On The Glenn Show, I often talk about the changes that need to happen within some black communities that are mired in violence and dysfunction. If change is going to happen, it needs to come from within—within the social dynamics of those communities and within the individuals that comprise those communities. As I’ve said repeatedly, no one is coming to save my people. We need to save ourselves, and that means doing the hard work of shifting the values and incentives that structure the day-to-day existence of ordinary black people living in troubled urban neighborhoods.
It’s one thing to recommend change (or even to take concrete measures to bring about change), and it’s another to watch the baby steps of progress coalesce into the excellence that I know African Americans are capable of achieving. It’s frustrating and sometimes angering to watch that process falter. The costs in human potential and, all too often, human life are heartbreaking and angering. But we know that change of this sort takes time. Am I being impatient?
I recently received two emails that made me stop and think. The first is from George Lee, a friend and frequent correspondent. George proposes that we look at China and consider how long it took that nation to pass from a society in decline to its current status as a world power. The comparison between China and black communities is an imperfect one, of course, but George’s email reminds me that it can take much longer than the span of one lifetime (or even two or three lifetimes) for longterm change to take root.
The next email is from Yan Shen, who’s a frequent and provocative participant in the comments section. Yan notes that Asian Americans are finally receiving broad recognition for their role in shoring up the ideals of American meritocracy and affirms that meritocratic values are essential to achieving progress and prosperity, even if the meritocracy as it currently exists may need some adjustments. Perhaps we need to evangelize more passionately for those values within troubled black communities. The affirmation of meritocracy may not save everyone today or tomorrow, but in these matters, perhaps we need to take the long view.
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I really enjoyed your conversation with the incisive Mark Sussman comparing the current Glenn with the younger Glenn. Both Glenns passionately hold—and I believe in the same—that human capital underdevelopment in Black inner-city communities is one of the top problems we as Americans must own and must solve. The two Glenns differ over the choice of guiding principle—bias vs. agency—and here I think the present Glenn is closer to what needs to be done. Agency is the much harder path, but it is the only sustainable path.
I am reminded of Amy Wax's analogy, which she gave in an earlier conversation with Glenn. If a man is struck by a car and ends up in a wheelchair, no matter what the driver does to help the victim recover, at some point, the man in the wheelchair must decide to try to get up himself, hard as that might be. No one else, no matter how helpful, can do it for him. In fact, we hurt the man in the wheelchair if we keep enabling him to stay there. The bondage of the victimhood mindset is real bondage.
We can argue to eternity about the driver’s accountability and obligations, but arguing doesn’t get the man out of his wheelchair. We should do what we can to make his first steps easier, but the decision to get up is on him.
This change that must come from within is a change in culture and values, and such changes are, unfortunately, much harder to make than most people think. Today, people view the Chinese as a hard-working, intelligent people living in thriving cities with glistening towers, making practically everything we buy. It’s almost taken for granted that China should be a world power.
Well, we forget how recent all that is. If you had visited China on the eve of the First Opium War in 1839, which marks the start of China’s “Century of Humiliation” on the world stage, you see drug-addiction and idleness, corruption, factiousness; in other words, a nation centuries past its heyday, stubbornly trapped by backward values and ways of life. You could not be faulted for seeing no hope for such a sorry people.
In 2010, China's GDP surpassed Japan's (though China is still far behind on a per-capita basis), so if we take that as the endpoint of China’s stunning self-transformation, then the process took over 170 years. Those 170 years of changes, provoked by backwardness and humiliation, were very hard, full of soul-searching and bloodshed. Partisans of “traditional” values and partisans of importing foreign values fought fiercely against each other and among themselves. The Taiping Rebellion that was led by a self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ lasted 14 years, from 1850 to 1864, and resulted in 30 million deaths. Mao, nominally a Marxist-Leninist, killed over 40 million with his many erratic, mad ideological convulsions. China’s journey to bootstrap itself was long, tortuous, and tumultuous.
So as we contemplate the changes in culture and values that need to come autonomously from inner-city Black communities, we must not underestimate the difficulty of the undertaking, and the potential for contention and failure along the way. A saying attributed to Lao Tsu captures the road ahead: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” The present-day Glenn tells us that first step is the assumption of agency. Do we have the honesty and courage to take this first step, and to keep going? I hope so.
Thank you again, both Glenns!
I've been a huge fan of your conversations with John McWhorter for many years now. Given today's increasingly polarized political environment, I deeply admire your level-headedness and ability to engage with people from across the political spectrum. I can't think of anyone else off the top of my head able to engage in civil discourse with people as ideologically diverse as Briahna Joy Gray and Amy Wax.
