Showing posts with label progressivism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label progressivism. Show all posts

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Freddy quits NPP, my crush on him intensifies

I was going to write a nice blog post about hiking in the tea fields in the mountains behind Meishan today, but then black metal star and Sexy Legislator Freddy Lim announced to everyone's surprise (or at least mine - but friends in the know hadn't quite expected it either) that he was leaving the NPP to run for re-election in 2020 as an independent, and supporting Tsai Ing-wen for re-election in 2020.

He also pointed out that the internal inconsistency or chaos within the NPP on whether or not the party should support Tsai Ing-wen for re-election in 2020 has made it impossible for him to do what he thinks is right - that each candidate needs to stand clearly against the KMT, especially given the threats posed by the upcoming election. In questions after his announcement, he said he did not intend to join the DPP, nor did he intend to join Ko Wen-je's newly-formed party, but that he had been in touch with the DPP. 

While the news was surprising, I couldn't really say I was shocked. The past few days have been a constant stream of news about the NPP's internal disagreements, so I suppose it shouldn't be such a shock. There have been rumors of the NPP supporting Ko Wen-je (unlikely for reasons I'll outline below, and I think chairperson Handy Chiu, who really needs to change his English name, also said today that they do not, but I was unable to watch the statement he gave shortly after Lim's announcement). 

This @watchoutTW timeline says it all!
— Pierre-Yves Baubry (@pybaubry) August 1, 2019

There has been discussion of whether supporting Tsai for re-election in 2020 would make the NPP a "little green" - basically a follower party of the DPP rather than its own entity with its own platform. NPP spokesperson (at least I think he still has that job?) Wu Cheng, who ran for city council in 2018 and lost, published an extremely long essay on Facebook outlining this internal disagreement, and I now regret that I never finished reading it. A few key points I did glean were that it's true the NPP has no consensus whatsoever on whether or not to support Tsai, that ideas like "little green" don't mean much when the question is whether the party is passively or actively building its platform and ideological grounding, and that while it may seem to some that Huang Kuo-chang (NPP legislator and former chairperson) was dominating the party with his views, that from Wu's perspective, the issue was the NPP's lack of a clear set of platforms independent of - rather than in opposition to - Huang's own ideas.

If you're wondering who's on team Little Green and who isn't - Huang has been clear that he'll leave if the party becomes too "green" (though I don't think supporting the current president simply because she's green should count as "too green", Huang gonna Huang), Hung Tzu-yung says she'll quit the party if they don't settle the issue and has expressed support for Tsai, and Hsu Yung-ming is pushing for the NPP to field a presidential candidate, which is a terrible idea so we'll just call him Terrible Idea Man.

So, again, is it any shock that such internal disarray would push out a no-bullshit kinda guy like Freddy? While he's got smooth PR and great showmanship, the beliefs beneath the veneer are indeed sincere. If he's got a clear idea of what needs to be done to stand for what is right, then he's not playing around or trying to get attention. He would only do something like this if he truly believed the NPP's internal "chaos" - my translation of his phrasing - was actively detrimental to doing the right thing.

Remember, not that long ago the loudest people in the NPP (and their assorted allies) were decrying Freddy's defense of Ko Wen-je. That defense was not well-articulated, but the purpose was clear: Freddy believed that as a legislator representing an urban district in Taipei, where Ko is the mayor, would be wise to get along well with that mayor, even if you don't think he should go on to become president.

He didn't leave the NPP then despite that criticism, so to leave now means that he must mean business. The problem is real, the internal dispute is actively harmful, things fall apart and the center cannot hold. 

What's interesting to me is that leaving the NPP - essentially creating a new fracture - is Freddy's way of aiming for greater solidarity. He further said that all smaller parties should compete in all districts in order to resist the KMT.

It doesn't make sense on the surface: wouldn't you stick with your people even if they can't form an internal consensus, if you thought uniting against the KMT was important? Wouldn't you want those parties to work together to figure out who can win in a given district rather than split the progressive vote in contentious districts?

But it makes a certain kind of sense, or has a certain abstract logic to it. The NPP, in navigating that internal disagreement, was creating room for more division among progressives who are for or against Tsai (mostly because they think she's not progressive enough, despite enacting transitional justice, raising the minimum wage, making strides in renewable energy and spending political capital to make same-sex marriage a reality - but apparently that's not good enough). By leaving, Freddy is sending a clear message: quit it. We all need to stand together against the KMT, so if you're going to argue that we should not stand with Tsai, that's not a useful way to look at the bigger picture right now and I'm not going to give it my tacit approval. 

That view can stand alongside the belief that elections beyond the 2020 presidential campaign should draw participation from a number of parties. It's not necessarily logically inconsistent. It's another way of saying "we need to unite behind Tsai for president, but that doesn't mean we have to be 'little greens'."

In effect, he's calling out the notion hinted at by people like Huang and Hsu that supporting Tsai is (or may be) a move towards becoming, or remaining, 'little greens' rather than growing their own platform and base and acting as a party that holds the DPP accountable, as they'd always intended.

After all, becoming a party that's simply a small, more progressive flank of greens may be one way to slide into irrelevancy. But then breaking from the DPP too harshly is also a fine way to turn into a fringe/radical party, which is just another kind of irrelevance. 

Some might be asking if this is the end of non-DPP progressivism in Taiwan - if we're back to the same old two-party shenanigans with various splinter parties who support one side or the other.

I don't know. For now, perhaps. But honestly, the true progressives need to do what Freddy has done here (and what I think Lin Fei-fan did by going to the DPP rather than the NPP). They need to 
realize firstly that not that many Taiwanese are as progressive as they are and their ideas are not shared by a majority of the population. That means more needs to be done to win over society. It means teaming up with the center, even if the center is slow to act. Doing so doesn't mean you have to support the center indefinitely.

