Now in Actual Work

As Threatened, er, Promised

Or, Not Pervasive, but maybe Persuasive or Practical?

So here’s what I’ve come up with as an op-ed proposal. It lacks a strong policy argument, but hopefully uses that perspective trick to good effect.

For the forgetful, here’s the prompt again:

a proposal for a New York Times opinion piece which applies a major finding from your research to a current public policy problem. … it must describe a full op-ed that you might write, and explain its relevance to current events.

Any and all thoughts heartily welcomed.


“Not so Fast, We’ve Been Here Before”: An Op-Ed Proposal

In 1841, an ex-President and former Secretary of State declared his support for British forces in the “Opium War,” Britain’s war with China over Chinese trade restrictions and closed markets. Though many commentators, then and now, cited the opium trade as the casus belli, John Quincy Adams told a Boston audience that the motive went deeper : “The cause of the war is the Ko-tow! – the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China, that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind, not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relation between lord and vassal.” In Adams’s view, the political despotism of China’s government found its worst expression in illiberal trade policies; and that these restrictions on foreign merchants, Americans prominently among them, justified war.

More recently, another Secretary of State gave a speech calling for all nations to recognize a basic “freedom to connect” to the internet. Made in light of Google’s decision to stop censoring search results in China, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s remarks were a pointed rebuke of Chinese policy. Condemning government censorship of the internet, Secretary Clinton argued that “from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech.” By linking political and economic liberty together, and critiquing China on both fronts, Clinton’s remarks strongly echo Adams’s speech of almost 170 years before.

This op-ed will argue that U.S. officials would do well to understand the deep historical resonance of American calls for economic and political liberty in China. Though Chinese censorship is indefensible, an awareness of how American calls for reform in China themselves spring from complicated roots in national economic interest and Western imperialism can only improve Sino-American relations.

Image cite: The Suss-Man (gone for the weekend), “Project 366 – 78/366 Diplomacy,” Flickr, CC License

Our Glorious National Heritage

A Terrible Thing To Say In a Good Speech

The Newseum is a monument to some of our most precious freedoms, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to discuss how those freedoms apply to the challenges of the 21st century.

~Hillary Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” The Newseum (Washington, DC), January 21, 2010

I don’t care what else the “Newseum” does, it will never make up for the that travesty of a name. It’s a monument to journalism in the same way the Las Vegas strip is a monument to old world refinement, with perhaps the added distinction of being a tombstone for a dead industry that perhaps deserved better.

That said, Secretary Clinton’s speech on China and Google, is well worth reading or watching. More on that later.

Image cite: .michael.newman. “Bronze Fonz profile,” Flickr, CC License

Golden Ghetto, History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage

A Brief Account of Cushing’s America

Or, Contractually Bound, Peaceful, Prosperous, and Surprisingly Plural



A portrait can tell you a lot about a person. Especially one done in the older style — before the head shot — where objects and landscapes were visible at the margins of the frame. The value lies, not it its status as as a representative image of a person (though that’s usually approximated), but rather in what it says about both the idealized self of the person pictured and the cultural context within which they lived – the materials from which they pulled together their ideals. In trying to squeeze information from such paintings, a nose for discrepancies – in historical ones, our sense of what’s foreign about the past – are among our best tools, and have long served historians well.

(Of course, the information thus obtained is as much a creation of our own selves as it is of those pictured in the past … but that’s history, folks.)

As luck would have it, the archival record of the first American diplomatic mission to China gives us an opportunity to do the same thing for the United States. From the pen of Caleb Cushing, U.S. minister to China, we have an idealized portrait of the country in the form of a memo he drafted for circulation among Chinese officials and merchants.

He wrote the piece, he explained to his superiors, to correct the “very imperfect and incorrect notions” in China “as to the constitution and character of the United States.” At the end of July 1844, the State Department received a copy of the 1,200-word pamphlet that Cushing, with input from other members of the legation’s staff, had written and translated into Chinese. In his cover letter for the pamphlet, he promised to deliver it “to official and other persons in China” to help achieve the mission’s goals, and further U.S. interests in general. He called the memo “A Brief Account of the United States.”

Cushing’s memo was not the first attempt at American image control in China, of course. The American mercantile community was no stranger to keeping up particular (and peculiar) appearances at Canton. But Cushing’s mission in 1844 was the first instance of an official, organized, and duly deputized national self-presentation to China, and as such should be accorded a bit more weight. He represented more — at least to his countrymen — than the aggregate of a dozen mercantile houses.

More than a PR piece, though, what Cushing had written was, in effect, a snapshot of what he thought the U.S. was, or should be, refracted through some ideas about what he thought would appeal to the Chinese.

