Aren’t Asians supposed to be the ones fixated on saving face? It’s so closely associated with yellow folk that there’s even an Asian American indie movie named after the idea. The concept ranks somewhere just below Confucianism when it comes to non-Asian attempts to explain the wacky Asians and their obsession with image and obfuscation, which is often smugly contrasted with Western honesty and directness. Yet as the coronavirus wreaks havoc through an unprepared United States, some Americans at all levels of society are prioritizing ego-protection over facts and solutions.
America has a problem right now: we are facing a catastrophe of war-level proportions without a clear war-level enemy. Recently, the White House put forth 240,000 deaths as the upper end of the bracket if social distancing policies were closely followed. That figure would be more than the American military deaths in World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Furthermore, there are the devastating economic consequences, with nearly 10 million unemployment claims within the first two weeks of lockdown measures and an unemployment rate that is expected to potentially climb up to 30%. In search of this war-level enemy, some—especially American right-wingers—have tried to blame China. But regardless of what China did or didn’t do, the fact remains that the American government’s response has been atrocious. Hundreds (and soon, thousands) of Americans are dying every day from the coronavirus, yet we still see governors refusing to institute proper lockdown measures and business leaders doing a cost-benefit analysis of how many lives are worth a percentage rise in the stock market. If American lives are so cheap, only the stupid or dishonest would believe that our country would’ve instituted radical policies when it was merely the Chinese who were dying.
There’s another embarrassing fact that throws a wrench into that narrative of blame deflection. On the same day that the United States reported its first reported case of the coronavirus, so did Korea. Since then, the two countries have taken tragically divergent paths in dealing with the virus. To their credit, many people in America have praised its handling (as well as those of other countries like Taiwan and Vietnam) of the coronavirus outbreak and wondered why the Greatest Country In The World has thus far been failing so miserably. Yet others, including those at the highest levels of government and media, have attempted to absolve themselves of responsibility and, even more audaciously, to salvage some cultural pride out of this calamity.
A recent Wall Street Journal article put forth its own explanation has to why Korea and Italy’s handling of the pandemic have yielded such different results. Both countries were among the first outside of China to experience outbreaks, yet while Korea has successfully managed thus far to keep the illness relatively at bay, Italy has not. With a few select interviews, the article glibly concludes that it’s because Korea has “the lingering cultural imprint of Confucianism” which “gives a paternalistic state a freer hand to intrude in people’s lives during an emergency”. In contrast, in Italy, “[t]here’s a premium on the individualistic Western mind to be defiant”.
The problem with culture-based arguments is not that every culture is exactly the same, but it’s in how these arguments are so easily used to say anything, usually in advance of an agenda. When it comes to handling the coronavirus, Italy is supposedly too individualistic to come together as a nation for the greater good. But when it comes to winning the World Cup, it’s Italians’ undying devotion to each other, especially in times of crisis, that contributes to Italy’s phenomenal success (only Brazil has won more World Cups). After Italy’s victory in the 2006 World Cup, Marco Materazzi (the Zidane headbutt recipient) claimed that they won because the players and the country came together for the greater good after the Calciopoli scandal (aka the Juventus cheating scandal). In general, Italy’s supposedly cohesive identity and willingness to sacrifice collectively (historically, Italy's national teams are notoriously defensive) are cited as reasons for the country’s success. In contrast, there is overly diverse France or overly individualistic Brazil. So when it comes to Italy, they can come extraordinarily together to win a soccer game, but not to overcome the worst global crisis since World War II?
Cultural differences do exist, but the key is to pay attention to the spin and the motivating agenda. The Wall Street Journal article actually cites to Korea’s bungling of the 2015 MERS crisis as a key factor in its much-improved handling of the coronavirus in 2020. This fact could’ve been characterized as Korean respect for science, which would actually fit into existing ideas of Asian aptitude for STEM fields. But contrasting Asian science vs. European ignorance would be an uncomfortable inversion of the usual East-West dichotomy. Eastern aptitude for science is only allowed to be acknowledged when contrasted with the Western penchant for creativity, not stupidity. One also doesn’t have to use a lot of brainpower to imagine how an African country’s refusal to follow governmental rules would be characterized. Something tells me they wouldn’t be described as romantic iconoclasts.