Or, as a very smart friend of mine once said, activists have to realize that change won't happen just because they march, protest, strike, write and occupy. Change happens because they do those things, bring their ideas to the rest of society and show the establishment that their causes enjoy some popularity and can be winning issues. Activism needs friends in the establishment to get things done, and the more progressive members of the Establishment need the activists to get society to care about those issues. In Taiwan, the activists need Tsai, and Tsai needs the activists. 

Secondly, they - Taiwanese progressives - need to realize that while their issues do matter, that the China issue is particularly critical right now. Han Kuo-yu - an obvious unificationist - is the KMT nominee and seems to be good at lobotomizing people in a very Trumpian way. The KMT has gone from "well we support the 92 Consensus but not unification!" and Ma Ying-jeou's "no independence, no unification..." to "we support a peace treaty with China" (!!!) China can't be put on the back burner as something that's not a direct and immediate threat, because it it has very much become one.

I have more to say and links to add but I've also got work to do and just want to get this published. Other questions include - will Hung Tzu-yung jump ship too? (Probably not). Does Huang Kuo-chang want to be Taipei mayor and eventually president? (Everyone knows he does). Will he work with Ko Wen-je to that end? (I think it's unlikely). Will anyone else jump ship from the NPP? (Maybe not immediately, not sure. Does Ko's new party matter? (I don't even want to think about that right now.)  Will the left be able to unite to get through 2020? (No idea, but Freddy is right in saying that it must happen.)

Enjoy the rush job, come back for linked sources later if you're feelin' it. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

The sky is brightening: personal reflections on Taiwan recognizing same-sex marriage rights


During the Sunflower Movement, Taiwanese rock band Fire Extinguisher sang that "the sky is brightening" (“天色漸漸光”)in their hit song "Island Sunrise".

Five years later, as several thousand people or more stood outside the legislature for hours in the pouring rain, clad in damp rainbow gear under beleaguered umbrellas to watch legislative proceedings on same-sex marriage, the sky brightened again, both literally and figuratively.

First, a rundown of how the legislative proceedings went (for a summary of goings-on at the rally, check out New Bloom, and here's my summary of what's happened over the past few weeks). The morning was a bit chaotic, with proceedings kicking off late, and every legislator being given three minutes to voice their opinion, time which many (though not all) legislators took. Freddy Lim and You Mei-nu spoke particularly articulately in favor of equality, while anti-equality legislators, as usual, voiced concerns that defied logic. These "concerns" included points such as "if we pass this, then referendums have no meaning!" (when the reason why this bill creates a separate law rather than changing the civil code is due to the referendum results) and questioning whether the legislature actually had to listen to the court (...uh, yes).


Then the Executive Yuan bill went through a line-by-line reading and passed every article in turn, with some 'controversial' amendments. The crowd cheered and proclaimed victory as Article 4, which specifically uses the term 'marriage' in relation to same-sex unions, passed with a narrow majority of 66 votes. Reviews continued into the afternoon as legislators skipped lunch. Notably, KMT legislators Jason Hsu and Chiang Wan-an voted for it, with DPP anti-gay legislator Lin Tai-hua voting against.

At that point, I was curled up under my rainbow umbrella with my butt perched on a rain-drenched half-wall outside an entrance to NTU Hospital. I was shunted with much of the crowd to Jinan Road, as the main rally on Qingdao Road was at capacity. Around me, scores of young Taiwanese were following live feeds on their phones of the legislative proceedings nearby (a jumbo screen on Qingdao Road had a live feed for people on that side).


I ran into a friend and we grabbed coffee together as the review dragged. The rain continued to pummel the attendees still outside the legislature. But you know what? Most of them stayed. Hours it dragged on, and let's be honest, legislative proceedings are kind of boring. Connectivity was awful. Everyone was soaked despite having umbrellas and rain ponchos. There was nowhere to sit. But they stayed - thousands, maybe tens of thousands - to watch legislation drag on together on a screen most of them couldn't actually see.

By the time I made it back to the legislature, the rain let up. The sky brightened.


A few more controversial things happened - a last-minute motion by the NPP to deal with the international marriage issue (so that foreign nationals from countries that don't recognize marriage equality would be able to marry their same-sex Taiwanese partners) failed, with the entire DPP voting against it...for no good reason. The clause that would allow people to adopt the biological children of their same-sex spouse, but not to jointly adopt an unrelated child, remained in place (with no changes to the lack of access to fertility treatments for same-sex couples, and no surrogacy services in Taiwan).


But the sky brightened nonetheless. The proceedings dragged on. The people stayed as the rain dissipated and the sun came out, turning puddles of cool rainwater into humid vapor. I ran into another friend and we stood on the now somewhat-less crowded Qingdao Road, steaming in our clothes as the final articles passed review, and hopeful young activists clad in rainbows counted down each one.


Then it was time for the final countdown - the vote on the overall bill. A flawed bill that does not grant true marriage equality, but a form of same-sex marriage (using the word "marriage") nonetheless. When it passed, the crowd erupted. Some screamed, some cried. The sun shone bright as Taiwan became the first country in Asia to give same-sex couples access to their right to marry: a massive shift in the mood and the weather from morning to afternoon.

The wait from the beginning of the session until the final vote was about 6 hours - approximately 10am to 4pm. But those activists had been standing in the metaphorical rain for far longer than that. The battle for same-sex marriage in Taiwan has been shorter than in many other countries: it wasn't  an issue being discussed widely just 5 years ago, when the sky brightened for the Sunflowers (though dedicated activists had been working on it in smaller numbers for some time prior to that). The fight, however, was as vicious and all-consuming as this morning's rain, and it's not over yet.


