishing rate, with garish neon lights that add color and allure. Modern highways snake through the cities and into the countryside, while maglev trains whisk quietly at 300mph and subway systems are looking to ease the congestion of city streets that have seen a dramatic influx of privately-owned cars, which 25 years ago were a luxury only a few Chinese citizens could enjoy.

Traffic is terrifying in China. Chinese drivers tend to see traffic laws more as suggestions than laws, and unlike here in the West, pedestrians don’t have the right of way; the prevailing attitude is that pedestrians should look out for traffic rather than vice versa. It takes nerves of steel to drive on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, with cars passing one another with bursts of speed, only to come to a screeching halt as other cars force their way into the lanes in front of them. Passing on the right occurs with regularity (like America, Chinese traffic is on the right side of the street) and Chinese drivers will regularly use turn only lanes as a means of getting ahead of other cars. It is the prudent driver who has one hand on their horn, letting other drivers know where they are as they barrel around them.

You are constantly aware of the crush of people around you. Personal space is not a given in China but a luxury, and you get used to being jostled, bumped and brushed up against. When shopping in Chinese markets, you can sometimes be physically grabbed by a sales clerk attempting to lead you into their shop which can be horrifying to a Westerner unused to having their persons violated that way. Claustrophobics would break out into a cold sweat in China, where you are constantly surrounded by people. Living spaces are cramped by our standards, so there tend to be fewer possessions and the Chinese have become masters at the efficient use of space. While the temperatures can get pretty warm in the summer, the Chinese tend to eschew anything but minimal air conditioning. This was dismaying for folks like me, who are more comfortable at cooler temperatures.

As China integrates Western society into their own, it is not uncommon to see young Chinese women in mini-skirts and designer pumps emerging from Starbucks, talking into cell phones which have taken China by storm. As in the West, nearly everyone there has a cell phone and China Mobile stores are ubiquitous.

Still, Westerners are relatively rare, even in the cities and those who are heavyset, as my wife and I are, even less common. Many Chinese citizens from rural provinces had never seen a Westerner before and Doreen and I found ourselves to be mini-celebrities, regularly stopped wherever we went to pose for pictures with smiling, polite people. Apparently, the Chinese equate big bellies with happiness in life, so they assumed Da Queen and I were successful, content people. If only they could have seen me in High School.

While the news in China is heavily censored, that doesn’t mean that the people are ignorant of what is going on in their own country and around the world, and they don’t necessarily agree with every policy that comes out of Beijing. I was surprised that the Chinese people I spoke with were often critical in their government with many of the same complaints that we have of our own – wasteful spending, inefficiency and not always doing what’s most beneficial for the people. One person told us that the Chinese discuss these things among themselves but rarely in public; while the repressive policies of the Cultural Revolution are more relaxed now, the wrong word in the wrong ear can lead to serious problems.

Still, while the Chinese people don’t always agree on the effectiveness of their current government, they are nearly unanimous in their admiration of Chairman Mao Zedong, whose status I would estimate is roughly the equivalent of a Catholic saint. His image is everywhere, and even though he initiated the Cultural Revolution, which is widely despised by the average Chinese citizen, he is not held responsible for it. In that sense, he has the same Teflon coating as Ronald Reagan once did, only with more universal popularity than Reagan ever had.

The other main figure in Chinese culture these days is Yao Ming, the star basketball player for the Houston Rockets. He is a symbol of the emergence of China on the global stage; nearly as popular with the Chinese is Kobe Bryant (although strangely, LeBron James, who very well could be the most popular player in the NBA at the moment, is nearly absent from the Chinese consciousness). Houston Rocket and Los Angeles Laker shirts and jerseys abound.

Chinese culture is ancient, stretching back six thousand years. Passing through structures like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Big Water Goose Pagoda, we were shown the intricacy of Chinese architecture and the beauty of their surroundings. Feng shui is taken very seriously in China and nearly all their buildings reflect that philosophy, with the goal of maximizing harmony and balance, even in modern buildings. For example, the Chinese represent heaven with circles and earth with squares and often have buildings of those shapes close to each other to symbolize heaven on earth. That is why the National Stadium in Beijing (a.k.a. the Bird Nest) and the Water Cube are adjacent to each other in the Olympic Park.

