Whether or not we buy the metaphysical presuppositions of this passage from the Bible, and others like it, we cannot deny that we do not choose the household we are born into nor can we choose our country of birth.
To put it bluntly, I did not choose to be American.
I moved to China in the midst of an ugly election and considered, like many others, going (in my case staying) abroad if a certain candidate was elected. Well, he was elected, and I probably won’t stay abroad. But, then again, I do not know what the future holds.
Living in China during this election cycle has caused me a great deal of reflection surrounding three things: the sociopolitical climate of my new home, the shortcomings of democracy, and what it means to be an American.
In many ways, China is ahead of us. For starters, they’ve already had their experiment with communism and thrown it out as no good. In America, however (pardon the metaphor) we seem rather stuck, unable to do our business or get off the pot. Yet, in many other ways, China seems centuries behind. The current government at times easily reminds us of something out of the Dark Ages: complete centralized authoritative rule, shadow policy making, the imprisoning and beating of dissenting artists, and a hell-bent policy of eliminating any hint of revolution. And while the beheadings aren’t held in the square, China currently executes more of its citizens than any other nation in the world.(1)
While we are quick to lament, and rightly so, I can not deny that it works. In fact, I have never seen so many happy people in my life.
Cyber-threats, terrorism, misinformation, hacked elections, these are all non-issues. At least, not ones felt by ordinary citizens. With closed borders, the great firewall, and a state-run media, this is the reality.
And what about crime? Likewise, it is a non-issue.
But why is this so?
One can cite the fact that the government wastes trillions of renminbi (RMB) on new construction projects, many of which will never see the light of day, simply so people can stay employed. While I do not deny this contributes to the low crime rate, I feel I have struck something deeper — something ingrained in the social fabric of the people. In China, there are no second chances. I have found the concept of forgiveness to be a strangely western, strangely Christian idea.
When I asked a group of Chinese students, aged 20–35, about the private prison system in America, many agreed that it was unjust and that rehabilitation has fallen behind cheap labor and profit in priority. But when I asked those same students if they would invite a convict back into their lives after they had served their time, I was shocked by the fiercely absolute “No” I received. Not one of them said they would hire the person if they owned a company, and many suggested they wouldn’t even associate with the person. Even if the person was a child when they committed the offense, the answer was still the same. The verdict was in: if you did something that landed you in jail, you are forever an outsider. It is no wonder people don’t commit crimes.
While I found this to be a bit cruel, I had to remember that outside Christendom this is the way things work. And I am starting to realize that forgiveness comes at quite the cost.
Higher principles are not cheap. They demand a lot from us.
Last year, when Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to more than a million refugees, she was doing so because it was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, the tangible consequences appear to have been devastating. Whether the rate of terror has actually increased due to the influx of refugees, or politicians are merely fanning flames of xenophobia, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Regardless of who is responsible, the country is in turmoil.
Now, I would like to believe that, given enough time, Merkel’s good graces will be rewarded. However, it is hard to see such a thing outside the classroom. All I can see is sensible people living in fear, opportunistic politicians cashing in, and daily injustices committed against those who seek refuge.(2) This is a spotty resume for “doing the right thing”, to say the least. But beyond this, I think there is a real lesson here. I think we must realize what it is our higher principles ask us to overcome.
We have to understand that this growing alt-right protectionist polemic that passed Brexit, put Donald Trump in office, and may put out Angela Merkel is not all based on false news, rhetoric, and politics of fear. Despite what I am about to say going against everything I was taught by Hollywood, the reality is that foreigners wreak havoc on familiar social norms, dissent is painful to bear, tolerance is exhausting, criminals hardly ever learn from their mistakes, and our enemies know to hit us where it hurts: they take advantage of our good graces, making a mockery of our higher principles. Free trade, open borders, second chances, all of it attracts exploitation.
When taking one honest, good-long-look at China, it is not hard to see the draw of a massive one party system with closed borders that censures the media and silences civil unrest at all costs.(3) It is so peaceful here. And while the harmony may be faux, there is real solidarity. Despite all the problems China faces (and they are immense), the sentiment of the people is that we are all in this together — we are all Chinese.
