Monday, December 28, 2009

The World with Asia in Charge

Sati: Widow-burning, a form of Indian bride burning

I did indeed have a nice Christmas. Thank you for asking.

My brother-in-law gave me SuperFreakonomics (HarperCollins, 2009)by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. (By the way, I object to this spread of words and names with capital letters in the middle. Don't you?) I started reading it immediately, knowing that very soon I would have time for nothing but Francis Bacon. It became immediately clear to me why this is a best-seller.

They begin a section on India with this refreshing frankness. "If you had the option of being born anywhere in the world today, India might not be the wisest choice" (p.3). The authors then recount various morally repulsive practices revolving around and following from a culturally strong "son preference." Something will tell you that you're not in Kansas. For example...

The U.S. charity Smile Train, which performs cleft-repair surgery on poor children around the world, recently spent some time in Chennai, India. When one local man was asked how many children he had, he answered "one." The organization later learned that the man did have a son--but he also had five daughters, who apparently didn't warrant a mention.

Smile Train also learned that midwives in Chennai were sometimes paid $2.50 to smother a baby girl born with a cleft deformity--and so, putting the lure of incentives to good use, the charity began offering midwives as much as $10 for each baby girl they took to a hospital for cleft surgery (p.4).

Had enough? No? Here's more.

A baby Indian girl who does grow into adulthood faces inequality at nearly every turn. She will earn less money than a man, receive worse health care and less education, and perhaps be subjected to daily atrocities.

In a national health survey, 51 percent of Indian men said that wife-beating is justified under certain circumstances; more surprisingly, 54 percent of women agreed--if, for instance, a wife burns the dinner or leaves the house without permission. More than 100,000 young Indian women die in fires every year, many of them "bride burnings" or other instances of domestic abuse (p.5).

It is inconceivable that Americans would behave in this way, that is, that these practices would catch on in America. Why not? What makes the difference is not our commitment to human rights or the rise and dominance of feminism, but the enduring moral influence of Christian culture. Of course, these practices and attitudes are repulsive also to non-Christians in the West. Atheists like Christopher Hitchens would have none of this. But their moral assumptions and moral sentiments are more the result of that Christian culture than they care to admit.

Levitt and Dubner found the solution to the problem to be in television (pp.6-7). Where cable television came to rural villages, more girls were kept in school and there were fewer incidents of domestic abuse. They conclude that "cosmopolitan images on their TV sets" elevated people's views regarding the value of girls and women. I would still trace thee influence back to Christian or heavily Christian-influenced culture. The culture of the Indian village is Hindu and traditional Indian. What the authors call "cosmopolitan" is actually Western, and ultimately, in large part, Christian.

Here is a very intelligent man, Hans Rosling, a professor of international health in Sweden, examining population, health, and prosperity trends, comparing the West and Asia over the last 150 years with particular reference to Japan, and to India and China before and after they achieved national sovereignty. He joyfully anticipates Asia regaining its position as the dominant part of the world, which he (half jokingly) predicts will happen on July 27, 2048.

One viewer (Wrolf Bronesby) added a discordant note among the comments on this video, saying,
I would invite any of [those who cheered Rosling's conclusion] to partake in the life of a Chinese citizen making that "average" salary, a life dominated by work amidst choking pollution in a uniform city of concrete shells, with no personal or political liberties. India is not much better, the entirety of all major cities lathered with trash and feces in which the starving poor teem.

Rosling's excitement plays well before his Indian audience. But his disregard for politics is striking in several ways. He referred to Chinese independence in 1949 as "the emergence of a modern china in a way that surprised the world." Of course, by this he meant the take-over of the country by the Chinese Communist Party under the butcher tyrant, Mao Zedong. The only words of criticism he voiced--jestingly--were "no more stupid central planning," as though that were the only reason that China "fell down" in their prosperity and health during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

But as far as China's advance is concerned, he fails to account the cracked demographic floor beams supporting the economic growth that he projects into the future, ceteris paribus. Because of China's one child policy, and, on top of that, the resulting (at times murderous) preference for boys over girls, China will not be able to sustain anything close to the economic growth they are seeing today.

Rosling predicts "a shift of power away from where it has been the last...150 years back to Asia" when they will be "governors of the world." Governors of the world! He celebrates this prospect. What is there to celebrate when you consider the political cultures in India and China, as indicated in these attitudes toward women, and thus toward human beings in general?


Chris J. said...

What frightens me most about the government of China is their attitude that the government of China should look good even at the expense of the well-being of their people. One example is the scandal of melamine found in milk. Pediatricians were expressing concern about the rise in kidney stones, yet the government swept it under the rug. The continued exportation of lead-tainted products, each time followed by promises of tightened regulation, show that China is more concerned that it remain economically strong even at the expense of children's health. Within China, the government continues to rewrite history and the current news as it sees fit. IS this the type of government we want "governing the world?" I have nothing but respect and admiration for the Chinese people and their culture, but the Chinese government disgusts and frightens me with its casual disregard of human life and liberty.

David C. Innes said...

Those are good examples, Chris. The problem is, however, that you cannot so easily separate the Chinese government from Chinese culture. There is not a culture of respect for human beings simply as human beings, e.g. as made in the image of God. Their concern that China look good regardless of the human cost grows out of Chinese honor culture. And so on.

Every human culture is a mix of sin and grace, whether saving grace or common grace. It's the sinful aspects of Chinese culture, in particular their political culture, and how it manifests itself in their politics, that concerns us.