Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It
Obviously, I overstate my point. Really I do think we are better than the Chinese--just not as much better as we like to think. One thing that makes us maybe not as good as we like to think is our continuing insistence on doing business with the Chinese, despite their uncool fascism. The sheer size of the potential consumer market has made us drunk with greed, like a man blinded to a girl’s dangerous craziness by her hotness. The Chinese seem to have abandoned the centralized economy of Communism and embraced a Darwinian form of free-for-all capitalism, but decided they definitely want to keep the totalitarianism. No reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In any case, I would much rather live here than there, if only for the modern plumbing, good coffee, and internet porn. But I found that my least favorite things about the Chinese were much the same as my least favorite things about the Americans: a tunnel-vision fixation on money; an unexamined certitude in their inherent national superiority; and a disregard for other cultures not so much contemptuous as utterly incurious. In other words, they act like every other empire in history.
Just keep in mind that the main purpose of this cartoon is to render my two-week trip to Beijing and Lhasa tax-deductible.
Panel 1: Beijing right now reminds me of what I imagine America was like, circa 1910: the wild years of capitalism, a country gone crazy with its own industrial brawn and deregulation, blindly tearing down anything that’s not currently making money and racing to build as many 700 ft. x 700 ft. buildings in as short a time as possible. I sort of wish I’d taken more time to draw the chunky, graceless apartment buildings of Beijing, blistering with air conditioner units and generators and ugly snaking ducts and cables, but frankly drawing buildings is dull, dull, dull. Easier and faster to draw one of the featureless, block-long department stores. Beijing is not unlike a science-fiction urban dystopia of the Seventies: gargantuan hideous buildings as far as the eye can see, which isn’t very, because the air is semi-opaque with dust and smog, the sun a weak bright spot in the grayish-white haze. The American city it reminds me of most is Atlantic City, except that instead of a single line of gargantuan hideous buildings receding into the distance the gargantuan hideous buildings extend infinitely in every direction. You can drive forty-five minutes and still be, apparently, downtown, surrounded by gargantuan hideous buildings and construction cranes. It is, in effect, a Republican utopia: complete deregulation of business combined with Draconian micromanagement of people’s political and personal lives. If you want to give taxi rides in a wobbly ice cream cart mounted on the back of a motorcycle or let little children frolic on a lake floating in plastic bubbles without air holes, good luck to you. But you can’t vote or have more than one child or move where you want to or practice any suspect religions.
Conservationists in America think of the demolition of Penn Station as the pivotal What-Have-We-Done moment in our history that gave us pause and caused us to reconsider the wholesale trashing of the past. New York’s old Penn Station was a monumental work of Victorian architecture, a cathedral of iron and glass, and an appropriately grand point of entry to the former Capital of the World (do a google image search—it’ll break your heart). Those of you who have taken trains to New York know that the present Penn Station, underneath Madison Square Garden, creates the effect of emerging into somebody’s basement. The Chinese have yet to experience this kind of remorse; maybe it’ll happen after they bulldoze the Temple of Heaven to build more condos. They’re still busily demolishing the last of the ancient hu tong, the low, walled, labyrinthine neighborhoods that for centuries were the heart of Beijing, to make way for new improved gargantuan hideous apartment buildings. (One reason this is proceeding is that most Beijingers would rather live in relatively cushy, air-conditioned gargantuan hideous apartment buildings than the cramped and dirty hu tong.) Of course we Americans are no connoisseurs of beauty, either. A visit to France infuriated me because I realized that a modern, industrialized country did not have to be ugly; it could take pains to preserve what was traditional and lovely if the culture valued them enough. (My colleague Tom Hart recently went to France for the first time and had the same depressing epiphany; see the adventures of Hutch Owen in France.) No, we Americans chose strip malls and lightboxes, out of either ignorance or indifference to any value other than the bottom line. Or maybe it was out of something more willful and perverse, what Mencken called "the libido for the ugly."
"Here is something the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race that hates beauty as it hates truth."
