Essay: As the “Culture Wars” heat up again in the race for the White House, a Chinese commentator makes some key distinctions between private and public morality. And suggests China take notes.
BEIJING - Whether in real life or on television, Chinese people believe that Americans live in a "post-moral" era. Americans seem to get divorced as quickly as they get married or dispense entirely with the notion of marriage. "How can one regard Americans as moral if they are so casual about their marriages and sex life?" is a basic question Chinese ask.
But Americans actually have a far stronger sense of morality on matters of gender and power. For instance, it's not uncommon for Chinese men to have mistresses, relegating women to be the so-called "minor third" or the "junior wife - or for Chinese actresses to obey the unwritten law of going to bed with the film director or producer to be accepted for a role. Such practices are far rarer in the United States.
And even if corruption does exists in America, in comparison with most other countries, US government officials could be absolutely regarded as models to emulate.
Due to our cultural tradition, we often just see the immoral or amoral side of American private life whereas we ignore their strong sense of morality in public life.
American immorality in private life exists thanks to the high degree of political freedom they enjoy. Some Chinese say that without the American Bill of Rights, the active participation of the Supreme Court or of various social groups' tradition of lobbying, it would have been difficult for a lot of the "unethical behavior" of the Americans to exist.
And yet, the ethical behavior of Americans in public life is largely a product of U.S. political system as well. Through the mechanism of elections, restricted government power as well as supervision and the balance of power, American public life is restrained.
Immoral public life is much worse than an unethical private life. When a society is lacking in both private and public morality, it's a society that is in peril. On the contrary, it is thanks to their moral public life that the Americans can indulge themselves in public debate, as well as enjoy their immoral private lives.
The pain and pleasure of American's moral issues
The right to abortion, the rights of homosexuals to marry, and the right to possess firearms are among the hottest social issues in the United States. Part of the reason why they are popular topics is because these issues are related to fundamental moral values. In addition, none of these issues require any complex expertise. Any American with some common sense will have clear and strong views on these topics, and will be ready to participate in discussion.
Around these hot debates, Americans are divided into two groups: generally speaking, the ones who support abortion rights and gay marriage and oppose the unrestricted possession of guns are the Liberals whereas the other group is the Conservatives. Some intellectuals and media also call the dispute between the two factions a "Culture War," each side battling for the American soul.
It was not until 1973 that the Federal Supreme Court ruled clearly for the first time that the right of abortion is protected by a right to privacy, and thus to be protected by the Constitution. The ruling immediately split Americans into two incompatible groups where one emphasizes the value of life while the other supports the freedom of choice of women.
Now, many ask if people of the same sex can get married. Today six U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. To many Americans, same-sex marriage is a subversion of traditional ethics and the destruction of the most fundamental human unit, the family.
Whether it's about same-sex marriage or abortion, these hot social issues are basically all-American politics. Without the Bill of Rights, Americans wouldn't have had their privacy. Without the Supreme Court, their right to privacy could not be defended, nor would abortion exist legally. Social issues are therefore an extension of the political system.
These social issues might make the American democracy look very discordant in Chinese eyes, but what the Americans advocate is not "harmony" but personal rights. To us, Americans are in pain, but in their own minds they are the happiest people on Earth.
Politicized ethical issues
Since American citizens can participate and influence their government's decision-making through various legal channels, the groups that hold different moral values thus evolve into political factions. The White House, the executive branch, the Congress, the Federal Courts, the media, the think tanks etc… all make up the zone of competition for these social groups to battle over these principles.
In a presidential election year like this one, the politicization of ethical issues is most obvious.
In the past ten days, President Obama has been given a headache because of the topic of homosexual marriage. After Vice Presiden Joe Biden and U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both publicly supported same-sex marriage, the White House was faced with a dilemma. After all, President Obama is to stand for reelection, and doesn't want to lose potential votes one way or the other. Even if gays have traditionally been the most loyal supporters of the Democrats, Obama is obviously worried that he'll alienate the conservative voters in key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. (In the end, Obama finally declared publicly that he personally was in favor of gay marriage rights)
In 2004, Thomas Frank, an American journalist and historian, published a sensational book called "What's the Matter with Kansas?" The main thesis of the book is that America's political discourse has dramatically shifted in recent years from social and economic equality to one in which "explosive" cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage predominate. As a consequence, a lot of lower-middle class Americans are beginning to support a conservative Republican agenda, despite the latter's fiscal austerity policy being most disadvantageous to them.
In other words, the conservatives have replaced economic issues with moral issues in order to win over the lower-middle class American vote.
Of course, there are also numerous scholars who express doubts about Frank's view. They argue that what most affected the American presidential election of 2004 was the Iraq War and national security.
Some scholars also use massive opinion poll data to prove that the ordinary American public isn't really engaged in a battle of life and death just because they have differences over moral issues.
No matter what the outcome of the November election is, what should be more important and interesting for us Chinese remains the morality of American politicians. Though there are always private life scandals which are bound be exposed, such as those of former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, it is nonetheless much less important in comparison with their public morality. After all, what country – democratic or otherwise – doesn't have politicians involved in extra-marital love affairs.
Ultimately, the most vital thing is that politicians are honest and have integrity in their public life, because that is how best to serve the interests of the nation.
*Xie Tao is a Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University
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