Update: Fittingly, on the same day I published this article, the New York Times had a piece praising Germany's handling of the coronavirus crisis. Early testing, a robust healthcare system, and an able government were credited as the reasons. There was no citation of German cultural servitude and deference, even though Germany used many of the same methods Korea used.
So what’s the motivating agenda? The Wall Street Journal and its ilk need to find some way to salvage some dignity in a desperate situation that is exposing all the flaws and hypocrisies in America and Europe. Even worse, this exposure is happening in unfavorable comparison with Asia. And the best they’ve got is “We’re just too cool to follow the rules.” Despite death and depression, they’ll at least go down clinging to their conceit of bold heroic non-conformity, which also preserves their cherished gendered notions of the masculine West and feminine East.
Korea’s status as a democratic nation is another thorn in the side of American self-esteem, causing at least one Trump administration official to publicly disqualify Korea from being a “free” nation. Given the very recent Candlelight Protests in Korea and the resulting democratic removal of President Park Geun-hye, this is a comically bogus classification. There may be a deeper malevolent political truth, however: countries are only truly free if their exercise of democracy advance pro-U.S. interests. By this standard, the Candlelight Protests did not make Korea a properly free nation.
Are these patronizing attitudes created at the individual level, which are then carried to the governmental and media spheres? Or do they trickle down from up above? Does it matter? The everyday Facebook comment above is seemingly complimentary of Korea, yet instead of focusing on more likely explanations for Korea’s success in fighting the coronavirus (e.g. the country botched the MERS crisis and had the unique advantage of what amounted to a rehearsal to COVID-19), it hones in on the one answer that allows Americans and Europeans to protect some deeply treasured part of their ego, that they’re just too free for this world. I have family members in Korea that either protested against Park Geun-hye or Moon Jae-in. There was no “massive stigma” and my family certainly wasn’t dishonored. What does that even mean? That they’d be forced to commit ritual suicide on national TV? Wear hats of shame in public? Do these people actually think these things through?
This preoccupation with ego preservation is a major problem because it fits a larger disturbing pattern that predates the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a pattern that has inversely grown as America’s fortunes have waned. As easy and accurate it is to criticize conservatives for their Make America Great Again obsession, are not liberals guilty of Make America Obama Again? How else can one explain the empty last-second resurrection of Joe Biden? Besides the establishment elites’ desire to maintain control of the Democratic Party, what else explains the support for Biden besides a general longing to go back to a time when we superficially looked like the idealistic post-prejudice society we've always wanted to be seen as?
The first step to fixing a problem is to admit it exists. Yet just a few months ago, Chris Matthews said on television that one of the reasons he couldn’t stand Bernie Sanders was that he “indicted” America too much. But the question is, what isn’t there to indict? America accuses other countries of devaluing their citizens, yet we’re the ones refusing to even consider providing care—the kind of care that exists in every other industrialized country—for even essential workers that are holding our society together right now. We accuse other countries of silencing truth-tellers, yet our hospitals and military are firing sensible people for the unforgivable crime of embarrassing their superiors with reality. We accuse other countries of corrupt elections, yet we’re the ones that oversaw the farce that was the 2020 Democratic Iowa caucuses (not to mention the obviously biased media coverage against Bernie Sanders before, during, and after).
After Hillary Clinton’s disastrous message of “America Is Already Great,” one would think the Democrats would have more sense than to nominate as their champion someone who, in remarkable fashion, is flawed in the exact same ways as their previous loser, but worse. Maybe American misogyny will save the day and let Biden win where Hillary could not. Or maybe Biden will be replaced at the convention. But the problem is much more serious than a presidential election cycle or two. The coronavirus has exposed the deep rot in American society, a rot that many of us tried to ignore because so long as America had Apple, Hollywood, and Harvard, we were still number one in the glamour industries. The brand power of America could still provide at least emotional boosts to both the upper and lower class citizenry.
But the coronavirus outbreak has shattered the tenability of those comforting thoughts. Now that we have to confront reality, the critical question is whether we can be honest and humble enough to address problems within our society that we’re responsible for, or whether we’ll blame or ignore rivals and allies alike for the solutions they could offer, all for the sake of saving face.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @JesuInToast