Why Chinese Culture Has Not Conquered Us All

Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well.”The slogan flows naturally from the operating assumptions of Party state strategists: in their telling, a central pillar of any nation’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力) is what these Chinese have labeled “discourse power” (话语权).

Discourse power is the ability to mold the assumptions, conceptions, and values of foreign princes and peoples. The concept sits midway between Beltway talk of “soft power” and the sort of influence leftists describe with the phrase “cultural hegemony.” Discourse mirrors the instrumentalism of the first term—discourse power is not just a set of static social relationships or societal norms, but a tool to be wielded—but is far less associated with happy-go-lucky rhetoric about admiration, emulation, and attraction so closely bound up in American conceptions of soft power.

Triumphant victors of the Cold War would conceptualize the issue in such terms:  the victors of any given cultural conflict always believe they have won through the wide appeal of their vision and the free choice of those attracted to it.

Continue Reading

Learning From Our Defeat: the Madrassas and the Modern

In all of my reading on Afghanistan, two books stand out. Both were highlighted in my list of the best 10 books I read in 2021: Carter Malkasian’s The American War in Afghanistan: A History and David Edwards’ Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan. Both authors are fluent in Pashto. Both draw plentifully from Taliban primary sources. Both have had hundreds of conversations with Afghans of all classes. Together they provide a powerful picture of the way the war has changed Afghan—especially Pashtun—society. The war in Afghanistan was first and foremost a war within that society. America chose to back one side of this civil war. These books lay out exactly what each side of this war was fighting for.

Or so I write in an essay published this weekend in Palladium. To understand the Taliban’s victory, I argue, you must understand what made the Taliban different from the wider Pashtun society from which they sprang.

Continue Reading

The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reader Course

A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.

              In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:

Continue Reading

On the Party and the Princelings

Desmund Shum is a red billionaire. Red Roulette is his memoir, a tell all expose of his family’s climb to the summits of wealth and the foothills of power. The book describes how he and his ex-wife maneuvered to the top—and why they subsequently crashed back to earth. Their fall was as dramatic as their rise: Shum now lives in exile; his unfortunate ex now lives in prison. With nothing to lose, Shum lets loose: his memoir promises to hang Beijing’s dirty laundry for all to see. What a sight this laundry turns out to be! Read this book. Though Shum is unreliable narrator, his memoir is the best single introduction to elite Chinese life yet written.

Continue Reading

As the Generations Churn: The Strategic Consequences of Cultural Change in Communist Russia… and China?

Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change their ideas, but because people with new ideas replace people with old ones. As most people form their essential political worldview by the time they are 30 and only adapt it on the edges to new circumstances, only the most earth shaking events have the power to fundamentally shift the frameworks and values that the majority filter their politics through. Large scale cultural shift is largely a story of generational churn.

While the focus of that piece was on American domestic politics, this is a general phenomena that applies across cultures and time periods. Vladislav Zubok understands this. The generational nature of political change is a recurring theme of Failed Empire, which chronicles the ups and downs of Soviet diplomacy from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While we often describe Soviet history in terms of the leader reigning at the top of the system, Zubok argues that shifts in Soviet strategic behavior reflected not only the differing leadership styles of the various CPSU General Secretaries, but broader transitions from one generation of leaders to another.

Continue Reading

Understanding Taiwanese Nationalism: A Historical Primer in Bullet Points

  Noah Smith has a recent substack note discussing Taiwan. In the comments section there are a number of heated arguments over whether Taiwanese language, history, politics, and so forth are enough to justify thinking of Taiwan the way Smith does: as its own “civilization.” When reading through these debates I was struck by the […]

Continue Reading

Where Have All the Great Works Gone?

A few months ago I wrote about Oswald Spengler’s attempt at comparative world history. I expressed severe reservations with Spengler’s methods and conclusions.[1] But for me the most fascinating parts of the book were the footnotes to Spengler’s main argument. Take, for example, Spengler’s attempt to compare and contrast members of his chosen pantheon of […]

Continue Reading

Spengler and the Search for a Science of Human Culture

Several months ago I wrote a few reflections on Ross Douthat’s newest book, The Decadent Society.[1] As I noted, Douthat’s most interesting claim is that we live in an age of intellectual sterility. We cycle ever backwards to the intellectual, cultural, and political priorities of 1975. In response, I argued that complaints of cultural sterility […]

Continue Reading