Panel 2: Even the educated and comparatively cosmopolitan Chinese I’ve talked to—even satirical cartoonists—have disappointed me by parroting the Party line on Tibet: it was a very backward country before we arrived, we’ve improved life for the people there, they’re grateful to have us there. There’s an ethnocentric condescension, if not blatant bigotry, in evidence toward the Tibetan people—one friend of mine had a Chinese girlfriend who said of them, "They don’t have food—they have cheese" (spoken with especial disdain as the Chinese do not comprehend cheese and fear and despise it). It’s reminiscent of the British attitude toward their colonies in the nineteenth century--a distinctly Imperial attitude, a certain feckless and arrogant innocence. It’s as malevolently naive, in its way, as our own obtuse optimism about Iraq: we’ll be greeted as liberators, with dancing and flowers, it’s just a minority causing the violence, the ordinary people don’t want us to leave. Look at all the schools we’ve painted! The Chinese like to talk about the schools they’ve built, too. Which is true: to be fair, even the Dalai Lama says we should be grateful for the educational advances the Chinese have brought. But meanwhile they’re moving thousands and thousands of Han Chinese into Tibet, overwhelming the native population and effectively eradicating their culture, demolishing the few remaining authentic Tibetan buildings in Lhasa and converting it into a generic Chinese city, crass and graceless —chintzy gleaming department stores scrawled with da-glo ads, concrete-block government buildings, a dismal urban sprawl you can see filling the valley from the roof of the Potala. The official Chinese name for their Tibet policy is "grasping with both hands."
I can’t help but notice that the defiant rhetorical question, "Is the world or is it not a safer place without Saddam in power?", which for years was the desperate last fallback of Iraq apologists to shut down any criticism, has finally been retired now that all but the most deluded defenders of the invasion--now almost exclusively to be found in the White House--have had to admit that, hard as it would’ve been for anyone to imagine a few years ago, yes, the world actually was safer with Saddam in power. Certainly the tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who are alive under Saddam and are dead under us were safer. The three thousand plus U.S. servicemen who’ve been killed and tens of thousands who’ve been maimed were also safer. Admittedly, my analogy is imperfect. Saddam Hussein was no Dalai Lama. (Which would have been a nice thing to sneer at him in life: "You’re no Dalai Lama, Saddam!", even if it’s hard to imagine it hurting his feelings much.) And no, of course the Chinese did not turn the Dalai Lama over to a mob to be lynched on TV. Oh, wait a minute, that was us who did that to Saddam. Never mind.
Panel 3: Perhaps a more apt, though less funny, drawing, would’ve been the Tiannamen Square Tank Guy standing alone in an empty street, facing no tanks, looking irrelevant and silly—except that to really make the point there would also have to have been no TV cameras present to record him. It’s not entirely true that we don’t crush dissent in this country—we’ve just learned that’s no longer necessary to stage a massacre, which is bad P.R. All you have to do is corral the dissidents, arrest them on some bullshit excuse, and hold them without charges for a few days until whatever they’re protesting is over, then worry about the lawyers later. (See the ongoing court case over the illegal tactics of the NYPD during the Republican National Convention. See also, if you’re interested, my own account of the R.N.C., at which I was lucky not to get arrested for drawing.) But the real lesson learned is that you can allow all the dissent you want and it will have no effect whatsoever as long as the media doesn’t report it, or reports it the same way they report the annual dip of the Polar Bear Club, with a patronizing chuckle. Protests are routine and impotent now. But don’t get me wrong; I am glad to live in a country where I can protest in the streets without being ground under the treads of a tank, and draw these cartoons without being sent to Political Reeducation Camp. My friend Mike’s deepest fear, along with not having enough pasta to go with his sauce, is of forced collectivization, all the intellectuals being conscripted into doing hard manual labor, building dams or baling hay or something. If anything like this ever happens here, Mike and I will seek quick and painless deaths.