However, the most impressive structure is neither a circle nor a square. It is the Great Wall. While much of the Wall remains in ruins, crumbling with the effects of age and environment, the Chinese government has restored many sections of the Wall and standing before it – and on it – is a humbling experience. It is a huge edifice, stretching off into the distance on dragon-back hills and mountains. Chairman Mao was once quoted as saying that in order to be truly Chinese you must stand on the Great Wall and I can understand the sentiment. It is an amazing achievement and standing on it you get a sense of its place in the Chinese psyche as a symbol of their accomplishments, but you are also reminded of the human toll; it is said that one thousand people died for every kilometer of wall, and the wall is more than a thousand kilometers long. That’s a million dead, all for the sake of a wall that was meant to keep invaders out but failed at its intended purpose miserably.

That’s an irony that I think lies at the heart of what China is; on the one hand they have succeeded in grand ventures and have made remarkable strides in the past ten years but at the same time they are still playing catch up to the economies of the West, whose cultures are much younger than theirs. Much of that is laid at the feet of the Imperial dynasties who near the end were self-indulgent and failed to understand the importance of change and progress, but the Chinese suspicion of all things non-Chinese (a suspicion that seems to be evaporating now) led to an isolationist policy that ultimately led to the country failing to keep up with Western industrialization at a crucial time in her history.

While I really enjoyed my visit there, I am very relieved to be home. There is a great deal of comfort in dealing with the familiar and not constantly be wondering how you’re supposed to act and worried that you’re committing some sort of terrible faux pas out of ignorance. Still, this was the trip of a lifetime and I’m glad I made it, despite having to travel 20 hours over two days to get there. While I sit at home and recover from the jet lag and the effects of walking far more than I’m used to, I will continue to post details about our trip on our travel blog at http://www.travelpod.com/members/doreendev over the coming days, as well as photos from our trip. One thing is certainly true of any long absence from home; it leaves you with a greater appreciation of what you have when you finally return.

The Year of the Dragon

We all know what opinions are like – it is our nature to have one about just about everything. If I say “popcorn,” you may like yours without butter or salt whereas the more of each the better I like it, particularly at the movies. You may prefer yours at the ballpark, or from the microwave.

If I say “China,” I’m sure the opinions will grow more complex. All of us in the West look at the growing giant in the East with a little bit of unease. She is fast becoming an economic powerhouse and outpacing the United States in many key economic growth factors. Most experts believe that China will be the reigning economic power on the planet within the next ten to twenty years, and many wonder what will happen when that occurs.

I have always had a fascination with China, something I inherited from my mom who as a child read Pearl S. Buck and dreamed of visiting there. In a few short days her son will fulfill that dream, a dream we both share.

Images of the beautiful Chinese landscape from motion pictures have been burned into my mind, along with visions of ancient and modern China as portrayed by their thriving film industry. There is serenity in the landscape there, one which belies the years of conflict and war that periodically overtake her as they do with any nation.

China boasts one of the oldest cultures in the world, one which was civilized long before Europe was. Throughout the country there are buildings and monuments dating back thousands of years, making the cathedrals of Europe seem brand new by comparison. The 230-year American history is almost laughable by those standards, although it must be said in our defense that we have accomplished some amazing things in our short span.

China is a bit more patient than we are. With a history like hers, she can afford to be. Whereas we’ve had to play catch-up in a lot of ways, China exists with a sense of continuity and knowledge that their past points the way to their future. These days, China is all about the future. One look at Shanghai’s spectacular skyline will illustrate that plainly.

Shanghai is not alone in modernizing. Most of China’s major cities are undergoing a transformation, with beautiful modern skyscrapers being built. The amount of construction going on in China is astonishing – elegant bridges, brand new superhighways, mass transit and business centers are all being built as we speak.

One of the reasons we look to China with unease is because of her communism, which is something we will need to confront head on. By our standards, her government is repressive and restrictive, something that Americans tend to chafe at. We have been brought up to regard communism as “the enemy,” particularly in regards to the Soviet Union and China as the two biggest lynchpins in that particular movement. We have been brought up to regard communist governments as war-mongering, deceptive and repressive.