All I can say is that I am just so impressed with Taiwan today. If you thought the dedication of the Sunflowers was a thing of the past, I submit humbly that it continues in a different form, through a different kind of adversity.

I don't imagine there are many countries that would end a marriage equality rally with a performance by a black metal band, as Taiwan did. I don't think there are many where 10,000 or more people would stand resolutely and unflinchingly in the soaking rain just to be physically present for an interminable legislative session. The level of civic engagement continues to impress me so much, and proves that Taiwan cannot be grouped so easily as a stereotypical 'Confucian', 'collectivist' society with wholly conservative values. It may be true that many young Taiwanese won't engage with their more conservative elders on these issues, but it's not true that they won't find other ways to oppose the old order of unfairness and inequality and a million -isms and phobia that those elders represent.

One of the arguments of the anti-gay camp is that ideas like marriage equality are 'Western' or 'foreign' and go against Taiwan's 'traditional culture' (they say 'Chinese' but I won't.) 

But of course equal rights have been a part of Taiwanese culture for some time now, and there is no incompatibility with Taiwanese culture (any incompatibility which seems to exist has been invented for political purposes). 

So it really mattered that the people in the front rows and on stage, the crowds on camera were overwhelmingly Taiwanese. This movement was started by Taiwanese, carried by Taiwanese and the success they brought about yesterday was done by Taiwanese. There was no 'Western infiltration' about it. (In fact, the anti-gay side is the one that had to look to the West to figure out how to spread its hate, bringing in foreigners like Katy Faust to speak against equality and justice.) It's important to keep repeating this, because that same opposition keeps accusing the pro-equality movement of doing the same, when it emphatically has not. 

As an American who was in Taiwan for most of the culmination of the marriage equality movement in the US and so unable to participate, it felt important to be a part of the support to make it happen in Taiwan, because it's my home. I have a place here too. And that place was being part of the crowd. Not onstage like a reverse Katy Faust, not a key part of the movement or even vital to it, but a participant who adds her physical presence to the crowd.


And it may be true that the DPP will suffer for this in 2020, but somehow I doubt it. They may lose, but I don't think it will be because of this. That they managed to get it through despite absolutely vicious opposition might just win back the young voters who were talking about abandoning them. Besides, people talk about the 2018 KMT sweep as though it had anything to do with conservative 'family values', when it didn't. It was about local governance - and we know that because the NPP drastically expanded its electoral reach despite being wholly pro-equality. They would have suffered the way the DPP did if marriage equality were truly the wedge issue that opponents and pessimists say it is. Most likely scenario? By 2020 same-sex marriage will be normalized, and no longer an issue for the DPP. After all, something had to be done after the 2017 ruling. Best-case scenario? This will actually work in their favor as the progressives who were disenchanted with them come running back.

Besides, in every country where same-sex marriage or marriage equality has been passed, it has simply ceased to be an issue (unlike, say, abortion, which remains contentious in the US because some people hate women.) The party that passed it has generally not suffered electoral losses as a result, as people learn fairly quickly that their gay fellow citizens are indeed normal human beings who deserve equal rights and what was all the fuss about anyway? I can't imagine Taiwan wouldn't go the same way.

And if you think this has nothing to do with the spirit of the Sunflowers, this guy is here to tell you
that you are wrong. And he wasn't the only one. 

If they do lose in 2020 over this, then they will have stood for what was right in the face of a tyrannical, hateful majority. True liberal progressives won't forget that, and it will come back to them someday. It would be sad to see if that's the case, but the solution could never have been for them simply not to stand for what was right.

As a Facebook friend posted regarding the anti-equality referendum result last year (kept anonymous as the post is not public:

"And yet, the government went ahead with the law. Why? Well, this is what distinguishes democracy from populism. Democracy is not merely about majority voting: it is also about adhering to basic principles protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority."

But they did, and the future leaders of Taiwan did as well. We stood in the rain for hours...for years.

The fight for full equality is not over, but the sky is brighter now, and the future is too. 


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Half the world is flat: Western liberals and conceptions of Asia

Caffeine Cafe in Dilijan, Armenia

We hadn't had a lot to say over breakfast to the Danish couple sharing our homestay - I am notoriously antisocial in the mornings - but the golden evenings of the Armenian summer gave way to local wine, local vodka, homecooked food and talk of global affairs.

We had come up to Debed Canyon, our last stop in Armenia before heading across the Georgian border less than an hour to the north, from Yerevan via Dilijan, where we had spent a glorious few days doing very little except reading books on a wide wooden balcony overlooking a verdant hillscape. Caffeine Cafe was near our hotel in Dilijan and provided for all of our cafe needs. I remember thinking as we hung out there, The Black Keys on the sound system and single-origin coffee in the pot, young hipsters on their laptops with hair that screamed "Yes, I drink that single origin", that as much as world travelers like to think they're going to places where everything is different, and even the people think differently, in fact Caffeine was a place that would have been just as at home in Brooklyn...or Tainan. And I bet if I'd had a political conversation with any of these young Armenians, we would have agreed on quite a bit.

In contrast, Debed was taxing physically and bracing mentally. During the day we hiked from a monastery perched on one end of the canyon all the way down to the river at the base, crossed it and crawled up the vertiginous wall on the other, over a meadow and to its sister monastery on the opposite side.

Afterwards, stuffed with home-cooked Armenian food chased with entirely too much alcohol, we climbed vertiginous walls of conversation with the Danes. 

