Hung Kings Festival by mattsteinglass
April 28, 2007, 11:00 am
Filed under: Vietnam

Vietnam celebrated the Hung Kings Festival on Thursday, for the first time designating it an official national holiday. This would be the celebration of the 18 kings of the mythical Hung dynasty, roughly 1000 BC, the immediate descendants of the dragon Lac Long Quan and the fairy Au Co, who gave birth to 100 eggs which hatched into soldiers and became the Vietnamese people — but I don’t need to tell you that. It’s the first holiday in the Vietnamese calendar based on a non-Communist historical figure. The designation, according to historian Huu Ngoc, is broadly in line with a shift in emphasis away from Communism as a national legitimating ideology, and towards nationalism. Anyway, the range of offerings toted up the mountain at the Hung Kings Temple in Phu Tho province, about 80 km from Hanoi, was impressive: the most striking offering of the morning, an entire roast chicken.

Hung Kings chicken

The crowd numbered certainly in the tens of thousands — the path up the mountainside was completely overwhelmed, and with veterans of the Ho Chi Minh Trail looking on, people started scrambling straight up the hillside through the woods. Continue reading


America: A City on a Hill, Surrounded by Other Cities, Some of Them Also On Hills by mattsteinglass
April 24, 2007, 10:42 am
Filed under: United States

Barack Obama laid out his foreign-policy vision in a speech yesterday to the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs. It was a good speech, recognizing the primacy of international cooperation rather than unilateralism and the need for America to live up to its own claims about itself in order to protect its image and credibility abroad. But it remained hampered by a species of rah-rahism which I worry may be inevitable in American political diction these days, and which may in itself be a turn-off for the rest of the world. Obama:

This election offers us the chance to turn the page and open a new chapter in American leadership. The disappointment that so many around the world feel toward America right now is only a testament to the high expectations they hold for us. We must meet those expectations again, not because being respected is an end in itself, but because the security of America and the wider world demands it.

Here’s the thing: is it necessary to speak so constantly about American “leadership”? If the concern at the moment is global antipathy towards the US due to Iraq, Kyoto, etc., doesn’t one need to first go about showing oneself to be a good global citizen again, before asserting one’s right to “lead”(and implying that others are eager to follow)? Is it, in fact, true that the world largely feels “disappointment” in America, and has “high expectations” of us? Or is it rather that they simply wish the US would behave like the world’s other normal prosperous democracies — the EU, Canada, Japan — and stop pompously trying to drag everyone else into its crusade du jour?

In January, a BBC poll of 26,000 people in 18 countries found that 52% thought the US’s influence in the world was “mainly negative”; 29% thought it was “mainly positive”. The trend has been consistently and heavily downwards ever since 2001, and we continue to “lose” countries that had positive attitudes. For instance, the percentage of those holding a positive view of the US in Poland dropped from 62% to 34% in 2006, presumably due to the US’s attempts to strong-arm the country into accepting elements of an anti-missile defense system. Pro-US sentiment in Indonesia dropped from 40% to 21%, as positive effects from US post-tsunami aid dissipated. In India it dropped from 44% to 30% as the glow of the US-India nuclear deal waned. This suggests there is an underlying trend of long-term hostility towards the US as a country, mitigated by brief upticks due to high-profile friendly American policy gestures.

It is likely that Barack Obama, because of his extraordinary personal qualities (his eloquence, his solidarity with the third world, his openness of mind, his skin color) would, as president, rapidly alter the world’s attitude towards the US. Above all, he’s uniquely qualified to restore the sense that the US keeps its promises and lives up to the claims it makes about itself. But it’s also likely that the moment of worldwide receptivity to American leadership in the 1990s was the result of specific historical factors — the aftermath of the Cold War plus the personality of Bill Clinton and the ascendancy of “Third Way” politics — which are not going to be set on rerun simply because Obama gets elected. We cannot ignore the fact that the last six years happened. A dose of humility would be a good thing for the US’s image abroad. Whether humility can be sold to the American voting public is, however, another question entirely.

Dam, Sfardeya, AIDS, Cancer by mattsteinglass
April 23, 2007, 11:28 am
Filed under: Asia, Health

How many plagues can a continent take? For months, I’ve been hearing Vietnamese friends worry that suddenly everyone seems to be dying of cancer. And now, Bloomberg today on rising cancer incidence in Asia:

Asia’s cancer rate may jump by almost 60 percent to 7.1 million new cases a year by 2020, straining the region’s ill-prepared health systems, said Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal Lancet… “There really is going to be an incredible pandemic of cancer like we’ve not seen — we couldn’t have imagined it — over the next 20 years,” Horton said in an interview in Singapore, where he spoke at the Lancet Asia Medical Forum. “We barely have the health systems to handle infectious diseases, so how on earth are we going to deal with this?”

The culprits are rising tobacco use, worsening diet (more red meat, less fruits and vegetables, higher obesity), and longer lives — which isn’t really a “culprit” I guess. Anyway, the main point seems to be that cancer is incredibly expensive to treat, which puts health systems in a bind: it’s morally and politically difficult to simply not offer people treatment for a disease, but offering treatment risks breaking systems that need to deal with lower-cost, more familiar and more urgent and curable threats. And the best recommendation for avoiding a crisis? Get people to eat their vegetables and exercise more. Why is it that it seems like most of the world’s miserably insoluble problems could be taken care of by remedies a kindergartener could think up?