However, the truth is that the United States has been involved in more military actions over the past half-century than China has and our Patriot Act has elements in it that are as repressive as anything that is standard Chinese policy. It must also be said that if I were a Chinese citizen and had written a paragraph as critical of her government as the one I just wrote about ours, I would almost certainly be arrested.

Like it or not, we will have to accept the fact that China is taking her place as a world power, and that we must deal with her diplomatically and economically. Our businesses must establish markets in China; one of the economic realities of China is that while she is population-heavy, she is also resource-poor. In order to keep her economic engine humming, she will be forced to purchase her resources from other nations, particularly developing nations who don’t have the cash to develop their own resources.

Is it possible for China and the United States to be allies when we are competing for the same resources and global economic supremacy? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I would hope that the answer is yes, though. Our survival as a species is going to depend on how we manage our resources over the next 50 years. Some of our challenges will be to develop alternative energy sources that are renewable; to maintain enough food and clean drinking water to feed and hydrate all of our citizens, and to reverse the effects of global warming so that we don’t engender an ecological catastrophe that would have devastating effects on the planet. It’s a tall order and no nation by itself will be able to achieve these things.

Thinking globally and acting locally has been a battle cry for the modern green movement, and it is one that makes sense. China has begun to cast her eye in that direction, aware that at her current rate of consumption that there will be an acute resource shortage in a frighteningly short amount of time. She is leading the way in alternative construction techniques and materials that will make for energy efficiency and resource management with an eye to reducing carbon emissions; in all honesty, she has embraced these ideas a little more enthusiastically than we have as a nation.

Still, my impressions of China are tempered by her people as well from my limited contact with people of Chinese descent living in the United States mostly, as well as what I have been able to glean from other sources. I know that the Chinese are extremely centered on their families, with particular reverence to those who are elders within the family. It is a reverence we used to share, although given our propensity for chucking our elders into nursing homes and essentially leaving them there to rot, I wonder if it is one we still share. The thought of sending a grandparent away is completely foreign to the Chinese way of thinking; part of the responsibility of any Chinese family is to care for their elderly at home, and in the Chinese household, it is not necessarily the breadwinner who sets the tone – the elders of the family tend to participate much more in family life than they do here, where we tend to regard them mostly as convenient babysitters for their grandchildren.

The Chinese certainly place a high priority on education, and see it as a key to future success. That is a priority that we have set aside in favor of military and economic growth; the percentage of money we spend education is much less than what China spends on hers, although to be fair she does allocate a goodly chunk of change to her military, the largest on earth currently. Still, with our education system in disarray and our young people seemingly unmotivated to achieve their education, it seems inevitable that China and other countries similarly focused on education will become the leaders of innovation and technology in the years to come.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the cuisine of China. I will admit that I love Chinese food, although admittedly my exposure to it has been the Americanized version of their cuisine; there are things commonly eaten there that Americans would recoil in horror from (although the Chinese would be wise to recoil in horror from the excesses of Big Macs and the KFC two chicken sandwich). There are actually eight major cuisines in China, just as there are regional cuisines here in the States (barbecue, New England, California, Pacific Northwest etc.) and they all are as different from one another as you can get, from the spice of Sichuan to the more well-known Mandarin cuisine that we tend to get here. I have of late been fascinated by the television programs of the two Tonys – Bourdain and Zimmern – and their take on the more exotic elements of Chinese cuisine, things I look forward to sampling for myself when I visit.

For most of us, China is as mysterious as the moon. She is very much a woman – lovely on the outside, but complicated and sometimes impossible to understand on the inside. Her way of thinking is very different than our own, and yet we must learn to coexist in the world to come. I look forward to my visit there not just to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, although those will certainly be highlights. I hope that I will get to see something of the Chinese soul and thus gain some measure of greater understanding, although two weeks won’t give me a whole lot of time to really get a comprehensive look. Still, it is certain that when I next write about China when I return, I will have more understanding of her than I do currently, and that is at least a place to start.