Thursday, September 29, 2011

A case for expatriate humility [UPDATED]

The intention may be noble, but the tendency to project our values and beliefs onto others whom we presume to defend often leads to resentment

The temptation, though fundamentally altruistic, to try to help others by adopting their “cause” can have the unintended consequence of inspiring resentment among those who are being “helped.” Part of that outcome derives from the condescension or “I know best” attitude often inadvertently taken by individuals who are, and always will be, external to the conflict in question.

It may come as a shock to the interventionists among us, but as David Reynolds points out in his biography of the anti-slavery activist John Brown, many African-Americans came to resent the condescension and paternalism of (white) anti-slavery organizations that hijacked the cause in abolitionist US.

The same, in my view, applies to a more contemporary cause celebre, that of Taiwan’s independence. How often have expatriates, bloggers and academics abroad made policy prescriptions for Taiwan, as if they knew more than the Taiwanese themselves, only to disconsolately shake their heads when those ideas are not lovingly embraced, or when Taiwanese appear unmoved by the repeated insults from Beijing? I myself have often been guilty of that practice, inspired no doubt by a romantic, if not Hemmingway-esque, desire to make that fight my own.

My op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here. (The picture is of pro-unification demonstrators awaiting the arrival of ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin in November 2008.) Also, my response to letters sent to the Taipei Times.


Anonymous said...

I have had similar thoughts myself.

I've sometimes thought that other expats have been too prescriptivist ... and I've had to remind myself that, given a choice between being bombed to smithereens or beings forced into unification with China, the Taiwanese might prefer the latter. I really think the Taiwanese deserve more options than that, and I want to do what little I can to help give the Taiwanese people other options (for example, by contacting politicians in the United States, my country, and refusing to vote for politicians who are willing to sell Taiwan to the Communist Party of China). But I have no right to tell the Taiwanese which option they should pick.

I also saw that car with the Chinese flag and communist propaganda, but ironically, it reminded why I much, much prefer being in Taiwan over China. In previous decades, Taiwanese people didn't have the freedom to openly promote the views of the Communist Party of China, even if they agreed with them. However, even today, in China nobody could drive through the streets and loudly express the views of the Taiwan Solidarity Union without serious consequences.


Anonymous said...

Many Taiwanese-Americans dedicate a good portion of their life on the issues in Taiwan, be it human rights, elections, sovereignty, or the status of Taiwan in the international community. And very often we feel frustrated, usually after the elections. We tend to say how could Taiwanese be so foolish.
I have to remind myself from time to time that all politics local. Taiwanese-Americans usually have friends and relatives there in Taiwan, but we are not really part of the society there. We don’t understand politics at local level, but only at the national or international level. And that frustration came from as it appears many voters there don’t have the issue of sovereignty as priority when they vote, but rather local interest or personal connections. But I am sure it will change when Taiwan is facing real crisis. Or is it my wishful thinking.
Thanks for the good article and just to say I understand the feeling of expatriate there.


Michael Fagan said...

"Who am I, as a Canadian, a journalist, to get angry at such acts, and to presume to have the authority to tell Taiwanese that such displays are unacceptable and that something should be done about them?"

Commentary is not the same as command. To voice your mere disapproval you need no other authority than that which you were born with. Command requires the delegated authority of those who would be commanded.

The two are categorically different.

Readin said...

As an American voter, my decisions, and the decisions of others who think like me, will have an impact on the extend to which the US supports Taiwan and whether that support will include risks to the lives of American military personnel.

I've not encouraged the Taiwanese to fight, but I do think they need to make preparations for at least two other reasons. First, Beijing is more likely to be deterred by a country that is willing to defend itself than by a country prepared to roll over and submit. Second, the US is more likely to support a country that is willing to support itself.

I recently said on Michael Turton's blog that Taiwan needs to start preparing to fight after the occupation forces have landed. I expect no less from Americans. I support the American 2nd Amendment. I

Whether the Taiwanese want to have a country is their decision. But they need to understand that no else is going to die for their country if they aren't willing to. When Taiwan reduces the term of the draft, won't let citizens be armed, spends less than 3% of GDP on defense, elects and re-elects people who refuse to buy needed weapons simply because they don't like the opposition party president, and elect a president who makes it clear that he doesn't want Taiwan to remain independent - when the Taiwanese do that they should not be surprised or upset when they're allies abandon them.