It pains me to admit that this sense of identity is gone in America, if there ever was such a thing. Despite the few radical god-fearing patriots, the sentiment of American solidarity — the home to pioneers of freedom, people who believed they could build the future they wanted for themselves, the shining beacon of hope for the tired, hungry, and poor of the world — is completely gone.
Maybe I envision America’s past as does a child who reads a storybook, and maybe I see China through the eyes of a foreigner, but I still believe free people can come together of their own volition, and that this is somehow better than the alternatives. However, I would be lying if I said this belief isn’t constantly being challenged by everything around me, or that I have never considered its outright abandonment. In fact, it may be worth asking ourselves why it is we even have this belief. What is this something extra that makes it better if we make decisions for ourselves, and come together on our own, instead of someone one else forcing this upon us?
This very same question is to be found, incidentally enough, in the history of Christianity. There the question takes on the form: why is conversion in the heart better than conversion through coercion?
Many Christian philosophers, Pierre Bayle comes to mind, have argued that this is just clearly so — that only a true conversion takes place if it happens in the heart of man, not merely in his outward demonstrations. But this argument, though I agree with its conclusions, often ends with an appeal to the “natural light” of reason. In other words, a conversion in the heart is just obviously better. But, absent this vague intuition, it is hard to see why.
I’ve always believed the ends to never justify the means… but, if God is the end, it could hardly matter how you got there. After all, you arrived at God.
* * *
Benjamin Franklin once said, “those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
As a juvenile, I believed this quote to be expounding the sagacity of the libertarian. Now, as an adult, I see it more as a proclamation, or rather a warning, of the insecurity of a democracy. On the one hand, if essential liberties are lost, then the entire system collapses. On the other, if an individual wishes to relinquish his liberty in exchange for some relief from the anxiety that that liberty expounds upon him, then he loses his place in that system. In other words, everyone must believe in it for the system to work. What a frail thing indeed. That is, unless we take ‘belief’ to mean something other than it does in its pejorative sense. In any event, if I were not a talented, energetic, young Aristotelian who stood to gain from toppling monarchs, it would be hard to see why anyone would want to buy into such a thing.
It could be rebutted that a democracy ensures against corruption, and I would reply that profit-seeking corporations are running America. It could be replied that a democracy represents the people, and I would say then that the last honest politician was shot in the head. It could be said that a democracy ensures against the homogeneity of opinion and the stagnation of ideas, and I would say we are overrun with opinion and everyone’s “good” ideas. It could be said that democracy encourages progress, and I would say America is behind a lot of the world. It could be said that democracy and religious freedom go hand-in-hand, and I would say purchasing good vibes at a megachurch hardly constitutes unabated spiritual development. It could be said that only in a democracy do we get to choose our leader, and I would say that over half the voting populous didn’t select America’s current president.
Now to be sure, charges against democracy are nothing new. Plato famously argued in his masterpiece Republic that the next logical step after the beautiful, multifarious democracy was tyranny. And it isn’t because some tyrant comes and takes our kingdom: it is because we give rise to the tyrant. This is simply the natural consequence of our desires playing the part of the ruler in the political organism that is the state. So the story goes: our customs and values diminish from generation to generation because, in a democracy, the father is on equal ground with the son; when things go wrong, as they are bound to, we desperately elect a leader who promises to continue to give us everything we wish for. But the thing is, because we have destroyed our values in the relativism that cohabits with democracy, the leader lacks that which it takes to be a good leader. The beautiful tragedy runs its course, and we become slaves to the tyrant — the embodiment of our passions — in his wild pursuit to save us.
But let be also known that Plato likewise believed in something called the Form of the Good: a metaphysical force which has the power to transform the natural world, including its natural consequences.
While I do not doubt that this is a hard notion for people to understand, let alone believe in, I find it compelling. And the reason why is I have been transformed, if not by it, then by something similar. See, the thing I can not deny, no matter how bad things get in America and how good things get for me in China, is that I have been given a second chance — a second chance I did not deserve.
