Rant: Liberal Values and American Inaction

Not much of note happened this week, so – despite a strange adventure in the hills above town last weekend – I think I’ll go on a rant instead.

I woke up this morning to find an article on the New York Times website proclaiming that  a federal judge in Virginia had ruled unconstitutional a major provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the gargantuan healthcare reform act passed earlier this year. According to Judge Henry E. Hudson of the United States Federal District Court (Virginia, Eastern district), the act’s requirement for Americans to purchase health insurance falls outside of Congress’ legislative authority. While the law already has been challenged in courts twice before, this is the first time it has been overturned.

Living in Xining, a relatively remote provincial capital in Western China, it’s been interesting seeing the partisan battles in America play themselves out on a playing field seemingly millions of miles away. In a province known for having a comparatively heavy-handed government presence thanks to its large population of minorities (especially T*betans), politics – even the simple idea of politics or of a genuine political process – lies far off people’s radar screens, distant from their everyday lives.

Why worry about how policies become enacted and which ones end up as law? Why try to learn or think about what’s actually happening over your head when the results are visible here on the ground, when the effects of this distant process called ‘politics’ are changing your city and your way of life right in front of your very eyes? The changes seem inevitable, unstoppable, and proceed almost like clockwork. Old buildings are torn down in an instant; new buildings spring up seemingly overnight. New, efficient buses appear on the roads, and solar panels spring up on rooftops. New propaganda posters and government campaigns appear, screaming in bold red characters that the country, starting with its citizens must master the “Four Abilities” and push the country further along its path to modernization. Here in Western China, there is no introduction, lead-in, or preparation: without any sort of process whatsoever, without any thought or consideration on the part of the average citizen, things just happen.

I am a product of a liberal American education. Almost since birth, liberal values such as tolerance and the inviolability of each individual’s rights and liberty have been repeatedly, both implicitly and explicitly, reinforced into my subconsciousness. I’m not trying to say that it was a forceful or coercive process; I simply want to drive home deeply ingrained these ideas have become into the American psyche. And I still believe in the importance and necessity of these ideas to creating a free people and a vital, active public square.

But while our government is limited in its scope and powers, and was designed in a manner conducive to inactivity, we cannot content ourselves with a government that does nothing, or – in this case – a government that, once it has finally accomplished something, promptly and immediately reverses it.  The senate’s filibuster rules, to take one example, have slowed government action to a degree that all we talk about seems to be the ongoing gridlock of inactivity in the chambers of Congress. Somehow, we need to strike a better balance between open, active public discourse and a government capable of greater activity.

I hate the idea of countries being in a metaphorical ‘race’ to become dominant powers, but that is effectively what the United States is currently losing to China due to our government’s current standstill. In the domains of infrastructure, energy, business, banking, and even education, America has lost the capacity to do what it must to maintain its primacy. I see new evidence of this nearly every day in the newspapers (Chinese students outscore Americans, new high-speed rail lines are built, new cities and highways created from scratch) and in daily life – especially in the visibly rising living standard of the average citizen, even way out in China’s West. China, of course has severe problems of its own: the entire country could be listed as a Superfund site, the housing bubble pushes rent prices ever-upward, the cost of living continues to increase dramatically. In addition, the population lacks the political and social freedom that we have become accustomed to. But on the flip side, things happen – and fast.

We are not as frightened of this country as we should be, as it continues to advance with astonishing speed. My life in Xining is surprisingly comfortable, even ‘normal,’ by US standards. We are truly being leapfrogged, and we are blinded by our self-absorption from seeing that it is happening now; we are too concerned with our own supremacy (as Tom Friedman aptly put it in his recent column) to actually take action to maintain our status in a rapidly changing global environment.

We will not remain a global power if we govern, as Laozi says in the Daodejing, by “doing nothing.” Later Daoist scholars themselves recognized that the Daodejing‘s admonition for a hands-free government was not a prescription for complete inaction, that “taking no action does not mean folding one’s arms and closing one’s mouth.” We need to unfold our arms, open our mouths, and get to work. Upholding the healthcare bill, which not only expands coverage but will save money, is just the beginning. If we don’t start now, we should at least institute a mandatory Chinese-language program in American middle and high schools. It will be necessary in the future.

OK, I’m done. I was sort of angry this morning. All good now. Maybe I’ll post on what’s actually happening later this week – just needed to get that out. Thanks all!


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2 Responses to Rant: Liberal Values and American Inaction

  1. walt says:

    Remember that hospitals are required to treat the uninsured so currently the cost is displaced and bourne by hospitals which is indirect on the insured. The conservatives do not like true cost aCcounting (farm subsidies to commodities like corn for syrup for coke and cheap sweetened food or military involved to protect oil for cheap gas…). Paying taxes is patriotic not a burden.

  2. Kailah says:

    Had a conversation with a Chongqing guy at a noodle shop the other night. He said in 20 years China will surpass the US, referring specifically to how bad the US economy is right now. + etc. Probably you’ve had similar convos in Xining?

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