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“One can fly to Japan from anywhere,” writes historian Edward Luttwak in 2019. ” But from Japan one can only fly to the Third World. ‘This time last year, a country with twice the British population and a forty of its deaths by Covid-19 even seemed through the line. Efforts to grasp its success have acknowledged Eastern humility and a bureaucratic superclass.
Hokum, yes, but soothing hokum. One consolation of the pandemic was that it revealed the social models that others must ape. (Germany was another.) Trauma is so much easier to bear when it illuminates the road to better days.
Even that comfort we are now denied. East Asia has become the rich world’s scam in the race to vaccinate. South Korea has fully stabbed 13 percent of its population. Taiwan managed about 1 percent. Vietnam may be poorer, but the 2020 paragon, which joined China in the elusive recession, is 0.4 percent. Whether it is the cause of the government’s unpreparedness, mistrust of the government or unkindness amidst low cases, the stereotypes tumble.
As they do so, two conclusions stand out. The first is large enough to be called geopolitics. Even if it were tasteful to weigh such things, the pandemic is not going to ‘win’ anywhere. China has crushed the virus, but is accused of carelessly losing it. America’s economic boom is frightening, but so is the death toll. India seems to have set low expectations ahead of the few months of hell. Europe has redeemed its vaccine farce, but its stain remains. Even the canonization of Jacinda Ardern stands still.
If the world is a match for ruling models, the pandemic appears to be a net-neutral event. It is no clearer than it was in 2019 if one-party democracy performed better than the more tumultuous kind. Or if one of the high-tech dictatorships beats. Or if generous welfare trumps a lean state. Or if collective action is easier among diverse citizens than homogeneous.
Admittedly, a few countries unequivocally have good stories to tell. But it is an achievement to see the values and institutions that bind Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Mongolia. As a plague to tease us, as a theme emerges — the negligent ‘neoliberalism’ of Anglo-America — it no longer wants to be proven. That is, over time, we have learned less and less. The past 18 months have been partly haunting because it does not have all the patterns and meanings.
And this is the sunnier lesson from the icy vaccination in parts of Asia. The other is how crude the west’s picture of the lands still is. Whether in awe, disgust or perfect neutrality, some of the smartest Americans and Europeans I know place the impressive 2020 of East and Southeast Asia on innate collectivism. Some are paid for the specific task of knowing better. Even then, it was a strange impression in an area with the most developed youth subcultures on earth and cities closer and more than 24 hours in the west. The amalgamation of Japan with Korea (I hear there are people who tend to demarcate) was no less telling.
Over the past few months, the herd of herds has made complicated reverence complicated. Even the well-intentioned cliché, namely that of ingrained competence, has diminished. But the wonder is that it just so flourished. You would not know from the myth of technocratic mastery over the decades of corporate torpor in Japan. You would not know what vivid memories national fines and chaos are for some Singaporeans and Vietnamese.
A flattering misconception is still a misconception. Edward Said conceive of an entire academic field by regarding the image of the “East” in the west as meaningful and noble. And even he really only means Britain and France on the one hand, and the Middle East and India on the other. Today’s version contains a larger number of participants, and much greater input. A likely medieval G20 will add Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand to today’s Asian colossi.
The incomprehension is undoubtedly more than reciprocal. There is something like Occidentalism, and the boom in it last year did not age so well. However, given the current of power in this century, it is clear on which side the burden of understanding must fall.
E-mail Janan by email@example.com
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