I'm also appreciative of the spotlight you've helped shine on Asian American issues, ranging from interviewing Wai Wah Chin to discussing violence against the Asian American community. You also pushed back against Amy Wax's overly broad assertions of disproportionate Asian American wokeness during your most recent conversation by highlighting the events of Loudoun County, in particular pointing out that one major part of the narrative that was missing from mainstream reporting was that many South Asian immigrants were pushing back against what they perceived to be the increasing assaults against meritocracy hurting their children.
Like many, I was ecstatic over the recent news that three members on the San Francisco school board were soundly recalled in elections a few days ago, each by 70-80% of the votes. This is pretty astonishing in a city where slightly less than 7% of registered voters are Republican. I was more amazed that even organizations like the NYT seem to be coming around to the fact that Asian Americans and in particular Chinese Americans were a major force behind the push to get Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga recalled.
Similar to the point you made in your dialogue with Amy, I feel like Asian Americans are in fact in the vanguard against the excesses of wokeness, not proponents of it. I cited articles by Matthew Yglesias and Zach Goldberg on your Substack pointing out the phenomenon of the Great Awokening. My understanding of their argument is that during the 2010s, liberal white Americans moved so far to the left on many social issues that they were oftentimes to the left of Blacks and Hispanics on these matters. Even the Young Turks recently did some reporting pushing back against the defund the police movement and citing statistics showing that, overall, Blacks and Hispanics were actually more likely to be against the idea of defunding the police than whites.
I believe the empirical claim here is that white Americans tend to exhibit greater variability in political orientation and are over-represented on both the far left and the far right relative to members of other ethnic groups, and that therefore Amy Wax's claims that Asian Americans are disproportionately far left is empirically incorrect. But I'll concede that I'm sure the matter is open to further debate. What is undeniable, in my opinion, is that in light of the recent events in Loudoun County, New York City, and San Francisco, Asian Americans are at the vanguard of defending what remains of our meritocratic ethos. Maybe my viewpoint is biased, but I don't feel like white Americans these days have much appetite for defending meritocracy anymore.
It's been a while since I read Jerome Karabel's The Chosen, but I'm sure many are familiar with the history of discrimination and quotas against Jews in the Ivy League in the early decades of the 20th century, whereby soft criteria were introduced and emphasized in order to reduce the number of Jewish students admitted to those universities. I also recently read The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits and The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel. I enjoyed your conversation with Daniel from 2020 on Bloggingheads.
It's pretty disappointing to hear academics and other people in positions of influence espousing the idea that the problem isn't that meritocracy is imperfectly realized in our society, but that the very notion of meritocracy is itself flawed. I find that kind of thinking to be highly dangerous and am convinced that a society that prioritizes relative equality over all else inevitably ends up sacrificing progress and prosperity. What I found to be interesting is that even the etymology of the word meritocracy was ultimately rooted in the very kind of pessimism espoused by the authors above. The word was coined by British sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy, which portrayed the same kind of dystopian society dominated by a hereditary meritocratic elite that Markovits and Sandel seem to argue against as well. I'll admit that this book is on my to-read list. I wonder how many people realize though that the very concept of a meritocracy was actually viewed as a pejorative by its originator.
I could be wrong, but I just don't find this kind of anti-meritocratic mindset to be all that prevalent among the East Asian and South Asian communities that I've interacted with in this country. We could get into the various cultural and historical reasons for this, i.e. the history of the imperial civil service exam in China, etc. But my main point is that I believe people like Amy Wax are seriously wrong in their perception that somehow Asian Americans are eroding the moral fabric of America rather than enhancing it, although I've stated that I don't begrudge her for her racialist conception of the nation state.
I'm now reading that, in the aftermath of the San Francisco school board recall, we could be witnessing the turning of the tide against wokeness in America. If so, then surely Asian Americans will have played a key role in that pushback. Our racial discourse tends to be polarized along Black-white lines, so it's refreshing to see the mainstream media becoming aware of the role that an often neglected group of Americans is playing in terms of shifting the contours of our cultural debate.
I also think that if in the future a sociological account ever arises of how Asian Americans perhaps saved this country from the brink of destruction by being, as the NYT describes, a moderating political force, the genesis of that account may actually precede the recent events in Loudoun County and San Francisco. I'm not sure if you were aware of an incident in early January 2017 shortly after Trump's inaugural address where an Asian American graduate student at a University of Washington library told a group of chanting SJWs to pipe down by pointing out that, hey, this is a library. :)
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth millions. Anyway, just wanted to express my appreciation for all you and John do and wish you guys the best.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the two letters and the responses in the comments section. Thanks for posting.