07 December 2010

The Temperamental Genius

Have you ever felt "damned if you do, damned if you don't" about something really big? I mean really big. Something that might conceivably have consequences that are lives-endangering, or even world-unsettling - at least in the hands of those folks who can actually make or break the world?

Suppose, let's say, you and your family were locked in a building, or marooned on an island, or besieged in a city, with a bunch of brilliant, aggressively resourceful people whom none of you trusts anywhere near as far as they'd like to throw you. A bunch of people who have ingeniously compelling ways of selling you absurdly cheap (and sometimes even absurdly bad) products, and loaning you (what will eventually become) ridiculously expensive amounts of money. And whom you would more than anything love to stop buying and borrowing from, if only you could afford it. And yet concerning whom you know, from long experience, that it behooves you to think twice about doing anything - anything, however otherwise reasonable - that might make them angry. And mostly it's not even because of the tightness of your mutual entanglement, or the apparently diminishing wiggle room available to you both. Mostly it's because these brilliant opportunists are, shall we say, temperamental, and extremely touchy, and still smarting badly from all sorts of past injuries and humiliations. It's not necessarily that in the long haul of their history they've suffered unduly worse than other folks. It is rather because any humiliation at all would be grossly incommensurate with their true worth and just deserts as a people and a culture. Because no Chinese (or American, or Briton, or German, or Pole, or Arab, or ________ [insert the superior nationality of your choice]) should ever have to suffer like that. Maybe Russians and Jews - after all, they're used to it, and certainly at least the Russians have done more than a little to deserve it. But surely no people of any real culture and accomplishment.

By now you've probably guessed that I'm no fan of the People's Republic. But it is for that very reason that I think we'd all do well to be leery of provoking them. Caution is especially in order when it comes to arousing what I call the collective stubbornness, and the collective impulsiveness, of the mainland Chinese leadership. I think it makes sense, regardless of whether you love or hate, or distrust, or simply want to get along with Beijing - much as wariness and caution made very good sense, many years ago, in dealing with a certain other nation who had a similarly high opinion of their own admittedly high worth. Right now I'm recalling how certain far-sighted Britons and Americans, who tended to know a thing or two about German history and German character, gradually grew more and more concerned about the stubbornness and impulsiveness of the German ruling classes over the first third of the 20th century.

My point is not that either the Germans or the Chinese are in any way savage, barbarous, uncultured or unaccomplished nations. No, if anything my feelings are quite the reverse. It's just that when I think about today's mainland Chinese in particular, and about all the various things they might or might not do, I'm reminded of certain individuals I've known, and the likes of whom maybe all of us have known. Men and women, often highly civilized, cultured and gifted, as well as ambitious and enterprising, who were very good at getting their way. I recall how these individuals, in the course of getting extremely big for their breeches, also got very much used to having their way with pretty much everyone (and then all the more despised and took advantage of those who tried to accommodate them). And lastly, I'm reminded of how extremely self- (and other-) destructive people like these can be, when they feel they're no longer able to get their way, and start thinking they have to take it.

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