"But these ideas - human rights, democratic government - they were all created by Western cultures, and they serve Western cultures," he said. "They work there, because Westerners are individualists. But to insist that these ideas must be applied globally, that's cultural imperialism!"

I liked him. He was eloquent. He was also wrong.

Debed Canyon: Vertiginous walls

"The whole point is that they're not Western rights, they're human rights. They are meant to apply to all humans. Perhaps the idea of spelling out these particular rights came from the West, but there's a reason why the United Nations - not the United Western Nations, but the United Nations - has a human rights commission. And the whole idea of the right of self-determination - a democracy, I suppose - is that everyone has it. Otherwise, you are essentially saying Westerners deserve rights that others don't."

"It's Westerners who conceived of these rights, so yes, they apply to Westerners. It's Westerners who conceived of democracy, so we can assume it works best there. Asia is more collectivist, those cultures are not individualist the way we are. So these ideas just don't work the same way in those cultures, if they work at all. We can't impose our idea of how people should live on the rest of the world!"

"Well, I can agree that telling other people how to live is generally a bad idea," I replied, "but how can you say that we created human rights for us, and other people don't need the right to express their opinion, or to not be arrested or tortured without cause, or not be enslaved, or choose what kind of government they want. Maybe that government wouldn't be what we want, but there is no good argument for not caring if they get to choose at all. And I'm not saying we should go into any given country and just tell them they're going to reform into democracies at gunpoint. We tried that, and look what happened. But that doesn't mean we should just abandon people who want something better."

He had lived in Asia for years, in Indonesia. He'd spent quite a bit of time in Southeast Asia, been around the continent, certainly visited China. I asked; he had not been to Taiwan. 

"We're not abandoning them, we're leaving them alone. They are able to come up with a system of government and way of doing things that suits them, and it's not for us to say."

"I certainly agree that people should come up with their own systems of government without being told by an outside force what to believe, but what you are essentially saying is that some cultures would be okay with arrest and torture without cause, enslavement, or being jailed or even killed simply for speaking one's mind. In a lot of countries that is the reality, but I have a hard time believing, having been to those countries, that most people prefer it that way."

"No, what I'm saying is, by insisting that everyone adopt the same norms we have, we are forcing something from individualist cultures onto collectivist ones, and it's just not going to work the way we'd hoped. In any case, given Western global hegemony and the history we have of colonization and destruction of other cultures, it's also imperialistic. It's forcing our values on the rest of the world. There is no such thing as universal values."

"So...slavery is sometimes okay?"

"What you conceive of as slavery might be considered differently in another culture, and not seen as slavery at all."

"I highly doubt that. It's a basic concept. I live in one of these 'other cultures' you speak of. They fucking know what slavery is, and their idea of it is not that different from mine, or yours. They're Asian, not stupid. They're not Exotic Orientals from the Mystical East who think up is down and circles are triangles. They're people. Normal people with a normal conception of things like slavery. You lived in one of these cultures too. Don't tell me Indonesians have a 'different conceptualization' of slavery because they come from a 'collectivist' culture. Nobody, regardless of where they come from, wants to be a slave...unless they're into that in, like, a sex way."


(Hey, I actually said that. I'm just being honest. I've cleaned up the conversation in other ways, but that last bit is absolutely real.)

"But," he said, recovering, "look at what happens in non-Western countries that adopt Western models."

"Well, let me give you a positive example. I live in Taiwan. One of those 'collectivist' cultures you like to talk about. You know what Taiwanese think are very important? Human rights and democracy. This is a country that is actively resisting being annexed by a dictatorship, because they want to keep their democracy. Their human rights record isn't perfect but it's a damn sight better than China's. This is a country where people care so much about their democracy that they take to the streets because they want marriage equality and the government is being too slow about making it happen, where 200,000 people march downtown because a young man doing his military service died from overly harsh punishment. 200,000! This is a country where students occupied the legislature for nearly a month because they didn't like the way a trade bill was being forced through undemocratically, and 400,000 or so people showed up to support them. In a country of 23 million! That's more than one in every sixty people! They absolutely want these things, and while they come from a different culture, they're just people who want human rights. There's nothing wrong or culturally imperialist about that.

Many if not most of them think of free nations - including Western ones - as natural allies, not enemies. They want our support. Perhaps their culture is more 'collectivist', although that seems like a very broad term and we'd have to break down what you mean by it. And yet they have a thriving, successful democracy, welcome Western allies, want more American support than they are getting, and this in no way interferes with their culture. Japan and Korea are democracies too, and they work. Hong Kong wants democracy. When they didn't get full rights, they voted in a bunch of pro-democracy legislators.

In fact, you say we're 'leaving them be', but what you're really suggesting we do to Taiwan by saying China's actions are not our business because it's 'a different culture' is abandoning an ally who wants our support.

So when you say these ideas are Western - maybe they came from the West, but in my life I meet Asians every day who believe in these things just like I do. Nobody forced it on them. America didn't come in and say 'you have to be a democracy now!' The people of Taiwan fought for it and won it themselves. So how can you say these ideas only work in the West or are inherently and inseparably Western or 'individualist' when I live my life in a non-Western, 'collectivist' culture that shares such values and they work?

In fact, if you tried to tell the average Taiwanese person that democracy and human rights are inherently Western ideas brought to them via cultural imperialism, in effect that by believing in them they are tools of Western neocolonialism, I suspect they'd be pretty offended that you think they don't deserve these values or rights that they want and hold dear, or these things are somehow not for them. As though you get to decide which values are appropriate for them - which is just another form of imperialism. Or, they'd just laugh at you."

