One of the members of my Human Biodiversity e-mail group recently posted a small historical gem: a letter to the London Times, dated June 5th 1873, from the great 19th-century English biologist Sir Francis Galton. Galton’s principal passion was eugenics, at that time (and, indeed, well into the next century) a popular and respectable field of inquiry. The letter to the Times unearthed by my e-colleague concerned a scheme Galton had cooked up for the importation of Chinese people into Africa. The Chinese would, Galton claimed, set Africa to rights with their industriousness and love of order. Further, they would out-breed the Africans, whom Galton regarded as a very inferior race, to the advantage of humanity at large. (Compare Samuel Johnson’s solution to the Irish problem: swap the populations of Ireland and the Netherlands. The latter, frugal and hard-working, would soon have Ireland booming. The Irish, set down in the Netherlands, would neglect to keep up the dykes and sea-walls, and would all be drowned.)
I belong to some other e-lists, including one for Chinese living in America. Thinking that Galton’s letter would amuse them, I posted it there. Back came a response from one of the list members. The response read, in its entirety: “I am distressed at the use of the word ‘Chinaman.’ It’s a demeaning term.” I pointed out that Galton was writing 127 years ago, and could not be expected to be au courant with the minutiae of politically correct terminology in 21st-century America. (And added that the terms used by Chinese people of 1873 to refer to Europeans would not bear very close examination.)
I tell this little tale to point up a fact about life in the United States today: the exquisite, over-wrought sensitivity that is common — very far from universal, but common — among Americans of Chinese descent. In an essay of 1,330 words (in those days you could spread yourself in a Letter to the Editor), the only thing that caught my correspondent’s attention was the word “Chinaman,” which is now taboo. Why it is taboo, I have no idea. “Englishman” and “Frenchman” seem to be OK; why was my correspondent so distressed by “Chinaman”? What are we supposed to say: “Chinese man”? It is all a bit reminiscent of Jonathan Miller’s self-defense in Beyond the Fringe:
Alan Bennett: Well, I suppose we are working-class. But I wonder how many of these people have realised that Jonathan Miller’s a Jew.
Dudley Moore: I suppose he gets away with it because of his ginger hair.
Alan: I’d rather be working-class than a Jew.
Dudley: Oh, any day. But think of the awful situation if you were working-class and a Jew.
Alan: There’s always someone worse off than yourself.
Jonathan Miller: In fact, I’m not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish. Not the whole hog, you know.
Asians in America, and most particularly Chinese in America, are in danger of getting themselves a reputation as the whining minority. From a tiny number of instances of “discrimination,” many of them of very questionable significance, “Asian-American” activists are building a case for special treatment like that accorded to blacks, homosexuals and so on. They are, they want us to believe, victimized. They are, they claim, “distressed” by words they find “demeaning.”
The Wen Ho Lee case has been a godsend to these nuisances. The FBI went after Lee just because he was Chinese, they tell us. Well, of course they did! If vital national secrets go missing, and if it becomes known that the Chinese have got their hands on them, and if one of the people who had access to them is of Chinese origin, then of course he is a prime suspect! Who on earth should the FBI be scrutinizing in such a case? Hungarians? If the lab employee has, in addition, been downloading classified material to unauthorized tapes, which he has then lost, he really shouldn’t be too astounded to find himself in leg irons.
Is it really such a secret that China’s intelligence agencies target Americans of Chinese origin when trying to recruit spies? Where is the outcry against this “racial profiling” by Chinese intelligence agencies? Nobody from the Chinese government ever tried to recruit me as a spy. However, if I had a Chinese name and worked at Los Alamos for many years — during which years I made trips to mainland China — I should be astonished not to have been the subject of approaches. I happen to think, and have argued before in this space, that Lee is the victim of a bureaucratic cover-your-rear operation; but part of the blame for his misfortunes is his, and a much bigger part is the Chinese government’s.
You can’t sell any of this to the “Asian-American” activists. They have convinced themselves that they are “oppressed” — that they are at the receiving end of a plot to … to what, exactly? Turn them into chattel slaves? Deprive them of the vote? Force them to work as cooks for railroad-laying teams? I don’t know what they think, and they probably couldn’t tell you themselves. Probably they just want designated victim status, and the cash benefits that go with it. And they want to whine.
The campaign for designated-victim status plays into one of the great cultural weaknesses of the Chinese, in fact: they are, as a nation, awfully fond of self-pity. Much of Chinese literature is unreadable on this account, from the epic whining of 3rd-century-B.C. poet Qu Yuan (he had lost the favor of his monarch and been exiled) to Lin Daiyu snivelling herself to death in the 18th-century classic novel Red Chamber Dream. The mid-20th-century Chinese writer Bo Yang (author of The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture) used to ask his students at Peking University to keep diaries of their social interactions with classmates. One of the most frequent patterns he found was that classmate A would write: “Classmate B was openly rude to me today. After I have been so nice to him! After all that I have done to help and encourage him! I am so wronged! It is so unfair!” … and that classmate B’s diary would say exactly the same thing about classmate A.
You find the same thing with the endless whining of official Chinese sources about their mistreatment at the hands of foreign countries in the past. “You forced us to sign ‘unequal treaties’!” they pout indignantly. Apparently the treaty forced on the government of Tibet (pop. 6 million) by the government of China (pop. 700 million) in 1950 does not count as “unequal.” And for all the bellyaching about “foreign imperialism,” no foreign power ever treated the Chinese as badly as they treated each other. If there is a prize awarded in hell for killing Chinese people, the easy winner for the 20th-century division must be Mao Tse-tung.
A foretaste of the coming great Wen Ho Lee whine-o-rama was provided by novelist Gish Jen, who is of Chinese ancestry, in an Op-Ed in the 9/15/00 New York Times. How to restore faith in the American dream? Ms. Jen whimpers. Well, I mix with Americans of Chinese origin every day — I am, in fact, married to one, and the father of two more — and they are living very well. None of them is poor; none of them is in jail; none of them is the victim of anything at all, so far as I can see. Like Ms. Jen’s ancestors, they have attained not only the American dream, but the Chinese dream, the great dream of all Chinese people throughout history: to escape from Chinese government. None of them is “oppressed” in any degree at all. It is true that none of them works at a nuclear-weapons research lab; but the right to do such work is not guaranteed in the Constitution.
In fact, when we are faced by a power like China, which is violently anti-American in its propaganda to its own people, which has deployed a full triad of nuclear missiles, many of them aimed at us — whose government officials have, in fact, openly threatened us with nuclear attack — I think our own government is perfectly within its rights to deny employment in classified facilities to persons who have connections in China. This may cause some hurt feelings among U.S. citizens; but do hurt feelings really outweigh the rather obvious dangers of a contrary policy? Ms. Jen: “Since the Wen Ho Lee case began, the number of Asian and Asian-American scientists applying to work in our nation’s weapons labs has declined dramatically.” Well, good. I think our nation’s security problems have therefore diminished in proportion — for which benefit, putting up with all that whining is a small price to pay.