America’s foreign critics are unflattering, unfair, and worth hearing



Wang Huning.

Wang Huning. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Americans like to be praised. When the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early 19th century, he noted his hosts expected to be admired the way court poets apotheosized European monarchs. Because “the majority lives in perpetual self-adoration,” Tocqueville observed, “there are certain truths that only foreigners or experience can bring to American ears.”

Tocqueville brought some of those truths to light. Though remembered as an admirer of American democracy, Tocqueville was dismayed by individualist, commercialist, and conformist tendencies. He’s still the best-known in a long string of foreign critics of the United States, intellectuals whose judgment of the U.S. can be uniquely instructive, especially when it’s unflattering.

Tocqueville’s ambivalence was echoed by other “friendly critics” described by Williams College sociologist James L. Nolan, Jr. in his 2016 book What They Saw in America. Looking beyond judicious admirers, however, Nolan considers the harsher assessment of visitors including the Egyptian Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb, who studied in the U.S. in the 1950s. Where Tocqueville thought Americans’ virtues outweighed our vices, Qutb depicted Americans as facile barbarians who threatened everything that makes life worth living.

After 9/11, there was a surge of attention to Qutb, who was considered the intellectual mastermind of al Qaeda. That interest has since receded along with the ostensible Islamist threat, but a new chief intellectual challenger to the American way of life has emerged. That challenger is Wang Huning, a secretive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official whom some scholars have dubbed the “hidden ruler” of modern China.

Like many of his predecessors, Wang’s criticisms of American life reflect the disappointment of a young idealist. A full professor at just 30, Wang was invited to visit the United States by the American Political Science Association in 1988. His experiences over six months form the basis of America against America, now a valuable collectors’ item.

America against America is more than a travelogue. The title alludes to two tensions at the level of ideas. The first contrasts false images of America prevalent among Chinese intellectuals. The actual United States, Wang insisted, was neither the exploitative tyranny envisioned by older Marxists nor the utopia of freedom envisioned by young liberals. Instead, it was a complicated society where wealth and poverty, high technology and primitive beliefs, hierarchy and equality were constantly juxtaposed.

The title’s second meaning addresses those internal contrasts. Borrowing a concept from the political scientist Samuel Huntington, Wang argued that American politics is driven by tension between an ideological creed and actual practice. Unlike societies that enjoy greater balance between self-perception and reality, such as Japan, America was trapped in a “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis.”

In his influential essay, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture,” Wang emphasizes resources and requirements of Chinese culture that might help China escape that undercurrent. That emphasis on cultural autonomy helped launch Wang’s career in the CCP, where he has apparently survived many ideological changes of fashion.

But it’s a mistake to see Wang as the product of a radically different intellectual tradition: His ideas are as much products of Western modernity as they are criticisms of it. Indeed, Wang’s reliance on American self-critique is clear in America against America. In addition to his own observations while visiting in the late 1980s, Wang draws on U.S. political science and political theory of the period. His sources include Allan Bloom, whose diagnosis of nihilism was heavily influenced by the émigré philosopher Leo Strauss.

Published in 1991, Wang’s meditation on decline in America against America was untimely. Evading rivalry with Japan, which was then widely anticipated, the United States went on to enjoy several more decades of economic and military hegemony. That reprieve may not have fooled Chinese authorities, whom Wang has counseled to look beyond short-term events, but it did leave American audiences less inclined to heed foreign warnings about domestic decay.

The reception is changing, though. A sympathetic profile in Palladium this month marks Wang’s rediscovery as a kind of cult figure in certain quarters of the intellectual right. For these readers, Wang’s interest isn’t limited to his ostensible influence over the Chinese leadership. Like the chain of foreign observers extending back to Tocqueville and beyond, he’s an outsider uniquely positioned to tell us the ugly truth about ourselves.

How accurate is that assessment? One reason it’s difficult to say is that Wang apparently refuses to speak to foreigners and no longer publishes or conducts public events even in China. As a result, little of his work is available in English. Like Qutb, whose publications were both linguistically and intellectually inaccessible to all but a tiny number of Western readers, Wang’s reputation benefits from a very unAmerican sense of mystery.

What of his work we do have is about 30 years old and partly in amateur translation. Stylistic infelicities aside, Wang’s observations are not groundbreaking. A domestic critic with the same insights wouldn’t receive the same interest. Wang’s close attention to historical observers like Tocqueville and the German sociologist Max Weber, as well as contemporary neoconservatives, give America against America a somewhat derivative quality. He reports that American accept gross urban squalor, are obsessed with psychological wellbeing, and haven’t figured out how to reconcile the promise of civic equality with the history of slavery and discrimination. None of this is exactly new.

Still, that’s not reason to dismiss him. If people keep telling you that you have a stain on your shirt, you probably do. The great service of foreign observers like Wang has been to puncture Americans’ widely recognized tendency to assume that we live in the best of all possible countries.

But there’s also reason to be skeptical of the dire conclusions Wang draws. Like the friendly and not-so-friendly critics on whom he draws, Wang is convinced that liberal democracy stands on the precipice of collapse, and that only a powerful infusion of non-liberal values from the distant past can possibly save us from ourselves.

That may indeed be the case. But the fact that versions of the same diagnosis can be found among anti-liberal theorists all the way back to the foundation of the republic gives reason to doubt the situation is quite so dire. In retrospect, many of the developments foreign critics saw as symptoms of profound degeneration seem laughably quaint. Qutb was famously incensed by a church dance in Greeley, Colorado.

There may be a way to combine a more optimistic assessment of American prospects with Wang’s analysis, though. Like Tocqueville, Wang wasn’t writing about America for the benefits Americans. Instead, he was writing for his countrymen, who were inclined either to be unrealistically positive or unjustifiably negative about the country that has symbolized the modern world for more than two centuries. For them, Wang’s message is simply: There’s both good and bad in America, and America’s good and bad are both very different from China.

That remains a valuable warning against the naive universalism in the idea that history is inexorably marching toward the triumph of U.S.-style democracy. China is not America and must find her own political, cultural, and economic destiny. So must other nations, including those in which the U.S. nation-building efforts have lately gone awry.

Yet Wang’s new admirers should also keep the corollary in mind: America is not China, and there is a limit to the lessons we can derive from a great but very different civilization. America’s friendly critics have never been impressed by the sophistication of American arts, the quality of American governance, or the power of American social cohesion. Instead, they’ve seen American greatness in individual freedom, unconstrained possibility, and an optimistic attitude toward the future.

Those characteristics certainly carry risks, including a recurring experience of crisis. But we won’t find success in our rivalry with China — or anywhere else — by rejecting them.

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