* * *

Hiking between monasteries in Debed Canyon

This is what it's like to argue with me. Vertiginous walls of response. At least, this is how I remember the conversation - there's always a chance that, recalled from deep memory, my mind has created a narrative in which I look way smarter and more 'victorious' than I actually was. I'm actually kind of a dope, to be honest, so take all of this with a healthy suspension of disbelief.

In any case, I've thought a lot about this conversation in the intervening months, and always circle back to two main problems with this very typical Western liberal narrative on Asia.

First is the notion that all of Asia can be lumped together in this idea of 'collectivist' culture, and that because of this (and a few other cliches, such as 'Confucianism' and 'face'), they are so different from us that there is no set of universal, fundamental values that apply to all of us. Therefore, according to this line of thinking, we can't say anything or even be upset when Asian countries turn authoritarian: it's "their culture" after all, and our concepts of "human rights" and "democracy", being inherently Western, can't be applied.

Of course, this assumes that Asia is a continent of flat, continent-wide, immutable values that are diametrically opposed to our own. It distills every difference and uniqueness across cultures, regions and even people down to "well they're Asian", which is just another form of the old reactionary rhetoric on Asia where everyone is a stingy liar in a conical hat. It's just cloaked in a thin film of being 'woke' by using words like 'collectivist' instead of, I dunno, 'sideways vagina'. If 'they're Asian', they can't be like us, and so all of those great things we want like rights and freedom clearly don't apply to them.

Take this further, and one can even justify China's expansionist rhetoric: "well, we wouldn't stand for that in the West but they're Asian and you know, they have a different concept of what it means to be Chinese, so it's not for us to say." Little or no thought given to the idea that China's annexation-happy dictatorship is just espousing yet another form of the old-timey ethnic nationalism that we already know doesn't work, and which is already in the process of being actively rejected by Taiwan in favor of civic nationalism and Taiwanese identity. Same bullshit, different continent. It's not special just because this time it's happening in Asia.

When you get to the end of that rabbit hole, what you end up doing is arguing for China's authoritarian rule and threatening rhetoric on Taiwan, or at best being a useful idiot for CCP propaganda. You end up arguing in favor of an expansionist threat taking over a friendly democracy, simply because you've applied a surface-level knowledge of the cultures of Asia to your understanding of a specific political situation. You've effectively argued that freedom, self-determination and human rights are non-negotiables for you, but not for other human beings.

Three days of reading books in Dilijan

I understand the impulse to come at it from this direction: a lot of these ideas did originate in the West, so applying them globally feels like yet another iteration of forcing Western culture on non-Western contexts. It feels wrong to argue that something from your culture is inherently superior to the way things are done in other cultures, and there is a fear among many Western liberals of criticizing other cultures in any way - doing so might be construed as racism, as though the person arguing this has a problem with an entire culture or group of people rather than with a specific idea. It's just easier to be a relativist. But, I'd argue, it's also somewhat cowardly to not stand up for what's right, or even the concept that some values are universal, out of fear of looking like yet another whitey criticizing the way "foreigners" do things.

This sometimes morphs into an even stronger argument: that Western values simply don't belong in Asia, and any instance of them being espoused there must be the result of Western meddling because they don't suit a "collectivist" context. I don't even know where to begin refuting this - it's that nonsensical. It's about as nuts as thinking that slavery is not a fundamental concept that all people understand because of "different cultures".

However, this stems from a misconception that we are irreconcilably different from them. That our half of the world is round and varied - it has ethical topography - but theirs is flat: "Well...but...collectivism. Confucius! Face! That's all there is! It explains everything!" It was a part of what fueled the entire discredited 90s debate about "Asian-style democracy" - an invention of authoritarian governments (often ones in Asia) to justify remaining in power, not a legitimate interpretation of values. It also stems from a weird holdover of ethnic nationalism in the West: it's not so bad if China annexes Taiwan because after all they are all Chinese, aren't they? 

We wouldn't make that argument about our own countries, so how can we make it with a straight face about countries in Asia? By deciding what values are and are not appropriate in Asian contexts, are we not just performing yet another form of cultural imperialism, big brothering and white man's burden? Who are we to decide what people can and cannot think in Asia?

What's more, if someone argues that we cannot criticize what certain groups and governments do because we're Western and they're Asian, how is it that they can then talk about what the Taiwanese should and should not accept vis-a-vis China, or which values - "Western" or "Eastern" - they should espouse?

Asia is not flat: it is varied and complex. Within Taiwan, there are yet more layers of complexity. Between groups and people, yet more. Many more than you would think not only buy into these "Western" values, but came to believe in them of their own accord. It was not forced on them by us (if anything, we are to blame for supporting the dictatorship that the Taiwanese people overthrew).

Taiwan's destiny ought not to be determined by biology, but by what the Taiwanese want, no different from anyone in the West who strives for a representative government and basic human rights. They don't deserve these things any less than we do simply because we've decided to view "Asian" cultures in the same flat, monochromatic way.

Not only can we criticize authoritarianism in Asia without being racist or culturally imperialist, but I would argue that we must, based on certain universal values that can work just as well in Asia as they do in the West, because people there are no less deserving. It's the only way to firmly support a friend an ally like Taiwan. We don't need to go in and force people to change - that's ridiculous - but we do need to stand up for what is right.

Yes, there is a sense of "collectivism" in Asia that sets cultures there somewhat apart from our own, and yes, Confucianism has had an influence on cultures here. But you know what other things have had an influence? Daoism (or as I call it, the "yo guys just chill and be yo'selves" philosophy), political activism, political intellectualism, international travel, protests, education in both the Asian and Western traditions, occupations, marches, coffeeshop culture (which lends itself well to political discourse) and progressivism. Don't shunt those to the side in order to make Asia seem flatter and more 'exotic' than it really is. Don't turn it into one of those Star Trek or Star Wars planets where the entire planet is just one way - the Volcano Planet, the Desert Planet, the Planet of Half-Black-Half-White-People, whatever - with no variation. Engage with it as it is, and see exactly how many people have come to embrace the universal values of freedom, self-determination and human rights - on this "far away" continent. Support them.

