Ours is a worried America, a jittery, teetery, beetle-browed America. Have we lost our oomph, our stomach, our moxie, our way? And is that our doom we see before us, on a big red cloud with a billion people on it? Well, maybe. Certainly it’s been a while since we looked up and beheld a clear blue sky. Now we see ozone depletion, smog, intruders–we parse what we used to drink in.
As we have for a while: John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, in the last of the Rabbit books, envisioned his death as descending out of the azure, “shaped vaguely like an airplane.” And by book’s end, it’s found him–the ex-basketball star, still trying to get some air, though he’s overweight now, nothing antigravity about him, and with something–hmm, might this be a metaphor?–the matter with his heart. That was Updike’s America, circa 1990–an America that could not pass up a candy bar. Now the Japanese measure their waists and apply peer pressure to the metabo, while we Americans grow ever more immeasurable. Not that everyone is a whale, of course–look at the Seals! And isn’t Michelle Obama getting us to move?
Still, we worry. As for the foil to the story that is young America, fit America, ready-for-all-comers America, it is Asia. The Vietnamese who tunneled right under our troops. The Japanese who showed us how real cars were made. (Is there a German word for relief at someone else’s stagflation?) Now it’s China. “The nineteenth century went to England, the twentieth, to America,” goes a saying. “The twenty-first belongs to China.” It’s something you hear every now and then in America. In China, you hear it all the time. But is it true? Or is China the new Japan–a tiger that spooks us but will prove a paper tiger in the end? Sure, the Chinese have a railway from Chongqing to Europe now–an iron Silk Road that runs all the way to Germany. And sure, they’ve built the world’s longest overwater bridge; and maybe they can boast some pretty fast trains, too. But what about that train crash in Wenzhou? And isn’t there a case to be made that more regular trains are what’s needed, not showcase trains with no passengers? And what about China’s top-heavy population and its many state-sponsored enterprises, not to say the 140,000 official graft cases that were filed last year? How many unofficial cases there were, no one knows. But such is the corruption, such is the pollution, such is the lackluster innovation, not to say the discontent among the hundred million plus migrant workers, that for all the chortling about to whom the twenty-first century will belong, the reaction of many Chinese to Obama’s State of the Union this past January was disbelief. Could the United States really feel threatened by China? Our perception of them is of a humongous country, with an enormous population and enormous reach: witness their buying of U.S. dollars, their buying of Brazilian farmlands; witness their cornering of the rare-earths market and more. In their minds, though, they are David and we, Goliath. Never mind what a large-ish David they seem to us. That’s how they tell the story.
And, well, let them. It’s the doubt in our minds that matters more. For generations we’ve taken our superiority for granted, after all; it’s a story by which we’ve lived. We have taken it for granted, too, that we were the envy of the world, which we may still be: stories abound of our foes applying, if they have the chance, to come study in the United States–of their applying, even, for citizenship. These are stories of which we take note. The irony, we say. It just goes to show. Though what does it show? Some of these changelings want to become American. Others, though, just want a safety net. China crazy place, a man said to me once.
True enough. Still, look at Shanghai, people say. Look at Shenzhen. Look at Zaha Hadid’s new Guangzhou Opera House. Thirty years ago, you could barely drive a car down even the avenues in Guangzhou thanks to the crowds and the animals. The people spit. They had no sense of time. Everything amazed them. Up north in Shandong, I remember impressing my colleagues at the Coal Mining Institute with my intimate acquaintance with refrigerators. They were wowed by my ability to identify that mysterious item, the egg rack, as for eggs; almost no one had seen a refrigerator before. To make a phone call, you had to ride your bike to a post office in the city; sometimes you got a connection and sometimes you didn’t. And this was in Jinan–home today to the hackers who hacked their way into Google. Thirty years ago, “communist capitalism” wasn’t even an oxymoron yet.
The Chinese story is a challenge to ours. It is odd to think a five-thousand-year-old civilization an upstart, but the Chinese make us look ancient. Big-time corrupt in a crony capitalist sort of way–witness the banking crisis–and, well, slow. This democratic process–is it great, after all, or is it cumbersome? Does it not take forever? Could we Americans ever have put up a ring road the way China has around Beijing–not once, but going on six times now? We’re the “can’t do” nation, being beaten at our own game. And how universal is democracy’s appeal? People may be everywhere in chains, but how many care? Don’t a lot of them just want to live like the people they see on TV? And does that mean we’re in decline–our ideas, our ideals, our model? Or if not quite that, yet, perhaps at a pause at the top of a Ferris wheel–at the “and” of “rise and fall”? The recent revolutions in the Middle East have and have not been heartening; we’re no bestseller, that’s for sure. What’s more, we’re nation-building at home for good reason. Trying to do something about the economy. Trying to do something about unemployment. Trying to do something about education, the environment, everything. Though can we? When it isn’t democracy standing in the way, it’s capitalism, our style. A Houston oil exec friend told me how frustrating it was to bid against the Chinese for oil fields. Our shareholders, she said. Our short-term orientation. We need to show a profit tomorrow. Whereas the Chinese don’t, of course. The Chinese are buying everything.
We are still the “can do” country, sometimes. We got Osama bin Laden, after all. And there he was, we now know, in his hideout, trying to change Al Qaeda’s image, its name. His brand was in trouble. Which was our victory, in part, was it not, that he should think his group too violent to appeal to other Muslims? We have an African American president. We have a woman president of Harvard. We have a military that (at least theoretically) no longer discriminates against gays. China has health care for people who can pay. It has people who will stand in the hospital lines for a fee. I once saw a school for migrant children in Beijing; there were some seventy or eighty kids in a class. They had no books; the floor was dirt. Everything turned to mud in the rain. And the kids came or didn’t, of course, or came too early; some were dropped off at 5 so their parents could go work. The kids stayed too late, too. As for who was helping them out, or trying to, that would be a bunch of Americans, who else.
It is an unfortunate feature of narrative that what gets most mental play is what our brains deem relevant to survival. Which is generally what’s most fearsome; we’re a spookable species. But before we spook ourselves silly over China, perhaps we should recall the story of Wang Labs, with its storybook rise and storybook fall. Both were in part because of Chinese-style management, the Wangs having played their cards close to the chest. They kept things in the family, including their stock; and with these things, they kept challenge at bay, too. Stockholders may be a pain when it comes to oil fields, but might stockholders have kept Wang from betting so big on word processors? Instead, Wang came to dominate an industry eventually wiped out by PCs–personal computers being able, of course, to do word processing and a lot more.
As for whether that’s a tale about centralization and its hazards–it is. Is it a story about China? We’ll see. In the meanwhile, here’s another tale from the annals of the pc: Apple v. IBM, also known to all, once, as David v. Goliath. Locked in combat for decades, both companies struggled; and both were down for the count more than once. IBM, though, reinvented and reinvented, and still survives today; and as for Apple, it, too, reinvented and reinvented and, even without Steve Jobs, more than survives today. Neither is defined by the industry over which it once battled–Apple, in fact, dropped the “Computer” from “Apple Computer” a few years ago. And neither, I think, could have foreseen how drastically things would change. But there it is. Things changed; they adapted.
Can that be America’s story? Even with China in the picture? David and Goliath (whichever is which), both on their feet for a good bit to come? I am not such a dreamer as to think the slingshot obsolete. Still, I wish we’d write our narrative this way, and believe we still can. America the Open, America the Nimble, America the Out-of-the-Box, this would go. America the Resilient, America the Free. America the Unafraid.