Continue reading “A Brief Account of Cushing’s America”

Our Glorious National Heritage, The Past is a Foreign...Something

The Engine of American Diplomacy

Or, Choo-Choo! Goes the Tariff Negotiation


One of the clichés of East-West relations in the early modern era was the attempt to use representations of Western technology – especially maps and model machines – to awe non-Westerners into submission. Perhaps hoping for a repeat of Columbus’s trick with the lunar eclipse, Euro-American statesmen and diplomats apparently thought that the mere suggestion of the advanced state of Western civilization would be enough to persuade proud sovereigns to open ports, lower tariffs, and alienate land for the benefit of the major Atlantic-basin powers.

Needless to say, things rarely went down that way. In developed parts of Asia – and especially in China – these attempts repeatedly failed. The most famous of these faceplants was probably Great Britain’s 1793 embassy to China, led by Lord Macartney. The Chinese emperor declared the fancy clockwork the Brits brought – lugged across the world at great expense, and costing many man-hours to assemble – as “good enough to amuse children.” Bafflingly, the stopped cogs and wheels the Brits brought as gifts failed to make the gates to the Middle Kingdom fly off their hinges.

However, this failure – as in so many other instances of cross-cultural contact – did not impede others from flattering through imitation.
Continue reading “The Engine of American Diplomacy”

Now in Actual Work

China, the Sea, and the South

Or, Heathens All


Rev. Joshua Leavitt,

Dear Sir, – I noticed in a recent number of the ‘Emancipator,’ a proposition to furnish gratuitously for a year, that paper to such clergymen as lectured and took up collections among their people, in the course of the year, for the Anti-Slavery Society.

My course of procedure, although it does not conform strictly to the letter of the proposition, yet, in fact, secures to the cause a greater amount of attention and effort, in my view, than would a solitary lecture in the course of the year.

At my monthly concert of prayer for the conversion of the world, which I hold on the Sabbath evening previous to the first Monday in each month, a distinct portion of time is allotted to the cause of the oppressed slave. I portion out to brethren distinct missionary grounds, with the understanding that each is to prepare himself with the latest information relative to his own station. One has, for instance, China; another Ceylon; another the Seamen’s cause; another that of American slavery: which last cause being in two zealous friends of the slave, has, I think according to their ability, due justice to it. Our custom is, that each cause shall be followed by addresses at the throne of grace in their behalf.

As to contributions, the frequent visits of your agents and those of the State Society does not suffer what he ave to give to remain long idle in our purses.

My object in this communication is two-fold, –1st. That of communicating my plans, believing, as I do, that there are many brethren who might introduce it with profit to their people, and with little or no opposition. I think it profitable, as it brings the subject up for serious meditation more than it would be in any other way, unless a distinct concert is held for the slave. And further, the subject is brought before the minds of many that would not attend an anti-slavery concert or a regularly announced anti-slavery lecture.

If you agree with me in sentiment, you may be able to concoct a brief paragraph on the subject that will, I think, be useful. Or you can use such portions of this letter as you please, if you will leave blank my name and the date.

My second object in this communication is, to request that if my measures come up to the spirit of your proposition, in your view, you will please forward to me the Emancipator.

Yours, &c.,

~”Another Response from a Minister,” The Emancipator and Free American (New York), 8 August 1839, p. 58

Once you get past the overcrowded syntax here, this is a fascinating letter. While I’ve certainly heard of church groups convening to hear a lecture on slavery, or about happenings in the mission fields, it never occurred to me that the two would be grouped together in this way. Never mind how Chautauqua this is. Can you imagine hearing a sermon, and then getting a regular news round-up like this?

The list of topics that the good reverend assigns his parishioners – China, Ceylon, Seamen’s Bethels, American slavery – is a great reminder of the wonderful scope of Jacksonian evangelicals’ interests. A bit less happily, it reaffirms who’s at the edges of their world: people far away, people from home but of a radically different occupational class, and people who are property.

And, while I don’t think this is sufficient cause to give interest in missionary endeavors the same weight as the anti-slavery movement (I don’t think it would be wrong to say that missionary news reached a wider audience in anti-slavery newspapers like the Emancipator, rather than in missionary-only magazines like the Missionary Herald), it’s certainly a good indicator of the frame, or frames, within which such news was received. I do wonder if slavery is the controlling metaphor here, or if it’s something bigger about Christian civilization and the perfecting of society.

Thoughts, as always, welcome.

Image cite: Woodleywonderworks, “Earth, courtesy Apollo 17, and probably the most reproduced image of all time,” Flickr, CC License