I thought about all of this and more as we ate our last, quiet breakfast in Armenia before taking off in a shared car across the Georgian border. I am Armenian by heritage, and there are many in Armenia who, despite wanting Armenia to be considered a Western nation, hold "Old World" views. There are many other young Armenians who want something more modern and progressive and, to my mind, better. Taiwan is no different - despite being a non-Western country, there are values they hold that can be considered not only Western, but universal. It's time Western liberal embraced that, rather than pushing it away in favor of a "Confucian" othering and flattening of Asia. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Ideological Bedfellows (Part 1): I Am A Palimpsest

You probably already know that I'm an atheist. Have been basically forever. I'm going to tell you why I'm an atheist because I like talking about myself, but also because I think it is a useful tangential point to the one I'd like to make.

At least, I hope it is. After writing this, I realized how much it rambles. I would not call it my best writing. But, I feel like sharing, so enjoy.

The reason I want to tell you now is that it's a riff on this very good article by a woman who left her job at the evangelical Morrison Academy in Kaohsiung over differences of belief in marriage equality and her right to post about same on social media. So, this does concern Taiwan, I promise you, if you stick with me.

When I was around six years old, I figured out that there was no Santa Claus. I'm not sure exactly when I told my parents this, because at around the same time, my logical deduction about the impossibility of everything about the Santa myth led me to the logical deduction that some old sky-livin' dude who miraculously knew and controlled everything (and yet we had free will? Though I didn't call it that at that age), whose only reward or punishment for the good or the bad was to go somewhere after we died, with no proof of that offered whatsoever, and the only salve for the truly unfortunate was a combination medication of a.) it's a part of some "plan" so it's "okay" (or something?) or b.) God loves you and controls everything but it's not his fault, and you get to go to Heaven after you die in whatever awful way, and the people who built a world in which you suffer will themselves suffer no earthly punishment, with no sign that post-mortem justice is even a real thing was, you know, possibly also deeply illogical and at odds with the world as I observed it.

I told my parents this very offhandedly: as a child, I didn't comprehend that perhaps they knew one impossibility was impossible, but actually believed in another. I was surprised when they reacted badly.

In short, I was born without whatever gene may lead to faith. I do not feel it is a great loss.

I never did change my mind, though my parents' reaction was so adverse that I pretended to for awhile. I went to church (I had to), I even taught Sunday School and sang in the choir, among other things. I was confirmed. I said nothing more about it, because discussion of it was, while not forbidden (my parents were always fairly liberal, in fact), not especially welcome either.

This does not mean that I made a decision as a child and have stubbornly refused to rethink or challenge it in the years since. Several times I've gone back and questioned that lack of faith, wondered if my early rejection of it was mere childishness. So far, none of my challenges has been successful. I remain an atheist. The world as I observe it is still logically inconsistent with pretty much every monotheistic religion and I'm not interested in pretzeling my thoughts into accepting both when it is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer. 

Why on earth am I telling you all this? Oddly enough, so that perhaps you can understand that, in fact, I am not anti-Christian or even anti-religion.

Right. I know. Back that truck up. What?

My parents' church is a liberal one. They were pro-marriage-equality before it was the law, and around the time of my mother's funeral, rainbow flags were planted outside the building. This was a solid six months before Obergefell v. Hodges. Although there are perhaps a few Frozen Chosen among the congregation, the bent of their scripture curves toward acceptance and love. You know, the teachings of Jesus.

From years of growing up in it, and as a closeted apostate teenager, teaching it, I can say that there is nothing about the teachings of Jesus that contradicts my own personal belief system. I may not believe in God, but I think of Jesus as a great philosopher. Just because he didn't have a sky dad doesn't mean his words aren't worth heeding. The pastor of that church married us; I respected him quite a bit as a person (he has since retired; I also have a great deal of respect for the new reverend). I actually love this part of Christianity - the part that matters: love thy neighbor, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, judge not, do unto others and more. Notably, he said not a word about being LGBT in any way. There was a benefit to growing up Christian: this aspect of the faith wormed its way into my humanist ethical code.

Furthermore, most of my family and many of my friends are Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim). To take a dim view of faith of any kind would mean taking a dim view of them, or judging them. I simply don't take that dim view - I've seen how faith has helped them through crises, eased their final months and days, informed their laudable belief systems and actions and been something generally valuable to them. It may not make sense to me, but it makes sense to them. I cringe a bit, in fact, when militant atheists pan all believers. That's my family, dude. They're not idiots or lemmings. Shut it. 

In short, my break with faith had nothing to do with social conservatism or other beliefs. I still believe, on a human level, what the church I grew up in taught. I have no problem attending their services, I even contribute to the donation plate with a clear conscience. The break was spiritual - or, if you like, supernatural - only. In earthly respects my ethical code does not differ much from them, and we along well.

If you are curious, I did later 'come out' (if you can call it that) as an atheist to my family. They seemed to have forgotten about the first time and weren't pleased, but they more or less accepted it. Their social beliefs and mine are still similar - I am somewhat more liberal, but none of them are particularly socially conservative and on those issues I'd put them mostly at left-of-center. Not only is there nothing in liberalism or progressivism at odds with Christianity as per my upbringing, but in fact the two are a natural fit.