Panel 4: The French theologian and geologist Teilhard de Chardin once wrote that the Chinese were certainly the most attractive people on Earth. Maybe things have changed since his time. I did not find myself attracted to one girl in all of Beijing, though this may just be because of poor health and dental care. My friend Will assures me that in Hong Kong and Shanghai one sees packs of superhot girls, usually led by a single megahot girl. These, I have been cautioned, are all the girlfriends of gangsters. (The girls of Tibet, on the other hand, are adorable, with flushed cheeks and glossy black braids, giggly and innocently flirty--the wholesome, unspoiled milkmaids of the Himalayas.) The Chinese cannot yet hope to compete with Americans in sheer obesity, but they are striving to catch up with us not only in this area but also in tackiness and slovenliness of dress. (My friend Ellen purchased a sweatshirt there that bears the enigmatic and hostile slogan, "BOXING MATCH BETWEEN YOU AND ME." For some reason, you most often see this shirt worn by young girls. As Ellen is a small, fine-boned and delicate girl it is particularly charming on her.) The airing of the belly is a commonplace sight on hot days in Beijing, and, as my friend Jim reports, it really does cool you off wonderfully. (I myself do not possess the structural support necessary to keep the shirt up.) And the hawking and spitting is truly universal: construction workers and restaurant owners, pretty sales clerks and travel agents, everybody does it. Expats refer to this sound as "the Chinese national anthem." For someone who is both 1.) unable to tune out irritating noise and 2.) neurotically squeamish about spit except in certain very limited contexts, this habit transforms China into something like an endless chamber of horrors, a Hell on Earth. Beijing authorities, who are freaking out over the imminent summer Olympics like certain brides-to-be do over their weddings, are desperately trying to condition the entire populace out of this habit in time to look civilized in front of the rest of the world, turning the city into a sort of behaviorist Potemkin Village. One day when I was there, cheerful civic employees in the subways were handing out small waxed-paper bags for people to spit into and dispose (this was illustrated by a diagram on the bag, with a fine dotted line arcing between head and bag), as though a city full of people spitting into little bags represented a significant aesthetic step up. Native Beijingers blame all these uncouth habits—the spitting, the heedless crush on the subways,* the bad driving--on hicks who’ve moved in from the provinces. People in the provinces, of course, think Beijingers are assholes.
Moving back to Cecil County, Maryland from New York City always gives me a nasty culture shock. Suddenly shitty pop country muzak and "W" bumper stickers and Nascar numbers are ubiquitous again; evolution is still being debated and members of the Green party are called "watermelon Marxists" (green on the outside, red on the inside) in the editorial pages of the Cecil Whig (yes it is really called that); and you now have to get in your goddamned car and drive ten minutes to check the mail or buy paper towels or a pen. But none of these shocks is as profound as going from the company of Manhattanites, the most depressingly beautiful and well-dressed people in America, to the unbelievably grotesque inhabitants of Cecil County. Mullets and sunburn, mirrored wraparound shades, tank tops and ballcaps, beer bellies, goiters, sagging leathery skin, tattoos that look like the paintings people used to get airbrushed on their vans. Jesus—I’m surrounded by trolls! This is all disgracefully classist of me, I know (and completely torpedoing my chances of ever winning a seat on the town council), but you don’t live here. You can’t imagine it. It’s like deepest Appalachia creeping over into the junkiest, run-down, outermost rim of suburbia—picture hillbillies on jetskis. Tracing this region on a road atlas over the weekend, I christened it the Scum Belt. Nestled between the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt, the Scum Belt roughly follows the contour of Route 40 across the country, twisting through the cruddy rusted outskirts of Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Salt Lake City, and lined the whole way, I am sure, with cheap motels, liquor stores, used car lots, fast food franchises, junkyards, and giant muffler men. I’ve got to get out of here.
*The subway thing really is one way in which we are unambiguously superior to the Chinese. Riding the New York City subway is by no means always a pleasant experience, but one aspect of it that New Yorkers have down is the procedure of getting on and off. The system, which does not seem like it would require a great collective cognitive breakthrough to arrive at, is: 1.) let everyone get off the subway; then 2.) the people who are waiting on the platform get on. It more or less works, even at rush hour. Whereas in China when the subway doors open it’s more like the front lines of ancient infantry clashing; the smashing of bodies against bodies, elbows jostling, people physically wedging and thrusting their torsos through each other’s ranks, trying to pull their briefcases and backpacks through after them, stepping on each other’s feet and tripping over each other’s suitcases, old ladies and children completely fucked.