You Can Make This Stuff Up by mattsteinglass
April 23, 2007, 10:38 am
Filed under: Internet, Media, United States

The blogospheric outrage at Maureen Dowd’s decision, yet again, to allocate her high-priced real estate on the NY Times op-ed page to a close reading of the public’s semantic and connotative responses to John Edwards’s haircuts prompts me to consider, yet again, what exactly it is that columnists supposedly do in this rapidly changing blog-infested media world. I remember that a few years back, when Nick Kristof first began journeying around the world, doing hard but opinionated advocacy-based reporting with multimedia enhancements from the world’s poorest and dismalest hot spots, I found it a revelation. Now, of course, several of the Times’s op-ed columnists are treating their jobs the same way. Paul Krugman puts on his reporter-economist hat and goes slogging through CBO reports, calling up OMB officials and so forth, to sift through government economic and budget data and make it comprehensible to the layman. Even Thomas Friedman travels around to Davos and Kenya, interviewing businessmen and average workers, trying in his somewhat ingenuous fashion to figure out what makes the global economy tick and how it’s related to a development agenda in the third world.

Then, there are two Times op-ed columnists who basically comment on other people’s shopping habits: Maureen Dowd and David Brooks.

I don’t think there’s a place for that sort of writing anymore. Certainly not taking up space on the op-ed page of the NY Times. Dowd and Brooks aren’t doing enough to justify their positions; they don’t bring enough value-added. In certain ways, the US remains a very meritocratic country, and it seems to me that within a couple of years, if the two of them don’t start doing some serious reporting or multimedia production like their harder-working colleagues, they’re going to be out of a job.

Diminishing leverage by mattsteinglass
April 19, 2007, 9:01 am
Filed under: China, Trade, United States

Missed this yesterday, but the NY Times’s Keith Bradsher has a good piece on the gradually decreasing importance of trade with the US to China’s economy. From the Canton Trade Fair in Guangzhou, Bradsher reports that “the American market is not as crucial as it used to be. Instead, Chinese producers of everything from socket wrenches to sport utility vehicles say, their fastest growth these days lies in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South America and elsewhere in Asia — in other words, practically anywhere other than the United States.” Exports to the US are still extremely significant, but they’re not the single most important element in China’s economy any more; the EU surpassed the US last year as an export destination for Chinese products, due in large measure to the rise of the Euro and the fall of the dollar.

So, if there was ever a period where the US might have used its immense importance as a buyer of Chinese exports to leverage foreign-policy goals (on human rights, Taiwan, Darfur, etc.), that moment is rapidly passing. Of course, it’s never been productive to take a directly confrontational, “set these dissidents free or we’ll put tariffs on your furniture” approach. Rather, the best approach has always been “the US values its relationship with China, an increasingly powerful player on the world stage, but oppression of dissidents makes that relationship difficult and makes it harder to keep Congress from passing protectionist trade measures”. But still, ultimately, the weight behind the latter approach comes from the US’s tremendous importance as an export destination for Chinese products. As China’s economy becomes more balanced, the US’s influence shrinks.

Oh My God! The World is Black! by mattsteinglass
April 18, 2007, 1:29 pm
Filed under: Africa, United States

Thomas Friedman has a pretty good piece today on the fact that Barack Obama is the only candidate who could singlehandedly change the global perception of the United States simply by virtue of being who he is. This is an insight that’s hardly original to Friedman, but the fact that Friedman embraces it is pretty significant: it signals the entry of this meme into legitimate, mainstream inside-the-Beltway punditocratic conventional wisdom. It’s significant to see Friedman writing this:

It seems to me that the strongest case one could make for an Obama presidency right now is rarely articulated: it is his potential to repair the broken relationship between America and the world. As I travel around, I have never seen a president and a vice president more disliked in more places than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Again, this is pretty obvious stuff, and Friedman knows it’s obvious; but it is important to acknowledge the unpopularity of an American president abroad as a foreign affairs and security concern. Friedman’s implication that Obama’s potential popularity would make the US safer and more powerful may serve to blunt the edge of the ongoing carping that he lacks “experience” on “national security”. A Thomas Friedman seal of approval is pretty useful in that regard.

Of course, what Friedman doesn’t mention — what few commentators would mention — is that one major reason an Obama presidency would help change America’s image abroad is that he’s black. The point here is not that the US should elect a person of color because most of the world has dark skin pigmentation and it will make us more popular. The point is that the US boasts of itself as a country where the color of one’s skin does not matter — and yet its leaders always seem to be white. That feeds into the terribly damaging global sense that the US is a hypocritical country, a country that is not to be trusted in the way it talks about itself. (As Friedman notes, when the US serves up human rights concerns abroad these days, it gets back a giant forehand smash of “Abu Ghraibs” and “Guantanamos”.) It’s fatal to be known as a hypocrite and a liar; it kills public diplomacy dead. One thing the US has got to start doing is living up to some of the pledges it has made to the world. And there is no better, more convincing argument that the US is what it says it is, than for Barack Obama to win a presidential election.

Not that that’s the only, or perhaps even the main, reason he’s popular. Bill Clinton was hugely popular from Vietnam to Africa. Friedman’s also right that at an ability to listen intelligently goes a very long way.

Meanwhile, Here in East Asia… by mattsteinglass
April 18, 2007, 10:28 am
Filed under: Japan, Terrorism, United States

…the Mayor of Nagasaki was shot and killed last night. See? It’s not just in America! Obviously, gun control doesn’t work — especially since in Japan, almost all the gun owners are yakuza:

Organized-crime groups are behind most shootings in Japan, with two-thirds of the country’s 53 known shootings last year being gang-related, according to the National Police Agency.

Further proof that if you make guns illegal, only criminals will have guns. Why, in the US, of our roughly 8,000 gun homicides in 2004…Huh. Actually, over 90% were gang-related, according to the Department of Justice. Even after you include the roughly 600 justifiable homicides, mostly by police.

Hm. Clearly, we need to loosen our gun control laws, to enable more law-abiding citizens to carry guns and shoot people.