And why did I tell you that?

Because I do not believe, given my upbringing, that Christianity is fundamentally at odds with social progressivism in general, and marriage equality in particular. This should be obvious, but there are many - as in, far more than you would think - Christians who believe the brand of Christianity I grew up with, the one I feel is in fact most like the teachings of the person for whom the religion is named, is "not real Christianity" and people like my parents are "not real Christians". For whatever reason, they have decided that when it comes to scripture, their interpretive authority is irrefutable and lesser Christians - like, say, my family and many of my friends - are just as damned as those terrifying horror-movie atheists. Why? No idea. Certainly that's not anything Jesus ever actually said.

An atheist

(from here)

There are also many atheists who don't see this: they lump together all Christians into a reviled group they see as reactionary haters. Either you're a brainwashed sheep or an enlightened freethinker. I'm not okay with that - it's Bible-thumper judgmentalism dressed up as scientific rationality, veiled with condescension.

However, I'm going to do what I just criticized more fundamentalist Christians for doing, but hopefully call out their No True Scotsman fallacy.

They may think that the liberal, kumbaya Christians I grew up with are "not real Christians", but you know what? I don't think they are real Christians. In fact, the existence of such vile judgmentalism and closemindedness, to me, is further proof that God does not exist. Those who would seek to take away others' rights, in some cases deeply affecting their lives, go unpunished while those whose rights are taken away suffer. No succor or recourse is offered except for some nebulous concept of judgment after death, or the idea that there is a "plan" that accounts for this. Neither is a satisfactory explanation. I've already been over why I don't accept this model of the universe, therefore, such people are proof, to me, that there is no God.

People like them have been able to successfully delay, and in some cases block, marriage equality. That is, acting in the name of a philosopher who preached love, tolerance and equality, they have denied an entire group of people basic human rights. In some countries, they have successfully criminalized homosexuality.

What God worth believing in would allow this? Who, exactly, is going to be punished after they die if there is an afterlife?

If they are going to open the door to some people who claim to be Christians not "really" being Christian, there is nothing to stop more liberal Christians from throwing it right back on them.

If you - generic you directed at this particular type of "Christian" - do not believe in marriage equality, honestly speaking, I do not think of you as a real Christian. You are merely a bigoted person looking for a preacher to affirm your own shitty dogma. I know real Christians, and unlike you, they are good people. You probably do not believe me, being a scary atheist and all, but believe this: the folks who actually follow Jesus' teachings about love and tolerance are laughing at you, and if there is a Hell it is full of people like you.

Basically, I see no reason why Christianity and marriage equality cannot be bedfellows. The argument I have heard many times in Taiwan is that opponents of equality feel that way "because of their religion". They're Christian - to be Christian (in their view) is to take what they call a "traditional" view of marriage. What that is supposed to mean exactly - or rather why it means what they say it means - I'm not sure.

I am curious which "traditional marriage" they are referring to, or rather, why they've decided only the first one counts, based on a book that allows all of the above.

From here

It does not, however, have to be that way. Churches that truly follow the teachings of Jesus could be some of the greatest allies in bringing equality to all. I'm aware of the historical reasons why Taiwanese churches tend to be more conservative on the whole than the American churches I know, but it simply does not have to be such an ideological divide.

In fact, if I have to pick a reason or point for why I'm writing all of this, it's to remind people that in the USA the equality/anti-equality divide is not one entirely based on religion. Most objections to human rights for all seem to be religious in nature, true, but like the church I grew up in, often in the US some of the strongest support, and often some of the most important groups spreading the word in a way persuasive to more conservative elements, are progressive churches. Taiwan doesn't need to get rid of Christianity (though frankly I don't think there was anything wrong with the local religions and see no reason to import a new one - it's not superior), though it could stand to dial back how much influence churches have in politics, which far outweighs their actual representation in society. What they need is more progressive Christianity to be on offer.

In fact, I've heard several Christian friends in Taiwan complain of just this: they want to worship, but they can't find a church that squares with their beliefs, and can't bring themselves to attend a church they view as antithetical to their values of love, equality and charity.

I have no idea how to do this: as an atheist I'm certainly not the one to be doing it, and progressive Christians tend not to become missionaries (though some are). The missionaries here, and the connections the established churches have to the US, are all deeply conservative and entrenched. It does feel like wishful thinking.

So, Christianity in Taiwan seems wedded to intolerance - they are currently ideological bedfellows. I feel like this relationship is not the most compatible one, though, and Christianity needs a new partner. I want to say that for those of us on the side of equality, then, perhaps rather than dismissing all anti-equality opponents it would be prudent to offer up that new ideological combination as a way to support equality while maintaining faith. I really do. However, as an unrepentant cynic, I'm not so sure it would work within an acceptable timeframe. Fighting post-truth belief is difficult, and the road is not yet well-trodden. We don't have years. This matters to people's lives.

This is, then, why I was heartened to read Brandt's message. When faced with dogma or love, she chose love. The ideological divide does not have to run along the religious divide in Taiwan.

That said, after the first few supportive comments (I know - never read the comments! But I did) I was then saddened to see the rationalizations that people who thought of themselves as good Christians gave for wanting to deny rights to others. I'm not going to get into an advanced ecumenical debate, so let's just say I find the "love the sinner, hate the sin" argument lacking for all the reasons you can imagine. If you hate something that is an intrinsic part of someone else, you cannot then wholeheartedly claim to love them, as much as you might like to. It's as stupid as saying "I love my black friends, but hate their blackness". "I love my Vietnamese friends but hate the sin of being born Vietnamese". "I love my daughter, I just hate that that she's female." It's no better. What you are doing is dressing up bigotry with fake 'love' in order to make yourself feel better, because it sounds a little more like what Jesus might have said (which is what makes people like Katy Faust so dangerous - it sounds plausible to someone trying to reconcile religion with caring for a human being who does not epitomize that religion's moral code, but is in fact not plausible) - without considering that sin is a choice but homosexuality is not. That people are going to be gay whether you want them to or not, whether you think your sky friend likes it or not, whether you give them rights or not. It is not a sin any more than my having a vagina is a sin (though the Internet sure seems to think it is), because it is not a choice. 