* * *
As a heroin addict in my early 20’s, I tore through the lives of others. In my wild pursuit for pleasure and comfort, I abused my freedom just as much as America is being abused today. My family, my community, my society, my culture, have now all forgiven me, and my debt for this is insurmountable. But it isn’t a debt I don begrudgingly.
I moved to China to repay a debt to my father — to become my own man: a self-sufficient man who under his own propensities can nurture and provide for himself and others — and it is becoming one of the defining experiences of my life. The process of going back over our lives — our histories — and making right our wrongs, is one of great beauty, tremendous insight, and strengthening of soul. It is not a journey of dread. It is the path we want to be on, and, for me, it all began with a choice, a free choice.
Now, I am compelled by this path. It is not by force that I am compelled, but by a sense of moral duty. I am beginning to see what a life of service means, and it is something I really want. I want to repay my family, my community, my country, my western ethos, which gave me another chance at life.
I was once asked as an undergraduate what the Form of the Good meant to me, and for the first time I have a genuine answer: being able to implement your own ideas and to have the consequences be of benefit — to see the lives of other people improve by your hand. It is hard to imagine such a thing flowering and reaching its fullest fruition in a country that stifles free expression and assembly.
The spirit of the west — freedom of conscience, forgiveness, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom to influence, self-governance — is sick and dying, but it is not dead. Being able to believe what you want, to say what you want, to think what you want, to go after what you want, and to fall flat on your face, but then to be given a second chance, the means of redemption, the opportunity to really learn, and then to see it all work — to see yourself become a positive force in the lives of others — that, that is worth saving.
But I am fully aware that unless one has shared this experience, it is hard to see how they could reach the same conclusion. In other words, it is hard to see why ordinary people should buy into these higher principles if they don’t immediately benefit from them.
I recently read that chaos, insecurity, anxiety, complaining, deceit, and rhetoric are not signs that a democracy is failing. Rather, these are signs a democracy is working —that this is a democracy in action.
Maybe it is the case that we don’t need everyone to be convinced. Maybe the system need only produce a few good men — maybe even only one. I take some solace in the idea.
* * *
So why then is it better if conversion takes place in the heart? If answers must be given, this is because once the Father dies, it can live on in the Son, and the Son can one day pass on the torch. Absent this internalization, it is hard to imagine a thing surviving once our father leaves us.
And, after all has been said, what does it mean to be an American? For me, it means having the freedom to become influential in the lives of others, for better or for worse. It means taking part in a socio-political environment where goodness at least has the potential to reach its highest expression.
But what will happen to us? Will a democracy give rise to a tyrant, a few good men, or to a philosopher king? This I obviously do not know, but since I have recovered from my passions, and things are beginning to fall into their proper place, I am hopeful, nay faithful, that the same thing can happen to her.
Despite the fact my generation is being handed a broken country, I assume the responsibility it entails. I forgive my father’s transgressions. I forgive my country’s mistakes. And I, of my own volition, compelled by moral duty, seek a life in politics.
It is true I never chose to be American. But today, I do.
3) I have in mind Tiananmen Square June, 4th 1989.
*A version of this essay was originally published by Chosenmag.com in April 2017
Dylan Flint is a Seattle native with deep ties to the Pacific Northwest. He has been writing continuously ever since getting sober in 2013. He has written on a wide range of topics, from spirituality and addiction to politics and poetry, but everything has always had a philosophical bent. Philosophy is not only dear to Dylan, he considers it a part of himself–an “expression of his soul” to use his own words. Dylan received his BA in philosophy from the University of Washington in 2015. Since graduating he has spent time in Germany at the University of Tubingen, and for this past year, he has been teaching English in China’s Jiangsu province. When he isn’t reading and writing, Dylan enjoys skiing, hiking, traveling and generally being outdoors. This fall he plans to return to the Pacific Northwest. He has been accepted to the philosophy masters program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. After he completes this program, he plans to pursue a PhD in philosophy and dreams of one day being a philosophy professor so he can share his love with the next generation of thinkers. To follow Dylan’s thoughts and experiences along the way, you can check out his blog at www.medium.com/@aphilosophersquarrel or on Instagram @aphilosophersquarrel
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