Readin said...

Oh, and I also remember that in the run-up to the gulf war, instead of volunteering to support the international coalition being built by the US and demonstrate what a great ally Taiwan was, the Taiwanese government was instead reassuring the public that no Taiwanese would have to risk their lives for the sake of the recently attacked United States.

I'm no fan of China - I'm pretty disgusted by their bullying ways and I think history clearly shows Taiwan is and should remain independent. I hate say it, but given Taiwanese behavior I can't imagine why the Taiwanese deserve for even one American life to be risked on their behalf. And I vote in every election for national office.

台啤 said...

I have to say that I agree with the above statement. Also, to Mr. Cole, I truly respect your work and always haved. However, your publishing this after being condemned by the KMT, the timing might come off to some of us as being a bit suspect. A point I would like to add is that where I see a big problem with Taiwan is that for a country to determine its future, it needs the support of the movers and shakers (powerful business leaders?) I do not wish to generalize, but when these people have their investments in China and have their wives fly off to the USA to make sure their kid has a USA passport(only to, as often the case) immediately return) can these guys be counted on to defend Taiwan? Also, I have permanent residency here, a family and house here and have lived here and paid tax here for more Than 15 years. To me this is no simple "cause célèbre " But, if Taiwanese want unification , one country two systems, I agree that I will respect their decision.

台啤 said...

And, may I add, continue to live here.

台啤 said...

Actually, readin, I totally agree with your first post. The second one, not exactly but I get your point.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

台啤: First off, thank you for reading and for the kind words on my writings, even if we disagree on this one.

You write: “However, your publishing this after being condemned by the KMT, the timing might come off to some of us as being a bit suspect.”

Rest assured that my decision to write this op-ed is altogether unrelated to the KMT threats against me last month. Anyone who knows me would know that I do not let authority intimidate me, and that I would cease to be myself if I allowed this to happen. One example being my former employer, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, warning me after I resigned in 2005 never to write about my experiences there. What did I do? I published a book about it.

This op-ed is the result of months of soul searching and stems from a long series, over the years, of observations. I also like to think it comes from my becoming more mature — and yes, humble — as a reporter and columnist.

I will have a longer response to some letters on the subject in Monday’s Taipei Times.

FOARP said...

My problem has always been this - I have a lot of difficulty with people who I know would never take up Taiwanese citizenship being all-fired for Taiwanese independence (or reunification for that matter - but then I don't know any non-Taiwanese-origin expats who support this). This is particularly so when their reasons for not wanting to take Taiwanese citizenship is either because they want the protection of foreign citizenship in case of emergency, or because they want to avoid national service. The advocating of a particular course of action, whilst totally excluding themselves from being affected by the consequences of that action, is unseemly to say the least.

The one thing which should be a red line for everyone who believes in democracy, though, is any outside threat to Taiwan's democratic character. The guarantee given by the US to Taiwan should be maintained, and the PRC government's attempts to isolate Taiwan in the diplomatic sphere should be resisted.

It's for this reason that, whilst I'm sympathetic with the pan-greens, I don't think there's any reason to demonise the KMT in the way that I see on many of the expat blogs. When push comes to shove, the KMT is a party that was elected by the Taiwanese people in free and fair elections. De-legitimise them, and you also de-legitimise Taiwanese democracy.

Yes, the KMT seeks reunification, but they have officially undertaken not to seek reunification without democratisation on the Mainland. As such, and under these terms, there is no reason to resist this goal if it's what the majority of Taiwanese people genuinely want.

Steven Crook said...

"The advocating of a particular course of action, whilst totally excluding themselves from being affected by the consequences of that action, is unseemly to say the least."

Not taking up or wanting to take up ROC citizenship DOES NOT mean you're excluding yourself from "the consequences of that action." Many foreigners who won't/can't become Taiwanese have made massive investments here of time and emotion (and in some cases money). My wife and son are here; my career is here; my wife's business is here. Relocating would be very painful.

Also, as I'm sure FOARP knows, Taiwan's citizenship laws don't make naturalization at all easy.

FOARP said...

"Not taking up or wanting to take up ROC citizenship DOES NOT mean you're excluding yourself from "the consequences of that action.""

It does if your reasons for not taking Taiwanese citizenship are entirely because you wish to insure yourself against upheaval, or to avoid military service.