This is what we need to fight, but I am not sure at all that it is possible.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Fu-Jen Curfew Protests: religious vs. cultural conservatism

So, a few of my friends have shared this post about the protests surrounding curfews at the women's dorms of Fu-Jen Catholic University in New Taipei (link in Chinese).

I understood despite my piss-poor Chinese reading ability that the women's dorms have a curfew and are locked after that time, while the men's dorms are not - and this has not changed despite an ongoing dialogue with the administration that tends to agree and avoid rather than actually discuss the issue. The protestors (who seem to be organized as FJU Cinderella) are giving press conferences and engaging in a hunger strike.

Yes, the entire reason for the curfew is that the powers that be are terrified of female sexuality. It's not for safety reasons, or because there is some sort of known threat, or even for legal reasons. It's because those nice young university girls might (gasp!) be sexually active and do what they please with their bodies. We can't have that now can we! So many pearls to clutch, so little time!

My first thought, though, was not "Taiwan can be really conservative!" - it was not to attribute this particular problem to Taiwanese culture at all but rather to religious, especially (but not limited to) Catholicism. American-style fundie nonsense comes to Taiwan!

I realize there is a certain prudishness about Taiwanese culture as it is, and many aspects of life here are dealt with more conservatively at home for reasons that have nothing to do with Western influence or Western religion. As a friend put it, culture in this part of the world started to turn prudish in the 19th century before missionaries even got here. But, that prudishness can't be analyzed along Western lines, because it absolutely does not follow them (where in the West are you going to find sexy church dancers along the lines of Taiwan's sexy temple dancers?), and in many ways Taiwan is not all that conservative. I've said several times it is, in my experience, more progressive than any other country in Asia by a very wide margin.

That prudishness does come out in college dorm rules - but it seems to be equally meted out to men and women. At least, as far as I have been told (I have never lived in a dorm here), while women's dorms often don't allow male visitors at all or after certain hours, and many have curfews, that men's dorms do too. The double standard that men can play but women must keep their legs closed (and only the 'bad sort' of women let the men play) seems, to me, to come out later in life when wives are supposed to be forgiving of their husbands' indiscretions, men are seen as horndogs unable to help themselves, but mistresses are evil succubi and unnatural she-beasts. At college age, the censure against sex - because, again this is about sex plain and simple - seems to be aimed at both young women and men.

As per my memory, when my sister attended NCCU no men were allowed in her dorm, but she was likewise not allowed in the men's dorms. I've been told by Zhongshan alumni that the men's dorms are further up the mountain, cloistered away farther from main campus life (and therefore more susceptible to monkey invasion) than the women's dorms.

But, all I know is what I've been told by people who have actually had Taiwanese college dorm experiences. If I'm wrong about this or you have counter examples (or examples that support this view), please do leave them in the comments. I'm entirely open to being wrong about this as I am not writing from direct experience.

If that is true, however, the practice of keeping women under lock and key but not men, to me, feels like more of a religious stick-up-the-butt than a cultural one. That it's Catholicism, specifically, causing the problem here with the church's outdated and frankly offensive views on women's rights and equality. (I want to emphasize this as an establishment problem, not a personal one: just because the church has views I find repugnant doesn't mean those who identify with that religion necessarily have similar views. It is absolutely possible to be an openminded, even feminist, Catholic, though it does entail differing with the church on certain issues).

That's not to say that very traditional thinkers in Taiwan aren't woman-blamers and chauvinists: many are. A student of mine from a college in Danshui told me about how her father lets her brother sleep at friends' houses, doesn't have a curfew for him when he is home, and lets him stay in the dorms at his own university, whereas she is expected to live at home with her parents and commute to college, and be home by a certain time. This attitude is not unheard of here. It just doesn't strike me as the reason why the women are locked up like untrustworthy lusty schoolgirls while the boys are allowed to hot-dog it all over town without censure. No thought given to the notion that young people are gonna get it on (to be honest, not me, despite living in a co-ed dorm freshman year - I was a hopeless nerd and kind of still am), and that's only a problem if you make it one by not educating them properly or by thinking its somehow wrong or unnatural.

That, to me, feels particularly religious in origin. I hear echoes of the Republican party and religious right in it. Hell (pun intended) it's one of the many reasons I left the US: as an atheist I was sick of public discourse being skewed so far to the right that moderates in the US look conservative in every other Western country, and liberals in the US are moderates by any reasonable standard elsewhere. I am a flaming liberal by American standards but pretty moderate by European ones, and I see myself as a moderate. I'm not a Communist or anarchist after all and I am married, which is a pretty establishment thing to do, although I would not say I have a traditional marriage. I was sick of being demonized for not only not believing in God, but not believing in the whole raft of misogynistic bullshit that seems to come with strong religious faith. The whole aspirin-between-the-knees victim-blamey "she had it coming wearing that skirt" "boys will be boys" purity ring flood of pure stinky douche that has poisoned and divided my own clumsy culture by creating a culture war that nobody with any sense wanted.

I would hate to see it start up here. Taiwanese culture grows more progressive by the day. The last thing it needs is a bunch of Western-style fundies screwing it up.